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Susan Grant
author of aviation romance

The Kingdom of Asia:

Shot down over Korea, modern-day USAF fighter pilot Cameron "Scarlet" Tucker is put in bio-stasis. She wakes 170 years later. Her wingmate and best friend also survived: Now the "legendary" Banzai Maguire, Bree is being held for treason in the country that was once her beloved United States.

Cam has problems of her own. She’s in the masterful hands of Prince Kyber, the dictator whom her friend thwarted. He won’t get fooled again. With the mysterious Shadow Voice urging revolution, and her friend in chains, Cam wants the sexy emperor on her side--and maybe a whole lot more. But her role in the thrilling mission to save her country has to come first. Banzai wouldn't surrender, and Cam won't either. It's time to give a royal butt kicking, and Cam knows just where to start.

The Scarlet Empress
ISBN 0505525976

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned in the Tale’s Tale for Banzai, I created the 2176 series after learning of Silhouette's new Bombshell line. Since I wasn’t free to write for another publisher at that time, and really had been writing action romance all along and well before any publisher put a label on it, I decided to create my own series. The original plan was for 6 books, the first and last by me and the middle four by other authors. One of those authors was planned to be a well-known science fiction writer, but at the last moment, that fell through. Quickly, I had to combine the plans for book 5 and the storyline I’d devised for book 6 and put it all together in one comprehensive story that would also be a satisfying conclusion and a ripping good finale to the series. No easy task! My editor and I brainstormed and then it hit me: if we changed Bree’s wingman (originally Cajun, whose story would have been book 5, him as the hero) to a “wing-woman” it might just work. And so, Cam “Scarlet” Tucker was born. Luckily, I was able to change the early chapters of Banzai before it went to press. For once it paid to be working on this series so last minute. Writing Scarlet was one of the most demanding experiences I’ve had as a writer. It required me to do more “cerebrally” and less “seat of the pants” which is my normal routine. But to my delight, the characters proved wonderfully cooperative--well, after I told Kyber who was boss (dictators, sheesh). I think readers will find The Scarlet Empress more romantic than Banzai. In Scarlet, two love stories take center stage in what I feel is a suspenseful plot. Enjoy!

And did you know that last fall I ran an impromptu contest on the RT Readers message board, giving a reader the chance to title the book? Congratulations and a special thanks to Màili, aka Holly, for coming up with such a fantastic title for this finale book to the 2176 series!

Breaking News!» Parlez vous... kick-butt? Oui! The entire 2176 series, including The Legend of Banzai Maguire and The Scarlet Empress sold to France! I'm pleased to announce that all five books in the 2176 action-romance series sold to the publisher J'Ai Lu for publication in France. Word is that they LOVE this series and expect much success selling it to the French market. Merci beaucoup, J'Ai Lu!

2176, the series:

Book 1: The Legend of Banzai MaguireSusan Grant [April 2004]
Book 2: Day Of FireKathleen Nance [May 2004]
Book 3: The Shadow RunnersLiz Maverick [June 2004]
Book 4: The Power of TwoPatti O'Shea [Nov 2004]
Book 5: The Scarlet EmpressSusan Grant [Dec 2004]

Be sure to check out more about Cam Tucker, the heroine of The Scarlet Empress -- you can meet her in chapter one of The Legend of Banzai Maguire.

 

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The Scarlet Empress receives an RT Bookclub nomination for Best Futuristic romance and is a Sapphire Award nominee for Best Science Fiction romance novel

The Scarlet Empress receives a rare starred review from Booklist, the magazine the New York Times calls "an acquisitions bible for public and school librarians nationwide," and is the review journal of the American Library Association. It recommends works of fiction, nonfiction, children's books, reference books, and media to its 30,000 institutional and personal subscribers.

awards

Booklist--Top 10 Romance of the 2004 (posted 1.04.06)

news

Bestseller lists: For February 2005

B. Dalton Bestseller List
Borders Bestseller List
B&N Bestseller List
Sirenbooks, Australia Bestseller List

kudos

"Exhilarating...adrenaline-filled...as Bree fights for her life, Cam finds herself confronting one of the most powerful men in the world...shocking twists and turns keep readers enthralled.  Grant's writing remains vivid whether describing astounding futuristic advances, depicting a vicious gun volley or drawing a poignant love scene."

