There Before the Chaos begins a fresh, pulse-pounding space opera series from an exciting new voice in science fiction.
“Are you sure I can’t shoot him?” Crown Princess Alice Gohil, heir to the throne of Indrana, sighed with such exasperation that it took me a full minute before my surprised laughter echoed through the room.
I was the one with the royal blood, the second daughter of Mercedes Aadita Constance Bristol, and yet my time in the black as a gunrunner—first for one of the most dangerous gangs out there and then as the captain of my own crew—had made me something of an anomaly among the noble families of Indrana.
Alice, by contrast, had been born and bred to take over the leadership of her family from the moment she’d taken her first breath. It had been one of my many reasons for choosing her as my heir.
Six months of daily interaction with me was starting to show on Alice, as evidenced by her entirely improper suggestion. I figured Indrana deserved it for dragging me back to the home I’d run from all those years ago. The Hail they got back wasn’t a princess, she was a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed gunrunner with all sorts of crimes under her belt.
“I’m just asking.” Alice’s grin was wicked.
I shook my head with a smile and held my hands up. “I am not taking the blame from Nila if you do that, I want that on the record now.”
“Who are you and what have you done with my empress?” Alice laughed at my look and held her hands up, pressing them together and shaking them in my direction. “Okay, I surrender. I promise I’ll behave at the dinner. I wish we didn’t need this deal to go through. He’s so oily.”
“I don’t disagree with you. Mr. Hanson is, ugh.” I shuddered. “Emmory doesn’t like him either.” Ignoring my half-finished breakfast in favor of my blue chai, I mulled over the truth of Alice’s words. However, I also knew that my personal dislike of one Mr. Peter Hanson—and honestly it was just a combination of his face and my gut instinct—wasn’t enough to throw away this impending deal with one of the largest businesses from the Solarian Conglomerate.
A deal we needed to get Indrana out of this financial hole the last few years had put us in. My return home hadn’t been a triumphant one, but rather a wild mess of murder, attempted assassination, partially successful coups, and having to fight tooth and nail to recover the throne of Indrana from the hands of a man who’d been determined to see my whole family and the empire itself burned to ashes.
The Indranan Stock Exchange was already responding favorably to the news of the deal and yesterday had posted its highest closing level since before the end of the Saxon war. The steady improvements had started almost immediately after my victory over the attempted coup and the traitors who’d taken my throne.
“However, Penib Industries is a highly respected corporation, and allowing them to build several thousand factories across the empire plus the mining rights they’re willing to pay us for is a huge win. We need this, you know we do.”
“It never fails to amaze me how you just settled into this, Hail,” Alice continued with a smile of her own, and set her cup down by her plate with a sigh. “You really need to stop discussing politics with your Ekam, though.” The rebuke carried little heat, and I ignored it the same way I had for the last six months.
I was settling into the role fate had assigned me, and while I was privately surprised at how well the last six months had gone, a tiny part of me was still convinced everything was going to go to shit in the blink of an eye. I was the only choice to save Indrana from the fires of war and the desperate destruction of men who’d wanted to overthrow the matriarchy, simply because I was the only member of my family still alive.
I’d named Alice my heir in an act of desperation that had provided temporary relief about the question of succession and then married her off to my childhood friend Tazerion before the dust had settled from the devastating coup that had nearly brought Indrana to her knees.
There’d been less fallout from that than I’d expected, given Taz’s status as the head of the Upjas—a sect of rebels who’d fought my mother’s government almost her entire reign. Their calls for gender and class equality were still raising eyebrows, but I’d granted amnesty to Taz and as many of the Upjas as I could in exchange for their assistance during the war and their help in rebuilding Indrana after.
I was empress, and would remain so until I felt their daughter could take the throne. Alice and Taz were popular with the people but she wasn’t from my family, and he was a rebel. With peace a reality just over the horizon, they were little more than the parents of the future empress. Unless, Shiva forbid, something happened to me in the next several decades.
Thankfully my chosen heir was a consummate politician and had understood her role even better than I in the beginning.
Her temper was also better, or it used to be. I was fairly sure she was only joking about shooting the head of Penib Industries.
Despite Alice’s initial protests over the dubious honor I’d bestowed upon her, she’d been invaluable at juggling an endless list of acts and deals and appointments as we cleaned out the government of anyone who’d been associated with the former prime minister Eha Phanin.
Phanin was dead. Wilson, the man ultimately responsible for the coup and for the deaths of too many Indranans—including my entire family—was dead. My hand tightened of its own accord around my mug, and I had to force myself to release it even though crushing the sturdy ceramic cup would have been an impressive feat.
I was still alive and that was supposed to be victory enough.
“Hail?” Alice asked, her voice laced with concern.
