Chapter 1 - The King’s Spy
The king’s spy strode with silent steps over the stainless-steel grating of the Servants’ Way, his head shrouded by a voluminous hood. Hidden surveillance allowed him to calculate the safest routes and times to pass. The royal staff wouldn’t travel this section for another twenty-three minutes, and by that time, his task would be complete and he’d be long gone.
He stopped at a door, reaching for a switch at his ear and activated the voice synthesizer integrated into the mask that covered his face. “‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,’” he quoted.
His voice echoed back with a low hiss, unrecognizable.
Satisfied, he adjusted the cowl of his gray cloak and hunched his shoulders into an old-man stoop, then delivered two double raps on the door and waited.
A subtle click and the entry swung open.
He passed through with feigned caution, scanning the king’s office to check for persons he knew wouldn’t be there. The king had as much to gain from their secrecy as he did.
One side of the room was a wall of misty triangular windows, a tiny section of the city’s vast Central Dome, and its soft light filled the king’s workspace. Before the Great Disaster, the view of the Red Forest from this vantage point must have been spectacular, but a century of grime obscured the dome’s protective glass with a gray fog. Not that the poisoned forest surrounding the city was much to look upon now.
The spy shifted his gaze to the polished oak desk behind which the king sat, watching him with an air of expectation. In his late forties, King Aleksandr was considered handsome by most, his dark hair and olive skin making his pale eyes memorable, if not shocking, when first met. The juxtaposition of dark and light initiated that reaction, but further study revealed a subzero chill in the king’s gaze.
“Greetings, Your Majesty.” He followed his sibilant words with a reverent bow that dropped his hood forward, further concealing him while his show of respect strengthened the trust he’d cultivated over the past months.
The king acknowledged the gesture with an impatient nod. “What updates have you?”
“The resistance grows,” the spy murmured. “From a hundred able-bodied supporters before the princess’s departure to a membership of over two thousand.”
A frown cut sharp lines into the king’s brow. “Then they anticipate change. Unless she warned them before she left.”
The spy concealed surprise that the king would consider his daughter capable of betrayal. He knew little about the girl beyond her healthy desire to escape the confines of the royal suites. As to what the princess might have warned them about, he was most curious to know.
The king’s jaw twitched. “What about its leaders?”
“One man known as Spider. True identity unknown. Few have met him, and those who have say he’s well disguised.”
A snort escaped His Majesty. “As well disguised as you?”
The spy pursed his lips against the laugh bubbling in his chest. “That remains to be seen, Your Majesty. I suspect he’ll be exposed before long. Someone will surely betray him; there is no code of honor among criminals.”
The king’s blue eyes grew paler. “And what of weapons?”
“Batons, a few firearms. Their tactical advantage is the narrow passageways in the Lower Domiciles, where they can trap and overwhelm. However…”
Willing his rapid heartbeat to slow, the spy slipped gloved hands into the deep pockets of his cloak. “My contact delivered these curious items.” He retrieved two silver spheres, one in each palm, and held them out for the king’s inspection.
Except for the barest twitch under one eye, King Aleksandr remained impassive. He rose, circled his desk and settled against its edge as he studied the objects. Returning his gaze to the spy’s concealed features, he asked, “Are they weapons?”
“Unknown, Your Majesty.”
The king’s brow pinched as if he were considering the risk. An unexpected detonation would kill them both. But His Majesty’s spy would hardly put his own hide in danger, would he? The king’s frown slipped away.
A devious smile played at the edge of the spy’s hidden lips. “They appear solid, surfaces seamless.” With light-handed touch, he rotated the spheres with gloved fingers. “Projectiles, perhaps.” He pushed doubt into his voice so that it carried through the distortion of his synthesizer.
King Aleksandr crossed his arms. “Projectiles of this size would require a large firing device.”
“None has been found, so far,” the spy admitted, and none ever would. “Perhaps your scientists can make something of them.”
Relaxing his stance, the king reached for a sphere. After a moment’s hesitation, he lifted the globe from the spy’s palm and examined it. “They’re identical?”
The second ball waited on the spy’s open palm. Eagerness pushed him to offer it to the king, but he resisted the urge. The slightest movement could ruin everything.
Lips pressed into a firm line, King Aleksandr stepped nearer. Another hesitation, then he grasped the second sphere.
The spy released a breath of exaltation that came out as a quiet hiss.
The king’s eyes narrowed for an instant, realization hitting home, but too late. His features twisted with pain and confusion. Facial muscles spasmed, and his mouth dropped open. His lips moved, struggling to form words, but it was no use. The king’s head listed, his shoulders sagged and knees buckled.
