A gun smuggler inherits the throne in this Star Wars-style science fiction adventure from debut author K. B. Wagers. Full of action-packed space opera exploits and courtly conspiracy – not to mention an all-out galactic war – Behind the Throne will please fans of James S. A Corey, Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold, or anyone who wonders what would happen if a rogue like Han Solo were handed the keys to an empire . . .
Hail. Get up.
The voice cut through the nausea, sounding too much like my father. I suppose it made sense in some twisted way. If I were dead, it wasn’t completely illogical to be hearing the voice of a man who’d been shot in front of me twenty-one years ago.
The bitter tang of blood filled my mouth and nose when I inhaled, rusted iron and the awful smell of death. The stale air of a carrion house screamed of the violence that had taken place in my cargo bay, violence I couldn’t remember through the pounding of my head.
Hail, get up now.
Whoever’s voice was in my head, it was enough to make me move, or at least try to. I scrambled to my feet, pain stealing what grace the gods had gifted me. My boots—gorgeous red-black Holycon IVs I’d borrowed from a dead raider six months prior—slipped on the blood-slick metal. I went down hard, cracking my already abused face on the deck, and the world grayed out for a moment.
More pain flared when I tried to flop over onto my back and failed. All right. So—not dead. Because even now at my most cynical, I didn’t believe for an instant the gods let you still feel pain after you died. It just didn’t seem proper.
“Look at this mess.”
This voice was outside my head, which made it infinitely more dangerous. I froze facedown in what smelled like someone else’s guts.
Judging by the events filtering back into my brain, I suspected the guts belonged to my navigator. A vague memory of trying to strangle her with her own intestines flashed before my eyes. Memz had been a tough bitch. She’d landed a few good punches before I’d given up and broken her neck.
“Weekly saints preserve us.”
I heard several other curses from behind me, but the high, lilting call for the saints to my left was what caught my attention. It was edged with a Farian accent, and that was enough to keep me from moving.
Farians. An alien race who could kill or heal with a touch. The only thing that kept them from ruling the universe was some strange religious code enforced with a fanaticism privately envied by most governments. They had seven saints, one for each day of the week. It was the Thursday one, I think, who abhorred violence.
According to Farian scripture, he’d set an edict on their power. It was to be used for healing, not death. Killing people with their power drove Farians crazy. I’d never seen it firsthand, but the vids I’d seen had given me nightmares: grief-stricken, screaming Farians held down by their own comrades as an executioner put them out of their misery.
Not moving was a good idea. Anathema or not, there was always a chance this Farian was ghost-shit insane, and I didn’t have a gun.
“You claimed to sense a life sign, Sergeant.” A female voice several octaves lower than the Farian’s didn’t so much ask the question as pick up a previous conversation.
“Did, Cap. In this room. Only one,” the lilting voice replied. “That’s as close as I can pinpoint it.”
“Fine. Fan out and check through this”— the owner of the voice paused, but I resisted the urge to lift my head and see if she was looking around the cargo hold—“rubble,” she finished finally. “Sergeant Terass says one of these poor sods is alive. Figure out which one.”
I kept my eyes closed, counting the footsteps as my unwelcome guests fanned out around me. There were five people total, all moving with military precision. They were probably fucking mercs come to claim my ship. I hadn’t been able to figure out whom Portis—my bastard of a first officer—thought he was going to sell Sophie to when he started his little mutiny.
You mean when you killed him.
Grief dug razor claws into my throat, and I choked back a sob. Gods damn you, Portis. Why did you betray me?
Except I wasn’t entirely sure he’d been trying to kill me, or that I’d been the one to kill him in the end. My memory of the fight was as fuzzy as a Pasicol sheep and had teeth just as sharp. Trying to dredge up anything resembling coherency made the pain in my head turn on me with snarling fury.
I snarled back at it and it dove away, whimpering, into the recesses of my brain. There were more important matters at hand—like getting these bastards off my ship and getting the hell out of here.
