EDNAR FASS UNBUTTONED his white collarless shirt, pulled out the tail, and loosened the black cuff slides. He checked the wall for the time—still blank. He huffed. That tech sergeant bitch thought she was something. Not much against a real challenge, huh? He gulped the last of his whiskey and shrugged the shirt from his shoulders. He’d compose a message for the good Lady Redas, another for the High Council, and then he could melt into bed.
The rebels attacking the base should have left him the courtesy of a clear relay channel, but no. He didn’t blame them for doing their jobs well, and he could use the pretense of ignorance a little longer. Kastroma would reach Gastred with the most valuable cargo in the galaxy in sixteen weeks, and that would be the end of all this.
Fass wondered if the people would love him more if he were to mourn the death of the queen, or if he were to cleave her head from her shoulders and bless Earth with her blood? He paused. He should make sure they left enough of her body for it, just in case.
He lifted the shirt from the arm of his chair and slid back into it.
“Captain! Captain Fass! Sir!”
Fass rolled his eyes high over the antique woodwork of his flat in disgust as Lorn Vesnick and Fil Tars thundered up his stairs. He thought they’d be dead by now.
Tars rattled out, “Mora Aydor is on base! We found her trapped in the catacombs and there are men chasing her—”
“Where is your partner, Tars?” Fass could see the annoyance in the soldier’s pause.
“Palia? She’s out. Unconscious. Listen, the queen—”
“Strength to Unity, sir?” Vesnick cut in.
“Strength to Unity, Corporal,” Fass replied. He bent at the waist and raised up his needle gun.
“Fuck!” Tars cried as Fass pulled off a clean shot.
He died easily and Fass set down his gun to finish buttoning his shirt.
“Where is the queen now, soldier?” he asked as he rolled his shoulders into his rich grey uniform jacket.
Vesnick blinked at Tars’ body. “Uh.”
Fass retrieved his weapon. “The queen. Soldier.”
“He…” Vesnick mouthed like a fish. Pathetic.
Fass shoved him aside, fisted the back of Tars’s jacket right over the stitching proclaiming his name, and hefted his body halfway off the ground. He dragged it beside him as he descended the stairs to the entrance, the hands and legs thudding along and Vesnick quacking behind him.
“The queen, um, she’s on foot, I think. Mellick was going to get the dock up and she wanted us to go find her. She had one guy in custody, but he was Oeylan—is this us, sir?”
Fass grew tired of the body and just heaved it the rest of the way down. The night looked to grow longer and longer and he was losing the pleasant thrum of intoxication.
“So I was led to believe. Until we’re sure she’s dead we need to maintain our roles. Do you understand? We are loyal until we’re sure she’s dead.”
“Don’t we, uh,” Vesnick stepped over the body at the foot of the stairs and into the rain on the street, “stay loyal until the rebellion really gets going? Somebody has to survive the first volley. I mean, they’re just going to pick off the ones who—”
“The promise of battle,” Fass said, needle gun resting on his shoulder as he walked, “often shows a man’s true worth.”
“Well, Captain, I exchanged fire with these guys, how’s that?” Vesnick grumbled. “I went through a compression bomb, too.”
Fass stopped. “And they let you live?”
“Uh. Well, it wasn’t—they didn’t let me—”
It wasn’t Unity. He’d let them stroll in and take her, and they weren’t Unity.
Fass looked to the sky. He stroked the smooth skin of his chin. Vesnick knew about the catacomb. What were the chances that he wouldn’t think this through enough to wonder why their vicious queen needed rescuing? Rebellion only required boredom and youth, but Captain Ednar Fass thought further than rebellion. He needed more than just defiance if he wanted this to last. He needed to inspire absolute faith.
Absolute faith in Ednar Fass, and not the slimmest chance of hope in Relai Aydor.
Fass bumped the gun off his shoulder, caught it with sights lined toward Vesnick’s panicked face, and pulled the trigger.
He let them come in and take her, and wouldn’t Corven Ector find that interesting? Fass ground his teeth.
Then he tapped his ear. “Horten. Lilya. Get to the dock. Now.”
Tannor shoved their captive against the wall just inside the dock control room, far from windows and weapons. His mouth curled into a grin as he grunted from the force. He might have been eight inches taller and thirty pounds heavier, but she was the one with the gun. Tannor reached out behind her to find Goren’s slender shoulder and dragged him over to root him in place.
“Shoot if he moves an inch.”
Goren’s knobby fingers worked over the dials of his gen-gun. “Okay.”
Tannor crossed the room and settled in front of the massive transparent screen covering the wall of windows overlooking the darkness of the dock. Give her a few minutes, she’d bring the whole system back to life.
But first, to find the queen.
She peered through the control room’s glass across the empty expanse of the dock; only one jumper remained—a vehicle large enough to carry five guards, two captives, and a queen halfway around the planet to Daat, the other Ardenian base. She’d let them deal with this mess.
She swept through layers of code, keying up the dock for Lorn and Fil to take out single-person skimmers with one hand and building an algorithm to scan the base for the queen with the other. She tapped the proper window to wake up the vehicles, then flattened her palm to authorize the doors to open. High above, the ceiling split with yellow light as a gray sheet of rain bisected the hangar and spread like a gasp in a chest.
One skimmer, two skimmers, on. Goren held their captive against the wall, the nose of his gun pressed to the center of the man’s chest, saying, “Ha, I didn’t die! Ha!”
She tapped her ear. “Fil? You there?”
No response. Not even the whisper-hiss of an open channel.
“They should be out there by now,” she muttered. As much as Tannor hated the constant chatter in her ear, she hated this silence more.
“Goren, can you—” she began, and then she saw movement.
Two tiny figures crept across the hangar, so far away she could only see the frosty white reflective stripes along their arms and legs.
“Okay, they made it out there.” She glanced behind her. “My comm isn’t working again, how’s yours?”
Goren squinted at the ceiling and then poked the man again. “I can’t hear anything. Is this your fault?”
Their captive blinked. “But I’ve been captured.”
Tannor sucked in a nervous breath.
Deep in the darkness through the mist, the two glowing skimmers kicked forward and up, circling once as they rose out of the open mouth of the dock.
“How are they going to find her if you can’t tell them where to go?” Goren asked. “What if there are more of these guys?”
“Skimmers have comm locaters, heat sensors, shields. They’ll be fine. They’ll find her and keep her safe.”
“They’ll kill that other guy, won’t they? The one who shot me?”
Tannor paused, dread creeping up her back and grabbing her cheek to turn her head to look.
Their captive smirked at her.
“Don’t ease off that gun, Goren,” she said. She should map the locations of all the comms on base… her hands flew over the screen.
“Don’t worry,” Goren said, “I turned up to max and I’ll shoot him if he breathes wrong!”
“Bloodthirsty,” the man observed. “And after all we’ve done to make sure no one dies unintentionally.”
“Shut up,” Tannor ordered before Goren could get himself worked up. She glanced back again and the captive raised an eyebrow.
“I’m surprised to find,” he drawled, “that I’m a little sorry about this.”
