Note: this is unedited and subject to change prior to official publication
The palace lay cloaked in winter. Someone’s sense of irony, no doubt. The white mechstone walls shimmered against a backdrop of snow dusting the Starlotus trees and the winding garden paths, and blanketing the ground cover in pristine white. Flowers that had bloomed and filled the air with fragrance only weeks ago hung shriveled and withered, dead.
It was the sort of dramatic symbolism Casimir detested. The Commonwealth was without its monarch. Small battles and larger wars were already breaking out all across the galaxy. No one needed to see the palace draped in death to understand what had happened.
Overhead, gray clouds hid the sky, threatening more snow. Casimir’s breath frosted the air as he looked up at the palace, his gaze roaming over the walls until he caught the telltale glint of a security screen. Blue shone faintly, nearly invisible against the white.
“The security field is in place,” Gideon said beside him.
Yes. Someone was home. If the virtually created winter theme hadn’t been evidence enough, the palace security web was solid proof. It could only be activated by someone from inside the palace, and it was designed to repel an army. Not only was someone home, they were hiding inside like a frightened child.
“Time to see if our codes still work.” Casimir strode up the main path. His footsteps left a trail through the thick layer of snow. His unit followed him, fanning out and waiting for any sign of movement from the palace walls. They might look majestic and pretty, like a fairy tale castle, but they hid robust defenses designed to keep anyone from breaching the walls. He was pretty sure his symbiont would survive being cut in half by a plasma turret, but he didn’t want to find out. And his men had no such protection.
Only three weeks ago, the White Palace had been deep in its summer season. Casimir and his unit had been on a distant world at the edge of Commonwealth space, investigating reports of increased pirate activity on the fringes. A fool’s mission, but one Casimir couldn’t refuse. Where his King ordered him to go, he went. Sereya had never been easy having him at the palace. The King used every excuse to send Casimir away. This time, it had cost him his life.
He stopped in front of the massive security archway that was the only entrance from the outer courtyard into the inner sanctuary. A security console stood next to it, silent and unmanned. In all the times he’d come and gone here, Casimir had never before seen this place so empty. No guards patrolled the garden paths. No sentries stood beside the archway.
To the untrained eye, the palace looked empty and abandoned.
He passed his hand over the console, and it lit up in response. No alarm sounded, and a holoscreen rose before him.
“You’re still in the system,” Gideon said. His second-in-command sounded surprised.
“I doubt they know I exist.” Another monarch might have bragged about having someone of Casimir’s capabilities in his inner circle. Not Sereya. Even if he had, Casimir had been here when the palace was built. His clearance was input when the system was designed, into the very bones that made up the palace AI and governed its every aspect.
First, he tried his Crown code, the unique ID Sereya had assigned him. Nothing happened. He and Gideon exchanged a look.
A voice issued from the console, courteous, female, and familiar. Vera, the palace AI. “Incorrect code. Please identify.”
Gideon cast a worried look up at the walls, as though expecting artillery to start raining down on them at any moment. Nothing broke the winter stillness. It wouldn’t, unless he failed to pass this next part.
“Casimir Aleksandr Mazur,” Cas said. “One, one, zero, seven, three, six, two, zero.”
“Voice identification confirmed. Access code confirmed. Casimir Aleksandr Mazur, what is my name?”
Gideon looked at the console in shock. “What kind of security question is that? She’s a bloody AI—”
Casimir lifted a hand, and Gideon stopped talking instantly.
“Casimir Aleksandr Mazur, do you understand the question?”
“I do, Vera Yelena Vasiliev.”
“Access granted.” Vera’s voice warmed with familiarity. “Alik, you’re back!”
Gideon looked at him, mouthing the name, a question on his face. It had been a long time since Casimir had accessed Vera using this method, and Gideon had never before heard her address him by a nickname no one else used anymore.
“Vera,” Cas said, “how many people are currently in the palace?”
“At this time, there are five occupants present.”
“Five?” Gideon said in disbelief. “Where the hell are all of the guards? The servants? The court?”
“All previous occupants were ordered to leave when Miles Eugene Vandencourt arrived with his entourage and took up residence,” Vera said.
“Miles Vandencourt.” Gideon frowned. “Why do I know that name?”