Sliding my hand through the gelling blood on the floor, I wiggled my fingers deep into the thick, squishy mess. A spark of triumph flared to life when I closed my hand around the hilt of my combat knife. I knew it was mine because I felt the nick in the handle even through all the gore.
The day was a fucking waste, but at least I was armed.
The intruders moved past me. By some grace I’d ended up partially beneath the stairs and out of sight. I eased myself sideways, rolling over Portis’s torso and away from the abstract blood painting on the floor. I saw his profile, and all at once I wanted to kick him, curse his name, and drop to my knees and beg him not to leave.
There’s no time for this, Hail. You have to move. The voice I now recognized as my own damn survival instinct shouted at me with the crisp precision of an Imperial Drill Sergeant. I got my feet under me and rose into a crouch. My left leg protested the movement, but held my weight.
The strangers had their backs to me. I almost thanked the gods for it and then reminded myself there was nothing the gods of my home world had done for me lately. Portis had been the believer, not me. The dim emergency lighting might be just enough for me to slide into the shadows and make it to the door.
The ship’s AI wasn’t responding to my smati’s requests for information. At this point I couldn’t tell if I’d been hit by a disrupter that had shorted the hardware wired into my brain or if the problem was with Sophie. Either way it didn’t matter. I had to get to the bridge and access the computer manually. If I could space these jokers, I would be long gone before they finished imploding.
I backed straight into the sixth intruder before I had time to remind myself what If stood for.
He was hidden by the shadows I was trying to blend into, as still and silent as a ghost. He didn’t make a sound when I spun and drove my right hand into his ribs. The blue shimmer of his personal shield flared and I swore under my breath. It would smother any strike I threw at him, making the damage laughable. But the kinetic technology didn’t extend to his unprotected head, so I swung my left up toward his throat, blade first. He caught my wrist, twisting it back and away from his head.
I matched him in height, and judging by the surprised flaring of his dark eyes, we were nearly equal in strength. We stood locked for a stuttering heartbeat until he drove me back a step. Sophie’s emergency lighting made the silver tattoo on his left cheekbone glow red.
My heart stopped. The Imperial Star—an award of great prestige—was an intricate diamond pattern, the four spikes turned slightly widdershins. But what had my heart starting again and speeding up in panic was the twisted black emblem on his collar. He was an Imperial Tracker.
The curse slipped out before I could stop it—slipped out in the Old Tongue as my shock got the better of me. There was only one reason for a Tracker team to be here. The reason I’d spent the best part of twenty years avoiding anything to do with the Indranan Empire.
Oh, bugger me.
Trackers always worked in pairs, but I couldn’t break eye contact with this one to check for his partner. Instead I eased back a step, my mind racing for a way out of this horrible nightmare.
My captor smiled— a white flash of teeth against his dark skin, just enough to bring a dimple in his right cheek fluttering to life. The fingers around my wrist tightened, stopping my movement and adding a high note of pain to the symphony already in progress.
“Your Imperial Highness, I have no wish to hurt you. Please let go of the knife.”
Oh, bugger me.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied easily. “I’m just a gunrunner.”
He tapped a finger next to his eye, just missing the tattoo, and now I could see the silver shadow of augmentation in their dark depths. “I see who you really are. Don’t try to fool me.”
A stream of filth that rivaled any space pirate poured out of my mouth and blistered the air. The modifications I’d paid a fortune for after leaving home had stood up to every scanner in known space for the last twenty Indranan years, but of course they wouldn’t stand up to this one.
Trackers were fully augmented. Their smatis were top-of-the line. The DNA scanner had probably activated the moment he grabbed my wrist, and that, coupled with the devices in his eyes, had sealed my fate.
Bluffing wasn’t going to get me out of this. Which meant violence was my only option.
“Highness, please,” he repeated, his voice a curl of smoke wafting through the air. “Your empress-mother requests your presence.”
