Read a sample from AFTER THE CROWN by K. B. Wagers
The action-packed, Star Wars-style sequel to Behind the Throne, a new space adventure series from author K. B. Wagers
The execution site was an unremarkable building in the government sector across town. The room went quiet and the rolling murmurs on the air vanished when I walked in with my BodyGuards around me. We were a week out from the coup attempt that had taken the lives of too many of my Guards, and my teams were still in disarray. So both my Ekam and Dve, Emmory and Cas, stood at my sides. Zin, Willimet, and Kisah were behind us.
I was dressed in a black, military-style uniform—no sari, no mourning powder streaked across my face. It was a deliberate statement about the traitors whose deaths I’d come to witness: my cousin Ganda and my former nephew Laabh.
Everyone in the room either dropped into a curtsy or bowed low.
“Everyone up, please.” I moved across the room, exchanging greetings with the judge, the lawyers, and the police.
“Majesty.” Prime Minister Eha Phanin executed his perfect bow and held a palm out to me in greeting. “We are glad to see you well.”
“You also, Eha; I was relieved to hear you weren’t injured in the chaos.”
Phanin waved a long-fingered hand in the air. “I was in my offices when the incident occurred. Thankfully we went into lockdown and I don’t think I was on their list of targets, given how unimportant my position is.”
I didn’t have a good reply for that. Technically he was the head of the General Assembly, but the political body was more for show than anything. Phanin had no real power in the governing of Indrana. He was there to placate the masses.
Even if I was going to change that, it wasn’t something I was going to say out loud.
“Your Majesty.” Two naval officers approached, saving me from the awkward situation. Phanin murmured his good-bye and stepped away.
“Commander Timu Stravinski.” The commander was a man with graying hair at his temples and clear gray eyes. He saluted me and nodded to Emmory.
The young woman with him was barely eighteen. Her eyes were dark blue and her blond hair was twisted up into a smart knot off the collar of her naval uniform. I knew who she was before she said her name. My cousin. A member of my family—same as the woman I was about to kill.
“First Lieutenant Jaya Naidu, ma’am.” She saluted me.
“Lieutenant.” Ganda’s little sister wasn’t the spitting image of her treacherous sibling, but I could see the resemblance and I felt Emmory brace for a scene.
“I volunteered to witness, Your Majesty. To spare my parents further pain. They have removed the traitor’s name from the family tree. I am not here for sympathy or to ease her passing. I’m only here to see justice done.” Jaya bowed sharply.
“Give your parents my condolences,” I said. I had seen my aunt several times during matriarch council meetings, but hadn’t spoken to her. I hadn’t seen my uncle since before I left home. I remembered my mother’s only brother as a kind man with a gentle face.
“My family is loyal to you, Majesty.”
“Of course. Thank you.” I murmured the reply because I couldn’t think of anything better to say. Lieutenant Naidu nodded again and left me alone.
There was no one here for Laabh except his lawyer, who bowed low in front of me. My nephew’s father was gone, fled to the Saxons. His mother and sister lay dead from a bomb he helped radical Upjas plant. Leena’s family had already washed their hands of him, lest the displeasure of the throne splash back on them. There was no one left for quiet denunciations and murmured declarations of loyalty. I was the only family he had left, and just this morning I’d issued the order to wipe his name from our records forever.
I spotted Leena Surakesh when she slipped in through the door, already dressed in widow’s white. There were circles under my niece‑in‑law’s eyes, and she gripped her sari so tightly that her knuckles stood out in stark relief against her skin. What had been a social coup for her was now a nightmare.
Murmuring my apology to Laabh’s lawyer, I crossed to the door and pulled Leena into a hug before she curtsied. She froze, startled, and then clung for a moment.
“I left Taran at home,” she said as she stepped away. “I didn’t think it was appropriate. He doesn’t understand what’s happening.”
“That was a wise choice. Leena, he’s still my family. Whatever he did, it was because of his brother. We don’t hold Taran accountable.”
We’d retrieved some of the data from Dr. Satir’s smati and it corroborated Laabh’s story that the Amanita virosa indus had been slipped to Mother in the weekly gift of lokum Taran brought her. I had to contend with the idea that Dr. Satir might have known about the drug, though that secret died with her. There were no records of the treat being scanned when it was brought, and my suspicions over Mother’s still-missing Ekam’s involvement in this whole mess ran high. Bial was a puzzle for another day. He’d fled Pashati the day of the attempted coup after saving my life.