“Miles Eugene Vandencourt is the sole heir to the Vandencourt banking conglomerate, and the eleventh wealthiest man in the Commonwealth.”
“Only the eleventh?” Gideon asked with a wry look at Cas.
“How did he gain entry?” Cas asked. “The Vandencourts are private citizens with no position in the government.”
“A Crown code.”
She meant the type of code Cas had tried first; personally issued by the Crown to those sworn to serve it, changed on a random rotation, and granted to a select few. Personal advisors, the highest ranking of the palace guard, other key figures in the palace staff, each of them personally known to Cas.
“That’s not possible,” he said.
Vera stayed silent. She couldn’t lie. As far as the AI knew, one of those personal codes was exactly how Miles had gained entry. And how had he ordered away every person here? How had he gained access to the security field?
Asking, Casimir thought, would be futile. AI’s were supposed to be impossible to hack. They had multiple levels of quantum encryption. But as he knew well enough, nothing was impossible. Vera clearly didn’t have the answers he needed.
“Where is Miles now?” he asked.
“In the throne room.”
Of course he was.
“Vera, my team needs clearance for the palace archives.”
“As you wish, Alik.”
An interface opened up in the console, and a holocard slid out. “Access will expire in ten hours. If more permanent access is needed, please apply to the Royal Archivist.”
Casimir handed Gideon the card.
“Get to the archives,” he said. “Take everything dated from the Ascension Wars.”
“That’s going to be a lot.” Gideon was careful not to question him directly.
“Clean it out.”
Booted feet moved as one across the mechstone. Casimir took a moment, staring up at the palace windows.
“Sir?” Gideon hesitated on the other side of the security entrance.
“Don’t wait for me.” He turned from the console and walked through the archway. “Get in and get what we need.”
“Where will you be, sir?”
“I’ll start with the throne room, I think.”
“Sir?” Gideon hesitated. “Do you want—”
“No.” Casimir held back his impatience. Gideon didn’t normally question his orders, but they were all on edge coming back here. This didn’t feel like coming home. It felt like entering enemy territory.
He met Gideon’s concerned gaze. Still young at thirty-three, sometimes he made Cas feel ancient. Then again, everyone made Cas feel old these days.
Gideon was a good soldier. Stocky and strong, with short black hair and sharp brown eyes that missed nothing. He had a forgettable face, an average build, and coloring that tended to blend in. He was the perfect asset for the more clandestine work they did. Better at it than Cas himself, who had to work not to be noticed.
He also fancied himself Casimir’s friend. More than any of the others, he was aware of the cold rage that burned within Cas, that had been burning steadily for three weeks, eating at him.
It should have been his job to protect the King. They all knew it. If he’d been here…if he’d been here things would be different.
“I’ll be fine,” he said to Gideon. “Go.”
His second didn’t dare question him again. All of them knew that tone. His men moved on with their task.
Casimir walked into the inner courtyard. He stepped through the security web, the faint buzz as it passed over his skin barely detectible. Everything stayed silent. A few stray snowflakes drifted past his face, and he cast an irritated glance skyward. He’d always hated the conceit of the White Palace’s virtual seasons. Never more than in this moment.
He stepped inside the great doors as the snow began to flurry in earnest. The cavernous entry greeted him, for once devoid of the guards who should have been stationed here. He paused, listening, but he couldn’t even hear his men anymore.
The place was silent as a mausoleum.
He didn’t turn toward the throne room as he’d told Gideon. He would get there eventually, but he had a different stop to make first.
He strode down empty corridors boldly, not troubling to hide his presence. His boot heels clicked on floors of polished marble, daring someone to confront his presence.
No one did.
When he came to the royal wing, he stopped. Three weeks was a long time. Someone could have accessed the security recordings. Erased them. But the Commonwealth didn’t just lose the royal family that day. The entire Council of Sovereign Planets was assassinated in what could only be a surgical strike at the heart of humanity.
He had evidence the attacks on the Council members had been carried out by Talented. The majority of the population believed the only Talented left were pirates out in fringe space, rarely seen and easily avoided here in the heart of the Commonwealth. It was naive to think so. The attack could have been pirates. Or, someone else. One of the many powerful corporations who secretly employed Talented in their board rooms, or bought and sold them as slaves. Or, perhaps someone who wanted the crown. A rival.
