Chapter 1: Surprise Arrivals
Mat glanced at the clock. A few more minutes until the ceasefire started. Thank the galaxy. Lohen had executed a deviously simple plan designed to isolate several of Kreutzer’s planets. They had isolated several in Wendigo and the Unclaimed Quadrant as well, and Treza’s timing was perfect. He had the areas secured and no one could take them back before the ceasefire began. Without the ceasefire, Lohen would never have the power to keep the planets, but if they reinforced the troops, which they would almost certainly do, they would gain a total of seven planets the instant the ceasefire ended. It was brilliant, and neither he nor Eve had thought of it.
A light began flashing and he ordered all of his ships to stop all fire and hold their positions. He waited, in constant communication with his various ships, but it appeared the other nations were also honoring the ceasefire. Adrian had somehow even managed to convince the people in Calib to agree to a ceasefire, so there should be no uprisings for the next month. Any attack would be met, but luckily, all of the troops seemed content to take a break from fighting for a while. The ceasefire was expected to last one month, but could be ended at any point if one of the nations decided to attack. The troops could relax, but not too much.
Less than five minutes after the ceasefire began, a small ship hurtled towards Karena from the nearby gate. He instinctively started to order fire at the unauthorized threat to the capital planet to disable it, then paused. Instead of firing, he opened a communication channel and was shocked when he saw Adrian.
“You weren’t going to fire on me, were you?” Adrian asked with a smile. “There is a ceasefire.”
“What are you doing here? Why didn’t you warn me? You could have been killed!”
Adrian shrugged. “Going to give me clearance or not?”
He cleared his ship to land on Karena and the screen went black. Annoyed, he headed to the dock and waited. Adrian usually gave warning before he visited, but that had only happened a few times. He rarely left Vega, only when something major was happening. The ceasefire was major, but Adrian should have been taking advantage of the peace to get as many deals as possible. And hadn’t he crafted this ceasefire so he could spend time with Damien? He should be in Lohen, if anywhere.
Chris joined him at the dock, the only other person on Karena who had spent a great deal of time with Adrian. She and Mat had both begun their military careers on Vega, and though he had remained longer, they had always remained close. It was Chris who recommended that King Edmond hire him in the first place. Edmond had been hesitant because of his young age and because he wasn’t a citizen of Kreutzer, but Chris’s recommendation had gotten him a personal interview, and that had gotten him the job.
Adrian was beaming as he got off his ship, nearly knocking Mat off his feet with his hug before giving Chris the same treatment.
“You,” he said, turning to Mat, “Are a wonderful, wonderful person.”
It wasn’t the reception he had expected after his refusal to start the ceasefire.
“For signing the ceasefire? I was the last one who did, you know.”
He regretted not being the first to sign, but Edmond had been cautious of the whole matter and waited until final confirmations were in from every other group before finally signing Kreutzer’s participation and therefore putting the ceasefire into effect.
“No, for-” Adrian paused. “You don’t know?”
“I take it back. King Edmond is a wonderful, wonderful person. I shall have to thank him in person.”
“There’s a treaty with Lohen to be discussed during the ceasefire,” Adrian said, and his eyes widened. He and Edmond had talked about it, of course, but he hadn’t realized Edmond would be able to go through with it.
“And as Prince Damien has already successfully negotiated with King Edmond, he will be sent here to arrange the details.”
“What? Damien, coming here?”
“Yes,” Adrian said, now pouting. “It seems that even with the ceasefire, he’s too busy to visit me on Vega. So I came here. Don’t tell him, I want to surprise him.”
Mat laughed and agreed, and when Chris asked why Damien would visit Vega, Adrian launched into a highly fictionalized account of how they met. Leaving Chris to decipher Adrian’s exaggerations on her own, Mat headed towards Edmond’s chambers, knocking on the door and waiting while the king finished speaking with his advisors.
“A treaty with Lohen?” he asked as he entered the room. Edmond sighed.
“I suppose you would find out before I could tell you. I hope you’re not disappointed.” He paused. “I suppose you’ve heard who’s doing the negotiations?”
“Yes, and I don’t know how you managed that.”
King Edmond shook his head. “I was hoping to surprise you. Who told you?”
“I have my sources,” he said, but at Edmond’s honestly crestfallen expression, he added, “And Adrian just arrived.”
Edmond’s surprise was obvious, but also his pleasure. The two had only met in person a few times, but were on good terms. Probably because of their relationships with him, although he had never considered that before. Did they talk about him? He blushed, thinking of all the childhood stories Adrian could tell. He wouldn’t even need to exaggerate most of them; he had been a very unruly child.