--Publishers Weekly

TOP PICK! "This action-packed series comes to a heady climax in Grant’s spectacular novel. [T]he heroines of this one are complex and extremely determined. Grant does a bang-up job in this rousing conclusion!"

-- Jill Smith, Romantic Times Bookclub

"Grant’s futuristic military romance demonstrates her trademark qualities of humor, passion, and devotion to duty, as well as a riveting David-and-Goliath conflict. Especially timely in view of current events, The Scarlet Empress offers a thrillingly pointed reminder of the cost of freedom and the continuing sacrifices required of those who value liberty."

-- RWA’s librarian of the year Lynne Welch
Review to appear in the Nov. 15 issue of Booklist (see box)

"The Scarlet Empress brings the 2176 series to a roaring conclusion! Not only has the inimitable Susan Grant written a terrific romantic thriller, but The Scarlet Empress is a deeply moving tribute to liberty, and those who have the courage to fight for it. I can't wait to see what she does next!"

-- Mary Jo Putney

A pulse pounding, heart stopping, and spectacular conclusion to the 2176 Series; a fantastic plot with great twists, turns, hot romance and nonstop action. Oh and if you’re not sold yet… [Susan Grant] throws a real mind blowing reveal in the end! I think it is safe to say I totally and unequivocally, 100% recommend this book!

-- Mindy Lobaugh, Paranormal Romance Reviews

"...[E]xplosive and satisfying, as well as surprising as to who is the Shadow Voice!"

--Tanzey Cutter, The Best Reviews

 

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“Your Highness. The pilot has been located.”

Prince Kyber, ruler of the Han Empire, lifted his gaze from the shapely woman soaking his feet in a bowl of hot water to meet the gaze of his chief of security. Nikolai Kabul appeared somewhat breathless. It wasn’t at all typical of the all-business, ascetic man he’d known since they both were boys—a friendship between a child of royal blood and a street-wise commoner that had somehow survived the years. “Excellent, Niko. The news pleases me. I’ll read the full report tomorrow at the morning briefing.”

A single sapphire on Nikolai’s fez glittered in the war room’s cold overhead light, but the man said nothing. “Your silence tells me that I did not give you the response you expected, Niko.”

“I assumed you’d be...more surprised.”

“I’m simply glad the situation is over.”

Nikolai pressed his lips together in another gesture of frustration.

“But of course, it displeased me greatly, losing a top fighter pilot in a midair collision caused by human error. And over the Himalayas, no less, making it difficult for search and recovery to do their job. Difficult but not impossible. It’s why I appear more relieved than surprised by this swift conclusion to the affair. Pass along my praise to the team for a job well done. And as soon as the pilot is healed, have him sent to me for a little career counseling. He is due for a change of vocation, perhaps as a street-sweep driver in Macao. Fighter craft are tools of defense, not play toys.”

Speaking of play toys... Kyber exchanged a smile with the pretty woman massaging his right hand and forearm with fragrant oils. She had a way with her fingers. Had he invited her to his chambers before? He couldn’t recall. He pulled her down for a kiss. No, she didn’t taste familiar, but it was hard to be sure. There had been a parade of females warming his bed—and his dining table, swimming pool, and baths since Banzai had disappeared into the ether.

Kyber set the woman back on her feet to find Nikolai watching him, his eyes ablaze. “What is it, Niko? You appear fairly ready to explode.”

“Not the downed YR-55 pilot. The one who has evaded us. You know of whom I speak. I cannot say more until we are alone.”

Banzai Maguire! Prince Kyber heard a thud to his right, accompanied by a small whoosh of wind and tinkling jewelry. He realized that in his shock, he’d thrown the manicurist to the floor.

