Queen Samara Rani knows she’s likely walking into a trap, but agreeing to meet with Commander Adams is the fastest way to get within striking distance of the Quint Confederacy’s biggest traitor and her sworn enemy. Adams attacked her home and destroyed her ship, and if he’s not stopped, he will ruin the tentative peace between the Kos Empire and the Quint Confederacy—and Samara’s chance at future with Emperor Valentin Kos.
Samara is determined to serve up some well-deserved payback, but she is no longer a lone assassin, and despite her protests, her friends and allies refuse to let her undertake such a perilous mission without them. Even Valentin, usually the voice of reason, refuses to stay behind. Samara is loath to put her friends in danger, and taking a team carries its own risks, so she makes plans to keep them safe, no matter what the cost.
When Adams threatens that safety, and everything she holds dear, Samara vows to show him exactly how she earned her deadly reputation—and why one should never cross the Rogue Queen.
The trick to meeting an enemy at a time and location set by a traitor was this: don’t. I stalked through Arx trying to find a way around such a universal truth, but the plain white halls of the Rogue Coalition’s capital did not offer up any suggestions.
Two weeks ago, I’d been in the Kos Empire’s capital city, helping Valentin Kos find the traitors in his court. Before she’d been arrested, Advisor Hannah Perkins had set up a meeting for me with Commander Adams of the Quint Confederacy. She had probably hoped that the two of us would take each other out while she continued to undermine Valentin’s authority.
It hadn’t quite worked out that way for her, but the meeting still stood, and it was just two weeks from now.
Hannah and Adams had secretly worked together, so the meeting would undoubtedly be a trap. Skipping it entirely was the only way to guarantee safety, but that wasn’t an option. Commander Adams had attacked my people, destroyed my ship, and now he threatened the tentative peace treaty in the works between the universe’s two superpowers.
He needed to die—slowly.
I just had to figure out how to go to the meeting and survive. And, ideally, how to go alone.READ MORE
I mulled over the problem as I moved through the familiar halls. Moving helped me think, and being out and about also gave people a chance to air their grievances before they became problems. My frequent availability was one of the reasons I was still queen after five years, despite ruling a group of people who took grave exception to rules.
I stopped in the market, and Zita shouted from her bakery, “Samara! If you don’t kill Eddie, I’m going to do it for you.”
She poked her head out of the building and scowled at me. She was in her forties, with pale skin and curly red hair. I was happy to see that her cheeks were returning to their usual cherubic fullness thanks to the new food supply.
Zita was Arx’s main baker, and Eddie was our main chef. They’d been locked in a fierce competition to produce the best pastry, and Zita was kicking his ass. She had years of experience on him, so it didn’t surprise me that he’d tried a new tactic.
“What has he done now?” I asked.
“He’s been in my supplies! As if I wouldn’t notice that salt and sugar aren’t the same thing.”
“Did you catch it before you used them?”
She looked mortally offended. “Of course!”
I laughed and raised a placating hand. “Okay, I’ll talk to him. Don’t start a murder spree just yet.”
She harrumphed at me, but finally inclined her head and went back to work. I stayed and chatted with a few other people before moving on, but as soon as I was alone again, my mind returned to the problem of the meeting.
No matter how far I walked, I couldn’t figure out a solution because Arietta Mueller, my best friend and head of security, would never allow me to track Adams solo, no matter how well suited to the task I was.
I’d tried to leave my bloody past behind, but it kept coming back. Still, I’d use every skill I’d ever learned if it meant keeping those close to me safe.
And keeping them safe sometimes meant keeping them in the dark.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. I wasn’t stupid enough to hie off after Adams without a word to anyone, so I had to figure out how to include Ari in my plans without putting her in danger.
She already knew about the meeting, so unless I was exceedingly careful, she would see through me like glass. And she wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet. She would get her wife Stella involved, and then, before I knew it, everyone I cared about would be charging into danger with me.
Including Valentin Kos, emperor of half of the known universe.
At the thought of Valentin, my steps faltered. When I was in Koan, he’d all but declared he loved me. Just remembering it sent electric shocks skating along my nerves—half terror, half excitement.