He didn’t think so, though. No corporation or rival family had done this. This wasn’t squabbling over a throne. It was war. The question was, who was on the other side? Pirates? Or something worse?
Everything was in chaos. Just getting here had been a test of his skills. The usual law and order that ruled the galaxy had fallen to distrust and suspicion, not to mention the fools grappling for power. Planets with jump points normally open and secure were closed to outsiders.
Just the word left a bitter taste in his mouth. Less than a month ago, no one in the Commonwealth had been an outsider. Everyone was a citizen. Now, no one knew where they stood. With the monarchy dead, without the Council, the entire universe was without leadership and guidance, and all anyone could say when someone tried to step in and calm the discord was why should we listen to you? Who are you? What blood runs in your veins?
Former allies and enemies alike vied for a chance at the throne. The Ashir royal line was dead. Everyone wanted to be the next to rule. The longer this instability continued, the more they risked the utter destruction of the Commonwealth and all it stood for. The galaxy teetered on the edge of an abyss. If nothing changed, they would fall back into the Ascension Wars.
Casimir would do anything to stop that from happening.
He eyed the wall in front of him, just to the left of the entrance to the royal apartments. On a normal day, guards would have been stationed here. No security console stood nearby. It was all controlled in a distant room, levels below him. He didn’t have time to make the journey down.
“Vera,” he said aloud.
“Yes, Alik?” Her voice resonated from all around him.
“I need to access the security holorecorders.”
“As you wish, Alik.”
“Start with this cross section. Wait.” He thought for a moment. “First, show me the throne room.”
A projection of the room appeared before him. His body tightened with anger as he watched Miles pour himself a drink from Sereya’s private selection. The Vandencourts were corporate, a banking family with ties to human trafficking. Wealthy, elite, utterly corrupt, and with no business within light years of the White Palace, much less anywhere near its throne.
Four other figures also occupied the room. He studied them, but from the recording they looked like standard corporate types. He doubted that very much. Miles didn’t gain access to the palace and then empty it out with a board of directors at his side.
“Vera, show me the recordings for this hallway starting twelve hours prior to the King’s death. Twenty times speed.” He would have no trouble visually keeping up with the pace.
A normal evening at the palace unfolded before him. Guard changes. Servants. Visitors. The royal family. He ignored the twinge in his chest as Sereya walked by with Queen Jessa on his arm. The unexpected wave of regret caught him off guard. As much as he and Sereya had disagreed, Jessa had always been kind to him. She’d smoothed over their arguments, offered a cool voice of reason when Sereya’s temper flared. She’d been a true gem, a Queen in every sense of the word. And Sereya, for all his fears and faults, had been a good man. Cas would miss them both. Not just as monarchs, but as people.
“Slow,” he said. “Four times speed.”
He watched as the royal couple nodded to the guards, exchanging a few words. They were obviously headed up to retire for the night.
More servants. More guard changes. A long period of little to no activity. He sped it up again. And then—
There. “Slow. Normal speed.”
All of his attention was on the projection before him. It was muted in color, nearly transparent, but three dimensional and visible to the smallest detail. Two guards stood at the entrance to the royal apartments. A third figure approached them with a determined stride.
“Stop.” The recording froze.
Casimir circled the figure, studying.
She was nothing but a girl. Sixteen, seventeen perhaps? Of course, he knew better than anyone that appearances and age did not necessarily correlate. But watching as she spoke to the guards, noting the gleam in her blue eyes, the faint smile that tugged at her lips, he thought she was very young.
The guards passed her through as though they knew her. She wore a palace guard uniform, but Casimir knew every single one by face and by name. She didn’t belong here.
He followed her down the hall and up the stairs to the nursery.
Mother, how he’d hated that term. It wasn’t a nursery if the children in it were half grown, kept in a kind of stasis and forbidden to experience life. He’d shouted those words at Sereya once, but the King would not be budged.
Irritated with himself, he shoved aside the old argument. It was a moot point now. He watched the young woman dispatch the guards in the hall with ruthless efficiency. Watched her access the nursery and murder those within.
