The action-packed conclusion to the Indranan War space adventure series from author K. B. Wagers – perfect for fans of Star Wars
The impact of fist to bag echoed up through my arm. It was a rhythmic shock—one, one, two, backhand, two, elbow—in time with the beating of my broken heart.
Sweat dripped into my eyes, burning them. The sting wasn’t enough to erase the image of Clara Desai’s lifeless body sliding to the floor.
A matriarch of the empire. The head of the council; a woman who’d been there for my whole childhood and had welcomed me back home without the slightest hesitation. There had been no concern from Clara, of either my right or my ability to rule. Unlike so many others, she’d planted herself at my side and defended me.
She had defended me to the end and been loyal to me and to Indrana, even as she was slaughtered in front of my eyes by the same man who was responsible for the death of my whole family.
I snarled and slammed my fist into the bag again.
Wilson had engineered it all: from the assassination of my father more than twenty years ago, to the deaths of my sisters, my niece, and my mother.
A week ago he’d looked me in the eye and told me he wouldn’t stop the killing until everyone I cared about was dead.
Then he’d shot Clara.
One, one, two. Backhand, two, elbow. Elbow. I grabbed the bag and rammed my knee into it twice with a snarl of rage, only backing off to wipe the sweat from my face before I surged forward again.
The worst thing was I still didn’t know why. I didn’t know what my family had done to this man to engender such vicious fury in our direction.
Wilson was a ghost: a man with no real name, no real face, no real past. What was I? Gunrunner, Empress of Indrana; none of it seemed to matter. I was losing a game directed by a madman. Cressen Stone wouldn’t have let this happen. She would have stopped at nothing to exact justice, or get revenge. I was fast becoming a pale shadow of my former self, the best parts of me disappearing like ash in a stiff breeze.
I welcomed the pain as I slammed the side of my fist into the bag.
“How long has she been at that?” Zin asked the audience who sat a safe distance away from me.
“About an hour,” Cas replied.
“She looks ready to drop. Why haven’t you stopped her?”
“Don’t look at me,” Iza said. “I don’t want to get punched today.”
“Her Majesty’s care and feeding isn’t my area,” Hao replied, but the laughter in my former mentor’s voice was edged with the slightest hint of concern.
He was right to be concerned. Clara’s death had hit us all hard, drowning out our euphoria from our victory over the Saxon forces at Canafey and sending us into a depression we’d yet to recover from.
I spun, my bare heel slamming into the bag, knocking it loose from its mooring, and my Guards fell silent when it crashed to the floor.
I swung at Zin, my fist coming around in what would have been a brutal haymaker had it connected. As per usual, my BodyGuard leaned out of the way of my punch with an exhalation. He caught my wrist on its way by, guiding it past his expressionless face.
Fool that I was, I tried to hit him with my other hand as I sailed by him, but Zin was already gone, his grip on my wrist a fading memory. I spun, fists raised, and came at him again.
Zin stepped to the side, easily avoiding my punch. His hands were up, palms open and facing me. “You know I’m not going to fight you,” he said. His voice was too gentle, teasing aside the anger in my gut to get at the pain underneath. “Stop it.”
I stared at him and sucked in a lungful of air before I replied, “I can’t.”
If I stop I’ ll fall apart.
A sad smile flickered over his face. “I know, ma’am. Keep moving. Don’t stop. You’ll break apart in front of everyone and be no use at all. I know. I did just that when you needed me most. I failed you, ma’am. I know it. You know it. Emmory knows it. I chose him over you. His loyalty is endless. Mine, apparently, is not.”
“Damn it, Zin, we’ve been over this—”
He shook his head, and I swallowed back my words. I’d ordered him to stay with Emmory when my Ekam had been shot—killed, if we were being honest. The only reason Emmory was alive was because Fasé had brought him back to life. Without the Farian’s strange abilities, I’d be down not just one but two more of my BodyGuards. The thought made me ill.
Zin had done what I told him to do, but the cost to my BodyGuard’s confidence was written all over his face.
I dropped my hands, fists uncurling in surrender—or exhaustion, it was hard to tell.
“Majesty,” Zin said, his voice more formal. “Your Ekam would like to see you.”
I took the out he handed me along with the towel Hao passed over. I didn’t have the energy to fight with my BodyGuard and we both knew it. Zin could take me down even at my best, anyway, and right now I was far from my best. But I filed away the look in his eyes to bring up with Emmory later. We still had some downtime, and it was time best spent healing—for all of us.
