Sabine eyed Adrian nervously as she sat across from him. He had allowed a small group of Wendigo soldiers on the planet at Mat’s request. He wouldn’t have granted that leniency for her, but he would for his adopted son. Now she, her third-in-command Vale, and two others were here despite Adrian’s ultimatum about who would be allowed on the planet and even though he was likely pleased with the result – her second-in-command Helios was gone – he was displeased by everything else about this situation. With Treza here, he was going to be harder to deal with than usual. Treza had been accused of setting off the solar flare that had demolished Sola, and the king of Lohen wanted Treza dead. She had sworn to King Alexander that she wouldn’t allow Treza into her nation of Wendigo but despite her best intentions, Mat had forced her to allow him. Mat was the only good thing about this situation. He had given up control of Kreutzer’s army to propose to her, and part of her glowed knowing he could be at her side from now on. But first, she needed to do something for Adrian, and didn’t know what. This wasn’t a good way to start the negotiations.
She studied him, looking for any sign of his emotions. His deep cocoa face was impassive under his carefully coiled hair. His slender lips were set, a slight crease between his neatly manicured brows. His eyes, normally mischievous, were absolutely serious. And he was silent. He didn’t say anything and she cautiously began, since he wasn’t going to start the conversation. It was a clear warning. He had nothing to say to her unless she offered him something first.
“I hope the removal of my second-in-command for violating our treaty begins to make up for the inconvenience of his misconduct,” she said, nervously pushing back a strand of her chin-length ebony hair behind her ear. It was a habit from when she had worn her hair long and even though it had been over a year since she had sliced her hair off, she still found herself tucking her hair back when she was nervous.
He said nothing and she wondered what exactly he expected. Surely getting rid of Helios helped. Helios had violated the treaty and brought armed troops onto Vega in search of Treza, and Sabine had punished him by discharging him from her army and publicly distancing herself. She had even declared that Treza, Adrian’s boyfriend and the former commander of Lohen, was no longer an enemy. So why was Adrian punishing her?
“Thank you for allowing me and my soldiers on the planet,” she said.
“You’re here for three hours only,” Adrian said. Finally, he was speaking. But she didn’t like the reminder of the terms of the favor. Even with Mat at her side, Adrian had only given temporary passage on the planet. He didn’t continue. What did he want from her? What did he want her to say?
“I know you’re aware, but I’ve accepted Mat’s marriage proposal,” she said cautiously. “A treaty between Kreutzer and Wendigo seems likely. The two nations will be much closer with the engagement. There’s a lot of potential for gain.”
Adrian narrowed his eyes. She was getting annoyed, now. She was practically offering to cut him in on whatever deal she made with Kreutzer and he wasn’t reacting? But he leaned back. Perhaps he would respond, in his own time, to that offer.
“When are you negotiating?” he asked, and she hid her relief. He had taken the bait. He was interested. Maybe renegotiations would be possible after all. She had been worried for a moment that he would simply refuse all contact with Wendigo after this. She couldn’t afford that.
“Today or tomorrow.”
“That seems likely,” she said, knowing that made the deal better for him.
“What terms are you considering?”
She explained what she hoped to achieve from the arrangement, trying to indicate all of the ways that it would benefit him. He watched her impassively, but she could tell he was interested. He was engaged, unlike before, and seemed more like he usually did. Of course, their communications had occasionally turned to arguments lately, after she had imposed a tax on the nearest gate and forced him to use a farther gate that hindered his deals and profits, but he was generally quite reasonable. She hadn’t exactly been fair to him over the past few months and perhaps this could start to make it up to him. She suspected Mat wouldn’t let her get away with many of the things she was currently doing, so she might as well try to get Adrian to negotiate away the things she was planning on stopping anyway. But though he was listening with interest, he still wasn’t talking.
When she finished explaining the potential deal with Kreutzer and she had dangled several options in front of him, including reducing or eliminating the tax on his gate, she ran out of things to say. He was silent, considering what she had said. How could he be so impartial when she was offering to lift the tax on his gate? Surely that would get a reaction, even if nothing else did. The gate at Vega was about an hour from his planet and he had previously used it to ship all of his goods across the universe, as ships could travel between any two gates in only twenty minutes. With her tax, traffic had been pushed to the Sola gate, about four hours away. But the Sola gate was now closed due to the solar flare, so he was currently using the gate at Demos almost eight hours away. Why would he be hesitating when she was offering to give him back his gate? He tapped his fingers against the desk.
“I’ll continue negotiating with you,” he finally said. “But I need a show of good faith, as you’ve broken so many treaties with me.”
She nodded, wondering what he could possibly want. Surely he knew she wouldn’t part with anything major just to show her sincerity.
“Have your second-in-command tell Mat that we’re still negotiating,” Adrian said, meeting her gaze.
“I just got rid of my second-in-command,” Sabine pointed out. Did Adrian want to draw Helios out for Treza to kill? He had acted too late, if that were the goal. Helios was out of the system by now. Mat had suggested that he would probably gather the troops most loyal to him and split off, but because Sabine had handled it well, he predicted very few would leave with him. She was tracking his movements, and how many went with him. He didn’t pose a threat yet, but she would have to deal with him eventually.