A soul blade. A weapon from the Ascension Wars. Very few had survived to this day and age, and they were almost always wielded by Talented. The almost kept him from jumping to conclusions. Even so, he strongly suspected what she was as he followed her to the King’s apartments.
“Vera, why didn’t you employ security measures when an unknown entered the palace grounds and drew a weapon?”
“There were no unknowns on the palace grounds on the date in question. All visitors passed through security. No weapons were drawn.”
Casimir stared at the evidence to the contrary on the holofeed. “Vera, how did the palace guards die?”
“Natural causes. Heart failure.”
“The royal heirs?”
“Mechanical failure in the nursery.”
“How did King Seraya die?”
“Natural causes. A brain aneurysm.”
“And Queen Jessa?”
“Natural causes. A brain aneurysm.”
Watching the girl kill the King and Queen from behind a locked door, his doubts vanished. She was one of them. The Talented. Worse, she was a Killer.
Old ghosts and long buried memories stirred deep within him. Ruthlessly, he shoved them back down. Nothing that had happened centuries ago could help him today.
AIs could be incredibly pedantic, but that was not all that was going on here. Someone had tampered with Vera. Likely, someone Talented with the ability to directly interface with the AI’s brain.
He didn’t need to follow the girl’s trail any further. Once outside the palace, he would lose her anyway. He let the recording fade and turned away from the royal family’s rooms. His own quarters weren’t far, and he went to them now. He’d be leaving soon, and this time he needed all of his things with him.
A cursory search of his quarters satisfied him that no one had tried to enter them in his absence. He shoved aside the heavy wooden frame of his bed as though it weighed nothing. On the wall behind it was a scanner. He laid his hand against it, and felt the telltale thrum of low level energy as it activated. A seam appeared, and a slight push swung open the compartment he’d framed in himself when the palace was built.
From inside, he pulled out an assault rifle dating back to the Ascension Wars and outlawed in the time since, as well as a locked box about the length of his forearm and the width of his hand. Out of habit, he checked the charge on the assault rifle.
Full, of course. This system’s sun would probably die before the crystal that powered it burned out. Arabis II was destroyed, the planet’s surface a wasteland. But once, the stunning crystal spires had hidden a treasure deep within them. The crystal hearts that grew deep inside the spires were natural batteries of immense power. Deadly to harvest, damn near impossible to get, considered priceless by the galaxy’s most wealthy.
Casimir had two in his possession. The one inside his assault rifle, and the one inside his body.
He used that energy now, channeling it into his hands and focusing his will. There was a faint, barely perceptible sound, like a seal popping open, and the assault rifle and box both vanished. He didn’t know where they went, exactly. Only that he would be able to access them whenever he needed to, pulling them from whatever rent in reality he’d sent them through and back into his possession. Over the long years, he’d sent many items and weapons into otherspace. He had no idea if the place he sent items had any connection at all to the otherspace ships jumped through, but he had no reason to think it didn’t, either. Most of the time, he could easily call items back. Rarely, he couldn’t.
It was only that hint of the unknown that had made him hide anything here in the world he knew, but he could no longer afford that uncertainty. Now was not the time to be clouded by emotion. He took a deep breath and let it out, feeling the rage that had simmered for the past three weeks drain away. Anger accomplished nothing.
He walked out of his quarters and headed to the throne room. On the way there, he checked in with Gideon over his implant, or ‘imp’.
“Just wrapping up the last of it, sir. The transfer is almost done.”
Good. He had just enough time.
The throne room was on the ground floor, situated straight on from the main entrance, the better to keep petitioners and visiting dignitaries away from the rest of the palace. He walked down the hallway often referred to as the “citizens’ path” and stepped into the antechamber.
The doors were closed. Locked.
But not for him.
He ordered it open, and the lock disengaged. The doors to the throne room harkened back to simpler times. Inside, tech controlled them. But their facing was carved of natural wood, heavy and imposing with fancy scrollwork worked around the Ashir crest, a star exploding into a supernova on a field of empty space dotted with smaller stars. They swung open with a whisper of sound, smooth and graceful.
He walked through them, a path he had taken countless times before. Inside, the banners of the original twenty-seven council worlds hung from the walls. The original council table still stood in the center of the room, chairs around it as though a session might be called at any moment. Four people sat in those chairs, looking bored. Three men, one woman. They wore expensive suits that belonged in a corporate boardroom, and at their throats flashed the metallic glint of slave control collars.