“Well,” Edmond said, “It looks like Karena will be very busy for the next week. I expect the treaty to take no less than one week to negotiate, perhaps more.”
He couldn’t hide his smile, but Edmond’s next words made him groan. “I also expect you to follow all of the negotiations, Mat. You’ll have to pay attention this time, too. The prince is a superb negotiator, and you would do well to learn from him.”
“I’ll try,” he promised. He would do his best.
He left and returned to Adrian, helping Adrian get settled into the suite where Damien would be staying. Damien was due to arrive at any time and he had barely helped Adrian bring his bags to the room when he received word that a ship bearing Lohen’s royal mark was about to land. Adrian remained in the room after reminding him that his presence was supposed to be a secret, and he headed to the dock again.
Damien looked more serious than he had before, and more tired, but that was to be expected. He seemed to be feeling the gravity more than last time and his movements were noticeably cautious, no doubt in an attempt to counter his adjustment. While Karena’s light gravity was a boon for defense, this was one time he wished the planet weren’t quite so unbalancing, as it meant Damien was slightly less able to protect himself. He was fairly certain no one would attack him here, but there was always a risk. Even if someone didn’t know he was Treza, a prince from Lohen might be a target given the two nations’ relationship right now. Well, Damien had adapted within a day before, so he would likely do the same this time. Mat, who spent his time in higher gravity even off Karena, barely noticed it.
Damien greeted him with the same smile as always, and had the same reserved demeanor as he bowed to King Edmond, who had also come out to welcome the prince. But while before he had followed regulations to the letter, he now glanced at Mat, clearly impatient. Taking the hint and knowing that Damien would never express his desire to get away from the formality, he turned to Edmond.
“I know you’re supposed to begin now, but would it be all right if I spoke with Damien in private first?”
The king appeared amused and agreed, and Damien followed him out the door. The instant they were in the hall, however, Damien grabbed his arm and twisted Mat to face him. Shocked that he would try to attack him like this, he instinctively broke Damien’s grasp and shoved him sideways into the wall, not drawing his dagger but placing a hand on it. Damien winced, touching his shoulder as if in pain, then straightened. He shook his head, openly amused by Mat’s reaction.
“Sorry, Mat. But where is he?”
Damien’s eyes were full of impatience. “Adrian, who else? Where is he?”
He paused, remembering Adrian’s desire to be kept secret. “What makes you think he’s here?”
Again, Damien grabbed his arm, this time forcing him to walk forward. But his face was relaxed. Not a threat. Of course he wasn’t a threat, he thought, annoyed at himself. Even if Damien did attack him right now, his movements were far too exaggerated to be a threat.
“I tried contacting him on the way here, but the line kept being transferred and then dropping. I know he’s either here or on his way here, and I’m betting he got here before me. So where is he? I don’t care if he wants to surprise me,” he added. “I want to see him right now.”
“You don’t even want to talk to me?” Mat asked, pretending to be hurt.
He was leading the way now, and Damien’s quick pace indicated that even if he sprinted, it wouldn’t be fast enough.
“You really haven’t seen him in a long time, have you?”
“I’ve been somewhat busy.”
“I noticed. Well,” he said as they arrive at the door to Damien’s suite. “Here’s your room, complete with Adrian.”
Damien hugged him, then moved into the room and shut the door securely. He stared at the door for a second, then turned around. Damien had hugged him? Damien was so reserved; he had rarely seen him initiate friendly contact like that. Oh, he always returned friendly gestures, but rarely initiated them. He must really be starved for companionship. Not knowing what else to do, he headed to the negotiation room and immediately regretted it when Edmond and Chris looked up at him from their conversation.
“You’ve already lost Prince Damien?”
“Prince Damien is, well, occupied,” he said carefully. When Edmond and Chris shared a knowing smile, he sighed. “Adrian didn’t tell you, too.”
“No,” Chris said. “Adrian asked me to warn Edmond that something like this might happen.”
“I hope that’s all right with Damien. He doesn’t want anyone to know.”
“If he’s involved with Adrian, he’ll have to get used to having his secrets shared,” she pointed out.
“I don’t think he’s thought that far ahead in the relationship. Well, I’m not sure how long they’ll be.”
“I’ve already cancelled today’s session,” Edmond said. “Travel can be so tiring, after all. We’ll begin tomorrow.”
He nodded in agreement and Edmond left the room. Chris sat down and gestured for him to sit as well.
“So are the two of you still friends, do you think? I mean, a lot has happened since he was here.”
“We’re still friends,” he said, thinking of the smile and hug Damien had given him. “But you’re right, things will probably be different between us. I don’t think it’ll be a bad difference, though, just a difference.”