“Your new second-in-command,” Adrian clarified. “The captain outside. Vale.”
She considered. She wasn’t sure why Vale would need to relay a message that had no real value. Of course they were still negotiating. Why would Mat need an update on that? But Mat wouldn’t be alone. He had vanished after her announcements, probably to check on Treza. She didn’t know where Treza was right now, but it was unlikely Adrian had kept him nearby. That meant the two of them were somewhere else, together. What exactly was Adrian asking?
“Isn’t Mat with Treza?” Sabine asked, puzzled.
Her eyes widened. He seriously expected her to reveal Treza’s presence to Vale? No one could know Treza was here. If anyone found out he was here, then there was a chance King Alexander would blackmail her. If anyone found out she and Treza were siblings, her throne would come into question. He had a far stronger claim to the throne than she and even if he refused to help a rebellion, one might start anyway if anyone discovered who he was. She trusted Vale not to speak, but even if Vale kept quiet, she didn’t want him meeting Treza like this. Treza was different when he was with Mat. In battle, he was formidable, but outside of battle, he was quite approachable. If the blackmail ever got out and Treza set himself up as an alternative to her, she couldn’t let her second-in-command be tempted to join him instead. Was Adrian trying to make her lose her new second-in-command?
She remembered Adrian’s warning about Vale back when she hired him for her army. He had come in as an officer and Adrian generally had positive things to say about him, but he had given her one warning: Vale had served in multiple armies, both local and national, always with distinction, but had never stayed in one longer than three years. Adrian warned her that it was likely that this trend would continue. He had been with her for a year now; if he met Treza now and later had the opportunity to join Treza’s army if one arose, would he do it?
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Treza’s presence needs to remain a secret.”
“You don’t trust your captain?”
“Of course I trust him,” Sabine said. “That’s not the issue.”
“If you allow him to meet Damien, then I’ll continue to talk to you. You have some intriguing offers and I may reconsider banning you from this planet. But it’s nothing I can’t live without.”
“Adrian, this is dangerous for him, too,” she pointed out. “Wendigo considers him an enemy. Even if he’s technically not an enemy anymore, Vale might attack him.”
“Vale is unarmed, isn’t he?” Adrian asked, and she winced. He was. They all were. It was part of the terms of Adrian allowing them on the planet. “I think Damien can handle an unarmed attack and besides, Mat is there.”
“Be reasonable,” she tried, but Adrian was set. If she didn’t allow this, then he would shut down the negotiations completely. At the end of her three hours here, she and everyone from Wendigo would be banned from the planet. She suspected that Adrian was on the brink of leaving if she even glanced at him the wrong way. She didn’t know where he would go, but it might actually be safer for Treza if he did leave. She needed to keep Adrian here, in Wendigo, where she knew where he was. She couldn’t afford to have him leave right now.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll ask Vale to deliver the message as a show of good will towards you and Vega.”
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about after you’ve given him that command,” Adrian said, gesturing towards the door.
Annoyed, Sabine left his office and returned to the waiting room where Vale was lounging. He was chatting with two of Adrian’s guards. Not surprising, since she had recruited him from Vega not too long ago. She remembered what Mat had said on the way here about Vega having an army. Adrian collected soldiers and many soldiers throughout the galaxy came here to sell their services. But she hadn’t realized he had unified them into anything resembling an army. Adrian gave rank suggestions for every soldier he recommended and Sabine always followed them, as Adrian was an expert at assessing quality and ability even while giving warnings of limitations. He had warned against Helios. So had Treza. Maybe she should have listened.
She gave Vale the message and he looked mystified but obeyed. It didn’t make sense to send a message that she was still negotiating. Should she have warned him who he was going to find? Too late, she thought as he disappeared. And Adrian had recommended the message only, not a warning. She would have to trust him. With a sigh, she braced herself to return. Adrian had the advantage here and he was going to push for a lot. She needed to regain access to the planet for her and her troops, and ensure that she could continue the unofficial tax she had placed on Vega that let her dip into his profits each month. But he needed things from her, too. He might be fine somewhere else but eventually his location would be revealed. Any nation would take advantage of the black market the way she was doing. She was offering him protection as well. She was giving him quite a bit. Her demands weren’t unreasonable, and she wouldn’t let him get anything from her without a fight.
Then she took a deep breath. He couldn’t leave. She depended on him too much. Mat’s words from days ago rang through her head, though she tried to forget them. She was addicted to the galaxy’s most dangerous, addictive drug, and needed Adrian to survive. Over the past year she had learned to manage her addiction, since there was no way off the drug, but she would always rely on Adrian for a continual supply. If she didn’t take some of the drug every three days, she would die. If Adrian and the black market left, she would die. Sure, Mat and Treza would force Adrian to keep her alive, but Adrian could command any price from her and she would have to pay or face death. Right now, with him on Vega, she had leverage. She had to balance his needs with hers, and unfortunately, that was a lot more complicated with Treza in the mix.