“Please don’t take him, Majesty. I’ve come to care for Taran.”
“I have no plans for that, Leena. I received your mother’s petition and I concur that the best place for him is out of the public eye. Taran will stay with you.”
Leena’s eyes strayed over my shoulder toward the chamber on the far side of the room. “I loved my husband once. I’d thought he could be so much more.”
“That’s not a crime,” I replied, watching as the bailiff escorted Laabh and Ganda into the chamber. “You’ve never seen anyone die, have you?”
“No, I—no, Majesty.”
I took her gently by the shoulders. “There’s no shame in looking away. This way is quieter than most, but you’re still watching someone’s life vanish in front of you. It changes a person to witness it.”
“You’ve seen it.”
I felt the smile flicker to life at the corner of my mouth. “More times than a person should.”
“Then I will be strong like you, Majesty.”
I didn’t know how to tell her that strength had nothing to do with it. That even the strongest woke up in the middle of the night covered in sweat—remembering. So I let her go and looked at Willimet. “If she needs to leave, go with her.”
“Your Imperial Majesty and the others in attendance.” The judge was a tall, slender woman named Sita Claremont. She addressed the small crowd as the technicians strapped Ganda and Laabh onto the tables in the chamber. The sound of their work was muffled by the glass partition separating us. “We’re here today to see justice done in the matter of the Empire of Indrana versus Ganda Rhonwen Naidu and Laabh Albin.”
Laabh was calm, his dark eyes still burning with fanatical hatred when they met mine. Ganda was less calm, her eyes darting around the room and her breath coming high and fast in her chest as the table was tilted slightly up so we could see her face.
Judge Claremont turned to look at the prisoners behind the glass. “You have both been found guilty, through evidence and your own confessions, of waging war against the state, direct participation in regicide, attempted regicide, and treason. Your right to trial was dismissed at the empress’s pleasure. It is the empress’s wish that on this day you take your last breaths and let the Dark Mother have her justice over you.”
Ganda flinched. Laabh remained perfectly still.
“Your Imperial Majesty, is there any mercy in you for these two traitors?”
I’d known the judge’s question was coming. The palace had been inundated with calls and messages about the execution. I’d read most of them and answered several of the calls personally. The one from Amnesty Galactic had been the most interesting.
In the end, I couldn’t let it influence my decision. We had written confessions from each of them about their involvement in the deaths, and no matter my personal feelings on the matter, that was enough to condemn them.
Plus I knew better than to leave a living enemy behind me. I’d learned that lesson the hard way from Po‑Sin, the gunrunning gang leader and my former employer.
“There is not.”
“Very well.” Judge Claremont nodded. “Do the condemned have anything to say?”
“I did what I had to for the good of the empire.” Ganda’s voice didn’t ring with the same conviction as my mother’s Ekam when he’d claimed the same thing. “The empress turned us belly‑up to the Saxons and drove this empire into the ground. Now you’ll all allow that trash upon the throne. A criminal, a self-admitted gunrunner! She’s not worthy of your respect or your loyalty!”
I kept my face blank as she railed. I wasn’t ashamed of the things I’d done after I left home.
“If you didn’t want me to come back, Ganda, you shouldn’t have killed my sisters. Cire should have been empress, or her daughter, or even Pace. All of them would have been a better choice than I am. It’s your conspiracy, your treachery that put me here.”
“No.” Ganda shook her head, tears rolling down her face, but she didn’t have any argument to make that would have swayed anyone’s sympathy.
Laabh lifted his chin, the haughty look unable to fully hide the fear in his eyes. “You will all regret this,” he said. “We see farther than you can imagine, and our plans are far more glorious than this piddling empire. You won’t live through the next spin of the planet around the sun, you gunrunning whore.”
There were gasps of outrage in the room. I crossed my arms over my chest and met Laabh’s glare with a cold smile. “You won’t live to see them fail,” I replied.
Whatever he shouted in reply was cut off by Judge Claremont’s quick gesture. The com system was deactivated and the two technicians in the room donned their helmets as the tables were lowered once more.
Nitrogen asphyxiation had been the preferred method of execution in the empire for thousands of years. It was a quick and painless method, but as I’d pointed out to Leena, it was still taking another human life.
The lights on the wall of the chamber flashed, and at Judge Claremont’s nod the technicians threw the switch. The air circulators in the chamber sucked the oxygen out, replacing it with pure nitrogen.
Laabh was unconscious in under a minute with Ganda quickly following suit as the oxygen in their lungs and then their blood was replaced with nitrogen. The hypoxia that followed would cause brain death in a matter of moments.