“I’m fine.” I forced a smile. “Just remembering. So, the dinner with Penib is in a few days, but it’s all under control?”
“Yes. I know you have a lot to deal with because of the Saxons arriving for the treaty signing, but I appreciate you spearheading this also.” Alice pushed to her feet, hissing a little at the effort, and my heir rubbed at her swollen belly. “Three more months.”
“You know I would have backed you if you’d wanted to go the tube route,” I said.
“You know they’re sticklers for that sort of thing.” Alice shook her head. “There’s enough fuss still bubbling about you naming me heir to begin with. Believe it or not, it’s easier to do it this way in the long run.” She smiled softly, her hand lingering on the place where her unborn daughter was growing. “Besides, I never thought I’d have the chance.”
Tubed-babies were common around the galaxy, but here on Indrana it would have been a step too far for the future empress to have been anything but a natural birth.
“It agrees with you,” I said, surprised by the softness of my voice. A well-placed gunshot on Candless, a dusty world on the edge of nowhere, had nearly killed me and killed any chances of me having children.
“Oh, shit, Hail, I’m—” She looked up, horror on her face, but I got to my own feet before she could apologize and wrapped her in a hug.
“I made peace with what happened to me a long time ago. Don’t apologize for your joy.”
At the time I’d just been glad to be alive, and the thought of children, let alone empires, hadn’t been on my scans at all. I’d been Cressen Stone, feared gunrunner, not Hailimi Bristol—second daughter of the empress of Indrana.
Now I was neither.
Now I was Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, Empress of Indrana, long may she reign. I snorted in amusement. Some days it was still hard to believe I wasn’t caught in an endless dream.
“Hail—” Alice hesitated at my look and whatever she’d been about to say went unspoken. Instead she smiled. “I should get going. I have a meeting across town before my doctor’s appointment and I don’t want to cut into your run time.”
“I appreciate it,” I said with a smile of my own. “Have a good day, I’ll talk to you later.”
I watched her leave, stopping to exchange a few words with my Dve, Gita Desai, at the door. The second‑in‑command of my BodyGuards was a lovely, statuesque woman with black curls a shade or two darker than her skin.
Gita had been one of my new BodyGuards when we’d traveled to Red Cliff for the first attempt at peace with the Saxon Kingdom. An attempt that had fallen well short when Wilson convinced a drug-addled King Trace to try to bring a building down on my head. Emmory had appointed her Dve after Cas’s death, a move that showed he was not only focused on my protection but politically savvy enough to appoint a woman as his second‑in‑command. Which was a large part of why I ignored anyone’s complaints about me discussing imperial business with my Ekam.
Gita was also the second daughter of the late Matriarch Clara Desai, a woman I’d deeply respected who’d backed me from the moment I’d been dragged back home. Matriarch Desai, like so many others, had been murdered by Wilson. It was a calculated move on his part designed to hurt me as much as possible and force me to come back to Pashati.
It was his own fault Wilson hadn’t counted on the rage I’d brought with me when I returned.
I could still remember the look in her eyes. Clara had been right in front of me on the com screen, but with light-years between us there’d been nothing for me to do except stand there while he killed her.
I had a sudden, desperate desire to resurrect Wilson from the dead so I could cut his throat with a wineglass again. If I messed with my schedule I’d have to cancel my run, and right now the movement was the only thing keeping me sane.
* * *
The wind gusted in off the Lakshitani Sea, battering at us with the sharp scent of salt and the spray of the waves. Golden streaks of sunlight cut through the city, lighting up the new skeleton of my palace. The sound of the crews already hard at work raising it from the ashes of Wilson’s explosion echoed through the early dawn air.
I dug deeper against the resistance of the sand under my bare feet, my stride matching Gita’s and Johar’s.
Johar had joined up with us when our flight from Wilson’s forces landed us at the pirate stronghold of Santa Pirata and she, along with Bakara Rai himself, had helped us take back Darshan Station in the Canafey system.
Intrigued by the idea of an empire run by women, Johar ended up coming back to Pashati rather than heading home with Rai after the battle for Canafey. For the moment the tall, pale woman with black hair and icy-blue eyes had made herself at home in my empire and I certainly enjoyed her company.
At the very least she kept the nobility of Indrana on their toes even more than I did.
I loved running the beach, and now that the wind coming off the water was no longer frigid, and the daylight ran longer, it was even more pleasant. It was also an excellent place to talk about things I didn’t want people overhearing.
Plus the steady breaths and the sound of the waves were a balm for my nerves.
The opposite was likely true for my primary BodyGuard and the rest of his people, but my Ekam indulged me in this habit because he knew keeping me cooped up in the hotel led to a restlessness that ended poorly. It spoke to Emmory’s trust, not only of me but of the other BodyGuards, that he let me outside at all.