In Koan, I’d felt so hopeful about our future. But now that I’d returned to Arx, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the universe to pull back the curtain and laugh at how gullible I’d been to believe such a thing, but Valentin showed no signs of deception. He didn’t press, but he didn’t back off, either. And now that he’d fully recovered from his injuries, I was desperate to see him in person. He was due to arrive tomorrow. Butterflies danced in my belly.
We’d both been busy lately taking care of our people. My citizens had finally lost some of the hard, hungry edge they’d been sporting for months. Cheeks were filling in and smiles were more common. We had food again, and I’d be damned if I let Adams and his crew ruin that.
The Rogue Coalition was the last resort for most of the people here. If I couldn’t protect them, no one would, and that was unacceptable. I had two weeks to figure out how to kill an enemy surrounded by true believers and then speed up the truce between the universe’s two superpowers.
I laughed to myself. Sure, no problem.
At least I could be reasonably certain that Adams would show at the meeting. Like me, he would expect a trap, but his arrogance would ensure his arrival. He wouldn’t want to waste an opportunity to rub his success in Koan in my face. The loss of Invictia still ached like a lost limb.
Eddie Tarlowski stepped into the hall from a storage room. When he caught sight of me, he asked, “Hey, boss, you okay?”
“Just trying to solve all of the universe’s problems,” I said with a wry grin. “You need something?”
He shook his head, sending his shaggy blond hair flying. Eddie had been one of the best thieves alive before he’d been conscripted by the Quint Confederacy and wounded in battle. He’d turned up in Arx with a mechanical arm and leg and a galaxy-sized chip on his shoulder. It’d taken months and months before he’d found peace in the kitchen.
“Nah, just wondering if I needed to kick that fancy emperor’s ass because he put that look on your face.”
Warmth bubbled in my chest as I realized Eddie was serious. My citizens tolerated Valentin, but they didn’t exactly love him. Many of them had fled from Kos territory once the war got too close, and the resulting bitterness wouldn’t be overcome anytime soon, no matter how much discounted food the Kos Empire shipped in.
I smiled gently. “Thank you, but it’s not Valentin. It’s Adams.”
Eddie bared his teeth in a quick, edged smile and spread his arms in an inviting gesture. “I’d be happy to kick his ass, too, all you need to do is ask.”
“You’ll have to get in line.”
“Seriously, though, if you need someone to get you in, let me know. There isn’t a door built that I can’t crack.” A sly grin pulled at the corner of his mouth. “And I’ll give you my best friends-and-family discount.”
I laughed. “So I’ll only have to mortgage half of the Coalition’s assets to afford you, then? You’re a gem, Eddie. And I’ll take my knife back.”
“I’ll get you sooner or later,” he grumbled good-naturedly.
My combat knife appeared in his hand, seemingly pulled from thin air. He handed it back with a flourish. Eddie talked with his hands, a clever visual distraction that worked even when he appeared to be too far away to steal. He never stole for keeps, now, more for the thrill of it. The knife would’ve turned up later somewhere obvious in my quarters—my locked quarters.
The knife had been clipped in a holster on my utility belt. I hadn’t felt him lift it, but I’d felt the balance of the belt shift slightly once it was gone. If I’d been less attuned to my weapons, he would’ve gotten away with it.
I waited, staring him down, but he had innocent down to an art. I raised an eyebrow and his mouth turned down into a pout. He handed me the magazine of plasma rounds he’d lifted while returning the knife.
“You’re no fun at all.”
I had to fight to keep my expression stern and suppress the grin that wanted to escape. “I haven’t murdered you, yet, despite an impassioned plea from your most recent victim. Did you really think that Zita wouldn’t notice that you’d switched her salt and sugar?”
The innocent look was back. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I am fine with pranks,” I said, “but if Zita hadn’t noticed, then food would’ve been wasted. You know better.” We all shared the recent memory of gnawing hunger and months of PRiMeR, the cheap meal replacement that was only a half step up from animal slop.
Eddie nodded once, sharply, something fragile in his expression. “I got carried away. It won’t happen again.”
I squeezed his shoulder. He froze slightly at the contact but didn’t pull away. “We all get carried away once in a while. Apologize to Zita. And if you need to talk, you know where my quarters are.”
When I didn’t say anything else, he blinked at me. “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Justice in Arx was swift and brutal, when warranted. Harsh consequences were necessary when a good percentage of the population remained outlaws and rogues. But small pranks allowed people to keep their skills sharp and reduced unrest. There were only a few rules—no damage, stolen items must be returned promptly, and if the subject of the prank asked you to stop, you did.