“Requests!” My voice cracked before I composed myself. “Are you kidding me? She fucking requests my presence?” I wrenched myself from his grasp and kicked him in the chest.
It was like kicking the dash when Sophie’s engines wouldn’t power up—painful and unproductive. Fucking shields. The Guard stepped back, his suit absorbing my blow with a faint blue shimmer as the field around him reacted to the impact.
Hard hands grabbed my upper arms.
There was the other Tracker.
I snapped my head back, hoping this one was as helmetless as his partner. The satisfying crunch of a broken nose mixed with startled cursing and told me I’d guessed correctly.
I spun and grabbed the man by the throat with one arm as I flipped the knife over in my hand and smiled a vicious smile at Tracker No. 1. “You come any closer and I’ll cut his throat from ear to ear.”
It was a good bluff as they went. I knew the Tracker wouldn’t risk his partner—couldn’t risk him. One of them died and it was likely the other would follow them into the Dark Mother’s embrace. It was the price of the connection, the bond that had been set when they were just children.
“I don’t know who you are or what you promised Memz to try and take my head, but it’s not going to happen today.”
“Highness, we weren’t responsible for this.” The Tracker took a step toward me.
“Back yourself off me and get the hell—”
The sound of phase rifles powering up cut off my snarl. Shit. I’d forgotten about the others.
“Hold.” The Tracker held up a hand. I dared a glance to my left and wasn’t surprised to see the others arrayed around us with their guns at the ready.
“Highness, your sisters are gone to temple,” he said formally. The words drove into my gut like a hot knife, and my grip on the semiconscious Tracker loosened.
Cire. Pace. Oh gods, no.
An image flashed in my mind—Cire, two years my senior, her raven-black curls flying behind her as she sprinted over the hand-painted tiles of our quarters. Cire chasing a tiny blond Pace, whose laugh was like the bronzed waterfalls in the palace square.
“Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, your empress-mother, and the whole of the empire need you to return home.”
“No.” I breathed the word, unsure if it was a denial of the formal command or of my sisters’ deaths.
I thought I saw some sympathy in the Tracker’s expression. He extended a hand toward me, unfurling his fingers in an impossibly graceful movement. Pale lavender smoke drifted across the space between us, slithering into my mouth and nose before I could jerk away.
“You fucking rat bast—”
I passed out before I could finish the curse, falling on top of the Tracker whose nose I’d just broken.
* * *
I awoke in the dark, my head still pounding, and muttered a vicious curse when I remembered the events that had put me here in the first place.
“Be at ease, Your Highness.”
The voice and the sudden light sent me rolling from the bed. I landed on my bare feet, settling immediately into a fighting stance as I swept the room with a quick glance. Two men watched me carefully—the one by the door was the Tracker I’d faced off with, and I could only assume the one on the opposite side of the bed was his partner.
There was no evidence of my head strike, which meant the Farian had healed him. This Tracker was a little shorter than me with bronze skin and eyes like the sand on Granzier. The gray-green color even shifted like those sparkling sands.
“Your Highness, we mean you no harm.” Tracker No. 2 had his hands up in a useless placating gesture; his polite tone and downcast head made my stomach turn.
Here you go, Hail, back to the pit. I answered his platitude with a snort and a cold glare at the Tracker by the door.
“I want my clothes, my boots, and my ship,” I replied with a wave of my hand at the drab gray tank and pants someone had dressed me in while I was unconscious. “My name is Cressen Stone. I don’t know who you think I am, but—”
“Liar.” Tracker No. 1’s voice was all smoke and heat, like the smoldering coals of a fire about to burst back into flame. It drifted lazily through the air, the taunt burning as it slammed into me.
I’d been away from home a long time, and I was well used to the way the rest of the universe operated—preferred it even—but to hear an insult delivered with such casualness from a man of the empire stunned me a little.
