Cosima refused to look at him. She did not say one word to him while she sawed off a piece of steak, her knife and fork scritching across her plate. Yes, the mood was awkward. What did she care? If Vince felt any pain over it, he could be the first one to speak. Because, sure as the void, it wasn’t going to be her.
The dining room was gorgeous—shimmering candelabras, vases of cascading orchids, open views of the night sky, and the ornately set table. Aside from the two servants in attendance, they had the whole place to themselves. She supposed it was meant to be romantic.
She stole a glance at Vincent. He quietly ate his dinner, not at all bothered by the silence. In fact, he looked relaxed, like he was enjoying every bite of his medium rare steak. Blast him.
What was he thinking? After she returned to the palace, she spent the rest of the afternoon wondering what they’d found at the site. Vince had seen it firsthand, and she wanted to hear all about it. But asking him about it meant talking to him, and talking to him would make him think everything was okay between them. And everything was definitely not okay. Didn’t he realize how much he had hurt her earlier by tossing her aside? And not just today—every day. Every freaking day he went off to get important work done while she was left to attend baby showers for yet another pregnant noblewoman. But today took the cake. Out in public, in front of all those people, he’d sent her home. Dismissed her like a misbehaving child. What kind of husband did that to his wife?
Fuming, Cosima gulped her drink and immediately felt the burn of wine gone down the wrong pipe. She coughed and sputtered, and Vincent looked up.
“You all right?” he asked.
He seemed genuinely concerned, but she didn’t care.
“Fine, I’m fine,” she croaked.
He reached over and filled her empty water glass, which she drank down again.
Regaining as much composure as possible, she thanked him. It was the polite thing to do. Then, no longer able to keep her curiosity to herself, she asked, “So, did anything interesting happen today after I left?”
Vince went back to his food. “Well, you were right.”
“Oh? What about?”
“The water lines. I passed your theory on to the engineers and, after investigating the pipes, they found more charges that would have severed the water feeder lines. It would have led to low-level contamination and shut down most of the spaceport for months while we cleaned it.”
“See? I knew it. That’s exactly what I would have done if I were a terrorist. Which I’m not.”
Vincent ignored her comment and moved methodically from his steak to his sautéed asparagus. Cosima, meanwhile, had cut her meal into bits and proceeded to mix it all together into a gray mélange. The one thing she loved about living dirtside was the food. Food grown in the fresh earth under the golden sun tasted different from what the hydroponics labs produced in space. And Vincent’s human cooks liked to take creative liberties with the recipes. Thanking the stars for human ingenuity, Cosima dunked a forkful of steak and mashed potatoes into a puddle of spicy Sriracha sauce.
“What did Chaebol have to say?” she asked, prodding Vincent to continue his story. “Bet they weren’t happy about their shuttle.”
“No. They weren’t. ‘Livid’ would be more accurate. Ambassador Lee’s aide hinted that Chaebol wishes to renegotiate their contract. Paying to rebuild what we’ve already built is cutting into the bottom line. Worse still, these attacks are making us look like a weak and unreliable partner. If we can’t put a stop to them, Chaebol might put an end to our deal.”
“They can’t do that! They signed a contract! I know, I was there—we got married to make it happen! They can’t back out now.”
“If Chaebol insists, their lawyers will find a way out.”
“But that’s dishonest, disloyal,” she protested. “Where’s their sense of honor?”
“Just like yours, their first duty is to the corporation.”
“Above basic principles of right and wrong?”
Vincent sighed and rubbed his forehead. These days, he always seemed to have a headache around her. Time to change the subject.
“Wait. Back up,” she said. “You said ‘attacks.’ So today’s bombing at the landing pad wasn’t the only incident? Or—are you thinking that those construction accidents last month weren’t accidental?”
“I’m having the specialists continue to look into it, but hyperloop tunnels don’t collapse on their own. Today’s events prove we’re working against an enemy who thinks like an engineer. It’s looking less and less likely that those accidents happened accidentally.”
Cosima set down her fork. “Vincent. If the terrorists are thinking like engineers, then don’t we need to think like them in order to find them? Put me on the team. I trained as a Stahlium miner. Every spacer worth her salt gets put through years of courses in physics and astroengineering. That’s my world. Let me help. Please.”
Vincent studied her with the same look one gave a difficult math equation.
“Come on! Please? I need something to do! I’m going to shrivel up and die of boredom if I have to count plates and table settings with Bentley one more time.”
He nodded. “You don’t need a job. You already have one, an important one. You are queen and my wife. Your duty is right here. All of Sidonia is looking to you, and it’s my duty to keep you safe. Involving you in terrorist plots is not keeping you safe. I never should have brought you to the spaceport today. Anything could have happened. My job is to keep you safe, and your job is to—”
When he didn’t continue, she pressed him. “Attend another baby shower? My sister can do that. What, Vincent? What does Sidonia need me for? I really want to know.”