Tannor drew her gun as she turned her whole body to face him. Goren let out air like a punctured tire and slumped over and Tannor pulled the trigger.
The man bent and somehow his hands snapped free and then he picked up the weapon Goren had been holding—his own original gun—and fired a warning shot to establish precisely who had control at this point.
No, not just at this point.
He’d seemed careless, even lazy, from what she could hear when she was pretending to be dead, but when the concussion blast flattened everyone in her room he’d sauntered around and disabled all of their weapons. He’d let her and Goren drag him here, let her unlock the skimmers and blink the dock to life. He’d seen everything he needed to see with those dark, sliver-sharp eyes. Since Goren had held the intruder’s own gun, the kid had been his only threat.
Tannor could see Goren breathing.
“Away from the screen,” her captor ordered, and she ran to Goren as the man took her spot. He never aimed his weapon away from her as he tapped through the screens she’d started and he didn’t try to hide his intent: he was powering up a groundship.
Tannor shook Goren and searched him all over but she found no marks, no cuts, nothing but the purpling gash on his cheek from the other man’s blow and the seeping wound in his thigh. She thought back, trying to remember—yes, the man had touched Goren.
He’d put something on him.
And he’d brushed Tannor’s hair away to look at her head wound, too. Did he touch her skin?
She glared up at him as she swept an obvious hand up and down her neck; the man raised both eyebrows and bit down on a grin.
There, at the curve between her neck and shoulder toward her back: he’d tagged her with a smooth disk half the size of her pinky nail. Goren must have one somewhere, too. It felt like a mole, like part of her body, but Tannor knew her body. This didn’t belong.
A drug tick.
“Shit,” she sighed.
Groundship ready, the man walked back over, gathered her gen-gun, and slipped it into an invisible seam running down the side of his jacket. After it was gone she couldn’t tell he’d hidden anything at all in the curve of the small of his back.
He crouched next to Goren. “You get the legs, I’ll take the head.”
Tannor stared at him. “What?”
His eyes flicked down to Goren’s face, then back to hers. Another explosion sounded above ground, rattling the chairs, and his eyebrows inclined. “You two are coming along.”
He smoothed his fingers over Goren’s shoulder, eyes glittering. “I like his jacket.”
Four more minutes until her code eater ate itself, but someone needed to be there to reboot the system.
“I could drop you like I dropped him.”
She barked a laugh. “Yes. Absolutely. Do that, carry both of us yourself.”
He glared to the left, annoyed, and then pressed his hands to Goren’s shoulders.
“I could kill him, instead. I don’t need him alive.”
Tannor tissed through her teeth at him, then shifted back and hooked her hands under Goren’s knees. The man half-grinned as they stood, then spun them so Tannor would be the one to walk backwards.
She grunted as they shuffled down the dark hall leading from the security room to the dock, infuriated and confused about why he chose to bring them along. It wasn’t long before Goren became so heavy she couldn’t think anymore.
Rain speckled her shoulders and hair as they crossed the exhausting distance to the ship. She stumbled up the steep open ramp and the red panels of the ship glowed over them, ready and humming. The white interior lighting hurt her eyes, and she couldn’t free a hand to brush away the strands of hair sticking in her eyelashes.
“I won’t fly this thing for you,” she said.
“Yeah, I hate flying, too,” he replied.
They dumped Goren in the groundship’s medical bay next to a massive central gurney. Goren started twitching as the man pulled cords from his sleeves and bound them, quick like snapping fingers, to the metal handles on one side of the gurney. He made sure to stretch the cords so they each had enough freedom to reach across the table—why?—and then he headed out of the room.
With one last burst of frustration, Tannor demanded, “Why are we here?”
He didn’t look back as the door slid shut, but his response slipped through the gap: “Decoration.”
She should have shot him in the balls when she had the chance.
The orange hover lights switched to cool blue, illuminating raindrops in a soft halo around the skimmer as Relai ran to meet the guard who floated to rest near the gaping edge of the dock bay doors. The other sped into the vineyard without a pause. Relief was in sight—soon she’d be warm, safe, clean, and she could look that raving man in the eyes again with more light to see his face.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” she cried as she reached the guard. “Did you see where—”
“She’ll get him, Our Glory,” the guard assured. He stretched off the skimmer and, instead of saluting, held out a hand. She should have paused, questioned, but after four years on this planet she just met him with her own hand.
He jerked her off-balance as he lashed out with a heavy boot. A catastrophic pain tore through her knee and she fell where he threw her. He kicked her in the ribs, then his weight on her back pinned her chest against the cobblestone.
Milo Hemm dove into the glowing rows of rain-slick greenery, tearing branches and skin and breathing through his mouth to stifle the rattle of snot in his nose. One guard would stay with the queen and one would go after him. He was glad he’d held onto that shotgun.
He was trying not to think about those last shaking moments when he cleared the fury enough to realize he was choking the life out of a defenseless girl, and then the ground had opened wide and tried to swallow him. He’d been close to the end, the end of this long, terrible journey, and then—
And then her hand stretched out, thin and glowing in the sharp light, and he thought he should have killed her after all. And then she’d saved his damned life.
Right now, his mission had reached its final paces. Either Ky would show up soon, or this would finish in the quick, sickening way he’d taught himself to expect. Ky had been so confident, Milo might have started to feel a flicker of his optimism—just enough to silence the part of his mind that wanted to live. The knowing part.
He’d placed his end point here, in this savage system, on this night. Who attempted to kidnap the queen of the civilized galaxy and got away with it?
Milo crept along, ducking under vines and dashing across another aisle. The skimmer slid along and he watched its light scan back and forth down each row, closer, now almost on him. He picked a post and grabbed on, planting his feet against the steady grain of the wood, and swung to the side opposite the skimmer as it turned down an aisle. He’d only made it a few hundred feet down, but Milo Hemm would not die running away.
The guard’s voice carried clear down the aisle because her helmet didn’t obscure her mouth. “…I don’t know. I thought they were here to kill her.” A pause. “Not with your gun. They’re going to check.” Another pause. “No, it definitely matters. We’ll use his, there’ll be no question.”
“I got him.”
Milo dropped to the ground and fired up at her as a blast from the skimmer’s cannon obliterated the post. His charge hit the shield of her skimmer and it bucked from the unstable electricity. Good enough—Milo leapt forward and covered the distance between them in three steps.
She tried to gain control and aim, but Milo surged too quick, too close. The shield would stop a blast, not the barrel itself—he pressed a shot to her chest and she seized up.
Milo thought he felt rain fleck from his face with his next exhale, but the drops spotted dark on the silver hull of the skimmer and didn’t blend with the rain. He put a hand under his nose and it came away with blood.
“Earth,” he muttered darkly.
He dragged the guard off the skimmer and pulled a locking belt from the row on his jacket sleeve. He slipped it around her neck and a wooden post, then connected the flat ends. The belt adjusted itself, tight and secure, holding her slumped body at an awkward angle.
She let out a gurgle and gained enough control of her muscles to claw at the strap.