“You still trust him?”
“Of course,” he said without hesitation. “I know him; I know what kind of person he is. Why? Do you think he’ll have changed just because he’s been attacking us for so long?”
She shrugged. “You see someone as your enemy for long enough, it starts to become true. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Damien isn’t going to hurt me,” he said. “At least not on purpose. And he was our enemy before, remember. Maybe we didn’t face him in battle every day, but he’s always been an enemy. And despite that, we became friends. I don’t think any of that is going to change.”
“How is he doing? Aside from the gravity, I mean. I hadn’t considered it, but he’s probably spent most of the last few months in extremely high-G.”
Mat hadn’t considered it either, but it was an unfortunate side-effect of constant fighting. No wonder it seemed to affect him more than last time. She glanced at him.
“He seemed fine, but that can’t be the truth.”
“No,” he said. “I guess you have to know him to see past his façade, but he looked completely exhausted. It’s no wonder, given what he’s been doing. It’ll probably take days to recover and adapt. And he’s injured. I don’t know how badly, but enough that I’ve already noticed. He’s stubborn enough not to seek medical help on an enemy planet, but hopefully Adrian can convince him if he needs it. He’ll do almost anything for Adrian, just like Adrian will do almost anything for him.”
“That’s the reason for that message Adrian sent him, isn’t it? You said there was an assumed cost to it. What was it?”
He shrugged, thinking of the message Chris had told him about from Adrian to Damien. Even though the message was private, his second- and third-in-command had both seen it because of Damien’s carelessness. It had been an explicit warning about military affairs, something Adrian would normally charge sky-high rates for, if he offered it at all. But there had been no mention of price in the message, and that had puzzled Chris and the others who saw it. Now that she knew about Damien’s more intimate relationship with Adrian, there was no real point keeping it a secret.
“A visit to Vega. But as I said, Adrian probably tacked on a lot more for that type of message.”
His brow crinkled as he realized that Damien hadn’t kept up his end of the bargain if Adrian hadn’t seen him a single time. Maybe Adrian had thought that giving him an explicit message like that would force Damien to come to Vega, but it hadn’t worked.
“What is it?” Chris asked.
“Damien never went to Vega, but Adrian kept giving him information,” he said slowly. “Adrian’s going to be ruthless now that he finally has a chance to see Damien face-to-face.”
“And what does ruthless mean, in their relationship?”
He thought about it. Some of it was probably very intimate, but some of it would require trips to Vega. And if Damien hadn’t been able to visit Vega before, there had to be a reason.
“Most likely disobeying his king,” he said. “Which he usually has no problems doing, but I’m not sure he can get away with it during the ceasefire when he’s strengthening his troops. He can get away with this trip because he doesn’t need to be there the entire time and because his king ordered it, but that also means he’ll need to spend the rest of time focused on his troops.”
“What if the ceasefire is broken?”
He laughed. “He’ll probably be gone before we even realize he’s preparing to leave.”
“You seem to have a lot of faith in his abilities,” she said with a smile.
“Like I said,” he said, shrugging. “I know him.”
“Are you going to try to convince him to leave again?”
“Of course,” he said. Last time Damien had visited, he had cautiously broached the subject and Damien had instantly shut him down. But he was going to have to give up the army when he became king after Edmond, so he wanted to have someone in place to take over for him. Chris was his first choice, but she wasn’t interested in the position. He had discussed it with her enough to know that she wasn’t looking forward to the promotion. Which meant that there might be a power vacuum whenever he entered the court fully and had to give up the military, and Damien would be ideal to fill that void. Not only was Damien highly skilled, he seemed to have no real connection with Lohen. He was a prince and the commander, but he and his king were clearly on bad terms to the point that the entire army was divided between those loyal to Damien and those loyal to King Alexander. It ought to be easy to lure him away, but for some reason, Damien had shut the conversation down completely when Mat had pushed. He wasn’t sure why.
“King Alexander obviously has no idea how to handle someone of his talent and is pushing him past his limits,” he continued. “I know they hate each other, but Alexander is putting Lohen in a weak position for no apparent reason. Whatever is keeping him there cannot be worth the situation he’s being put in.”
He paused. “I don’t know how to do it without Adrian noticing, though. Adrian warned me off the subject in very clear terms.”
“Why?” Chris asked, looking very curious. It was a curious question. It suggested that Adrian knew why Damien was in Lohen and while Adrian might not agree with his reasoning, he respected it enough not to question him about it.
“I honestly don’t know,” he admitted. “But I’m going to find out.”