I’d seen messier deaths and been directly involved in more than a few of them myself. This wasn’t even the first time I’d stood on the other side of a glass window and watched people die, but there was undoubtedly something cold about these quick and silent deaths. It felt weird, clinical. It made me uneasy.
I watched their chests rise and fall, breaths growing shallower as the heartbeats on the monitors above the tables slowed. Laabh convulsed, and Leena’s choked sob echoed through the room.
“Uie Maa. Take her outside, Will,” I murmured without looking away from the people dying in front of me.
The shrill tone of the flatline indicating brain activity had ceased sounded through the speakers after Willimet ushered Leena out the door, as first Laabh’s and then Ganda’s brain shut down. The masked techs moved around the tables, efficiently checking their patients and passing the information along to Judge Claremont.
“Brain death confirmed,” she announced. “Heart death to follow in approximately three minutes.”
The flatline tone had been turned off with the confirmation, so we all stood in silence again as we waited for the final words from the techs. The one at Laabh’s side turned and nodded once, but I didn’t release the breath I was holding until Ganda’s tech nodded also.
“Heart death confirmed. Execution sentence carried out at 2253 Capital Standard Time. Let the record reflect that justice has been served.”
“Majesty.” Emmory’s voice held a hint of warning when I stepped up to the glass.
“There is ash on the air. Spiraling higher. We are cut down by sunlight. Mother Destroyer finds mercy in the taste of our skin.” The words of the poem spilled from my lips in a whisper.
“Cas, we’re moving, have them bring the car around.” Emmory put a hand on my back. “Majesty, it’s time to go.”
I turned away from the glass, not in the mood to argue with him. With a final nod at the people assembled, I let my Body-Guards whisk me away from that place of death and back to the palace.
* * *
I made a beeline for the liquor cabinet by the fireplace and poured from the first bottle I grabbed. Fire blossomed in my chest, melting some of the ice lodged there, so I poured another shot and tossed it back.
“Not the time to chastise me, Zin.”
“Actually, I’m kind of wishing I weren’t on duty,” my Ekam’s husband replied with a smile. “You probably want to be careful though. You didn’t eat much at dinner.”
I paused in the act of pouring a third glass and gave him a look. “Is that part of your job now? Monitoring my food intake?”
“That’s always been part of my job. I’m just mentioning it now because a third shot of Calasian whiskey on an empty stomach will probably put you on your ass—Majesty.”
Snorting with laughter, I took my glass and sat down on the couch. “I could drink you under the table, Tracker.”
“Don’t even think about it, Zin,” Emmory said. “First off, you’re not having a drinking contest with the empress. Secondly, she probably can outdrink you. You’re good but you’re not in the same league as someone who drank a squad of Hyperion Royal Marines unconscious.”
“I thought that story wasn’t true.” Zin raised an eyebrow at me.
“Partially.” I saluted him with my glass and winked. “Two. There were only two and it was a close call. And don’t think I don’t realize what you’re up to.”
“Who, us?” Zin grinned at me.
“I have to do that again tomorrow. Shiva, that was cold.” My good humor abruptly vanished and I stared into the swirl of golden-brown liquor in my glass. At least my former Body-Guard’s execution would be less public.
“Yes, you do. It’s necessary, Majesty.”
“Doesn’t make it any easier.”
“I’d worry about you if it were easy.” Emmory sat down across from me with his hands braced on his knees. “That’s not the only thing that’s bothering you though, is it?”
“They deserved it,” I said, unblinking.
“They killed my mother, my sisters, Jet, Ramani. Too many others, Emmory. I’m not sorry for what just happened. I swore I’d find the people responsible for this and make them pay.”
The whiskey disappeared in a swallow and I set the glass down with the careful precision of someone who’d had just a little too much to drink.
“Bugger me.” I muttered the curse under my breath. “Not a word.” I held up a hand in Zin’s direction as I got to my feet and swayed a little. “Not a single word.”
“What upsets you, ma’am?” Emmory prompted. “The fact that you’re sorry for the necessity of killing or that you’re not sorry?”
“Next time I’m just pulling the trigger myself. It’s easier than standing there and letting someone else do my dirty work.”
“Answer the question.” The snap of command in his voice did the trick, and I whirled on my Ekam.
