Eve of Eternity
Chapter 2: Justified Betrayal
Damien tapped out the controls on the monitor as the ship came to a graceful halt. He nodded to the four men on his ship and entered the large airdock at Hotaru’s palace. He had switched their ship to Hotaru’s gravity as soon as they entered Wendigo but even so it took a few steps to adjust. Thick, burly guards lounged by all of the exits. Damien shook his head. Wendigo differed from the other nations in many ways, and those differences became extremely obvious the closer one got to the palace.
Wendigo was the only nation without some sort of slave trade and the only government not working with black market smugglers; it was a strange thing in a galaxy ruled by greed. Those burly guards would have accepted bribes in any other nation, but here in Wendigo they served the king loyally. Or at least they usually did.
Thinking of the four men waiting in his ship, he sighed. This job would be easier with his own men, but King Yashim had insisted that no one else could know about it. Damien would just have to trust their abilities and count on his own luck to get through this. He turned off the main corridor into the interior of the palace, mentally running through his plan.
His first stop was the most dangerous: the military barracks. He was the commander of Lohen’s army under the name Treza, and Lohen and Wendigo had been at war ever since their founding. Damien wore a mask when he fought as Treza, but there was always a chance someone would recognize him. He generally looked like an average citizen with his light brown skin and hazel eyes, but his black hair was streaked with red and that tended to stand out. It was a popular style and he didn’t think anyone would notice, but he probably should have dyed it before this mission. He wouldn’t be here long but should have taken that precaution. Too late now, and the person he needed to talk to would almost certainly be in the barracks. There was no way to send him a message.
Damien was dressed as royalty and very few of the men in the barracks gave him a second glance. They assumed he was just one more prince wandering through the halls. He was used to the formal suit all princes wore in public because in his home nation, he ruled a system as its prince. It was forbidden to be in the military and also be a prince, but he had always managed to hide his identity. He didn’t stand out here and it helped that the barracks were so thoroughly integrated into the palace; he could always say he was lost if questioned.
Damien searched for his contact in all of the public areas and had nearly given up when he saw Dilan heading down a hallway with his head bowed as if in intense thought. Probably thinking about the offer Damien had given him. From his slumped posture, Dilan had realized how hopeless the princess’s situation was and would agree to help Damien.
Dilan recognized him instantly even though Damien had been wearing a mask last time they met. Perhaps he was expecting Damien to show up. The flash of recognition in his eyes was followed by a quick scan of his features. Damien didn’t look like he was from Lohen, because he wasn’t, so most people didn’t suspect that he was actually Treza, but there was always a danger in exposing his face. Very few people outside of Lohen knew him, so he felt fairly safe, but he would have to remember to be on guard around Dilan. This was Eve’s best captain, after all. He was fairly certain Dilan was second-in-command, but the exact ranks of captains were always hidden to those outside of the army. The second-in-command was usually stationed on the most dangerous border, though, and Dilan was stationed on his, indicating his rank. He had to assume that his nation of Lohen was a bigger threat than Mammon, the other nation bordering Wendigo, mostly because of the unannounced engagement between King Bertran and Princess Sabine. No one was supposed to know about it but it was common knowledge in the two nations and a major reason he was here.
Damien would have approached Eve directly about the princess’s situation, but she had vanished over a month ago and no one had seen her in battle. It was likely that Eve was a lady in the court and Sabine had forbidden her from leading battles. Eve had been making all kinds of terrible decisions; it was likely that Princess Sabine had a hand in the process since her decision-making ability was severely compromised by Bertran. The decision to isolate her second-in-command and use Eve’s name to hand over several profitable planets to Bertran’s nation wouldn’t be too surprising if Sabine were behind it and it was just one more reason why Damien was here.
Dilan didn’t say a word but indicated that Damien should follow him into his private quarters. Once inside, he remained silent and kicked the ground with his foot as if reluctant to be the first to speak. Damien didn’t mind going first; he was on a tight schedule.
“Have you made up your mind?”
Dilan sighed and stared at the floor as if unable to meet his gaze. “I just talked to her. She actually wants to marry him. She’s not herself. I don’t know how to explain it but I know her, and that isn’t her. The things she was saying – she would never say them.”
“I told you that Bertran is controlling her. I can stop Bertran’s control if you help me.”
“How do you know what’s wrong with her?”
Damien grimaced. The real reason was that Sabine, Bertran and he weren’t human, but that was far too complicated and confidential to explain. He didn’t even know much about his heritage because he was a different race than Sabine and Bertran, but he knew enough about their race to know that Bertran could imprison the princess’s mind and enslave her body if given enough time.
“I know what Bertran is capable of,” Damien said. “I know what steps he’ll take to manipulate your princess. He’s already started undermining her authority and soon he’ll start causing physical damage. He has to be stopped before the damage is permanent and the woman you know is gone forever.”
