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Queen Ximena is devoted to her people and will gladly sacrifice herself for them, even if it means her death. Her bodyguard, Zefirino, is devoted to her and will gladly sacrifice himself to keep her alive.
When a terrible enemy suddenly attacks their planet, how will they protect those they love without losing each other? Together they survive an assassination attempt, invasion, and capture, but they both know that their duty may eventually tear them apart.
How can Ximena give her life for her people when she knows that Zefirino will die trying to save her? Who does she put first: her planet, or the lover she isn’t even supposed to have?
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Ximena ran her fingers along the white marble walls as they walked. The cold surface soothed her nerves and helped her orient her thoughts properly. Too much confusion in her mind led to bad things, not that she’d ever let it get to that. Her authority was a heavy responsibility, but she’d been raised to shoulder it since birth.
The tunnel they moved down was brightly lit, almost enough to hurt her eyes, but not quite. The marble that sheathed everything might have looked sterile except for the few black doors that dotted the long passage. They were the secret entrances to every room in the Palace, used by only a few servants and security personnel. It was a major breach of protocol for her to be here.
“Why are you doing this, Xi?” Zefirino asked.
She shrugged tiredly, unsurprised by his question. She’d been waiting for it. “It is my responsibility.”
He put a hand in front of them, stopping her. The mark of his rank, Aegis Strike Leader, was tattooed on the palm of his right hand. She eyed the circle with the two strikes bisecting it and stifled a sigh. He let his hand drop. “No, it is not. It is too dangerous. I could question her for you. I should question her for you.”
She frowned at him. His handsome face was troubled. She wished she could reach out and smooth the worry lines away, but such familiarity would shock him, desperate as she was to feel his skin, accept that he was a living, breathing man who stood beside her always. She sighed out loud, instead. “We tried it your way and she would not speak. I need to do this.”
He looked at her steadily, the olive green of his eyes never wavering. Not for the first time she found herself admiring the cool green of his stare. He was a handsome man, not that she allowed herself to think of him that way very often. She looked down, wondering how he could stand there like that, so still. He never fidgeted. His tight black uniform hugged his body, highlighting the muscles hard-won through years of training. Weapons were strapped to his arms and legs, small black lumps against the synthetic fabric of his clothing.
“You know I am right,” she said finally, meeting his eyes again. She ignored the curious looks of the others in the passageway. They knew better than to question her presence here. She was their ruler, their queen. Zefirino was her personal bodyguard and head of the royal security force, as his father had been before him. Of all the people in the Palace, they had the right to go anywhere and do anything they wished. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the tension that coiled in her spine like a snake. The right to go anywhere meant that she went fewer places than most.
Zef licked his lower lip thoughtfully. She hid a smile, turning away from him. He would hate to be reminded of the one childhood habit he could not train away.
“Fine. But I will be there with you at all times.”
“I would expect nothing less,” she said, looking down the gleaming marble at the black door set in the curve of the tunnel. “It is time.”
He said nothing as she walked to the door and paused in front of it. After a moment’s hesitation, she put her eye to the security panel set at shoulder height. The electronics in the door identified her retinal pattern. With a flick of her eyelid, she keyed on the hidden camera so that she could look out into the courtyard. Sitting on the stone bench near the waterfall was the woman they’d come to see. Her long, brown hair was expertly arranged to fall over her left shoulder. Her lips were painted a deep red. Ximena controlled the urge to run her hand down her own hair. It’d taken an hour to wrestle her curly red mane into submission this morning.
“Well?” Zef asked.
“So pushy,” she murmured. Her companion flashed her a rare grin. Ximena rolled her eyes at him then squared her shoulders and pushed open the door.
The courtyard was shockingly humid after the cool, controlled environment of the Palace. Zefirino settled into position near the door, trying to blend into the wall and look menacing at the same time. Ximena allowed herself a quick smile. There was no way Zef could ever blend in, he was simply too tall. Too commanding. The door closed silently behind her as she walked forward, but the woman didn’t look up.
“I’ve been waiting almost an hour.” She examined her fingernails, still not bothering to acknowledge Xi’s presence.