He tapped his own neck. “The more you move, the tighter it gets.”
It was a lie, but he’d found it felt true if you heard it before you tried to pull the thing off. She froze. Good.
Milo helped himself to her gun, shoved it in the last open holster on his chest, and gripped the handlebar of her skimmer. She’d set the hover too high; that was the first of her problems. He slung a leg over the seat and adjusted the steering to his knees so he’d have both hands free to shoot, and that fixed her second problem.
It took seconds to glide back to the edge of the vineyard and the light from the skimmer caused the other guard to turn and ask, “Lilya?” as Milo accelerated into him.
The guard flew back with a satisfying thud and skidded to a stop just short of the edge. Milo’s skimmer swung over the edge of the abyss, and as he leaned into a spin he realized—he’d just flown over the queen.
The guard had been standing over the queen with his foot on her back, holding her down, and that made no sense.
Milo aimed the skimmer for the guard again, but the man had already found his gun. Milo barely reached ground before the guard rolled sideways and aimed a pulse at the skimmer’s rear engine.
A hit—the skimmer bucked and Milo tried to pull around but the back end fell and scraped through the mud with the front end up like a rearing bull. It threw Milo off and slammed upside down into the mud. Milo took cover.
They traded shots, five, six, eight, and then the guard paused long enough for Milo to glance around the side and see him running for the queen, who was trying to get herself onto the second skimmer—something was wrong with her leg, it wouldn’t hold her up.
The guard aimed a few careless shots in Milo’s direction, then grabbed the queen by her hair and the back of her robe. She lost her footing, the guard wrenched her around, and Milo pitched desperately toward them.
He fired and hit the guard in the neck but the motion had already begun. The guard opened his hands just before his whole body seized and sent the queen reeling with no hope of balance. Milo reached out but it was too late—he saw the whites of her eyes, the gape of her horrified mouth, the useless grasping of her hands. She flew backward over the edge of the dock into the dark.
Milo sucked in a breath.
Then the wind picked up. The lighting changed from soft yellow to harsh red, the shadows turned, and Milo watched a groundship rise and lift the body of the queen up and out of the maw. He could see the angles of her body and the stillness of it. She hadn’t fallen too far, but maybe it had been far enough. She might be dead and all of this might finally be finished.
For a second he felt the weakest bit of hope. Then the ship spun and the pilot became visible between the masses of the two main engines.
He flashed Milo an impatient look and pointed at the queen’s body as though Milo hadn’t noticed. Milo growled and collected the incapacitated guard’s gun, shocked him again to keep him down, and then shot out the engines of the remaining skimmer. The mud slipped around his feet as he pitched forward, kicked off the lip of the vineyard, and threw himself onto the hovering groundship. Ky must’ve turned on the friction to keep him from sliding off; it felt like stone instead of metal.
Ky lowered the top deck ramp as Milo dragged the limp queen over his shoulder. The rain made her body slippery, even with the robe, but he held on and stomped down.
The crisp image of Ky’s face popped up on the wall just inside and followed him as he pounded down a shining white hall with the queen’s arms flopping against his side.
Ky gave him a toothy grin. “Sorry that took so long, spark.”
“Hell of a good timing, Ky. Is she dead?”
Ky’s eyes flashed sideways, reading data from the ship that Milo couldn’t see. “Not dead. Happy to be unconscious considering the state she’s in, though.” Milo heard the implication in his tone.
“Yeah, it wasn’t all me.”
He knew where he’d find the medical bay, not too far from the security hall. Part of him wanted to throw her in a locked room and let her body decide for itself if it wanted to live or die. After all she’d done, all that she was responsible for—and she was too busy relaxing at this resort to be bothered with the consequences—
Milo was gripping her hip too tightly. He forced himself to flatten his hand as he reached the medical bay.
The doors pulled open and the sight of two wide-eyed guards startled him. He took in the way Ky had chained them by the wrists to one of the patient gurneys and felt a rush of hot shame. Ky had known he would—Ky knew what Milo was.
The boy started yowling first.
“You better not have killed her, you dirty hill trash!”
The woman thought quicker; she started shaking her head almost the moment he walked through the door. “We’re not medically trained, if she’s really hurt you need someone with some skill to help her.”
Milo unloaded his cargo on their gurney with a thunk. “You’re all she’s got.”
“I—I feel like I haven’t slept in two days,” the woman pleaded, eyes her huge and desperate.
“Same,” he replied.
Then he lashed out at the boy, landing a satisfying punch to his little reesh face.
“Mountain trash,” he said.
He left for the bridge.
A damp hand flopped next to Tannor’s and she jerked away, refusing to panic as the med bay door slid shut. That was the Monster of Eray—the one who’d decided to kill as many guards as he could when the relocation began. The one who’d escaped Arden and hit Gastred next, piling bodies under his feet everywhere he trod, leaving twenty dead before he disappeared. His face topped the kill-on-sight lists that no one wanted to take seriously because none of them ever expected to kill anyone during their guard service.
He’d found the queen.
“Why?” Goren moaned. Now his nose was bleeding in addition to his thigh, and she wouldn’t look at him again until she got everything under control.
“Are you okay?” she demanded. Glanced at him.
The table lit up, thank the stars, and Tannor tapped into the medical system—the older man must’ve opened it for her from somewhere else on the ship. Probably watching her every move, wherever he was.
“Hostages? Organ harvesting? Human shields for battle… neural data storage? Public sacrifice?!” Goren rattled on, fingers fumbling across the gurney keys as he swiped the blood from his upper lip with his gray jacket sleeve. He was probably trying to distract himself from the broken body before them, so she didn’t tell him to shut up.
Tannor set the table to scan with her left hand and went to work taking control of the ship with her right—they were equally important, so she’d do both at once. The first thing any regulation scanner did was read the identifying pin embedded in every coalition citizen’s chest at birth—it wouldn’t heal anyone without a pin—and this one reported instantly that, yes, this woman was not just a clever imitation of the queen. Tannor ignored the confirmation she didn’t need and rooted through the all programming she could access, searching for weakness or familiar algorithms or outright stupidity.
“Let me out,” she muttered.
Mora Aydor looked dead, but Tannor knew better. When the second intruder, the Monster of Eray, had dumped the queen in front of them, Tannor had seen: he’d caught the back of Mora’s head in one giant hand as he laid her down. Gentle.
None of this made sense, but the monster just saved the queen’s life.
And now… ah. A change of command. She caught herself before she smirked, just in case they were watching.
“Are you sure you know how to run this thing?” Goren asked. He’d spread open the queen’s robe, no blush, and flailed out to snag a med scanner hovering over the table. He passed it to Tannor without hesitation.
An array of readings flowed across the screen in pulsing bubbles—the larger and brighter the bubble, the more serious the problem. There were a lot of very bright bubbles on that gurney. Blood pressure, temperature, foreign substances, heart rate—and following each reading, the predicted success rate for treatment.
“You start with the table,” she said, “I’ll direct the scanner.”
“How do you know how to do this?” Goren asked.