“Emmory.” Tracker No. 2 had raised his head, but didn’t look away from me as he issued the rebuke.
Not that it had much of an effect on his partner. Emmory kept his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes boring into mine. Finally, he gave me a small nod. The barest of required acknowledgments. “My apologies. You are a liar, Highness.”
“Dhatt,” Tracker No. 2 sighed at the ceiling, running his tongue over his teeth. Then he looked back at me with a surprisingly earnest smile. “Please forgive my partner, Your Highness. He’s not a people person.”
“Fine,” I said, only because I knew we wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t forgive the man. Inappropriate behavior or not, he’d been right. I was a liar, and we all knew it.
As Trackers, they’d have a file of my whole life. They would have studied me, gotten as deep into my head as humanly possible—all for the express purpose of hunting me down. I wondered briefly if they really knew why I left home, or if they had the sanitized version about me running away. Judging by the attitude, I guessed it was the latter.
“Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? We are here on a mission from your empress-mother. Do you promise to foreswear violence against me and my partner?”
I considered it, then shrugged. “I promise— for the moment,” I added, careful to keep from swearing an open-ended vow. “Who are you? You can’t keep me here.” I kept my voice as even and cool as I could, given the circumstances. “Bugger you, you bastards. My head hurts.” I pressed a hand to my temple as the pounding increased.
“Tell me about it,” Tracker No. 2 replied automatically. Then he winced. Apparently out of the two of them, he had some sense of propriety. “Sorry, Highness. The sapne was for your own safety.”
“Foul lavender smoke,” I muttered. I realized as he was apologizing that my head was the only thing that hurt. All my other aches and pains were gone and my mouth dropped open in shock. “You let that Farian touch me.”
“Sergeant Terass is fully vetted, Highness,” Emmory said. “There was no question of your safety in her care. Given the circumstances, we felt it was better to return you home in full health.”
I glared at him a moment, then transferred my gaze to the other man. “Who are you?”
“Apologies for my rudeness. I am Starzin Hafin, Your Highness, Level Five Tracker. This is my partner, Emmorlien Tresk. We’ve been sent to retrieve you and bring you home. You are needed.” Starzin was all palace formalities and proper folding of the hands. It was amazing how that immediately put my teeth on edge. I preferred Emmory’s hostility to the obeisance.
“Fine.” The chance of lying my way out of this had been nonexistent from the moment Emmory had touched me and gotten a verified reading. “What does Mother want with me? I’m having a hard time believing she just wants me back to have a chat about my sisters’ deaths. We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”
That was a bit of an understatement. Officially, I’d run away from home to avoid an arranged marriage just after my eighteenth birthday. Less officially, but still not approved by my mother, I’d left home to hunt the mysterious third man responsible for my father’s death.
My mystery man had vanished like coven smoke in a stiff breeze shortly after the first year away from home. And no matter how many feelers I’d put out over the years, I never got a good lead. I’d expected General Saito or Director Britlen to send Trackers after me when I told them I wasn’t coming home. I’d seen how the rest of the universe lived. It was far from perfect, but I’d sworn to myself I’d never go back to Indrana and her antiquated ways. I wasn’t willing to give up on my search for my father’s killer and had kept hunting him long after the trail had gone cold.
Both Trackers winced at my sharp words. I was trampling over every social convention possible—asking questions, being callous about my sisters’ deaths when all I really wanted was to scream out my agonized grief to the stars. I buried that desire as deep as it could go. Better that they thought I was a cold, heartless bitch rather than a grieving sister. Better for my chances of getting out of this mess with at least some of myself intact.
“Highness, your sisters have gone to temple.” Starzin’s voice was low and filled with pain. “You are the heir. It is vital you return home.”
His words slammed into me, burning like the ten thousand volts of a Solarian Conglomerate police Taser.
“What?” I gasped for breath. “No. Cire had a daughter, I saw her on the news. Atmikha is heir, not me.” My older sister’s only daughter should inherit the throne.