Talented. None of them matched the girl he’d seen on the security feed. Not that he’d expected to find her here. She, he remembered, hadn’t been wearing a collar.
Miles Vandencourt was not the kind of man to plan and execute the assassination of an entire government. He was the vulture that swept in after, hoping for scraps from the carcass.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Miles stood up from the throne he had no right to, his drink sloshing over the side of his glass with the movement. He was young, full of himself, and not particularly bright. Just wealthy enough to believe himself invincible.
When his father died five years ago from an inexplicable heart attack no one saw coming, Miles inherited the largest banking conglomerate in the Commonwealth. He owned entire planets, a personal fleet that rivaled the Royal Navy, and he’d been just twenty years old. A famous playboy, he spent his time traveling the galaxy on his personal yacht, flashing a million-credit smile and showing off a sculpted body created by nanotech.
Given time, Miles probably would have matured to some degree. His father would eventually have taken him in hand and schooled him on running the family business. Unfortunately, that hadn’t happened. Gideon joked that Miles was only the eleventh richest man in the galaxy. When his father died, the Vandencourt fortune had been in the top three. Miles had gambled, partied, and generally wasted away enough of the family fortune to fall eight places down the list.
Casimir ignored him. He kept his attention on the four seated around the table. They, too, had noticed his entrance. Two of the men stood up.
“I’m only going to make this offer once,” Cas said. “I can remove your collars, and you can leave here free people. Or stay, and die with him.”
Miles sputtered. The four Talented looked at each other, then back at Casimir. He knew what they saw: a null. Not a threat.
Two of the men stepped forward, hands raised in identical poses, outstretched toward him in a clear indication of a Talented focusing his will.
Someone with real training would never have telegraphed what they were doing. These were amateurs, not soldiers.
Three things happened at once: a force of wind buffeted Cas, so strong it should have lifted him off his feet and thrown him back out into the corridor; another force gripped his throat like a hand, squeezing; and his symbiont stirred, a cool wash of strength flooding his limbs, grounding him as a matte gray liquid beaded on his skin, pooling and connecting until it sheathed his entire body. It was like a second skin had formed, malleable and thin, yet impenetrable.
Casamir’s body grew dense, heavy. He didn’t move as the wind tore at him. A film covered his eyes, shielding them from the effects and painting the room in tones of gray, while active Talent glowed in his field of vision with faint colors of green, blue, and red. The crushing force at his throat was only a dim pressure, barely felt.
The Talented gaped at him in shock. He should have been thrown across the room, his throat crushed. Instead, he stood completely encased in an armored bodysuit unlike anything seen in a hundred years and brushed off their Talent like it was nothing.
“What—what are you?” The third man asked, rising slowly to his feet. His face was white and pinched with pain. A telepath, Casimir decided. The pain he was experiencing was likely backlash from trying to enter Cas’s mind. The symbiont was a jealous partner, extremely protective against any other perceived intruders.
Casimir ignored the question. “Last chance,” he said. “Walk away free, or die as slaves to this coward.” He gestured to where Miles hunkered under the table, a trembling, fearful mess still clutching his glass and slurping at the contents.
The woman shrugged. “All right.” She met Casimir’s gaze without flinching. “They tell us the only way these collars can be removed is through death. We’ve seen the truth of that many times. Are you saying there’s another way?”
He inclined his head. “I have to touch it.”
She moved around the table, walking towards him. He detected a slight tremor to her gate, but otherwise her face was composed and she didn’t hesitate to close distance with him.
“Stop!” Miles ordered. “You belong to the Vandencourt family. You are my property.”
“Vera,” Casimir said casually, “if Miles speaks or so much as moves again, please send a record of this interaction to the Commonwealth judiciary branch.” Some remnants of the government were still in operation, and the judiciary branch was out in force, protecting the populace as best they could, throwing insurrectors into prison cells where they would likely remain until this unrest ended. If it ended. “I’m sure they’ll be very interested in the head of the Vandencourt banking conglomerate admitting to human trafficking.”
“Of course, Alik.”