Grabbing the woman’s hand, he tugged her to her feet. “Are you certain?” Quickly, he locked his jaw. He despised the anger in his tone as much as he did the hope. Banzai... She’d routed him, that one, knocked him out with a nerve stunner. And then she’d disappeared with that imperialist jackass pig Armstrong.

Kyber rubbed the back of his neck. Perhaps it was best that his memory was wiped clean of the encounter itself. All he remembered of that day was waking back in the palace with an aching head and double vision, surrounded by attentive servants and a very angry Nikolai. Rebels had gotten Banzai out of the kingdom, he’d learned that much, but where she had gone after that, he didn’t know. She’d been missing ever since, but, thankfully, hadn’t shown up in the UCE. It would be a mistake, a deadly mistake, if she defied his advice and did so.

“Off with you.” Kyber waved the servants away. Suddenly, the company of a female, any female, felt like a sliver under his skin.

As soon as the servants were gone, Kyber turned his attention to his security chief. “So you found the wayward American. Where was our Banzai hiding?”

“No, Your Highness, the wingmate has been located. First Lieutenant Cameron Tucker.”

Kyber recoiled. “These woman-legends from the past who seem to be infesting abandoned underwater caves, they’re a plague, I tell you. A plague!”

Nikolai started to say something and then stopped.

“What, Niko? You have never held back your opinion from me. Don’t start now.”

The chief stiffened his back. “I thought you would have been more excited by the news.”

“Why, so I can repeat what was an unpleasant experience? Banzai took advantage of my generosity only to cast me aside with little more than a few hollow words of thanks. Prince Kyber of the mighty Han Dynasty, ruler of all Asia, does not offer favors for nothing, Nikolai. From Banzai, that is exactly what I received.” He spat out a curse. It was a weakness on his part, forming an attachment to Banzai Maguire. A foolish error. He never should have allowed himself to feel affection for her. One thing he could say, however, was that he never made the same mistake twice.

“I do have some intelligence images I would like to show you in more secure quarters, my lord. Minister Hong will join us in the war room.” The security chief’s eyes tracked down to Kyber’s feet. “Will you be soaking much longer?”

That’s when Kyber realized he was standing in a shallow bowl of steaming water with rose petals whirling on top.

With disgust, he splashed out of the bowl. “Why do the women always insist in dousing me with such delicate scents? I am not a delicate man!” He was taller and more ruggedly built than even his father and grandfather. His mother claimed he owed his build to his Scots genes; his father, back in his lucid days, would argue that the Mongol Khans had provided the DNA in question. While Kyber considered Genghis a few too many generations removed to make an appreciable impact on his bloodline, he was certain that neither the clan chieftains nor the Mongol warriors in his family tree would approve of him marinating in flower petals.

He strode to his bathing pool and dove in, eager to rinse off the perfume. The water was crisp and cool, and it braced him, erasing the last traces of mental dullness left from the plum wine the women had poured for him. Surfacing on the opposite side, he pushed on extended arms out of the water. Without slowing, he grabbed a fresh robe off a hook on the wall of mirrors, wrapping it around him as he walked up to a wall—and through it. It was an illusion made by a computer—trillions of them.

Nikolai followed him into his private chambers, leaving the mirrored wall rippling like the Lake of Heaven near the palace he maintained in Paekdusan, far to the north. Kyber preferred his summer palace to this grander one in Beijing. There, he enjoyed the sharp scent of the forests and the seclusion of the mountains. Yet, Beijing was where the seat of the government conducted its business, and where his subjects expected him to be. Out of a royal obligation to serve his people, and out of respect for the long line of courageous ancestors that got him here, he found predictability translated to stability, necessary to ensure the future of the empire. It was why every autumn after Kingdom Day he dutifully returned home.

Kyber burst into the war room, trailed by the security chief. The quartz, glass, and steel décor, created to his specifications, suited the room’s use, lending it the cold, powerful, and masculine atmosphere he desired. Monitors covered the walls, giving views of international news as well as scenes from around the palace, inside and out, from the numerous security computers embedded in the structure.