“Princess Atmikha was killed in the same explosion as her mother.”
The air rushed out of my lungs. Added grief for a niece I’d never known. One more log on the pyre set to burn my freedom to ashes. The hope I’d had of getting out of this mess was lost in that instant, and I couldn’t do anything but stare at Emmory in abject shock.
“Damn it, Emmory!”
At his partner’s sharp curse, Emmory looked away from me. I shoved my grief down with the rest of it and took the opportunity to glance around quickly for a weapon. There was a heavy metal bottle—probably water—on the bedside table. I inched toward it.
“She deserves to know, Zin,” he replied.
Zin shook his head, his eyes a little wild. It was too blunt a discussion about the dead. Talking about them could drag their souls back to their bodies, trap them here. Only a priest was supposed to speak of how they died and their names shouldn’t have been mentioned at all.
But Emmory had already started it, and I was twenty years absent from our social conventions and not in the mood to play the games required. I didn’t believe saying their names would do anything to my sisters. They were dead and gone.
Just like Portis.
I swallowed back the tears and fixed my eyes on Emmory. My niece and both my sisters dead added up to something ugly going on at home. Whatever my feelings for my mother and homeland were, my sisters had meant the world to me. It had killed me to leave them. Killed me even more to cut off all contact when I’d decided to disappear. I’d known the minute I chose to go with Hao that if anyone had heard me talking to my sisters and discovered who I was, they’d have killed me, or worse, tried to ransom me back to my mother. “How did Pace die?” My question hung, ragged, on the recycled air.
“Highness, it’s not for us to speak of how your sisters went to temple. You will need to speak with the priest.” Zin tried again to gain some control over the situation.
I wasn’t about to let it go so I ignored him and pinned Emmory with a fierce glare.
Portis had always told me I could kill a man with one look from my hazel eyes. According to him, they flared with green when I was angry, brighter than a dying star. He’d always had an overdramatic bent.
Emmory was as cool and calm as could be in the face of my determination, his face an expressionless mask.
“How did Pace die?” I repeated.
This time it was as if someone had sucked all the air out of the room. I stumbled back against the wall, sliding down to the floor when my knees gave out and refused to support my weight. Images of my sweet little sister dying the kind of vicious, blood-soaked death ebolenza caused made bile burn my throat. At least Cire and Ami had gone quick, but Pace . . .
There were only three people in the whole universe I’d wish that kind of death on—and not even my mother was on the list.
Certainly not Pace.
Ebolenza wasn’t a naturally occurring disease. It was biowarfare at its worst, and that my sister had died of it meant only one thing. Someone had killed her, too.
I snapped my eyes open just before Zin touched me and slapped his hand away. It felt even more stupid and petty when I spotted the confused hurt flickering in his eyes, but I stomped on those emotions as hard as I could. I couldn’t afford to let these people see any weakness. As Po‑Sin had always said: Show no fear. Not to friends, nor enemies, and certainly not to strangers.
The thought of my old gunrunner boss was enough to push me upright. I’d run guns for the most feared Cheng Gang Lord in the universe. I’d earned my keep, earned my own ship, and earned my reputation. All on my own. I wasn’t going to be welcomed home with open arms, and that worked fine for me. I could think of a thousand places I’d rather go than back into that gilded cage.
Scrambling to my feet, I spread my hands wide and gave the Trackers my best gunrunner smile. “So someone murdered my sisters and my niece. Tried to kill me, too, from the looks of it, unless I’m to believe this little mutiny was coincidental. Now Mother wants me to come home like a dutiful daughter. For what? So they can get a second crack at me? I’m not sure I want to go home and put my life on the line. What has the empire ever done for me?”
My diatribe shocked both men into silence—at least on the surface. I was willing to lay ten credits down they were having a heated conversation over the communication lines provided by their smati.