“I figured you’d slap me back to peeling potatoes for a month,” Eddie said with a faint grimace. He’d peeled mountains of potatoes when he’d first arrived.
“Zita caught it, so no harm done. And apologizing to her is going to be harder than peeling potatoes anyway.”
He groaned when he realized I was correct. “You’re evil, boss.”
I grinned at him. “Don’t forget it.”
I was nearly back to my quarters when I received a neural link connection request from Valentin. The butterflies came back armed with knives.
When I accepted the link, his voice filled my head, warm and familiar. Would it be okay with you if I arrived a day early?
A day early meant today. It was just a single transit to tunnel here from his home on Achentsev Prime, so if he left now, he could arrive in an hour or two. He could be here before dinner.
I swallowed my nerves and gave him the truth. Of course. You are always welcome here.
Good, he said with a smile in his voice, because I’m in orbit. Permission to land?
Shock stole my breath for a moment. You’re here?
Yes. I haven’t contacted ground control yet because I’m testing out some new stealth tech and it appears to be working. His tone turned rueful. I’m hoping you’ll smooth it over with Ari before I get on-planet and she murders me.
Letting Ari at you would serve you right, but I’ll talk to her and get you approval to land. You might as well use my hangar unless you’re in your flagship.
Your hangar is perfect, thank you. See you soon.
I murmured my farewell and disconnected the link. Valentin was here. Now.
And he’d bypassed our security and made it to orbit without anyone knowing. Ari really was going to kill him.
I opened a neural link to Ari and updated her on the situation. She was displeased—to put it mildly—but she agreed not to murder him straight away. She did, however, refuse to let me meet him alone. She wanted to be there when he landed, just in case he’d decided to turn traitor. Ari’s paranoia kept us safe, so I agreed, even though I really didn’t think it was necessary.
Ten minutes later, she knocked on my door. When I opened it immediately, she laughed at me. I could’ve waited a few moments so it wouldn’t seem as if I had been waiting for her, but Ari knew me too well for that. “Anxious, are you?” she asked.
“Terrified,” I admitted quietly.
She nodded sagely. “When we first met, Stella thought I had heart problems because while I appeared calm, my pulse was always sky high.” Ari laughed and shook her head. “She wanted me to do a bunch of tests. I didn’t have the courage to tell her that it was because I was totally gone for her until much later.”
“How did she react?”
“She knew, of course. I wasn’t as smooth as I thought. But she was delighted when I finally admitted it because she felt the same.” A secret smile touched Ari’s mouth. “The rest is history.”
Ari was tall and blonde and beautiful. Stella was petite and dark-haired and lovely. Together they were a stunning couple, made even more so by their obvious love. Longing tugged at my heart. I wanted what Ari and Stella had—someone who always had your back and felt like home. And the more I thought about it, the more that image looked like Valentin Kos.
I followed Ari to my private hangar. The main hangar was much bigger, designed for large military ships, but I’d taken over the base commander’s quarters, and they came with an attached hangar designed to house a smaller, personal ship. I’d avoided it since my return from Koan. The empty space just twisted the knife of Invictia’s loss.
A ship was already on the ground, but it wasn’t Korax, Valentin’s personal ship. This ship was the same jet black as Korax, but it was all smooth curves and sweeping lines. It was beautiful, and I’d never seen a ship quite like it. I itched to see if the inside was as unusual as the outside.
The cargo ramp lowered and Valentin emerged, trailed by his guard, Luka. Valentin had a lean build that belied just how strong he was. Today he’d skipped the formal regalia and wore black pants and a lightweight, cream-colored sweater. His tousled dark hair, sharp cheekbones, and strong jaw completed the picture. He was, in a word, gorgeous.
Behind Valentin, Luka hovered with his trademark scowl in place. He was built like a muscled mountain topped with ice-blond hair. When he glanced over my shoulder and his scowl got worse, I had to suppress a smile. Not only was Ari not Luka’s favorite person—not after she’d stolen his prototype armor—but she also wasn’t Imogen.
Imogen had accompanied me to Koan as my personal guard. She and Luka had butted heads many times, but Imogen was far tougher than she looked, and I was pretty sure she had Luka wrapped around her finger.