“Damn you! I don’t know!” I shouted. “I’m supposed to be sorry, aren’t I? Isn’t that what civilized people feel when they watch someone die right in front of them? Especially like that, all trussed up and helpless? I could have granted clemency. We had the information we needed from them. I had the power of forgiveness in my hands and I could have just let them live out their days in a cell. I’ve spent the whole gods-damned week talking to people who thought I should.
“But standing there, all I could think of was how I’d promised my sisters I’d find the people responsible and make them pay. All I could remember was Po‑Sin breaking my leg after I turned my back on a Yakuza who was still alive.” A curious amusement swelled as I remembered. “He shot the man first, then taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten about turning my back on my enemies. I don’t leave living enemies behind me, Emmy. Ever.”
Zin made a noise that sounded like I’d punched him. Emmory, in contrast, went still. He never broke eye contact with me, but I’d gotten better at seeing the signs of their background conversations.
Our smati, the array of five microscopic chips inserted into key areas of the brain, used our own neurons and pathways as power and conduits to create a permanent interface. It allowed for communication, visual and audio recordings, even photography with the right tech installed in one’s fingertips or palm. The device had a massive storage capacity, and for the right price a host of other handy applications.
The range had improved over the years, going from just a few meters to over a hundred on the military models. Anything past that required access to a communication array.
For Emmory and Zin, it improved upon a relationship already honed by years of working together.
I let it drag on for a minute or so. “Are you two finished talking about me?”
“Zin objects to Po‑Sin’s teaching methods, ma’am.”
“He wouldn’t be the first,” I replied, and sank back down on the arm of the rose-colored couch. “Hao was furious and I thought for sure Portis was going to kill him. The pain was—” I fumbled for words to describe it. “I’d screwed up though and almost got killed because of it. It was a good lesson to learn. I’ve never made that mistake again. I’m a gods-awful noble, Emmory, more comfortable in drinking contests and tavern brawls than I am at court.”
“You are the Empress of Indrana,” he said quietly.
“More’s the pity,” I shot back. “Right now I’d rather go back to being a gunrunner.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” And just like that, the man I’d known for less than an Indranan month read me so easily and so completely that all I could do was stare at him.
I’d made my choice to stay, and whatever liquor-fueled words came off my tongue didn’t change that. “Fine. I wouldn’t.” It was the closest I’d come to admitting he was right. Getting to my feet, I debated the wisdom of having another drink before deciding I really didn’t want to be hungover tomorrow. “I’m going to bed.”
“I’ll send Stasia in, Majesty.”
“I don’t need her,” I replied. My maid was too kind and the thought of exposing her to my sharpness didn’t sit well with me. I closed my bedroom door, stripped out of my clothes, and crawled into bed. Within moments I was asleep, but my dreams were filled with death and pain and I woke in a pool of moonlight and sweat.
I got out of bed, wrapping myself in my robe, and leaned against the windowsill. The moon was high in the sky, beaming through the stained-glass windows.
“Come in,” I said to the expected knock on my door.
“Majesty?” Zin, as usual, was the one to check on me, and I didn’t look away from the moon as I waved him into the room. “Are you all right?”
“Just another dream. I’m getting used to them,” I lied.
“You shouldn’t have to, ma’am. We could see if Dr. Ganjen can give you something to help you sleep.”
“I’m fine, Zin.” I turned from the window with a smile.
“Do you want me to send Stasia in with something to drink?”
“I want to know what Laabh was talking about when he said ‘our plans.’ ” I grabbed the poker and jabbed at the coals before throwing another log on them and sitting in my chair. The flames crawled along the edge of the wood, gaining strength as they found more fuel. “This isn’t over, Zin. It might never be over.”
“We all signed on for the long haul, Majesty, if that’s whatyou’re worried about.”
I laughed but didn’t look away from the fire. “I’m not worried about you, or Emmory, or any of the BodyGuards who survived.” Thoughts of Jet and the others brought a sharp pain in my chest and fisted a hand against my stomach. “I don’t know who to trust, Zin. If this spreads as far as Laabh claimed, who can we trust?”
“I don’t know, Majesty. I promise we’re looking into it. Every contact he had, every meeting and com link, every single person who came within two meters of the man is on our radar.” Zin knelt next to my chair. “If they truly do have a plan, they’ll have to move on it and we’ll be ready for them.”
“I need something to do.”
“Right now? Sleep, Majesty. You need the rest.” He got to his feet and offered me his hand.
“Dhatt. You’re as much a bully as Emmory.” I sighed but took it and let him usher me back to bed.
“Good night, Majesty. I’ll see you in the morning.”