Tannor moved a mobile scanner to the brightest bubble. “I know our technology. I’ll figure it out.”
The table display pinged at them in condescending instruction as it finished its survey. DEATH IMMINENT, it warned, APPLY COLD LINES—then Goren found the straps that would cool her body to slow her decline tucked all along the rim of the gurney. He stretched them out and across, all up and down the queen.
The bands pressed like striped scars, white on her graying amber skin, as they brought down her temperature.
Tannor, now the new commanding doctor, rooted into the admin program as she keyed up the healing process. The queen was too far gone to even moan from the pain as Tannor pressed the waxy, ribbed interface of the med scanner against her forehead and started healing.
Hopefully they’d get her screaming soon.
“She can’t die, she can’t die, she’s everything,” Goren muttered.
Tannor swallowed. “You think there’s no hope, if we lose her?”
Goren snorted. “Think? I don’t need to think. I know! What are we going to do if she dies? King Ayadas is gone and there’s no other heir. She’s it for us. Who even knows what would happen without her? Bad stuff!”
“Bad stuff,” Tannor echoed. “Worse, though?”
“I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Head, chest, and blood. The cold lines snapped away.
With her next breath, the queen let out a high, tight whine.
“It’s working, she’s getting better—”
“We should make her sleep, save her the pain.”
Tannor felt a burst of energy driving the ship up and forward.
They’d left the base.
Bevn Kyro, the name matched to a person, hadn’t existed for twenty years Proper Time. No platform, no financials, no housing or service exchange or travel records. No military duty fulfilled. No pin. He didn’t exist.
When Milo crashed through his door (no, it was a day later, when Milo woke up and they finally exchanged names), Ky bit that bitter round and introduced himself right.
And Bevn Kyro came back.
Ky brushed crumbs from his chest and the console beside him, a weak attempt to tidy up before Milo stomped in. That loaf of local Earthan bread he’d slipped into his coat on their way through the base? Completely worth the effort.
He kept an eye on the medical summary he’d stashed in the corner of the bridge’s primary screen: broken pelvis, right femur, and right arm. Torn tendons in the left knee. Scattered wounds across the shoulder and back. Concussion. Swelling in the brain.
Damn it, Milo.
And there were other findings, too, less obvious and more troubling: bizarre blood nutrients, subnormal bone density, and unusual hormone levels. Worst were the high levels of several badly interacting drugs. She would have been dead in a couple hours if Milo hadn’t gotten to her first.
Didn’t matter; right now he had other problems to address.
“Buddy!” he cried through a mouthful. “Welcome to our new ship!”
Milo looked like death. His legs and arms were caked with dark Earth mud and Ky saw blood mixed glossy black through the dense hairs of his beard. Milo leaned down alongside a chair, found the switch to release it from the floor, and slid it over to Ky.
“Her own guards tried to kill her and make it look like we did it.”
Ky’s eyes flicked to the video showing his two friends pawing over the queen’s ragged body.
“Hell if I know, they all look the same to me. Why are her guards trying to kill her?”
Milo considered it. “Think I should have asked? I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Ky laughed. “I think they would’ve killed you in the middle of your sentence.” He threw the pilot screen over to Milo and stretched the med bay display larger in front of himself. Milo always took over flying; he probably needed it right now.
After a moment of quiet, Ky went on, “So they figured out the sit-back-and-watch code we sent didn’t come from Unity, then.”
“I heard one guard say they should kill her with my gun. They really do want everyone to blame Eray for Unity.”
“You’re tall. Easy targets.”
“We’re Erayd. Easy targets.”
Ky smiled with half a mouth and checked on the queen’s vital markers. The guards were doing their work well, especially the clever blond one. In fact—
“Uh-oh.” He pressed two particular teeth together to trigger her tick. On-screen, Guard One flopped over unconscious just in time to stop her from subverting control of navigation to the medical bay. Guard Two howled and fumbled to adjust her body so she wouldn’t hurt her shoulder joints. Holy shit. Ky was going to have to keep her away from this groundship’s brain or he wouldn’t be flying it much longer.
He made sure the med bay would stay nice and isolated when the queen woke up, then turned to Milo.
“Tell me.” He tore off a piece of bread and tossed it over, but Milo just caught it and held it. “You ran off. What happened?”
Milo put the bread down and threw the pilot screen back to Ky. They needed to calculate a sneaky exit trajectory if they were going to make it out of orbit without getting disintegrated by the guards at Haadam, Daat, or Buzou. For now, though, they were safe under Ky’s transmission blocker as they sailed silent and invisible through the dark, vacant hill country toward the coastal hideout Ky’d selected.
“She was in the adjacent room,” Milo began. “She tipped a bookshelf on me.” He cracked an empty smile. “I was expecting something more. I chased her down and caught her outside. I shot her and I pinned her down.”
Ky watched his face. The last eight months—discovering Milo and pulling his wretched self back together; following bloody trails of worthless information to find those few precious names; then those long days and nights of travel without sleep, battling their way into a remote space port to find a single person who knew the careful secret, the truth about the location of the queen—it all came to a head here, now. The starving kid that had stumbled into Ky’s dump of a Gastredian bar couldn’t even form a sentence, and look at him now.
Milo had done it. He deserved his moment of confrontation. But this? Ky checked on the guards again; the boy, on his own, had resolved the brain swelling and moved on to healing the queen’s broken bones.
He hadn’t expected Milo to go this far.
Milo looked at his hands and said, “I wanted to kill her.”
With a sweep of two fingers, Ky moved the video feed of the queen up to Milo’s eye level. He kept his words light. “Nice try, but I’m afraid you just fell short.”
Milo slammed his fist into his console, then stood and paced away from the image. He couldn’t go far because the curve of the cockpit roof only allowed a few feet of walking space for someone so tall. Ky stared at the stretch of gray fabric across Milo’s broad shoulders, at the charred edge angled along the bottom of his ribcage where the jacket had burned away in the fire when they crashed on Earth.
“That’s the problem,” Milo rasped. Watched the rain instead of the screen.
“I had my chance. I keep trying to tell myself it’s for the people, that I kept her alive to let the people of Arden condemn her. But all I can see is the look on my aba’s face just before he died. I failed him.”
Ky let out a laugh. “Right. Your father dreamed of his son one day beating a woman to death.”
Milo turned back, his face crumpled in anguish. “No. I had her, and I wanted to… I had my hands around her neck and I—”
Milo swallowed. “She deserves—”
He stopped, then glanced again, finally, at the screen where the queen’s body rested. She looked like stone under the hands of sculptors.
“She destroyed us. She’s evil. I shouldn’t have been able to stop myself.” His voice caught in his throat. “But I—do you realize… do you realize what I almost did?”
Made this a whole lot simpler, Ky thought. He hopped up and spoke with all the sincerity he could muster. It wasn’t much.