I made a mental note to ask her to come to the official meetings. I didn’t need another guard, but I wanted to see the sparks fly.
I met Valentin halfway across the hangar. I was afraid our meeting would be awkward, but he smoothly took my hands and kissed the air next to my cheek. “I missed you,” he murmured into my ear.
His rich voice was even better in person, and my worry melted away. “I missed you, too. I’m glad you’re here.”
He stepped back with a secret smile. “I brought you a present.”
I glanced at his empty hands uneasily. Whatever he’d brought had to be small. Was it a ring? Terror and longing fought for dominance.
Valentin’s smile turned into a laugh. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” he assured me with a wink. “Not yet.”
“Then what is it?”
“I left it in the ship. Come with me and I’ll show you.”
I couldn’t help the grin. “You know that sounds like a bad pickup line, right?”
His smile turned wicked. “That wasn’t what I meant, but I could show you that, too, if you’d like.”
Heat spiraled through me. I would like that. I let myself imagine it for a second before returning to responsibility. “Later,” I promised. “For now, I want to see the inside of this ship. Is it a prototype?”
“Something like that.” He turned to Luka. “Stay here and keep Ari company.”
Luka’s scowl got fiercer and a muscle flexed in his jaw, but he remained silent and nodded curtly. I figured this wasn’t the first time Valentin had run this plan by him.
Ari was more vocal. “I’m not staying behind while you take Queen Rani on a foreign ship—especially not one capable of defeating our sensors.” She was being excruciatingly formal and her tone had a chilly bite. She hadn’t forgiven Valentin for his little stunt earlier.
Valentin swept his arm toward the ship. “You’re welcome aboard, of course.”
Ari grunted her agreement, and I hid a smile. That grunt meant she wanted to argue, but Valentin had taken all of the wind out of her sails with his easy acquiescence.
Valentin guided me toward the ship. Luka and Ari fell in behind us, silent, grumpy shadows. We climbed the ramp and entered the cargo bay.
“Welcome to Ardia,” Valentin said.
The inside of the ship was as beautifully built as the outside, even here where most ships were bare and utilitarian. The walls were sculpted metal and the floor had been etched to resemble wooden planks. A staircase with a banister of what looked like real wood led to the upper levels of the ship. The understated elegance on display meant this ship was ridiculously expensive.
“Are you replacing Korax?” I asked. “Did Asmo’s family bribe you with this ship to lighten his sentence?” Asmo Copley was one of Valentin’s former advisors—one who’d betrayed him. Copley Heavy Industries was one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the Kos Empire. If anyone could build this ship, they could.
Valentin’s expression hardened at the mention of Asmo. “No, I’m not replacing Korax and if the Copleys tried it, I’d lock up the whole family. They know they’re on thin ice.” He glanced at Ari. “Would you mind waiting here? I promise I’m not going to harm Samara, but I’d like to give her the present in private, please.”
Ari looked set to argue until I glared at her. She linked me instead. Shout the second anything seems strange.
Do you really believe Valentin is going to try anything, after all we’ve been through?
She wrinkled her nose at me. No, she admitted, but caution is prudent.
Noted. Don’t kill Luka before I get back.
I closed the link just as Ari said, in her grumpiest voice, “Fine, but don’t be too long.”
Valentin inclined his head in agreement and offered me his hand. I slipped my hand into his, and the butterflies took wing once again.
He led me upstairs to Ardia’s main level. In the corridor, the walls and ceiling were lined with color-changing panels—another incredible expense. The panels currently displayed a soft gradient that started with yellows and oranges at the bottom and transitioned through to pale blue at the ceiling. The effect made the hallway seem like it was bathed in sunset. A fraction more color and it would’ve been too much, but the soft pastels worked perfectly.
This wasn’t a random computer generation; this had been designed by an artist with an excellent eye.
Valentin had stopped and turned to watch me as I stared at the panels, mesmerized. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the colors were ever-so-slowly changing, like a real sunset.
“This is lovely,” I murmured. “Completely unnecessary, but lovely.”
“I thought you might like it.” He tilted his head, considering me. “May I kiss you?”
The simmering desire I’d been feeling blazed brighter. He waited with quiet patience as my gaze tracked across his face. If not for the heat in his eyes and the tense line of his jaw, I’d think he was completely uninterested in my answer.