Ximena halted several feet away, considering her words carefully. The woman did not bow or indicate in any way that she was in the presence of her queen. Strange. It would not do to appear defensive. She spent too much time in committee meetings to be entirely happy with the way the woman was acting. She had to deal with squabbling councilors nearly every day and wasn’t pleased to be here handling yet another difficult person when she would have preferred to be resting. All too soon she would have to attend dinner where yet more opportunities for lobbying would need managing. Compromise was a hallmark of her reign and the unification of all the outlying provinces the result, but that kind of policy took a great deal of patience. She stifled a sigh. Self-pity is not a queenly trait, she told herself.
“I hope you enjoyed the fountain. If one must wait, it is better to do so in the presence of beauty,” Ximena finally said, walking forward and gesturing at the water. It arced in an interwoven pattern of half-circles, changing at half-minute intervals. The scent of moisture hitting sun-baked concrete tickled her nose.
The woman swiveled around on the bench and set her feet on the ground. She wore a long, red robe, belted with a brown leather utility belt at her waist. Ximena took in the empty weapon slots with equanimity. Zef’s people would have searched the woman before letting her this far onto the Palace grounds.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the woman stated, eyeing Ximena’s simple white formal robe with a slightly raised brow.
Ximena’s cocked her head. “Are we to trade aphorisms all day or will you offer your name?”
The woman cocked her head. Her dark brown eyes glittered with some emotion Ximena didn’t recognize. “I am Cleo.”
Ximena clasped her hands together. “Cleo. What brings you to Palace City?”
Cleo pursed her lips, eyes darting to Zef and back again. She pivoted on the bench and looked out over the stone wall separating the Palace courtyard from the public grounds. Children shrieked as they ran into and out of the water.
“Look at them, so young. Their minds have nothing in them except the urge for play or sleep or food.” Cleo looked back over her shoulder at Ximena and smiled, but only half her mouth tilted up. “Don’t you think so?”
She looks more bitter than happy, Ximena thought, forcing her impatience down. Behind her she sensed Zef’s wariness as if it were a physical thing. He shifted his stance, relaxing and tensing his muscles in a precise sequence so that none would grow fatigued.
“They look also for love,” Ximena offered finally. She let her hands fall to her sides. No sense in holding the traditional greeting posture when the woman didn’t acknowledge it by voice or body movement.
“Love?” Cleo laughed. “Is that how you see children?”
Ximena didn’t allow even the tiniest bit of discomfort to mar her face. She didn’t know why the woman had demanded to see her or who she had bribed to get this far, but her very presence here in this courtyard said much about her ability to maneuver the slick, political dangers of Arcadia. “Children are a blessing.”
The woman stared at her with her perfect hair, perfect skin and lips, and Xi tried to appear calm and expectant, though she felt anything but. Suddenly the woman whipped her hand up, an antique pistol nestled like a viper within her fingers. Xi stepped back as the metal flashed in the sunlight—shocking and unexpected on this cloudless day. As if in slow motion, Ximena saw her squeeze the trigger but she was already diving behind the second stone bench, Zefirino too far away to protect her. She concentrated briefly, infusing her hands with energy, then picked up the bench and shoved it over as the sharp, percussive pop-pop-pop of the bullets hit the door, the wall, and the edge of the stone paving.
“Ximena!” Zef cried and Xi knew he was trying to get to her but he would be too late. She must save herself. Deep in her mind she relaxed her rigid control and let her training take over. Bullets from the pistol continued to fly around her and she spared an anguished thought for Zefirino, her companion since they were children, but she needed to focus when she used Vim. The ordinary citizens called it magic, and thought it an easy gift, but she knew better the price she paid for her strength. Magic was a child’s tale. Vim was real and exacted some very difficult costs depending on what she did with it. To save her life and Zef’s, she would gladly pay.