“Hong,” he said, acknowledging the ubiquitous presence of the Minister of Realm Affairs Horace Hong before turning to face his security chief. There were few in Kyber’s life that he trusted as implicitly as Nikolai Kabul. For God’s sake, he had his reasons for placing trust in so few. The emperor was almost murdered while eating breakfast, and every time Kyber viewed the now-wasted man, it reminded him that trust didn’t ensure long lives for emperors. It was wisest not to give it at all. “We tore apart that cave searching for Scarlet, and yet we found nothing. Banzai doubted me when I told her there was no sign of her sister fighter pilot—not now or in the past. And yet, Scarlet has miraculously appeared—and under our very noses!”

“Not exactly. We found her in Mongolia.”

“You’re joking.”

“I wish I were. Intelligence imagery pinpoints her location in the village of Khujirt.”

“Khujirt.” Kyber frowned, concentrating. “I know the place. It’s near the springs.” Old memories slid down behind his eyes, of a vacation to the region as a child. He’d traveled there with his mother, a devotee of hot mineral springs. Kyber recalled his fascination with the remote and rugged scenery, taiga forest, the ibex and lynx he’d viewed there, and particularly the ancestors of age-old nomadic tribes who raised livestock at the edge of the forests. He’d never forget the day he broke away from his bodyguards to chase after a shepherd near his own age, scampering beside him and his herd of stinking, flea-infested yaks through fields of wildflowers before being rounded up by the Empress’s angry staff. For a few hours, he hadn’t been the crown prince; he’d been a boy. “They’re farmers. Simple people. Impossible that they revived her. They don’t have the technology.”

“Difficult, yes, but not impossible. This has contributed to her less-than-ideal condition. Our first observations showed her walking the paths in the area assisted by crutches. Apparently, she is now walking under her own power, or mostly.”

“But in Mongolia. How did you learn of it?”

“Via a pair of Rim Riders.”

“Good! Find out their names. Put them in for a bonus. Better yet, send them to me so that I may praise them in person. Now, tell me how this came about.”

“There was talk of a woman new to the area—a badly injured woman. That she was blond, unusual for someplace so distant from an urban center, only intensified the curiosity. Rumors started and spread. Our Rim Riders overheard them, of course, and passed along the information to intelligence as part of a routine report. I saw the mention, thought it was best to investigate. We took satellite pictures over a period of several weeks. But only yesterday could I say I was certain of her identity.”

“It’s her, Your Highness,” Minister Hong chimed in. “Her likeness matches the file photo we have.”

Kyber had seen the same archived photo as the men. He summoned a mental image of Cameron Tucker. She shared little in common with Banzai, physically. In fact, the second pilot resembled more a hothouse flower than a warrior.

All the more reason to stay well clear of her.

Kyber opened a closet. Since his duties later that day would take him outside, he donned black leather body armor trimmed in furs. Nikolai was dressed in the identical way, as were the rest of the soldiers and palace security. All that separated Kyber in appearance from his men was the platinum armband he wore around his upper right arm. The snake was a symbol of the Han dynasty. Other than that one small concession, of which he was proud, he abstained from the fanciful trappings of royal garb. He left that to his mother, Corrine, who loved to dress the part, going as far as outfitting Kyber’s father, daily, even as he lay in the far reaches of the palace with no more awareness than a vegetable.

Kyber buckled his belt. “Why have we not known of the existence of the second pilot until now?”

“Outside involvement,” Nikolai guessed. “Someone took her before we could.”

“Why were there no signs of tampering in the cave?”

“If the cryopod was hidden in one of the more heavily damaged areas, it’s possible our search party overlooked it in their haste to rescue Banzai. In the gap between their departure and return, someone with the knowledge and motivation could have gone in—and gotten Scarlet out.”

“And brought her to Mongolia? Who dares to meddle so brazenly in realm affairs, Niko? Tell me who they are!”

“They’re farmers—”

Kyber gave an incredulous snort. “And I am Winston Churchill.”

“All we know so far is that they’re indeed working on a communal farm. Collectives like these are quite common in the area, as you know. This one is small. Approximately a dozen people living there as permanent residents, others coming and going. Besides farming, they maintain a local hot springs and a pay-as-you-go temple.”