The spy jumped forward, plucking the metallic spheres from the air before they struck the ground, but he couldn’t soften the king’s fall or the thud as he hit the parquet floor.
A sharp rap passed through the main entrance, followed by a muffled call. “Your Majesty?”
Sprinting across the room, the king’s spy reached the exit to the Servants’ Way and pulled the door behind him. As the gap closed, he caught a movement across the room. The door clicked softly in time to a startled shout.
With a twirl of his voluminous cloak, the spy darted down the steel-walled corridor. Two turns, and he reached the flush opening to an electrical closet.
Should he continue through the labyrinth or hide?
Half a second to decide.
He pulled open the door and slipped inside.
Chapter 2 - Zera
Nik spun from the heavy steel door blocking his path into the City of Reflections. “Yes, there’s an override, but I don’t have the equipment to hack the system.” With a frustrated breath, he adjusted the leather strap securing the tube of diagrams he’d retrieved from the Black Tower across his shoulder. His pinched face glowed under the red lights of the passage leading out of the Catacombs.
Clara stood a few feet away, arms akimbo. “That sounds like an excuse, Mr. Engineer.”
Nik shot her a poisonous look.
Zera heaved a breath after their sprint for the door, an elbow locked around her violin case, and stepped between them. She wrapped a hand around Nik’s forearm sheathed in an Amalgamist jacket identical to hers. The fabric had been white when they left Astral, but their journey through the Catacombs had darkened it to an ugly shade of gray.
“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing we didn’t make it. We don’t have a plan, and…well, look at us.” She gestured to her attire. Anton and Clara’s River Dom clothing wasn’t much cleaner, but Zera was more concerned that their style of dress would attract attention when they entered the city.
Anton jogged out of the blackness beyond the lit passageway, pressing a hand into his side. “Damn it. We’re too late!” He set the end of the box containing Klarent on the stone floor and caught his breath.
“Afraid so.” Clara grumbled. “And we don’t have a great deal of time.”
“Dawn tomorrow was my deadline to return.” Zera pulled in a breath. “But my father won’t be able to act on his warning that quickly. We can still make it to the Lower Domiciles as long as we get through this door as soon as it unlocks.”
“Besides, remaining on this side…” Anton puffed, “might not be such a bad thing.“
Clara frowned. “Speak for yourself. I was looking forward to raiding my parents’ pantry tonight.”
Anton wiped his brow with a checkered neck scarf. “Hunger aside, we can use the hours before the locks release to figure out what we’re doing once we step inside.”
Nik relaxed his shoulders and nodded. “Dad’s right. We might have barreled through the door straight into a Peace Force patrol. They walk that corridor every half hour during the day. We’re safer taking their schedule into account before we head in.”
Clara’s lips puckered. “And there’s no chance they’ll hang around, guarding the door in the morning?”
“Not based on the data we collected over the past couple of years.” Nik’s expression was as confident as his words. “The Peace Force commander doesn’t like his people standing around unless they’re standing guard. They have a two-minute rule. Our best course of action is to wait until after their first pass. That occurs about three minutes after the locks release. I say we give them five minutes leeway, and we should be good.”
Zera glanced over her shoulder at the sealed door and nodded. “Let’s find somewhere out of sight and figure out what we do from there.”
Anton pointed the way they’d come. “There’s a side tunnel a few hundred meters back, easy to miss if you aren’t looking.” He turned on a small penlight, which flickered.
Clara’s belly grumbled as they followed him, and she muttered something under her breath.
“It won’t be long before we’re back inside.” Zera was hungry too, but the prospect of returning to her royal suite dropped a rock into the pit of her stomach. So much had changed since she left that going back to her old life seemed impossible.
“This should be far enough.” Anton stopped and set down Klarent’s box. “Pick a spot and get comfortable. I need to turn off this light, or we’ll be groping our way back.”
Nik sat against the rock wall. “So, what’s your plan?”
Settling beside him, Zera wrapped her arms around her knees. “We head straight to the Lower Domiciles by the fastest and safest route possible.”
“Do you really think King Aleksandr would shut down life support?” Clara asked.
“I’m certain he is capable.” Zera hated to admit her father was that cold, but it was true. “Whatever his real plan, we need to get inside the Lower Domiciles before it happens.”
Clara made a choking sound. “And risk getting trapped in there ourselves?”
“Nik will get us out again, and everyone else.” She glanced toward him through the darkness. “Right?”
“Yeah, not a problem,” he replied.
“I thought you needed equipment to do any hacking.” Clara’s words were sharp edged.