“Hey. You—you, spark, out of everyone—you got her. You got her.” He tore at the bread so he could resist the urge to grip Milo’s arm. “I’m not in this like you are. I don’t know anyone who died. Hell, I just thought it’d be fun to make some trouble. Plus, you’re pretty entertaining when you’re mad, and I don’t like dictators on Gastred or Arden. And I get itchy sticking in one spot too long. And business wasn’t too great for—”
“Ky?” Milo interrupted, the creases on his face softening. “Shut up.”
She was okay. Perfect again.
Goren rested on his elbows, forehead pressing into the clammy flesh of the queen’s outer thigh until he realized what he was doing and jerked away in terror. This table should have a warming blanket, right? He flipped open the panel near her feet and, yes. He pulled it up and over her body, then tucked her in the way his little sister Fenla would’ve wanted.
She was fine. Sleeping a normal sleep. If he shook her she’d wake up, but he wasn’t going to shake the queen.
Crap, his leg hurt.
He shook the uninjured leg where Tannor was slumped against him. She didn’t move, but her head was tipped back so her neck pinched between her strung up arms. He wondered suddenly if the knockout drug thing worked for whatever amount of time the villains wanted it to… or if maybe Tannor was dead.
Oh, hells. He lifted up her head and—
He could see her breathing.
Goren tried not to give in and just cry. How was he supposed to handle all this? He was going to die, and then what would Tannor and Mora Aydor do?
Could he use a med scanner as a weapon? He mustered the energy to lift his head and locate it.
Wait! He could heal his leg!
Goren reached up and almos—
Everything went black.
Milo stood outside the dull white metal of the med bay doors. This was it. He was calm now, no weapon in hand. He needed to look her in the eyes and see the evil there and know that he’d stopped her.
Into his mind bled the faces of his father, his sister, his mother. Bry sipping his disgusting nettle tea and Shayla spooking him with her moss beard. Prayers that smelled of smoke and meat. Leaves crunching under his feet. Fire.
He wasn’t going to hit anything and he wasn’t going to try to strangle her. Not now.
He stepped forward and the doors slid wide. Ky had knocked out both guards and laid them side by side on the floor at the end of the bed so Milo could do this uninterrupted. Face her.
She was laying still, light dusting the curves of her face, covered by a warming blanket up to her collar bones. One of the guards must have washed her hair—it seemed so much longer than in her last relay—or maybe bathing was a function of the automated medical service on this ship. They’d cleaned her skin, too, and redressed her in that tattered black robe. Her chin tilted up and he could see purple finger marks splattered down the length of her neck.
“Wake up,” he ordered, and she opened her eyes.
She saw him. Sat up. Clutched the blanket to her chest and stared at him.
Then she recognized him enough to push herself off the table away from him, raising one hand to her neck, touching the rows of bruises there.
Milo felt dizzy for a moment, but it swelled back into the fury he was used to.
“Dear Mora,” he said, throat full of gravel, “Our Great Glory. Forgive me if I don’t bow.”
Her brow furrowed. When she spoke, her voice came out rougher than his. “Why are you calling me that?”
Milo thought her head injury had been healed… but she’d come to her senses soon enough.
“Are you feeling disoriented?” She tried to answer, but he drove on. “Are you feeling powerless? Do you have a voice now?”
“What are you trying—”
“Who is going to listen to you now?” His fist pounded the med table and it clanged mightily around the echo of his words. “You have no advisers to whisper in your ears and affirm your every move. You have no fans fawning at your voice. You have me.”
She looked terrified now. Milo was glad.
“Not just me.” His voice rattled up from his stomach and out past his teeth and he tried not to let it shake. “We’re going back. We’re going back and the destruction is going to stop and you will face the people you’ve harmed. You will lower your eyes to every last one of them.”
She didn’t look caught, not like she should—she turned out her palm, fingers twitching like she could feel his words in the air. “No, no, no,” she muttered. “No. You’re not well.”
Damn her earnest eyes; he had to turn and pace away. He knew his mind, knew the truth of the past in the snarl of missing tissue on his leg and the burn scars on his arms. She couldn’t talk away his body.
She even stepped closer with her vile pleading. “Whatever you think has happened, it’s not real. I’m not the queen, my mother is. Someone lied to you, or tricked you, or you’re just—sick—”
One long-fingered hand, the same hand he’d watched reach out through the rain, lifted toward him. Like she was the rational one. Like she could help him, even, if he would only listen to her.
Tongue of a worm.
“Ruling from a distant resort instead of facing your people in person might help you play innocent,” Milo said, “but the evidence is overwhelming. The courts will see the truth. You are damned. Give up.”
Her voice took on a higher pitch. “I haven’t been ruling from Earth! I have no part in Ardenian politics any more. I left. I already gave up.”
He had to admit, he hadn’t expected this tactic. She wasn’t even ruling?
He shook his head and curled up his lip. “You’ll have your day. I’ll see you to it.”
She let out a tiny impatient huff. “Please. Tell me what you think is going on. And please don’t hurt me again.” She spoke without flinching, though her knuckles were white, and damn her, she’d realized what she could use to temper him. Don’t hurt me again.
He already felt like the thing they called him, Monster, and she could tell… but she was the monster, boring inside his head like this. Evil.
Heat was filling up in his mind again, memories screaming in his ears. The last smile his mother gave him. Little Shayla, six years old, in the middle of the street with a bloody head.
He’d been collecting video and images snuck into the commons before the censors deleted them, and he had hard evidence—real, solid, and irrefutable. He wanted to see her face when she couldn’t deny it anymore.
Milo stomped around the table, his long legs bringing him to her side in less than a breath. He took her by the arm, firm but not vicious, and pushed her out of the medical bay.
They traveled through the ship without speaking a word and came to the conference room where Ky was eating.
“Show her,” Milo said. He let go of Relai and she stumbled to a stop. No clear line to an exit, no objects to use as weapons.
Ky eyed him, impassive. “Now?”
“Yes, now.” Milo took a deep breath to steady his nerves.
Ky snaked his hand back into the invisible seam in that depthless coat of his, rooted around, and then pulled out the bag.
Calfskin over metasteel mesh, treated with blueroot oil for softness. A few months ago Milo had added a magnelock and put the key under the skin in his finger. No one could open it but him.
“The first cohort of noncompliant families arrived in Kitya one month after you took the throne,” Milo said, spitting out noncompliant like dirt on his lips. “Twenty days later, in the next cohort, you took my best friend. No communication, nothing, until he showed up wheezing at my door three months later with this.” Milo shook the bag. They all heard a dull rattling.
She blinked between them, eyes shining. Still pretending.
He went on: “You have these people logged as living. Working. They’re receiving food and energy rations. Where is that food going, Mora? What are you using that energy for? What did you use the energy from their atomization for? Because this is all that’s left of those people—their carefully numbered pins.”
He swiped his finger over the seal and filled his hand, feeling the weight like cries of accusation. He slapped them down on the table.
Sixty-seven pins. Dark silver, thick as a quill and as long as a fingertip, cylindrical with flat ends. Some of them still carried smudges of blood because Bry had smuggled them before washing and melting.