Kyber made a sound in his throat. “Paying for divine intervention. If money could buy God’s answers, I’d be a God myself.” And his father would be conscious and alive, relations with his younger, half-brother D’ekkar would not be what they were now, shattered by scandal. And Banzai would be warming his bed, not Tyler Armstrong’s.

“So far, I haven’t found any connections between them and the Shadow Runners—or any other rebel organization.”

“Shadow Runners,” Kyber thought with a growl. The radicals with whom D’ekkar had became involved while in prison. They were anti-monarchy, anti-tradition—anti-everything, it seemed. Having never once stated clearly their objective—besides wanting to make trouble—the Shadow Runners had so far done little more than irritate him like a splinter not yet worked close enough to the surface of the skin to be plucked out. Yet, he wasn’t complacent enough to dismiss them. If they ever became better organized, the group could prove to be a problem.

“I’m relieved to hear rebels aren’t openly behind this, Nikolai, but now that the woman is mostly healed, why has she remained in such a godforsaken place? Is she hiding from me?”

He’d meant it as a joke, but Nikolai replied, “Most likely, Your Highness.”

“She hides? From me?” Kyber heard outrage creep back into his voice as his mood darkened. “Has Banzai woven lies of exploitation at my hands? I treated her with the care befitting the cultural treasure she is, better than she apparently deserves. The only crime I’m guilty of committing was not bedding the woman when it was clear she needed it.”

“We have no evidence of any communication with Banzai. Tucker has been in Khujirt for some time. It is possible, though unlikely, that she was taken from the cave even before Armstrong discovered Banzai.”

“Armstrong.” Kyber poured himself a hot coffee and inhaled the fragrant aroma. “I should have executed the man while I had the chance. A bad habit, I have, Niko, preferring to play with my prey before killing it, no different from the cats inhabiting the alleyways in the Quarter.” The disreputable Serpent Quarter, where he’d like to be at the moment, disguised as his shadowy alter ego Kublai, enjoying a drink in total anonymity. “You say you have images? Show them to me.”

Nikolai slipped a computer from his thigh pocket and unrolled a thin screen. Kyber took the device, scrolling through the photos as he sipped coffee. The images were crisp and clear, though taken from a great distance. They were of a woman, tall and slender. A glimpse of blond hair under a hood in one, and there, a better view of her struggling with the crutches on a rutted trail. Another showed her trying to stand after a fall, her frustration and determination obvious. Raw willpower.

A powerful feeling of solidarity filtered through him, and he couldn’t pull his attention from the image. He knew the torment that gripped her, because he’d been there. He knew what it was like, driving on when all you wanted to do was lie down and wallow in self-pity. The bleak days after the almost-assassination of his father the king had been riddled with such struggles for him. He wasn’t sure if he’d come through it all stronger, or only colder. Banzai’s appearance in his life had been a welcome diversion from the day-to-day realities of royal life, but now she was gone. He’d be smarter this time. No woman warrior from the past would be allowed into his life or—curse the very thought—his heart.

“These last images were what decided it for me,” Nikolai said. “They were taken yesterday by one of our transport crews. Since they were over-flying the area, I thought why not get some close-ups?”

“Close-ups, indeed...” Kyber paused at an image of Scarlet standing in the middle of a dirt road, her head thrown back, her face directed at the sky. Her hair had come loose from its braids. Floating in an ethereal cloud, the golden strands framed an expression of wonder that captivated him. So unselfconscious in her hope and unfettered joy was she that he had to pause to catch his breath.

Women had spurred him to do many things over the years for the sake of happiness—his and theirs—but none had ever left him winded.

Scowling deeply, he thrust the device back at his security chief. “I do not want her near me. Making my life difficult. Distracting me! I am, as you know, a very busy man.” He stalked to a screen depicting a wintry street below his bedroom balcony. A cheering crowd braved an unseasonably early onslaught of sleet, awaiting his morning appearance. They loved him his people, as they had loved his father before him. He ruled with a heavy hand, yes, but like little children his subjects appreciated knowing their limits. Within those limits, they had the highest level of education, the longest lifespan, and the lowest suicide rate in the world.