Rather than answer, I wrapped my hand around the back of his neck and gently pulled his face down to mine. Our lips met and my eyes slid closed. His lips were warm and firm as they ghosted across mine, once, twice. He made a low sound in the back of his throat, and the kiss changed from light and teasing to hot and heavy. Fiery pleasure sent my blood fizzing through my veins.
Valentin was warm and solid and here. There hadn’t been another attack after I’d left Koan, a worry I’d carried every day for two weeks. I put all of the feelings I couldn’t yet admit into the kiss and he groaned again.
This felt like home.
By the time we pulled apart, I had forgotten all worries about awkwardness. His expression was fierce with desire, and I wanted nothing more than to drag him into the nearest bedroom and have my way with him. But Luka and Ari were waiting in the cargo bay.
I thumped my head against his shoulder in frustration and breathed in the warm smell of cloth heated by his body. “Do you think Ari and Luka would leave if we asked them?”
Valentin wrapped his arms around me and ran a soothing hand down my back. “Thanks to my entrance, I feel like maybe I’m not Ari’s favorite person right now, so, no, I don’t think so.” His tone was rueful, but I could hear the smile.
“Then I suppose the personal tour of the bedroom will have to wait.”
Valentin’s arms tightened as I straightened. “On second thought,” he said with a grin, “Ari and Luka will definitely leave.”
I laughed and brushed a light kiss across his mouth. “Show me my present.”
“Do you want to see the rest of the ship first?” At my nod, his grin turned sly. “The captain’s quarters are nearby. Should we start there?”
My grin matched his. “Perhaps we should leave the best for last.”
Valentin’s hands flexed against my back, but he drew away and swept an arm toward a door on the port side of the hallway. “Then let’s start in the guest quarters.”
We toured the rest of the ship, and the more I saw, the more I wondered why he had acquired it if he wasn’t planning to replace Korax. Every detail was exquisitely perfect. Ardia had been lovingly designed by someone with piles of money and excellent taste. I started making mental notes for the ship I still needed to order to replace Invictia. I couldn’t afford a fraction of the elegance of this ship, but there were a few things I could do to get a similar effect for less money.
By the time we stopped outside the captain’s quarters, I was desperate to see the design. So when Valentin opened the door, I immediately swept past him into the room, only to freeze in place.
The walls were a familiar pale gold, and a big bed dominated a room that was strikingly, heartbreakingly familiar. This room was a near perfect—but larger—replica of my quarters on Invictia.
“Do you like it?” Valentin asked quietly from somewhere behind me.
It took two tries before I could swallow past the lump in my throat and force the words out. “What is this?”
I heard him shift. “It’s not perfect, but I tried to get it as close as I could remember. I know nothing will ever replace Invictia, and I’m so fucking sorry you lost your ship because of me. But I’m hoping that you’ll accept Ardia as a poor replacement.” He paused, then tacked on, “Surprise.”
That did surprise a half laugh, half sob out of me. I looked around the room with vision gone watery. It wasn’t an exact replica, but it was such a close match that Valentin must’ve personally specified every detail from memory—and he’d only been on my ship once.
In the soft sunset light still streaming in through the open door to the hall, it was incredibly, unimaginably perfect, and I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted almost anything.
But it was far, far too much.
This ship would easily buy four or five ships of Invictia’s caliber—and that was before you added whatever special stealth technology the ship had.
The door swished closed as Valentin moved farther into the room. He stopped in front of me, expression shuttered. He gently touched my damp cheek. “I apologize. I just thought…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You’re welcome to pick whatever ship you like, of course. It doesn’t have to be this one.”
“It’s perfect,” I admitted softly. “I love everything about it. But I can’t possibly acc—”
Valentin interrupted me. “If you don’t accept, then Ardia will sit, unused, in a berth somewhere. I already told you that I’m not replacing Korax, and I won’t sell Ardia. I had this ship trimmed out just for you, so you’d be doing me—and the ship—a favor by accepting.”
I arched an eyebrow, back on firmer ground and glad that he hadn’t made a big deal of my tears. “Are you trying to guilt me into accepting a ship?”
He grinned at me. “Yes. Is it working?”
I had to laugh at his shameless honesty. “Maybe.”