The others formed up around us and the two Royal Marines inside the door of the gym snapped to attention, opening the doors as we approached.
My rock star status had gone through the roof since the battle of Canafey, and only someone truly insane would make an attempt on my life right now. That didn’t stop my Ekam from being excessively cautious.
Rumors swirled about my part in the fight on Darshan Station, despite my best attempts to downplay my involvement and turn the attention to Admiral Hassan and the real heroes of the fight. The “Gunrunner Empress” of Indrana was on everyone’s lips, and if Hao was to be believed, in everyone’s hearts.
However, no matter how suicidal an assassination attempt might be, my enemies had already proven their disregard for human life. Wilson would mow down a thousand of my people for the chance to kill me. Emmory wasn’t about to take any chances, and I couldn’t blame him for his caution.
He’d been startled by my lack of protest over the decision to move the command center to the planet, but it wasn’t much of an argument in my mind. Ships I could do, those at least moved around. But a space station was just a gigantic box in the sky—immobile and vulnerable. Darshan Station was even more so because of the damage from the fight to retake the system.
I needed the fresh air planetside.
Thankfully, it was springtime in the capital of Canafey Major. The mild weather was a blessing after frozen Pashati and the blackness of space, especially now that my customary nightmares had made their reappearance in the early-morning hours. Portis, Jet, Clara—there were far too many lives on my conscience. Too many people I hadn’t been able to save.
Most of the rubble in the governor’s mansion on Canafey Major had been cleaned up by the Saxons after their attack, and the surrender of the majority of the troops on the ground had happened without additional damage to the old structure. Saxon guerillas would test the palace defenses and lob ordnance in our direction every chance they got. It had made for a nerve-racking situation the first few days, but now it seemed like one more annoyance to deal with before I left.
I walked through the spotless corridors, the ghosts of paintings visible only in their absence on the walls and the empty cases with shattered glass panels telling the story of their missing contents.
“Majesty.” Stasia met me at the door of my temporary rooms. I’d refused to stay in Governor Phillus’s now-vacant quarters and so we were in the wing for visiting guests instead.
“Stasia. How is Fasé this morning?”
“Better, I think, ma’am. I haven’t seen her yet today, but Major Morri said she ate without a fuss.” Grief flickered for an instant in my maid’s smile, but it was gone as quick as a flame in the vacuum of space.
I’d almost lost Fasé, too. Bringing Emmory back to life violated a religious code of her people, and the crisis of faith nearly drove Fasé to suicide. My intervention had stopped her, but the repercussions likely went deeper than any of us could guess. She’d been unresponsive since the incident on Admiral Hassan’s ship, but the fact that she was eating was a good sign.
“Zin said you were coming, ma’am. I started a shower for you.”
Steam filled the bathroom. I stripped, and covered my hair before I stepped under the water because if I got it wet it would take us an extra hour to make it presentable.
In the safety of the shower, I queued up the playback of Clara’s death and watched it. I let the tears fall where the water hid their path down my face. It was the only place I cried. Since Clara’s death I hadn’t let so much as a single tear slip in front of another living soul. I needed to be strong for those around me, be the empress my mother, and Clara, and so many others believed I could be. Empresses didn’t weep in public, didn’t show emotion. Only in the safety of the water, with the sound to hide my weeping and the beating spray to wash the imaginary blood from my hands, could I cry.
Scrubbing at my skin never took all the blood off, no matter how hot I let the water get or how hard I rubbed. It wouldn’t ever get rid of it, of all the lives and deaths that I now carried with me.
I dried off and dressed in a brand-new uniform. The local black fabric of Canafey was rougher than the ones from the palace, but I was thankful we’d found replacements for the cobbled-together garb we’d all been wearing since Red Cliff. The uniform gave us cohesion even when we were spinning away from each other like planets in a newly formed solar system.
Unwinding the wrapping from my hair, I undid my braid and ran my fingers through the curls to give my scalp some air. I walked out of the bathroom.
And straight into an argument between Emmory and Zin. They were toe to toe, shoulders tense and mouths set in hard lines.
“That’s not the point I was trying to make and you know it.”
“It is exactly the point, Emmory, I—” Zin snapped his mouth shut when he spotted me. “Majesty, there’s food.”
“Thank you. Good morning, Emmory.” It seemed the safest thing to say.