He studied his wine glass. Then he leaned forward. “Chaebol wants us to have an heir.”
“It’s not enough for us to be married. This agreement with Chaebol to reach Gaia System means we’re creating a relationship between our two nations that’ll last for generations. One that should certainly outlast us. We need to produce an heir.”
Vincent, king and general, flushed like a schoolboy asked about the homework he hadn’t done.
“Not necessarily tonight, but in the near future.”
“So… you’re saying that we—that you and I…”
The candles flickered, the orchids swayed. A servant refilled their wine glasses. Cosima felt something like panic rising, but she throttled it.
“No-no-no. Absolutely not.” Pushing up from the table, Cosima threw down her napkin.
Leaning forward, he caught her hand. “Cosima. Listen. We need to at least take steps in this direction. We’re not even living in the same suite. Before dinner, I asked Bentley and Lana to see that your things were moved into the royal master suite.”
A wave of anger swept over her. “You had my things moved without asking me?”
“It’s the rational next step.”
She snatched her hand away. “You can take your rationality and shove it. I don’t want this or this—” She gestured away the magnificent room around her. “—any of this. And I definitely don’t want—”
She stopped, glared, and fled the room.
When the last of the servants gave a final bow and left the bedroom, Vincent returned to his office. A stack of paperwork awaited him on the desk. There, at least, he could make progress. Cosima had stonily ignored him all evening, speaking only with her handmaiden. She was now curled up at the far edge of their massive bed, a small mountain of pillows piled up in the middle.
“You shall not pass,” he muttered and went back to his work.
Despite hundreds of years of social progress, some things remained the same. Forms needed to be filled out in triplicate, his signature required on each one, and despite all of humanity’s technological advances, it had to be done on paper.
Weary from the events of the day, he forced his eyes to stay open and read each document. The words blurred as his mind wandered back to the landing pad, the black body bags in neat rows, the smoking wreckage of a shuttle, and his wife’s pale face as she took it all in. He had to do more to protect her, and it started with getting the Guard in order. He’d set up a meeting with Colonel Greer first thing in the morning.
An hour later, he heard a noise, someone whimpering.
Vincent went into the other room to find his wife asleep under the silky blankets, her brow furrowed in pain. When she cried out again, he stooped next to her and reached out to smooth aside her hair.
Her lips parted. “Paul,” she whispered. “Paul—no…”
Vincent jerked back as if burned. It was a year since his best friend had died. He knew the handsome guardsman and Cosima had been close, but just how close, he never asked. Now he knew.
Unable to go to bed and unwilling to return to his work, he went to the bathroom to blast away his sorrows in a shower of sonic waves. For a long time, he stared at his reflection in the mirror. Scars puckered his cheeks, and his eyes had heavy circles under them. He ran a hand through his stiff hair. He was still a young man; when had he started looking old? His eyes traveled down to the metal arm at his side. Flipping a few switches, he pulled it off and studied himself in the mirror. Half a man.
Who could ever love someone like him?
Blue light glimmered in the man’s dark room, casting his skin a sickly hue. He skimmed through the information on his reader. Of the two bioscans he’d taken of the guards that afternoon, one had downloaded successfully. When the time was right, he’d mask his own familiar face in the visage of the pudgy redhead. He and the ginger had similar builds, no problem there. He’d just need to get his hands on a uniform.
With a few more taps on his screen, a holo of the palace blueprints sprang up. Studying it, he noted all points of exit as he took a virtual stroll through the palace and into the royal residence. It’d be difficult, even for a guardsman, to get into the heart of the palace, but what did he live for if not for the challenge? And getting paid, of course.
He clicked on the fringed bedside lamp and reached for an oatmeal raisin cookie. The sweet old lady at the desk downstairs insisted he take a plate. Made them just for him, she said. Proof that a few smiles and the right compliment can go a long way, even for an old dog like him.
The comm in his ear beeped an alert.
“Mike here,” he said.
The robotic voice on the other end had gone through a scrambler. Although the man was the head of his own cell—albeit a cell raided and now neutralized by the Sidonian government—even he was not to know who his Aquitaine handler was. But Mike had his suspicions. He’d met many of the military officers in Aquitaine’s pay and knew their habits. He waited as this man took a drag from his cigar, as he was wont to do, before going on to give Mike his instructions.
Aquitaine was pleased at the success of the landing pad bombing, but the raid on Mike’s cell in Spillover South had caused the timetable to be moved up. The asset at the star gate was in play, thanks to Mike’s intervention. For now, Mike only needed to eliminate his target.
“Not a problem,” he answered.
“Let’s hope not,” the flat voice replied. “For your sake, Michael.”
Mike cut the comm, pulled up his holo of the palace, and munched on another cookie. Tomorrow morning, he would assassinate the queen.