“I have an empire to rule.” He touched a panel that allowed his image to appear on the giant screen above the street. The roar that followed rumbled through the speakers embedded in the walls. “And a people to inspire!” He raised his hand and the cheering increased a thousand-fold.

“And a pilot to bring within the confines of the palace.”

Turning, Kyber spoke dryly. “Nikolai, you are one of the few people I allow to nag me.”

The man acknowledged the remark with a curt bow.

Kyber sighed. The inevitable was upon him: Lt. Cameron “Scarlet” Tucker would have to be brought to the palace. Here he was, telling his staff he did not want anything to do with the legendary pilots. Yet, he had no choice but to involve himself once more. The reason? Simple—while he didn’t want Scarlet, he didn’t want anyone else to have her, either.

He turned. “Very well. Bring her to the capital.” Oh, how it pained him to say the words. “If for this reason alone: to keep her from the Shadow Runners.”

“The Shadow Runners?” Nikolai rubbed his precise goatee. “You’ve never considered them a serious threat before.”

“No, I haven’t, but several new factors give me pause, Niko. The Shadow Voice is broadcasting everywhere, touting democracy as the solution to the world’s ills. Should the uprising in the UCE succeed, the Shadow Runners may think they can accomplish the same here. They couldn’t, of course, the situations are entirely different, but that wouldn’t become apparent until much blood was shed. That’s why I’ll have her brought here.” And not out of the fierce sense of competition and hatred of the UCE that had driven him to want to possess Banzai. This time he was taking personal out of the equation and replacing it with duty—the duty he owed his subjects in assuring them a safe and stable future. “I will not stand for rebels disrupting this empire, and if that means giving them no chance to use Scarlet for their purposes, so be it.”

“Or giving the UCE no chance to use her for theirs,” Nikolai said.

“That will never happen.” Despite his change of attitude about the newest pilot, the humiliation of losing Banzai to Armstrong still stung.

“I’ll be keeping too close of an eye on her for that to happen, Your Highness,” Minister Hong assured him.

Nikolai nodded. “We’ll fit her with standard prox-beacon implant which will allow her free travel within the security of the city walls while preventing her from leaving.”

“No extra work for us,” Hong said cheerily, “and added security for the woman. No more and no less than we do for citizens found guilty of certain crimes. You won’t have to interact with her at all.”

“Good,” Kyber grumbled. “I don’t plan to.”

Nikolai appeared positively pleased with the way turn the conversation had taken. “And thanks to your famed benevolence, the American will have top-notch medical care and excellent food.”

“And religious services she doesn’t have to pay for,” Kyber muttered. “I warn both of you—do not send her to me. If she requests an audience, do not grant it. No private dinners. No special favors. She lives here and that is all. You, the staff, the servants, you will see to her general welfare here in the palace. As for me, a weekly report will suffice. No more detailed than what you’d offer the cabinet, Horace.”

Minister Hong nodded. “Your wish is my command.”

“Now, you have your duties to attend to Hong, yes?”

“I do indeed.” The minister was well-acquainted with Kyber’s protocol of consulting his chief of security in private after significant events. With a bow and a flourish, he departed.

Nikolai clicked his heels together. “If you will excuse me, I must assemble a team to retrieve the pilot.”

“No need. I’ve already assembled the best team we have.”

Nikolai went still. “Your Highness?”

“There is only one team that can do this mission justice, giving it the level of secrecy it requires.”

“Sir, you’re not thinking what I think you may be...”

“Of course, I am. This time the team is us.”

“Us.” Nikolai, to his credit, didn’t sputter.

“I trust no one else to the task. Scarlet must not fall into rebel hands, ours or the UCE’s. We were careless with Banzai and look what happened. Don’t faint on me, Niko. We’re going not as our real selves, but as Kublai and Nazeem, Rim Riders—and,” Kyber added with a wink, “bounty hunters for the emperor.”