“Do you want to see the bridge before you decide to mothball poor Ardia for the foreseeable future?”
I wavered, torn. If I saw the bridge, the ship would be as good as mine. My ability to be selfless only extended so far, and the rest of the ship, plus this room, had already stretched it to the breaking point.
“It’s got all of the latest technology, plus a few surprises,” Valentin tempted.
I paced across the plush rug—an upgrade from the worn one I’d had on Invictia. “You’re not playing fair.”
“No, I’m playing to win. You deserve a ship even nicer than this one, but I worked with what I could on a limited timeline.”
“When did you order it?” I asked, looking at him.
“Right after the attack on Invictia,” he admitted.
“That was before I left Koan!”
“I did tell you that I had some ship designs in mind.”
“You also told me that it was my choice.”
“It absolutely is. If you truly don’t like Ardia, I’ll buy you whatever you want. But if you’re just declining because you think it’s too nice, then I’m going to try to persuade you to keep it, by whatever means necessary. One benefit of being emperor is plenty of money. I’ve started giving it away fast enough to give my advisors gray hair, but let me be selfish and do this for you.”
His expression told me that he was deadly serious. If I didn’t like this ship, he would buy me something else. At the height of my career as the Golden Dahlia, I’d made very good money. Death was an expensive business, and I’d used my proceeds to buy Invictia. But even after I’d had the money, I’d agonized for months over the design, sometimes going so far as to price out individual parts.
Being able to buy multiple ships at the drop of a hat, one of them marvelously expensive, was a level of wealth that was so far out of my normal that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Even when the Rogue Coalition was running at peak performance we couldn’t just buy ships willy-nilly.
Valentin frowned. “What?”
“What are you doing with me?”
His frown deepened. “What do you mean?”
“You can buy all of this,” I waved an arm around to indicate everything in the ship, “and I’m a former assassin turned rebel queen who almost let her people starve to death. We could not be more different. Why me? Why not some princess or the daughter of an industry titan. Someone more suited to your life.”
I had plenty of self-confidence in most areas of my life, thanks to hard lessons learned well and a driving need for self-reliance, but relationships were not one. I knew I had many amazing qualities, but I had even more glaring flaws and liabilities. I wouldn’t date me.
Valentin’s expression smoothed out into a blank mask. It was somehow worse than the frown. “Do you really think I’m that shallow?”
I’d hurt him. I hadn’t meant to, but that was irrelevant. “No, of course not. I didn’t choose my words with care. I apologize. I’m the one who’s lacking here, not you.”
“I wasn’t raised to be Emperor. If anyone is lacking, it’s me, but do you know what I see when I look at you?” he asked, mask still firmly in place.
I shook my head and refused to drop my eyes, even though I didn’t want to look at him while he laid me bare.
“I see strength, resilience. Caring, self-sacrifice, and love.” My lips parted in surprise, but he wasn’t done. “I also see cunning intelligence and fierce protectiveness.” He cupped my face and smoothed a thumb across my cheekbone. “Your life wasn’t easy, but it shaped you into the woman you are now, and I like you just as you are.”
His words pierced me, not with the hurt I’d feared, but with the strength of his care. Standing in this room, on this ship, the enormity of that care crashed into me. Valentin Kos, emperor of half the known universe, was here for me—and he wasn’t leaving.
I tipped my face up to his, and he met me halfway. His lips ghosted over mine, and I lost myself in the pleasure of the kiss. The pieces fell into place. Valentin had already slipped past my emotional defenses.
He was mine.
I drew back with a surprised inhale. For the last couple of weeks, I’d been subconsciously holding back, waiting for him to come to his senses, waiting for his interest to be revealed as a huge cosmic joke. But I was half of this relationship, and if I wanted it to work, I had to fight for it.
I always fought for what was mine.
My doubts settled as they always did when I had a plan and a path forward. There would still be occasional issues—no plan was perfect—but I felt more grounded. And I excelled at modifying plans in motion.
I kissed Valentin again, a quick brush of my lips against his.
“What was that for?”
“That was an apology for being an ass. Thank you for the ship. I love it more than you could possibly know. Show me the bridge before I forget Ari and Luka are waiting for us in the cargo bay.”
Valentin’s eyes softened before a playful grin tilted up one corner of his mouth. “If we take long enough, maybe they’ll get bored and leave.”