Dilan kicked the ground again. Then, slowly, he reached into his pocket and withdrew a keycard. He didn’t give it to Damien, though; he just stared at it. Damien knew how hard a decision this was for him. He was handing over access to the royal family to a known enemy. That was grounds for execution if anyone found out, although Damien had gone to great lengths to make sure that no one ever found out about this.
“This will grant you access anywhere you want to go. But if you hurt her at all-”
Dilan still hesitated, fingering the cardkey that would grant him access to the entire compound.
“Why me?” he asked softly, finally looking up.
“You were regularly stationed here before. She obviously trusts you a great deal, but at Bertran’s request, you’ve been moved as far away from the palace as possible. If Bertran thinks you’re a threat, then I think you might be an ally.”
“I’ll help,” Dilan said slowly. “But as soon as Bertran’s dead…”
“She’ll be free to return,” Damien said. “I don’t gain anything by holding her, but it’ll force Bertran into the open and it will protect the only heir to Wendigo’s throne. Despite what you may think, I have no reason to want Wendigo to fall apart completely.”
Dilan looked skeptical, so Damien explained. “If Wendigo is taken over by Mammon, then the combined army will be more powerful than any in the galaxy. And Lohen will be the only nation that shares a border with the super-nation. I don’t want to be in that position. It is very much to my benefit to keep Wendigo alive and flourishing. But you can’t ever tell anyone that I’m involved in this, or that Lohen had anything to do with it.”
“So this isn’t some Lohen mission to trick me and kidnap our princess?”
Damien laughed. “If I kidnapped your princess with the intent of harming her, I’m sure Eve would come out from wherever she’s hiding and force me to give her back.”
Inwardly he shuddered at the thought of Lohen taking the blame for his actions. He had been specifically told not to involve himself in this and the king of Lohen had little tolerance for disobedience. Damien suspected that as soon as his actions became public, King Alexander would put a warrant out for him and knowing Alex as he did, the warrant wouldn’t specify that he be brought back alive. He and his king had a rocky relationship at best; Alex kept him because he was an extremely talented commander and Damien stayed because of a promise he had made fifteen years ago, but the two of them loathed each other and Alex did his best to make Damien’s life hell.
Dilan tossed the keycard up and down, clearly considering his options. He had probably made up his mind but was reluctant to actually go through with it. Damien was in a hurry but this was a point when he could afford to take extra time if necessary. If Dilan felt pressured, the man might back out of the deal. Better to let Dilan take his time on this. Less chance of things going wrong and Lohen getting into trouble.
Damien was doing this mission for his other master, another man in another nation whom Damien had served for as long as he could remember. Yashim wasn’t human either, and he was the one who trained Damien in his alien skills and kept an eye on the other nonhumans in the galaxy. There were only a handful left, but just fifty years ago, one race of aliens had been prevalent throughout the galaxy. The Valeforan race was native to this galaxy and controlled the gates that allowed ships to jump across the galaxy in only twenty minutes. Every member of the current royal families had Valeforan blood but only one true Valeforan remained: King Bertran of Mammon. The Valeforans had always ruled in secret and no one suspected that Valeforan blood indicated that they were alien, but in the Galactic War that had ravaged the galaxy fifty years ago when other alien races had appeared, anyone even suspected of being alien was killed. Because no one understood that Valeforans were alien, though, all but the pure Valeforans had survived.
A natural tattoo on the back of the neck marked those with Valeforan blood. People were born with them and it was forbidden to get a false tattoo in the pattern of a phoenix, as the natural tattoos were. The stronger the blood, the darker the mark. Bertran’s was black, but most royalty in today’s galaxy had dark grey. During the war, anyone with a dark enough tattoo was killed, but enough people with dark tattoos had survived that it was a required part of being admitted to the royalty. In the military, only soldiers with grey or darker marks were allowed to become captains because only they had enough Valeforan blood to operate the jump gates that let ships travel the galaxy so quickly. Soldiers with white or no marks could still become high-ranking officials, but they could never captain ships.
Sabine and Damien both had dark marks, though neither of them were truly Valeforan. The marks were false tattoos, or at least his was, but for some reason Yashim had never explained, Damien was able to operate the gates. He didn’t know his own race, but Sabine was Lithilien, a race of healers from an alternate dimension. Yashim said that they were marked in a different way.
Dilan suddenly thrust the keycard at him and Damien took it, pocketing it immediately. Dilan’s eyes were on the ground and he gestured for Damien to leave. He started to exit, then turned back when he got to the doorway.
“I will protect her from Bertran,” he said. “I promise.”
Dilan nodded, still not looking up at him. He probably didn’t realize the value of the promise. Damien always kept his promises no matter what they cost. He could already feel that he would pay dearly for this one, but accepting the keycard meant accepting responsibility over the princess’s safety and that was a responsibility he took seriously. He would keep her safe, and he would save her from Bertran.