At the mere declaration, he felt his muscles thrum to life, much like they did during the punishing rounds of sword practice he accomplished each morning before dawn when the palace still slept. It was during that quiet, necessary time that he fancied he connected with the warrior ancestors of his past, the entire long line of Hans, whose honor he somehow felt compelled to uphold. It hit him that he’d become bored at the palace and needed to get out. Going after Scarlet was the perfect excuse. Although he’d had every intention to retreat once more from world politics after his distasteful brush with Tyler Armstrong and the demon-spawn’s father, he had to admit that running this mission for the sake of the empire sounded far too intriguing to pass up. Besides, it would give him the opportunity to see what was happening in the remotest fringes of his vast holdings.

It had been a number of years since he’d ridden the Rim, and surveyed the borderlands. Too long. “Rulers rule best if they do not isolate themselves from their people,” his father had taught him. It was why, Kyber guessed, his father had turned the other way when as young men, Kyber and Nikolai often posing as bounty hunters. In the years since taking the reins of power, Kyber had continued to sneak away from the palace in disguise. He’d learned of the Shadow Runners that way, of his brother’s involvement in the group, and many other useful things. It was how he hoped never to be fooled, as his father had been, by a plot that should have been uncovered before its execution. From that dreadful day forward, Kyber swore he’d always know as much as the troublemakers did, so that no one would take advantage of him. And that, he vowed, included taking charge of delivering this latest American pilot to where she could do no harm—to herself or any sovereign nations. “Come on, Niko, where is that smile? We’ll take care of this on our own, as we used to in the old days.”

“You were only a prince, then. You’re the emperor now.”

“Acting emperor, actually. Nevertheless, I’m safer in disguise than I am within the confines of this palace.” His mouth twisted. “Ask my father.”

Kyber threw open the door to the war room. “Pack your bags, Nikolai, and stop pouting. My horse will thank you for the chance to stretch his legs, as will yours. Trotting in circles in the arena would bore a stallion to tears, I imagine. How can you not draw a comparison to our personal state of affairs?”

Nikolai’s expression didn’t change. “If the farmers indeed turn out to be rebels, and they learn who you are, assassination would not be out of the realm of possibilities,” the chief advised in what sounded like a last-ditch effort to dissuade him.

“Ah, but risk is what gives a man his joie de vivre, yes?” Nikolai looked ill, and Kyber smiled all the more. “Admit it, my friend, hasn’t your life lacked a certain spark lately?”

Nikolai pursed his lips. “I am too busy with my duties to ponder what sparks I lack.”

“A shame indeed. How badly I have overworked you. You need a break. I command it! A mission into the hinterlands of our country is bound to be the tonic you need to approach your job in a fresh new way.”

Nikolai made a sound in his throat, but Kyber could tell by the glint in his eye that he’d warmed to the idea. He shook his head at the rattled chief. “Niko, you are what, thirty-five now? Only a half-decade older than I, but already a lonesome and sometimes melancholy old warrior who misses the excitement of the old days when we would ride the rim in the name of the empire. You need this as much as I do.”

Finally, Nikolai cracked a genuine smile. “Those were the days. I will never forget them.”

“You don’t have to. Neither of us has to. We can live them again, and for a mission vital to the security of the realm.”

“Critically vital, Your Highness.”

Kyber smiled. His chief was coming along. “I’ll brief Horace. He’ll deflect any public or in-house queries as to our whereabouts.”

Flexing his arms, Kyber inhaled deeply. He’d anticipate this nightfall as no other. He could almost hear the antiquated creak of the massive city gates as they rolled open to allow him past. Lately, Kyber had been feeling as if he were fighting a current in everything he did. There was an intangible, nagging sense that his life needed to take a different direction. What that course was, exactly, he didn’t know. Now, with the decision to retrieve the second pilot, it felt as if he were finally sailing in the right direction.

“Yes, Niko,” he said with robust enthusiasm. “Tonight, we will ride, you and I, and then we will bring home our prize.”


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