Six months had passed since the end of a long and bloody coup that had taken the lives of my sisters and my mother. Almost a year since my Trackers had dragged me back to Indrana to take a throne I’d never had any interest in sitting on but had somehow managed to not only retain but turn into something of a success given Indrana’s precarious position in galactic politics.
I didn’t have a reason for my overtaxed nerves, not really. It had also been six months since anyone had tried to kill me, which was a blessing, I supposed. And though habit prevented me from truly letting my guard down, anyone involved with the coup was either locked up, dead, or long gone out of my empire.
I glanced at Johar. “What’s the news?”
Jo scratched at the black swath of a tattoo curling along her upper arm without breaking stride and squinted out at the water. “Things are weird. There’s a lot of talk about a big payday, but no one will fess up and tell me what it is. Invitation only, from what I’ve been told, and if you don’t have an invite you’re in the dark.”
“What’s Rai say about it?”
“Nothing.” She shook her head at my eyebrow. “He’s in the dark, or he’s lying to me.”
“He’d lie to his own mother if he thought he could get away with it,” I said.
“True.” Johar chuckled. “But last time he lied to me I cut off a toe and promised to go further up if he did it again.”
Gita choked on a laugh and I grinned. “Fair enough. I don’t like weird, Jo. It makes me nervous.”
“The fact that the Farians and Shen are tangling again makes me nervous,” she replied. “It’s been years since things frayed to the point of actual conflict. You know I was on Colony 17 when everything went to shit?”
“I did not know that.” I heard Gita whistle next to me. It didn’t surprise me that Johar had survived the notorious attack. She had made a name for herself for her uncanny ability not only to sense when things were about to go sideways but to somehow survive the shitstorm that usually followed as well.
“I was there to deliver a shipment, ended up cramming five families into my ship and running like hell.” Johar looked out over the ocean again, a faraway look in her blue eyes. “Word was the Shen were chasing someone—a Farian, I guess? I never heard anything more than that. They didn’t care in the slightest that there were a bunch of humans in the way. I don’t want to see what happens if they decide to really hammer at each other in our space.”
A chill worked up my spine despite the sunshine, and I suddenly felt the need to run. “Race?” I asked, and lengthened my stride, pulling away from Gita. Sensing rather than hearing her surprise, I knew the moment she adjusted her speed to keep up with me. It wasn’t that difficult; my Dve was as long-limbed as I was, nearly matching me in height, and she’d put on several kilos of muscle in the last six months.
Johar chuckled and passed us both, her long, loping strides powered by genetic and technological augmentations. I dug into my last reserve of strength in an effort to catch up, but Johar was the fastest of our trio.
We sprinted. The sound of the rising tide and our breaths mixed with the singing of the dolphins in Balhim Bay. Indranan dolphins were cousins to the ones back on Earth, their hides a darker gunmetal gray with unique white markings. They were also smarter than their Earth kin and sang sweet songs like a chorus of angels.
I slowed to a walk when we reached the jagged rocks and walked to the water’s edge to watch the dolphins leap and play in the rising sun. The trio of BodyGuards waiting for us approached, their conversation carried away by the breeze.
“I swear I will beat you one of these days,” Gita said, the breeze snatching her laughter away as she came to stand at my side. Her loose black curls danced in the breeze.
“Only when she stops cheating.” Johar dodged my swing. Her laughter was deeper than Gita’s, belly-deep and unapologetic.
“You won, how can you accuse me of cheating?”
Johar gave a shrug that said just like that? and grabbed for my arm on the next swing, but I dodged behind Gita, who held her hands up.
“Hiding behind your Dve is cheating,” Johar declared. “Zin, she’s cheating.”
I turned as Zin, Indula, and Iza reached us. The BodyGuards of Team One were splayed out in standard formation; Zin faced me while the other two kept their eyes in the opposite direction. They were all dressed in matte-black uniforms and wore Hessian 45s on their hips.
“You get used to it,” Starzin Hafin replied, a grin on his broad, handsome face.
Emmory’s husband was an imposing figure. The former Tracker was shorter than me with wide shoulders and a jovial face. His smile could light up a room and ignited his gray-green eyes with a twinkling quality I’d only seen in the sands of Granzier. If you didn’t know him well, you’d assume he was never serious, but I had seen his grim determination during our fight to regain my throne, and he was one among a handful of people I trusted without reservation.
“Cheating or not, I wasn’t sure I could keep up with you at the end there,” Gita said, her dark eyes sparkling with mirth as she took the towel Zin offered.