She infused more energy into her muscles as quickly as she dared then picked up the bench a large man would have trouble pushing even a pebble’s length and ran with it towards the woman. The rough stone, designed to look rustic, warmed her palms. The water from the fountain looked like it was floating, as if gravity had disappeared, but Ximena couldn’t spare the time to consider the changes in her mind when she used Vim as she always had before. This was no meditation exercise. Several bullets hit the stone, it vibrated minutely, and then she was on top of Cleo, shoving the stone down onto her. She thought the woman would die instantly with two tons of weight on top of her body, but instead she struggled, pushing up against the bench with inhuman strength. Ximena shoved down and heard the woman’s bones crack. Horrible. She pushed harder, trying to finish it, but Cleo shoved one last time. The bench shifted up and off her body for a moment, then crashed down. She didn’t move after that.
How did she do that? No one is that strong, Ximena thought, shocked, then her thoughts fractured and reality zoomed into her body and mind like a glider hitting a wall. She gasped and stepped out of the way of the bench sliding down and off the woman’s body. It tumbled to the ground with a hollow boom. Fragments of the broken stone caught in Ximena’s robe.
“Xi! Are you hurt?” Zefirino was finally there. He had his hands on her arms and Ximena thought she might pass out from the shock of his warm palms on her skin for the first time in decades. His terror for her had clearly overthrown years of training.
“I am fine, Zef. I am unhurt, see?” She gestured as best she could with his fingers still wrapped around her forearms. He looked down, a dull flush rising over his olive skin. He dropped her arms and stepped back.
“My apologies, my queen.”
Ximena suddenly felt like sobbing. One touch, just one and I am undone. “No.” She waved a hand. It trembled and she hugged it to her waist. “No apologies are necessary, Zefirino.” She explained away their lapse with a shake of her head.
“The security recordings—”
“Will show you rushing to my defense,” Ximena stated. She turned and looked at the red ruin of the woman. I did that, she thought very quietly to herself. A part of her mourned the necessity, but as always, her sense of duty took precedence. “The children?” The silence of the courtyard felt oppressive. Even the water seemed to fall more softly.
“Evacuated at the first shot,” Zef said. He looked away. “I saw to them first.”
Ximena knew he regretted his actions.
“Zef.” Cautiously she put a hand on his arm. Startled, he whipped his head around. His green eyes held tears. “Zefirino, you did what I would have ordered. It is the most sacred rule of our society that children are to be protected.”
He swallowed. “But you are my queen. My duty is to you first, always.”
“No! In this I am nothing more than an ordinary woman. A woman grown and quite capable of looking after myself. You did what was right. You did right, choosing the correct path above all else, just as you always have and will.”
He searched her face and Ximena hoped he saw her unshaken belief in his fidelity. He must have, for he gave a short nod and stepped back. “I do not understand how she could have hidden the pistol.”
Ximena took a deep breath and edged toward the body. “I do not either. We have both been over the protocols a dozen times, as have your men.”
Zef crouched down, poking at the woman’s skull with his telescoping stick weapon. “Xi. Something is odd here.”
She grimaced, but obediently moved closer. She could hear the sounds of Zef’s security detail moving up through the public courtyard. They had only moments before chaos would be upon them. “What is it?”
He glanced at her then plucked a fiber from the mess of red on the stone. “This woman is not human.” He frowned. “Or not entirely human”
Ximena leaned closer, staring at the piece of fiber in his hand. “Zef, surely not.”
“I know, it sounds crazy.” He poked some more, plunging fingers into what used to be a living brain.
Ximena leaned closer, ignoring the stench of sun-heated blood congealing around them. What she saw beneath Zef’s fingers made her heart seize in her chest. “Is that—?”
“Yes.” Zefirino showed her the silicon circuit he’d teased from the mass of brain tissue. “She is a synthetic life form. An android. A myth made real.”
Ximena stared at his hand. His fingers, so familiar to her, held the nightmare her great-grandmother had foreseen in a Vim dream two centuries ago. She closed his fingers over the chip, not caring that the blood coated hers as well. “This must remain our secret.”
Zef nodded, his expression both disturbed and resolute. Their eyes met and she saw the knowledge of what had just occurred in his expression. He was the only other living person who knew what her grandmother had dreamed, all those years ago. He knew because they’d been raised together as companions, as playmates, as friends, even though she was royal and he was not.
“You have my honor in your hands, as always, my queen.” Zef wiped the chip against his black uniform then bowed his head over their fingers. He handed it to her under cover of her robe and she slid it into her hidden pocket before the others found them with it.