Ky instructed the table to read them and a list of identifiers scrolled across the wall, names included, sending a flicker through the room. Then Milo tore into his video files and pulled up a royal relay from a month ago. He scrolled through the viewline until he found the damning moments.
A perfect, glowing white queen smiled at them from all surfaces. She was saying, “…in Kitya, where the former disloyalists from Eray are learning to welcome the mantle of responsibility for paying back their debt to society by farming essential crops needed to feed those brave men who dare to leave their homes and families to mine—”
The feed cut from the queen to the gold-green fields of Kitya, where rows of dozens of people smiled through their teeth and waved. Milo’s program paused the video, picked out a dozen faces, and matched them pin to bloody pin.
She couldn’t deny this.
And then she did.
Relai stepped back. This was worse than waking from the travel pod—she felt sick in her stomach, in her blood, in that painful cringing layer right under her skin. The ship seemed to rock under her feet.
“This isn’t happening. It has to be fake. Those are—” She sank down into a chair and her hands, still raw from the pod, jumped at the sensation of smooth, warm leather. “This can’t be real.”
The tall, scary one burst forward and dashed a chair to the side as he bellowed, “It is real and there’s not a corner of the galaxy in which you can hide. We have you.”
Relai couldn’t look at him, but she caught the expression on the older one’s face and held tight. He didn’t seem confident or condemning or hateful. He looked worried.
“Crap,” the man said. “Milo, she might not be it.”
Milo reeled back. “What? She’s lying. Ky!”
Ky pushed his chair out and, rather than taking the time to walk around the conference table, hopped up and slid over. She got an excellent view of the row of knives along his belt as he landed next to her. Relai jolted at the sight. Knives.
He prompted her up and led her around to the screen, pressing with the pads of his fingers between her shoulder blades. This one, Ky, stood only a couple inches taller than Relai. Fifteen or twenty years older. Solid.
He placed her next to the frozen relay and stepped back.
“Slide the video back. Get her face on-screen—good, there. Now, Aydor. Talk.”
Relai opened her mouth. She couldn’t believe how beautiful that thing on the screen looked. Her hair had never been that perfect a day in her life.
“Tell us who you are,” Ky suggested.
She swallowed. Two dirty, terrifying men stared back at her.
“I… My name is Relai… Orist Aydor. I left four years ago and I was going back to Arden—when I, when I went to sleep—but I woke up here instead and I was dying. I don’t know why I didn’t go—I wanted to see my family. I wasn’t supposed to wake up on Earth.”
Please believe me, she thought. They would have no reason to hurt her if she could make them believe.
Ky shook his head, one brow angled high. “You see it?”
Milo glared. “I see a killer with a talent for lying.”
Relai wanted to argue more, convince them, but words wouldn’t come. Ky pointed one finger at her, then wiggled all four. “There’s something off about it.”
Relai felt her heart kick up at the barest chance they’d believe her, but Milo just cursed as he gathered up those precious, damning pins and sealed them back in their bag. “It’s been touched up, that’s all. See? She was made to look more… sanda, less barata. Paler, like a regent.”
She wrung her hands and pulled at the wide cuffs of the robe. “No, it’s fake. They would always lighten my skin before a public event so I’d look more like my dad, but I stopped all that when I left.”
“And her accent’s different,” Ky added. Milo handed him the bag of pins and it disappeared into a seam along Ky’s side.
Relai nodded. “Four years on Earth.”
“She could be altering her voice right now.”
“With such consistency, when she’s terrified?” Ky’s eyes bored into her as though staring hard enough would uncover the truth. Then he clicked his tongue. “Let’s ask those guards, see if the travel tale matches up. The clever one might be able to link us back into the base’s system so we can see the records for ourselves.”
Milo frowned, but tilted his head in assent and took off with that same purposeful stride. He ducked through the door without breaking his pace. Relai watched it slide shut behind him without flickering. No security on the exits.
Ky stepped closer to her. She shifted, steadying her feet and loosening her joints to move.
“You know,” he said, “if I hadn’t tracked you down myself I’d think you weren’t even her. Your manners are different. You aren’t acting like royalty.”
She clenched her teeth, flashed them, kept his eyes on her face and away from her hands. “I’ve been living on Earth for the past four years. No one treats me like a princess here. I’m not anymore.”
Ky scratched his scruffy chin. “If you’re lying… well. I will kill you.”
Relai took stock of her body and tested the grip of her bare feet on the cold metal floor. Before she could allow herself to realize what any of this meant, she had to get herself safe.
“And if I’m not?”
After another moment of that piercing gaze, he smiled. “We’ll see.”
She took her chance.
Her hands were still quick and her muscles remembered, sure with the energy of a recent healing. She snatched the second smallest knife, one the length of her thumb with a sharp curve at the end. A knee to his hip put him off balance—he swung one arm out but she ducked, grabbed his gun, and flung it away—then she hooked her foot around his opposite knee, clasped his neck, and dropped him to the ground.
The tussle went quick and silent. Relai pinned him by the wrist and the neck, leaning most of her weight on the knee in his back. He swore with relish, ignoring the knife at his throat. “Where the hell did that come from?” He didn’t sound bothered at all.
Her eyes darted from exit to exit. She wouldn’t have to hold him for long.
She twisted his forearm and gasped, “I don’t want to hurt you, but you keep telling these lies and I don’t even know what day it is.”
He tried to lift his head but she pressed in with the knife and he settled for waving a few fingers. “You could be damaging my spinal nerves, you know.”
She frowned but still shifted her weight. With her luck, that would be all he needed to throw her off, so she angled the knife against the vulnerable crease running down the side of his neck and lodged her wrist against his shoulder. If he bucked, he’d open that artery wide.
The conference room door slid open and in marched those two guards from the base—first the boy, his face a swollen mess, then the woman—followed by Milo. Relai sucked in air, hoping they’d see and move, and yes, the boy dove right at Ky’s gun, snatched it up, and turned it on Milo as no, Milo snarled and threw an arm around the woman’s neck and put his gun to her head. Relai cried out, “No!” as his back smacked against the crisp white wallscreen and then everyone shouted at once.
“I knew it,” Milo roared.
“Put the gun down, hands up, let her go! Gun down!” the boy barked, while the female guard shouted, “Nobody shoot anybody! Stop!”
“How about everybody shut the hell up for a second!”
For a man pinned to the ground at the mercy of his own knife, Ky had a sort of authority in his voice that cut through the noise.
Everyone shut up.
Then Relai answered Milo with her own growing anger. “If you were right about me, I would have killed him and gotten out of here. He’s still alive.”
“Sorry, kid, she’s quicker that I thought. Also stronger—nice job in the med bay, One and Two. I’m, ah, I’m surprised.” Relai leaned just a little bit harder and he coughed out a laugh. “Fine, embarrassed. Second time in one day I’ve lost my gun.”
The woman cut in, “He’s got a trigger for a knockout drug tick and he might’ve put one on you.”
Relai tensed. “Then I’d better lean so this knife will push through if I go limp.”
“Do you want me to shoot him, Our Glory?” the boy guard asked as he ducked in an awkward bow.