I moved casually to the bedside table and grabbed the bottle. Emmory stiffened, so I shot him a grin over my shoulder.
“Easy, Tracker, just thirsty.” Ignoring the cup, I drank straight from the bottle. Cool water, tinny with the familiar taste of onboard recycling, flowed over my tongue, erasing the lingering bitterness of the sleeping drug. I dropped my arm to my side, two fingers looped loosely around the neck of the bottle.
I didn’t know how I was going to get out of here. As the Trackers talked, I spun several scenarios and dismissed the mall. At this point I didn’t particularly want to kill either of them, whatever I’d threatened back on Sophie. They were just doing their job.
I could go home, find out who killed my sisters. That thought appealed to the anger in my gut. Revenge would be exacted for this—one way or another. However, I didn’t have to go to the palace for that. In fact, it would be easier if I weren’t trapped by protocol and the endless cowshit of royal requirements. I didn’t want to see my mother, and I really didn’t want to be the heir to the gods-damned throne of the Indranan Empire.
Discarding the idea of a frontal attack, I took another drink from the bottle and set it back down on the table. Crossing my arms over my chest, I leaned back against the wall and favored Emmory with a smile I hoped hid my frantic indecision.
“Look, Emmy—” His mouth tightened fractionally at the nickname and I was glad to see I could do something to needle that stone exterior. “I’ll give you my word. I’ll go see Mother, have a little talk with her. But I need clothes, and I’d much rather travel on my own ship.”
“We have clothes for you, Highness,” he replied, and an uncomfortable look scuttled across his sharply planed face.
“I want my clothes, Tracker, and my ship.”
“There are clothes in the wardrobe for you.” He gestured behind me. “I’m afraid your ship has been removed from the equation.”
“What?” An icy fist drove into my chest. “What did you do to Sophie?”Emmory shot Zin a sidelong glance before looking at the ceiling. “Several charges on the reactor. I saw to it myself. Your ship is space dust.”
“You blew up my ship?” Somehow I kept my voice even. I fisted my hands, blunt nails cutting into the skin. “The moment’s over, Tracker.”
The warning surprised me. I should have just taken my muchneeded advantage and struck, damn my oath to blazes. Gods, how easily I slid back into the social bindings of the empire. My hatred of them couldn’t overcome the conditioning. If we’d been anywhere else, I would have struck without warning.
Both men put their hands on their guns, nasty-looking Hessian 45s with a stun function worse than the SC models. For my part, I wished I hadn’t put down my only weapon.
“Highness, it was necessary to remove proof of your crime,” Zin explained.
Necessary. Not even back on planet locked in the confines of the palace yet and I was already sick to death of hearing that word. My things all gone. My Sophie gone. My—
“Wait, what? What crime? My gods-damned crew tried to kill me. I defended myself. What do you care if I killed a bunch of gunrunners?”
An inscrutable look I almost thought was pain flashed over Emmory’s face. “Portis was ITS, Highness. He was there to protect you—sworn to do so with his life. He wouldn’t have tried to kill you. He was trying to bring you home, nothing more.”
My laughter shocked them. “Portis was ITS. Emphasis on the was. They kicked him out.”
“Lies are easier to believe when they’re based on truth,” Zin replied softly. “Portis’s records reflected a banishment from service, Highness, but it was all for show. He was undercover, recruited by your BodyGuards and Director Britlen. It was necessary. The easiest way to keep you safe.”
For the third fucking time all the oxygen fled my lungs, faster than an open airlock in a vacuum. That’s why General Saito hadn’t argued with me, hadn’t sent Trackers after me. They’d had someone watching me all along. My Primary BodyGuard had sent Portis after me?
My brain pulled up the introductions I’d let slide by earlier. “Tresk. You said Emmory Tresk.”
I whipped my gaze from Zin to Emmory and back again, my mouth hanging open. They were lying to me; they had to be. Otherwise—
Oh, bugger me. My whole life had been a lie.