“Or barge in and interrupt.”
His laugh echoed around the room. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
The bridge was just as amazing as the rest of the ship. Glass and metal surfaces gleamed under the soft lighting. At Valentin’s urging, I sank into the deeply padded captain’s chair, and the console in front of me lit with a beautiful blue glow.
“Welcome, Captain Rani,” the ship greeted in the best impersonation of a masculine human voice I’d ever heard. It was uncanny.
“Thank you,” I murmured instinctively.
“You’re welcome. Please let me know if you need anything. I currently answer to Ardia. Would you like to change my name?”
“No, thank you.”
The ship chimed an acceptance and fell silent.
“That’s not a normal ship computer.”
Valentin laughed. “No, it’s not. I did tell you that I had a few more surprises for you. Ardia—the ship’s computer—is one of them. It’s the latest artificial intelligence assistant. The more you use it, the more it will learn your habits and preferences. It also has a full Kos military module and can control the ship’s offenses, defenses, and flight during hostile maneuvers.”
“Is it any good?”
Valentin’s teeth flashed in a fierce smile. “Yes.”
My fingers itched to launch the ship into the sky, to see how well it handled, but I resisted the temptation. I wanted my first flight to be when Valentin and I could be alone—then we could christen the ship properly.
I stood and wrapped my arms around Valentin, drawing him into a tight hug. “Thank you,” I whispered into his chest.
His arms settled around me, returning my embrace. “You’re welcome.”
I enjoyed the simple pleasure of the hug before I pulled back enough that I could see Valentin’s face. “Should we see if Luka and Ari are still alive?”
He reluctantly let me go. “If we must.”
“We must. But nothing’s stopping us from returning later tonight for a private flight. Just the two of us. Assuming you can get away from your overprotective shadow.”
“I’ll make it happen,” Valentin promised, his eyes full of heat.
I nodded in silent agreement and led him back to the cargo bay. Despite my concern, Ari and Luka were chatting comfortably. Well, Ari was chatting and Luka was listening. Once I got close, I realized Ari was telling him about how Imogen had waded into a drunken fistfight between two men twice her size and came out without so much as a single bruise.
I couldn’t decide if the story was designed to be a warning or an enticement, but Luka was listening avidly—or as avid as I’d ever seen him, which meant his scowl was barely visible.
A mischievous smile tipped up the corner of Ari’s mouth. “Imogen has an undefeated record against all opponents in friendly bouts. Even our illustrious queen gave it a go and Imogen didn’t break a sweat.”
In a friendly match, Imogen could—and did—kick my ass. We were evenly matched in strength and speed, and I couldn’t put her down without seriously hurting her. So I’d lost our bout, much to everyone’s delight. But in a true fight, the odds shifted. I had more experience fighting dirty and enough moral gray area to use every advantage available. If I’d been fighting for my life, the fight would’ve been over in seconds with a very different outcome.
“You lost?” Valentin asked with a grin.
“Badly,” I agreed. “Imogen looks all cute and harmless but get her in a ring, and she’s a force of nature. Don’t let her con you into a match unless you like eating floor.”
Ari’s expression turned angelic, a sure sign she was up to something. “I bet Luka here could hold his own.” She turned to him. “Care to try?”
Imogen had apparently sparred with Luka in Koan and said he moved like liquid, which was high praise coming from her, but I had a feeling she’d like a much more private round with him.
“I’ve seen her in action,” Luka said. “She’s undefeated for a reason.”
I smiled at the diplomatic response and headed Ari off before she could press him further. “We’re done on the ship. Let’s show Luka and Valentin to the guest suite.”
Ari nodded and headed down the ramp, then she linked me privately. You’re no fun.
It was the second time today that someone had reminded me that I was a stick-in-the-mud. I tried not to take it too personally—professional stick-in-the-mud was basically my job as queen. And that cosmic joke would never get old. If my younger self could see me now, she’d think I’d been replaced by an alien.
I doubt Imogen wants their reunion to be a public spectacle, I said over the link. Invite her to the planning meetings. In fact, invite her to meet us at the guest suite. She can be the official security liaison while they’re here.
And what am I? Ari grumbled.
Ari had no argument for that, so she dropped the link without a response.COLLAPSE