“No!” Relai and the other woman both shouted. Relai couldn’t see her name, but she caught the guard’s eye and managed an appreciative nod as she flicked one hand to get the boy to rise. “And don’t bow to me. That’s weird.”
Both guards froze.
No one had bowed to Relai in so long it felt bizarre, mocking. These guards had to know that she’d abandoned her inheritance—everyone had to know. Right?
“Weird?” the woman repeated.
Relai looked her full in the eyes. “Who do you think I am?”
The guard stopped straining against Milo’s grip. Relai watched her wiggle her fingers and relax her hands against Milo’s forearm, and then she recited: “You are our Glory, our Honor, and our Light. You are the best hope and the wisdom and providence of the four planets joined. We serve you without hesitation, without doubt, and without fail. You are our Queen. Our Relai Mora Aydor.”
She didn’t sound particularly sincere, but the young man beside Relai couldn’t resist the pull of the oath. By the end of it he was down on one knee, his gun trained on Milo but his head bowed toward Relai.
The woman’s eyes widened, and then Relai managed to say, “Orist. Not Mora. My mother is queen.” She looked from face to face and found no understanding. “What happened?”
It was the female guard who began to see through it all first. “That means…” Her eyes went vague and she spoke more to herself than the rest of them. “It hasn’t been you, at least for a while now. I don’t know how long… We can find out! We can still get access to the base records from this ship!”
“Ha!” Ky exclaimed from underneath Relai. He hadn’t tried to throw her off, not once. “Good. Let her go, Milo.”
Milo craned his neck to see the guard’s face. “You can show us?”
She nodded against the press of his forearm and he let her go. Relai lifted away from Ky, knife pointed at the floor, and they all moved back to safer distances from one another.
The woman rolled her shoulders and rubbed her neck, glaring acid at Milo as she tugged heavy curls away from her sweat-sticky face. “So you’re not Unity? And they didn’t hire you?”
“No one hired us.”
“Clever, clever,” Ky said as he hopped to his feet. “We found a Unity code for sit-back-and-let-destruction-rain, so we sent it ahead of us in case it might clear the way a bit. Worked a charm.”
The boy guard muttered, “Uh, Tannor, is that what—”
“Shut up, Goren,” she snapped, and then she walked over to the table and brought up the ship’s programming. “We’re not Unity, either.” Tannor noticed the confusion on Relai’s face and clarified, “Anti-monarchy terrorists,” as she tapped her way into codes and subcodes.
“Here!” Tannor waved through layers of floating information, but Relai couldn’t make out what she meant. “See, this is the log of the work orders for energy and construction, and you can see how about three months ago there was a room dug out in one of the catacombs. Then here,” she enlarged a separate window, “they transferred a travel pod. It doesn’t say anything about an occupant; it says empty. They called it storage… but in these records, you see the room was receiving power and water the whole time. The right amount to run an occupied travel pod.”
She turned, adamant. “That’s where we found her. She’s been asleep for at least three months, maybe more.”
“What day is it?” Relai demanded.
“Proper Time 36-2-44. Earthan date is, ah, July something. Thirtieth?” Goren asked in the direction of his partner.
“Thirty-first. It’s July 31st.”
Relai felt dread eating up through her chest. “That means I’ve only been asleep for a little over two months. That doesn’t make sense.”
“I have an easy explanation: all of this is fake,” Milo said.
“Or—” Ky spoke up, then stopped.
Milo shifted forward. “Or what?”
“Her bone density. I was checking the medical scan of her body, and it showed a warning about lowered bone density. Lack of movement screws your bone health, and ships compensate for it but it’s not built into the pod, it’s the ship. If they kept her here on Earth—”
Relai interrupted him urgently. “What year is it?”
The two guards looked at each other, apprehensive and silent. She stood up. “What year is it?”
“By Earth’s count it’s the year 2015,” Tannor answered.
Ky bounced up and opened a window on the conference room wall showing the medical scan and they all saw the bone density readout. It didn’t take a medical officer to understand.
Relai sat back down.
“Fourteen months. I’ve been asleep for over a year?” She stared at her hands, clenched them into fists and then opened them. “No wonder I’ve been feeling so strange.”
“Can’t fake bone density,” Ky said.
“No, you can’t,” Milo answered in a hollow voice. He laid his gun down on the table and then he turned and looked at Relai.
Goren thought he might burst, and he’d been doing so well but he couldn’t help it—his brain was banging around his skull and he couldn’t take it anymore.
“YOU MEAN YOU HAVEN’T BEEN RULING AT ALL? WHO HAS BEEN IN CHARGE?! Did they kidnap you? We have to tell everyone! They won’t believe you, either! What are we going to do?”
The queen—no, the princess, she was Orist, not Mora—sat there with the whites of her eyes showing, not looking at anyone. Goren couldn’t believe that anyone would dare treat someone so revered, so important, so glorious, like a common victim. She was the next ruler of their whole side of the galaxy—the people loved her! Every artist used her as a subject at least once, and she’d been made into dolls for every year of her life growing up (his youngest sister had the first five). This woman was everything—glamorous, smart, so much more decisive than her father. She was the greatest leader the Vada Coalition had ever seen.
“Those bastards!” he raged. “Just wait until we get through with them! Wait, do you think it’s the Tennans behind this? But the whole thing has been about preparing to defend against them! I bet it’s those Gastredi jerkoffs. Or it could be the Oeylans, I always heard you can’t trust an Oeylan—”
“Goren, please!” Tannor exclaimed, “I can’t think with you rambling like that!” She flicked a finger toward Ky. “You: package all of that data into a relay and I’ll encrypt it. We can’t be the only ones with this proof. We’ll send it to Oliver Station for transmission to Arden and then, no matter what happens to us, at least the High Council will know what they did to her.”
“I’m capable of encryption, sprite,” Ky said. Then he turned his back to her and did as she ordered.
Tannor moved over to the princess, sat next to her in a chair, and put a hand on the rain-damp hair spread across her back. People from Kilani normally wouldn’t allow this kind of sudden contact, but Tannor was betting that Relai might see her as safe enough, considering everything that had happened. She could feel the knobs of the queen’s spine under her fingers.
Tannor leaned her head in and whispered, “I can pause everyone and put you in control of the ship. Just nod.”
Relai shook her head. Stared with blank eyes.
“I’m not in control.”
Tannor held herself back from cursing and forced herself up.
What did they have, then? Idiot, rotten, and rage.
That left her.
Goren was relieved to see that Tannor watched Ky closely, then added her left handprint to rush the message past the normal civilian scans. Unity terrorists might have stopped spaceship travel to and from Earth when they bombed Oliver Block, but outgoing message transmissions still worked. The sooner the High Council knew about this whole disaster, the better.
Then Ky came over and offered Goren his forearm, fingers curved to cup his elbow like any normal, respectful Ardenian might. “Goren, is it?”
“I’m not going to shake your arm!” Goren exclaimed. “That guy shot me in the leg!”