Cas looked at Miles. “I wouldn’t suggest trying to countermand that order. Vera, explain to Miles who has the authority to revoke or change an order I’ve given you.”
“You and the royal family, Alik.”
Miles’ face turned florid with color, his mouth opening and closing as he struggled not to scream the obscenities no doubt flooding his thoughts.
The woman reached Cas and stopped right in front of him, within arm’s length.
“I hope I haven’t just made a terrible mistake,” she said. She was young, maybe in her thirties, the brown skin of her face unlined. Her dark hair was pulled back in a businesslike bun, and her green eyes were bright and intelligent.
“You haven’t,” he said, and closed a hand over the collar at her throat. He could feel the thrum of nanotech buzzing through it, the tiny little machines that aligned themselves with her DNA, programmed to explode if the collar was ever removed. It was a fashionable looking circlet, easy to mistake for jewelry. But it was a vile thing, made for one purpose: to kill whoever wore it. If they used their Talent without permission, it exploded. If they tried to remove it, it exploded. It grew or shrank with them, bonded to them the moment it was placed around their necks. He’d met Talented over a hundred years old who couldn’t remember not having a collar. It was expensive tech, and not every slaver used it, but the wealthy ones, like Miles, did. The collars were the surest way of controlling a Talented slave.
The woman’s breathing had become irregular the moment he touched the collar. Fear dilated her eyes.
“Relax,” Cas told her. “This isn’t the first time I’ve removed one of these.”
He gathered the familiar energy in his body and focused it, as he had before. He felt warmth pool in his hand, and he focused his will on the collar. The faint pop as it disappeared made the woman flinch. A moment later, her eyes widened as she realized that the collar was gone, and she was still alive. She put a hand to her throat, feeling at the pale line of flesh where the collar had rested.
“It’s gone!” She spun toward the other three. “It’s really gone!”
They all stared at her, Miles included. His mouth gaped open.
“Anyone else?” Cas asked.
The other three practically tripped over each other to get to him first. He freed them all. He didn’t know if the collars exploded after he sent them to otherspace, or wherever things went when he did what he did. He’d never tried recalling one.
When he was done, and the man who’d tried to choke him with telekinesis was rubbing at his throat, Cas waved a hand at Miles. “He’s all yours,” he said.
Miles tried to scramble out from under the table, but he didn’t make it far before he was lifted into the air, choking on air and clawing at his own throat with futile fingers. Casimir turned away, not because watching Miles die for his sins bothered him, but because something else had caught his attention.
He walked to the throne, his eyes on the wall behind it. Here hung the symbols of the monarchy behind a stasis field. A scepter, a crown, and a necklace. Each was set with multiple jewels, but one blazed brighter than all of the rest.
A huge jewel formed the center of the crown, carved in a teardrop shape, sapphire hued and burning with an inner fire. It wasn’t a jewel exactly, it just resembled one. In fact, the same technology that had created the slave collars was also responsible for the Royal Paragon. The size of a man’s palm, it was connected to the Ashir family on a molecular level, designed to burn with the shimmer of fiery color for as long as the family line existed.
Decades ago, when the technology was first created, many wealthy families purchased them. The Ashir weren’t the first to use it, but the royal family adopting it as part of the crown jewelry had certainly popularized the practice, and suddenly every noble or wealthy family in the galaxy was buying jewelry with Bloodline Jewels, as they were called.
The jewels were representative of the family. As long as they burned brightly, the family survived — the whimsical marketing campaign had used the word thrived, but that wasn’t actually true. The glow simply meant the family bloodline lived. Some even used the stones to verify the veracity of a bastard’s claim. A genetic test was just as easy, but not nearly as romantic. The glow of the stones intensified when they were physically held or worn by a family member.
When the bloodline connected to a particular jewel died out, so did the inner fire within the gemstone. It faded to a standard sparkle and looked like a run-of-the-mill, normal sapphire. It could never be rekindled or bonded to anyone else.
The crown jewelry did not look like a normal sapphire. It glowed with life, with vibrancy and fire.
There was only one way that could be possible.
Behind him, there was a great deal of commotion and conversation among the four Talented he’d freed, but the sounds and words washed over him like white noise. None of it mattered.
The royal line was not dead. Somewhere out there, an heir to the monarchy lived. All he had to do was find them.