Nik shifted his feet. “Equipment will be easier to come by in the Lower Domiciles than down here. A simple handheld device should do it.”
Zera nodded. “Good. Once there, we need to find a locally appointed leader, one we can trust not to report back to the Council or my father, and warn them about his threat.” She considered for a moment. “Pavel will know the right people. We should find him first.”
“Pavel?” Clara’s question rose out of the darkness.
“Yes. Mikhail’s dad,” Zera answered.
Anton shifted on the passage floor across from her. “Who’s Mikhail?”
Nik growled. “Zera’s old boyfriend.”
Heat filled her cheeks as she jabbed him with an elbow. “My violin tutor.” She silenced the sigh that wanted to escape. “Or he was.”
“Oh, right,” Clara murmured, a smile in her voice. “The one you kept sneaking through the Servants’ Way to visit.”
“Sneaking?” Zera huffed. “It’s not like everyone didn’t know where I was going. You included,” she directed at Clara, then glanced through the darkness toward Nik. “And you.”
He scoffed. “I followed you once out of concern for your safety. And what did it get me? Being robbed.” His hand slid down her arm and wrapped over hers, tempering his words.
There had been too many secrets before she left, but they were out in the open now. Better that way, but Zera prayed she wouldn’t run into Mikhail during their travels. Keeping her royal identity from him must have seemed like the ultimate betrayal, but what else could she have done? Pavel had warned her that Mikhail was better off not knowing.
She shook off her regret. “The plan, once we find Pavel, should be easy enough. I’m sure he knows the right people to talk to and will vouch for us.” Zera turned her hand and threaded her fingers through Nik’s. “Then, once we’ve delivered our warning, maybe you can show them how to override the airlocks so that they can escape should the need arise.”
“That’ll be easy enough.” Nik tugged Zera’s arm, pulling her closer. “But what’s the plan after we’re done?”
“I must talk to my father.” The thought sent an all too familiar shudder up Zera’s spine. “I need to convince him to fund your development of the new energy cells based on Francis’s plans. While I do that, you and Anton should find Dad Fritz and celebrate your reunion, and Clara must track down her sister and give her a good talking-to.”
Clara growled. “Kill her, you mean?”
Zera leaned into Nik’s shoulder. “Nothing so drastic, but we need to find out who sent Simon Prokop on a mission to kill me.”
“Napor. That’s what Dee said,” Nik muttered, his grip on her hand tightening.
“Demyan told me that, too,” Clara added. “And given Napor sent Demyan on a similar mission, he ought to know. He said the councilman had some excuse about you having friends among the resistance.”
“Violin lessons hardly constitute resistance.” Zera sighed. “I didn’t even know there was a resistance until a few days ago. But whatever his excuse, Councilman Napor must be questioned and brought to justice if he’s responsible for sending Prokop after me. My father needs to know, but we can’t point fingers at the Council without some kind of evidence.”
“Katalina is a busybody. I bet she knows plenty,” Clara said.
“Given your sister was dating Prokop, I hope so,” Zera admitted. She wasn’t sure who else would have that kind of intelligence. She doubted anyone in the Royal Guard was close enough to the Council to learn anything useful. There was a subtle rivalry between the Royal Guard and the Council with its Peace Force, despite the fact they shared the same ruler.
“Can I torture a confession out of her?” Clara’s voice betrayed no humor, though Zera assumed it.
“She’s your sister. You know better than anyone how to get answers, but we need to confirm whose side she’s on, who she’ll lie for and protect.” Zera had always found Katalina an enigma. At times, she seemed too smart for her own good, and at others, downright foolish.
“My sister is on her own side, simple as that. She manipulates people for amusement. But yes, I’ll find out what she knows, even if I have to snatch a few thumbscrews from the war archives to do it.”
Zera nodded. “Okay, we have a plan. Let’s get some sleep.”
They lay on the rough dirt floor. Nik pulled Zera against his chest. She couldn’t regret this chance to be close to him because once they were back inside the city, who knew if she’d be allowed to leave the royal suites or see him again.
While her body rested, Zera’s mind spun through the details of her plan. Finding Pavel might not be easy. She’d only visited his family’s apartment once, and Mikhail had led her through a labyrinth of passages to get there. She didn’t recall seeing a number, only a scraped front door.
“What’s on your mind?” Nik murmured against her neck.
There was little point in saying nothing; he always read through her white lies. “Everything.” But what made her heart turn brittle was the thought of facing her father.
Nik’s arms tightened, circling her with warmth. “You don’t have to deal with this alone.” He nuzzled her cheek. “I’ll always be here for you, Vio. You know that.”
With a soft chuckle, she nestled deeper into his arms.
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