“Majesty.” He inclined his shaved head in my direction. Emmorlien Haris Tresk didn’t show the slightest sign that he’d died on me only a few weeks ago. My primary BodyGuard’s shoulders were back to their ramrod stiffness, and his impassive face didn’t show the same worry for me that the others couldn’t hide.
I knew it was there, though. We both did. Right this moment I wasn’t entirely sure if the uneasy muscle twitch at his jaw was my fault or Zin’s. So I nodded, not looking their way as I sat in a ridiculously ornate chair with carved lion heads for arms. I mechanically chewed and swallowed, knowing my BodyGuards were watching and calculating every gram of food that passed my lips.
It was so much like my parents watching me to make sure I didn’t sneak my vegetables off onto Cire’s plate that I couldn’t stop the laugh. It quickly turned into a coughing fit when a piece of my toast went down the wrong way, but I waved everyone off.
“I’m fine.” I coughed again, finally clearing the wayward crumb, and pushed my plate away. Sipping at my chai, I watched Emmory over the rim of my cup. Zin turned his back on both of us and I raised an eyebrow that my Ekam ignored—mostly.
“Leave it alone, Majesty,” he subvocalized over our smatis.
The array of chips in our heads provided us with short-range communication without the aid of additional equipment, data storage, and a host of other abilities depending on make and model of the processors.
“It’s none of your concern.”
“My BodyGuards, my concern,” I replied, but didn’t pursue the matter further. For one, Zin was still in the room; for the other, Emmory would talk when he was ready. Or when I ran out of patience and made him.
I took socks and my new boots from Stasia, putting them on and then sitting still as she wove my green curls up into several looping twists.
“Zin, is Hao hanging around outside?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, Majesty. I believe he went to check on Gita.”
“Go see, would you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Zin dropped his head forward in a bow and left me alone with my maid and Ekam.
“So was that just an elaborate ruse to get me out of the gym?” I asked half an hour later as Stasia finished my hair. “Or did you actually have something to talk to me about?”
“I’ve officially picked five Royal Marines to add to your BodyGuard detail,” Emmory said. “We’ll start rotating them into the schedule this evening.”
“The same ones you’ve had on door duty?”
“Okay, files?” I held my hand out and Emmory brushed his palm over mine.
The door opened again, Zin and Hao entering.
Cheng Hao, my mentor from my gunrunning days, had saved us back on Red Cliff. I still hadn’t found out if his presence at a hidden landing pad on the planet had been a coincidence or not. I wasn’t given to the idea that the universe favored me in any fashion, so I was leaning toward not.
His uncle, Po‑Sin, was the most feared Cheng gang lord in the galaxy—a position he’d earned through uncompromising brutality and shrewd business sense. I’d enjoyed working for—and with—them both, though of the two I felt like Hao was less likely to stab me in the back.
I’d thought Hao would remind me I owed him a favor and head back to his uncle, but he’d stuck around for far longer than I’d expected. Hao and our other impromptu allies—the smuggler king Bakara Rai and his companion, Johar—made for a merry band of criminals. I figured Rai was hanging around because I owed him money. With Johar it was harder to tell—I think she really just enjoyed being around so many women.
“Brought you a gun,” he said, tossing a QLZ‑77 in my direction. I caught it neatly, grinning at him when he set the weapon packs on the table out of my reach.
“Better, Majesty. She’s responding to questions and I got a smile out of her,” Hao replied. The honorific still sounded strange coming out of his mouth, though he seemed quite at ease with it.
Whatever the level of my grief over Clara’s murder was, it was nothing compared to my BodyGuard’s.
Gita Desai was Clara’s second child, and her gasp of pain when her mother died still echoed in my head at night. She’d been catatonic for the last week, straining my already minimal BodyGuard coverage even further.
“Do you think she’s going to recover, or should we leave her here?”
“I think that depends on how long you are planning on staying in Canafey.”
I shared a look with Emmory. Hao knew damn well I didn’t have anything resembling a plan at the moment. Wilson, in collusion with Eha Phanin, my former prime minister, was presently in control of Pashati, Ashva, and half the worlds in the empire.
Meanwhile I had all the other planets, a fleet of ships—including forty-seven of our newest Vajrayana warships—and presumably the support of my people throughout the empire. Still, there were too many variables, too many unknowns, and I hadn’t had a moment to catch my breath, let alone plan something.
“We have time,” I said, knowing that wouldn’t fool Hao in the slightest. “Any news about Wilson?”
Hao shook his head. “Not yet, I’ve got a call incoming in about ten minutes. I’ll let you know after what they found.”