“It was a good sprint.” I faked a smile in Zin’s direction as he handed me a towel and scrubbed at my face. The fabric hid my worried frown as I replayed our conversation and my gut twisted at the thought of two powerful alien races going to war anywhere near humanity. The Shen and Farians could kill or heal with a touch. But the Farians were Indrana’s allies and had been for centuries, which meant any escalation of their long-standing conflict with the mysterious Shen potentially involved my empire.
“You are improving,” Johar said, knocking me out of my thoughts. “I don’t remember you being quite that fast before.”
“What are you talking about? I used to outrun you all the time.”
“I have no memory of this.” She sniffed, grinning when I punched her in the arm again.
“It occurs to me, Majesty,” Zin said. “If you’d wanted to get away from us you could have outrun Emmory and me. I can run well enough, but not that fast with this.” He gestured at his left leg, the prosthetic from the knee down hidden by his uniform pants. “And Emmory is fast, but you’re faster. Though if you tell him I said so I’ll deny it.”
Laughing for real this time, I threw the towel back at him and shrugged into the blue jacket Gita passed along as I pushed thoughts of the Farians and Shen to the back of my mind. “You know Emmory would have just shot me in the back, but I’ll remember it for my escape plan.”
“Uie Maa, you’re not leaving us now and we all know it,” Zin teased. He put a hand on my back as we headed for the aircar.
“You could definitely outrun Indula,” Iza said, her grin flashing white against her dark skin. “I’m not sure I could catch you in a short sprint, but my endurance is decent.”
“Hush, shorty,” Indula replied. He threw me a wink, long lashes falling over his pale blue eyes as he struggled to keep his smile from spreading over his pretty face.
This pair of Guards had come to us late, during the chaos of my return home and fight for my throne against my cousin. Iza had been a policewoman in the capitol, and Indula had been one of my mother’s BodyGuards. Initially they’d been on Team Two, but over the last six months Emmory had been shifting teams around as he solidified my BodyGuard teams with new recruits.
The three BodyGuards at the vehicle were all new. Muna Vandi was yet another volunteer from one of the noble families of Indrana, while Riddhi and Sahil Gupta came from more humble origins.
I knew their names now and even extra details not found in the BodyGuard files stored in my smati. The collection of computer chips embedded in my brain provided me with the information from the files Emmory had given me one night after a timely piece of advice Cas had managed to issue from beyond the grave.
It meant getting attached, and I wasn’t sure I could do that, but my former Dve insisted: I also know you’ ll have distanced yourself from your new BodyGuards to try to avoid the pain of losing them. Don’t. Make yourself vulnerable. Treat them the way you treated me, and Jet, and Will. It’s why we loved you, it’s why we didn’t hesitate when the moment came.
He’d been right and I’d been wrong and though it was hard, over the last six months I’d opened myself up to the women and men responsible for my safety even though it meant carrying around more pain in my heart when one of them died.
And they would, they always did. Just like Cas. Just like Portis.
I’d thought the man who’d rescued me from a gang of street punks on New Delhi was a rogue, a former member of the Imperial Tactical Squad, an arm of the Indranan military, who’d been dishonorably discharged for theft and smuggling. As it turned out, Portis Tresk had been sent by my childhood BodyGuards to keep me safe out in the black. His crimes were fake. His whole life given in the service of Indrana to keep a wayward princess safe. For twenty years he held to that charge. In the end it had cost him his life.
Zin closed a hand around my upper arm, squeezing gently and then letting me go. My Ekam and his husband had the benefit of their Tracker talents and a generous file on my gunrunning exploits provided for them when they’d hunted me down to explain their uncanny knowledge of my moods. However, they’d also proved to be quick studies of my body language, and it took more effort than it was worth for me to hide how I was feeling now.
I smiled and nodded to the two young women and lone young man standing by the car. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, Majesty,” they echoed.
“Riddhi, how’s your father doing?”
Riddhi replied before her brother did, a smile hovering on the edges of her full mouth. “He’s excellent, Majesty, thank you. He said the customers are coming more steadily.”
“Is he going to send more of that pandolce?” I didn’t even try to keep the little thread of hope out of my voice, and my BodyGuards laughed.
“I will mention to him you enjoyed it, Majesty.”
“You do that.” I winked at her. “Muna, how’s your mother?”
Muna’s mother was the daughter of Mila Vandi, the general in charge of the Imperial Tactical Squad, and she’d been injured during the fighting in the capital chasing down Wilson’s forces in the final engagement.
“She’s recovering. The doctors say she will be out of the hospital by next week.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” I patted her on the shoulder as I got into the aircar. “Tell her I’ll be by to visit soon.”
“I will, ma’am.” She closed the door with a smile.
I leaned my head back and spotted Johar grinning at me. “What?”
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re good at being an empress.”