“Portis was my brother, Your Highness. He accepted a request for assistance from your Ekam and sacrificed a promising career to babysit you. He died so a spoiled princess could run away from her duty.” The derision and fury in Emmory’s reply were improper, but I couldn’t get past my whole foundation sliding out from underneath me like quicksand.
“Holy cowshit.” I spat the curse at them, grasping at my anger for protection from the grief. “Whatever Portis was doing there, he certainly wasn’t protecting me. Of course, we can’t prove any of it, can we? I can’t remember what happened and your Farian conveniently erased the evidence!”
There’d been a furrow cut into my hip from poorly aimed laser fire, and I was pretty sure Portis had broken a rib or two when he’d tackled me.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d even say he was trying to kill me.”
Emmory crossed the room so swiftly, I didn’t have time to react. He grabbed me by the throat and slammed me into the wall. I was so stunned by the assault that I didn’t retaliate.
I could almost see the reflection of my own hazel eyes in the glossy darkness of his.
“You will not speak a word of it, Highness. I won’t allow you to dishonor Portis’s memory with lies.” He was deadly serious, and full of fury, but his voice was as calm as if we were discussing the weather.
“Emmory!” Zin grabbed Emmory from behind, breaking his hold on me and spinning him around before I could come up with a reply. He pressed his forehead to Emmory’s, speaking to him in a low voice. Emmory replied back, his voice a growl, but he didn’t resist his partner’s restraint.
As I got my breath back, I tilted my head to the side and watched them curiously. I couldn’t quite tell if they were sleeping together or not, but it was fairly common practice among Trackers who weren’t related. It was obvious these two had been together for a long time. They’d know each other’s movements, each other’s thoughts, and could anticipate their reactions. It was the kind of relationship Portis and I had—or close to it anyway.
Zin finished with whatever he’d had to say and turned on me. “Your Highness, please forgive Emmory.”
I could only gape in shock at Zin when he folded his hands together and bowed low. His anxious, almost desperate apology tumbled into the air as if I were the Mother Destroyer Herself.
“Emmory’s family has endured years of believing Portis a traitor. Now they have the chance to know he was a hero. If you claim Portis tried to kill you, it will ruin everything he worked for, desecrate everything he gave up.” Zin dropped to a knee in front of me and held out his hands palms up. “Please do not take offense at his behavior.”
When he moved, I caught sight of Emmory staring at me. The look on his face was a decent mix of fear and anger. The fear wasn’t even for himself, though I could have him flayed alive for assaulting me, it was the fear that Portis’s name would be stained and forever reviled.
A sick stab of pain speared me in the gut as I realized just what was going on. Zin meant every word and was terrified that Emmory had crossed the line with me.
He had crossed the line, but I wasn’t some prissy noblewoman who saw a man punished for stepping out of line. The fact that he’d struck me, not once but several times, wasn’t even an issue as far as I was concerned. Someone else could make an issue of it if they chose.
What intrigued me was Emmory’s temper and his loyalty to his family. It was a failing I could possibly use later. Right now, I had to address Zin’s concerns.
I had my pride, but it wasn’t worth a man’s life.
Walking around Zin, I stopped toe to toe with Emmory and studied him for a moment.
“The next time you grab me,” I said, “be prepared. Because I will make you pay for it.”
“Highness.” There might have been a flicker of respect in his eyes, or I might have been deluding myself.
“Get out of here,” I snarled. “Both of you get out of here before—” I chopped off the threat. If I gave voice to my fury, I’d have to follow through, and though I was angry, I didn’t like my odds in a fight against these men. At least not right now.
Zin looked like he wanted to say something, but he dipped his head and turned for the door. Emmory gave a little half bow, never taking his eyes off me as he backed toward the door.
“We’ll be floating into warp soon. It will take us about a day to return home, Highness,” he said and the door slid shut behind him.