Once out in the hall, he headed towards the princess’s chambers. He wanted to scout out the location while she was gone so there would be no surprises later. He wasn’t even sure he would need the keycard, since he had two other strategies for getting to her, but this was a necessary backup. If everything else fell through, he might need to break in and kidnap her. She was scheduled to be at the opera for the next hour, giving him plenty of time to acquaint himself with the area. He wouldn’t kidnap her until the next day and it would hopefully be in a different setting, but he wanted to have everything set up beforehand.
As he turned the last corner to her chamber, he froze. Sabine was standing outside her door with her back to him. She stood leaning against the door gasping for breath. As he watched, she crumpled to the floor, still gasping. He looked around. There was no one nearby. He rushed to her side and pulled her into a sitting position.
“Your Highness, is everything all right?” he asked.
Her eyes were shut and her breathing was shallow. He ran a finger along the curve of her neck and narrowed his eyes. She looked extremely familiar, but this was not the time to figure out why. She was in a tight corset, which might be disrupting her breathing, but her skin was like ice under his hands and he could feel the chill all the way through her soul. This was Bertran’s doing. Bertran was preventing her from using her powers and her body was shutting down in response.
Damien slid his card through the card reader and the door opened. He lifted Sabine easily and carried her to the bed. She didn’t respond at all. He placed a hand on her forehead. After first focusing on the energy blazing in his own body, he concentrated on sending some of that energy into her limp form. She stirred but didn’t wake as her body heated up in response to the mental energy and heat he was sending her. She was almost at a normal temperature when he heard a scuffle from outside. He just had time to dive off the bed and hide behind some curtains before Sabine’s father, King Avar, came in the living area just outside.
“Sabine, are you okay? You ran off so strangely-”
He entered the bedroom and went pale at the sight of Sabine unconscious on the bed.
He ran over to her and touched her cheek. She murmured slightly but didn’t wake up. The king’s fingers trembled as he typed in a call for emergency help. He gently patted both of her cheeks and shook her shoulders, calling her name over and over. Damien longed to go back to the bed and give the girl more energy, but he couldn’t with anyone else in the room. He would just have to wait and hope she recovered on her own.
The doctors arrived in moments and soon the room was filled with people. Luckily, their attention was entirely on the princess and no one thought to look for intruders. He took advantage of the chaos to open the window just enough for him to escape through. After he made sure she was all right.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” Avar demanded fearfully, but the doctor sat back with a puzzled expression.
“It looks like she just fainted,” she said hesitantly.
The door opened again and Bertran arrogantly strode in, appearing surprised at the number of people in the room. He took one look at Sabine and shook his head, reaching out to stroke her arm.
“What happened?” he asked, glancing up at the king.
“She fainted,” he replied, glaring at the doctor. “For the first time in her life.”
“Well, it is pretty hot out,” Bertran said slowly, glancing around the room as if looking for an intruder. Damien slunk lower behind the curtain. “And she has been under a lot of stress.”
“She’s lived here her whole life and never been affected by the heat,” Avar said. “And as for stress, you’re the cause of that.”
Sabine shifted, her head rolling to one side as she managed to open her eyes. Bertran’s touch had seemed to revive her and Damien stored that bit of information away. Whatever the man was doing, he was now in control of her body through his touch and he must have sensed that Damien had given her energy. His lip curled at the arrogant smile that appeared on Bertran’s face as Sabine slowly sat up and rubbed her head.
“Bertran? Father? What happened?”
He held himself back. Attacking Bertran would be so easy and solve all of his problems. But it would raise a host of new problems he didn’t even want to imagine. Lohen would be implicated and Damien would surely be executed. And without Damien to lead Lohen’s army, how would Lohen protect itself? He had sworn to Clara that he would protect Lohen and the galaxy to the best of his abilities, and getting himself killed was no way to honor that vow.
Bertran and King Avar were at her side as she sat up and stretched as if waking from a long sleep, and after an intense discussion, she was ushered to the hospital wing. As soon as the room was empty, Damien let out a sigh and tried to relax. He couldn’t figure out where he had seen her before, but she reminded him of someone. Somewhere, he must have seen or met her, but this was his first trip to Hotaru in years and female royalty were almost never allowed offplanet. She had visited Lavos, the capital of Mammon, but it was unlikely she had been anywhere he would have seen her.
He closed the window, since he wouldn’t need to resort to that exit this time, slid through the door and began down the hallway again, heading back to his ship. He had more than enough evidence that Bertran was harming the girl and she would be safer in his care than here at the palace. Kidnapping the princess would have a backlash he could only begin to prepare for, but it would be worth all of the trouble if it meant rescuing this young girl from Bertran’s clutches. Bertran was pure evil, with his sights set on Sabine. Damien would not let him get away with that.