Milo cocked his head to the side. “I also punched you in the face. I’m sorry I had to shoot you, but it was necessary.”
“And the punch?” Goren demanded.
“Not sorry about that one.”
“Nope!” Ky shoved between the two of them before Goren got close enough to threaten him properly. “That’s all in the past! He’s young, he’ll forget about it eventually, and really,” he turned to Goren, “the swelling improves your face. My name is Bevn Kyro, call me Ky. This is Milo Hemm.”
Goren was NOT prepared to be friends. “Unity or not, you two still intended to—what? Kill her? Hold her for ransom? You’re still lowlife dirty criminals and it’s still my duty to arrest you.”
Milo sneered down at him from his bizarre, gargantuan height. “What, are you going to tie us up and carry us back to your little base?”
“No, we’re going to fly back and sort all of this out with the Captain!”
Tannor halted him with a hand on his arm. “Goren, we can’t just go back. Someone at the base was keeping the queen there, and we don’t know who.”
“At least two of you tried to kill her,” Milo said.
“Not us,” Tannor snapped.
“Tower guards are all the same.”
Goren went all tense and ready to fight, but Tannor didn’t back away a bit. Her family wasn’t anywhere near the greater class (Goren had checked up on her when she arrived on base… it wasn’t stalking, it was being prepared), but she carried herself like more than an equal. The woman had presence.
“No,” she bit back, “we are not. Some of our guards sat back and watched you two stroll in and attack, and if that’s what you call trying to kill her then it rots you more than us!”
“He—” the queen’s voice cut in. “He means they were really going to kill me. Not sit-back-and-watch, like your, uh, code said. Kill me. I think they almost did.”
No one had looked her way for a few moments; they all moved to hear what else she might have to say, but she turned her head and covered her mouth with the palm of one hand.
(Goren was a little lost, to be honest. If Tannor wasn’t Unity, what was she? Rude every time he tried to bring it up, that’s what.)
Milo paced down the room. “Two of your guards tried to assassinate the queen of the Vada Coalition. That is not what we are here to do. We came to bring her back to Arden to face the people. I have all of the evidence we need to accuse her in a public trial. We came to see justice done.”
“Ha!” Goren shouted, and Tannor laughed, too. He put himself between Orist and Milo so she wouldn’t have to lay eyes on this mongrel. “You committed treason when you attacked her. The queen is never unjust. The queen IS justice!”
“Ignoring that nonsense,” Ky interrupted, “let’s talk about the plan. Get to Arden? To hell with proving anything to anyone—she’s the rightful queen, after all. Power’s power.”
“Wait—” Orist stilled them with the crack in her voice. She’d squared herself at the head of the table like they were in a council meeting, except no one else was seated. “First. Tell me: where are my parents?”
For once, Goren bit his tongue. He hardly wanted to be the bearer of bad news—especially with how rotten her day was going anyway. He looked to Tannor.
Tannor was watching Ky watching Milo, and Milo was gripping the back of a chair, his face all in despair, his skin an ashen yellow.
No one wanted to say it.
Well, this was awkward.
Relai looked from face to face. Four people.
One, two, three, four.
She already knew.
Thick misery spread up from her heart and she recognized the feeling of dunking her head underwater, sinking down, water swelling around her throat and over her face.
Finally, Ky said it.
“Your father’s dead.” He spoke without emotion. “He was killed over a year ago, destroyed along with a fleet of Ardenians traveling to intercept the Tennans. He wanted to negotiate for peace, maybe trade, but they didn’t even make it from Arden’s atmosphere to Odys Block before someone set off bombs through the whole fleet. They call it the Overture Attack. Just after King Ayadas died, your mother disappeared. Everyone thinks she’s dead, too, but no one can find her so no one really knows. You mourned a little, I think. S’hard to remember; you weren’t high on my list of priorities at the time.
“Anyway, a Unity attack took out outgoing travel from Oliver Block, so you had to get on a spaceship and take the long way home. You’re, what? Maybe a year into the journey to Ketzal Block, now?” From the seat she’d taken at the word dead, Tannor nodded, rubbing the heel of her hand under her eye. Her knees wavered almost close enough to touch Relai’s.
You’ll be the death of us all, he used to say.
Relai forced herself blank.
“If I’m in deep sleep on a ship bound for Oeyla,” she said, “then my cousin Voresh Regnaniban must be serving as Regent.”
“No,” Ky said. “You’re awake, with a constant relay stream to the High Council. You’ve been ruling via transmissions like the one we just watched.”
“Except—” Milo began, but Ky took back the burden of words.
“Except you—the false you—lied to everyone. The queen stayed on Earth. Even the High Council doesn’t know.”
“Somebody knows, or you wouldn’t have found her,” Tannor said.
Ky exchanged a long look with Milo. “Yeah.”
Before Relai could face the implications behind that word, Ky continued. “You, Mora Aydor, claim to have evidence that it was Tennans hiding on Arden who killed your father. You froze travel between the provinces and then removed the governors as they protested. You put Regent Service guards in charge. Anyone might be hiding a Tennan, or sending information to the Tennans, or even shusasevati half-breeds working with them to overthrow humanity. No one says a free word.”
Ky’s eyes flashed to Milo. “Then Sol Hemm refused to export any more metalock, and you bombed Elik to rubble.”
“What do you mean, bombed?” The creeping horror in Tannor’s words dragged Relai’s attention over. She had blanched. “There were only, uh, maybe a few dozen casualties during the relocation—”
She trailed off as Milo’s fingers scratched marks in the headrest of the conference bay chair.
“Thousands, not dozens, died,” Ky said. “They’ve moved the rest to camps in other provinces and brought in new conscripts to work the mines. The newbies aren’t surviving well, of course, ‘cause no one knows how to work with metalock like—”
“Ky,” Milo choked out, his face twisted away from the group.
“Anyway.” Ky clenched his jaw, eyes hard and back to boring into Relai. “You’re building new ships and uniforms and weapons galore. You sent a big crop of soldiers off to meet the Tennans and when they’re slaughtered, which they will be, you’ll finally get Titus off their asses and onto their tech. You might even convince Gastred to come out and play.”
Like when she was a child cowering under a destructive tirade from her father, Relai found a single point and focused on it. Her eyes picked the buckle at the ankle of Milo’s boot. She stared.
She didn’t cry. She didn’t want to cry. She was underwater.
Ky finished: “War. It’s what you want.”
My father is gone.
“No,” she answered with a voice outside herself. “As you said, I’m still the rightful queen.”
The horror swelled too huge—and—
Relai couldn’t. She couldn’t.
The buckle might’ve been metasteel. Hard to tell.
She lifted her eyes. “There won’t be a war once I take my crown.”
“Good enough for me!” Ky turned to Milo. “What do you think?”
Milo dragged his arm over his eyes and shook his head. “Same goal,” he said. “We’re going back. I’ll do whatever it takes to bring down whoever’s been ruling.”
It didn’t sound like a vote of confidence in Relai’s favor, but she wasn’t looking for one.
My father is gone, she thought.