“Do that.” Because I could, I waved a hand at the door with a grin that Hao echoed.
“Majesty, if you’ll excuse me also, I need to give Indula a hand with something.” Zin followed Hao out of the room.
My Ekam watched the door, the frustration and pain surprisingly clear on his face, and I took another stab at proving my suspicions over what my Ekam and his husband were fighting about.
“How’s Zin?” I asked.
Emmory blinked at me. “Majesty, please.”
“Have you talked to him? He thinks he failed me, Emmory.”
“Yes, that.” I arched an eyebrow in his direction. “Was that what you two were talking about when I came in?”
He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face.
I wasn’t sure it was any kind of relief to have my suspicions about the ongoing argument between the two of them confirmed. Crossing the room, I leaned on the windowsill. “We’ve all been through the wringer, Emmy. Are we going to be able to get our shit together before we leave here?”
Emmory’s laugh was rusty and he joined me at the window. “To be honest, ma’am, have we had our shit together at all since we first met? I don’t know about you, but I feel like we’ve been winging it.”
“Good point.” I leaned against him and laughed. “I had plans, you just kept messing them up. At least in the beginning.”
“You mean that brilliant plan to steal a shuttle and try to run from a Jarita?”
I laughed. “Yeah, running from a battlecruiser in a shuttle was probably not my best plan, but I was pressed for time. How did you know I’d do that? I remember you saying Zin thought I would stay but that you knew me better.”
“I do,” Emmory said with a smile. “Portis said you wouldn’t come home willingly. I had nearly three months to study you before we met on Sophie.”
“And twenty years of Portis’s reports on me.” The pain was sharp, more so because I realized I hadn’t thought of Portis for a while. My lover, my BodyGuard, Emmory’s brother—Portis Tresk had been the best thing in my life since I’d left home, and his death had left a gaping hole I’d had no choice but to ignore in favor of more pressing issues.
Now the grief was fading without my ever having faced it, and I wasn’t sure if I welcomed its absence or if the void left behind was something far worse.
“You were his opposite in almost every way.” Warmth coated Emmory’s voice and he rested his hand over mine. “It got to where I could tell he was frustrated with you based on how carefully he chose his words.”
“He was less careful with his words in person. Ask Hao about it sometime,” I replied, and Emmory chuckled.
“I’m sure. The more I read his reports, the more I realized you were making choices that I would make.” He gave me a sideways glance. “If you’ll forgive me the familiarity, we are a lot alike.”
“There’s nothing to forgive and you know it. You’re also right about us. We make a pretty good team, the three of us.”
“I’ll tell Zin you said so.” He laughed. “He’ll be horrified. I’ll speak to him again, Majesty, about what happened on Red Cliff. I was trying to explain my thoughts to him earlier, but they just got tangled.”
“Tell him to forgive himself, and that’s an order from me.” I turned my hand over, linking my fingers with Emmory’s, and squeezed. “And forgive yourself for missing the clues about Phanin. I did, too.”
“It won’t happen again.”
I nodded. “Let’s go home, Ekam. I want my throne back.”
The door cracked open and Iza stuck her head in. “Majesty, Alba is here to see you.”
The low rumbling of explosions rattled the chamber, and I moved from the window before Emmory could move me. He tipped his head to the side as the report came in, but relaxed and shook his head with a smile. “Other side of the building, Majesty, we’re fine.”
“Send her in, Iza. You go on,” I said to Emmory. “I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do. If the shelling continues, I’ll go to the shelter like a good little empress.”
Emmory’s expression didn’t change. “Would your Majesty like a chance to meet the Marines before their duties officially start?”
“No.” I grinned, waving Alba into the room. “I’ll chat with them as they come into the rotation, Emmory. Thank you.”
He nodded at me and at Alba and left the room.
My chamberlain watched Emmory go with an expression that said she desperately wanted to ask what was going on.
Thankfully, her training kept her mouth shut and she gave me a quick bow, her raven-black braid swinging down with the movement. “Good morning, Majesty.”
“Have a seat, Alba. What have we got this morning?”
“Quite a bit, Majesty. I’ve got reports from governors on Baisl, Sumeria, and Taos about movement by Solarian forces. Admiral Hassan would like us to hold here at least a week to give her time to sort through personnel and to take care of what repairs we can manage in that time. Major Morri asked for some time this week to talk about Fasé. And there’s a sizable email queue to go through.”
“Pull up a chair, then,” I said with a smile. “Let’s get to work.”