Prologue: A Dying Hope
Mat tossed and turned, unable to sleep with Sabine so close and yet so far away, locked in whatever world held her unconscious and away from him. He heard the door to his room open and went stiff with fear, drawing his sword in one smooth motion and leaping to his feet. Only a couple of people had a key to his rooms and there was no reason any of them would be visiting in the middle of the night. He slid out to the main room and glanced to the back of the room, where an escape ship lay ready to take off at any moment, a practical step to take on Vega, the head of the black market. There was a shadow heading through the main room, and then he recognized Damien. It was dark, but he recognized the man’s slender but masculine frame and could just see the red streaks in his ebony hair. He sighed and sheathed his sword, switching on the nearby lamp to get better lighting. Damien was in his sleeping pants still but had thrown on a shirt and wore a sword around his waist. Why had he come here?
“You shouldn’t just barge in on people in the middle of the night, you know,” he said.
Instead of a smile or a tart response, Damien just stared at him and he wondered at his strange behavior. While Damien wasn’t the most talkative person he had ever met, surely he would have responded to that comment if only to reassure him.
“What’s wrong?” Damien asked, but his voice sounded different than usual. “I just wanted to make sure Sabine was all right.”
The cadence of his voice was just a little bit off and he shook his head, drawing his sword again. Damien stepped forward into the light from the lamp and he was shocked by the sight of his red hair and green eyes. Damien had mostly black hair and hazel eyes. He had red streaks, sure, but they weren’t this noticeable. His face was the same, with its high cheekbones and hooked nose, but the expression on it was unlike anything he had ever seen, a level of arrogance Damien had never displayed. His stance was different, too. He held himself on the heels of his feet, not the toes as he usually did. The change in appearance was startling, to say the least.
The man headed towards Sabine’s room and he stepped in the way, his sword still drawn. Damien stared at him without emotion. What was wrong with the man?
“Let me by,” he said in that voice that was almost but not quite Damien’s voice.
“No,” he said, raising his sword. He inhaled sharply as Damien drew his own sword. It was stained with blood. He had been fighting, and recently. There was absolutely no reason he would be fighting anyone here on Vega. Or had someone attacked him and that was why he was suddenly concerned about Sabine? But no, Adrian’s guards would have stopped any attack. Mat’s room was on the well-protected third walkway and even though Adrian wasn’t in his usual room right now and in a less guarded area, there was still no way someone could have gotten through to attack Damien. Plus, it didn’t explain why he was acting so strange. There was something seriously wrong here.
“Don’t make me go through you,” Damien warned. “Why won’t you trust me?”
“You’re not Damien,” he said cautiously, wondering if his guess were true. This had to be someone pretending to be the man to get to Sabine.
To his surprise, the other man chuckled and lowered his weapon.
“Very perceptive. But if you kill me, you kill him as well. So move aside.”
He narrowed his eyes and spread his feet apart, preparing to brace himself for the man’s attack. He didn’t understand what was happening, but it seemed like this man was somehow inside Damien’s body. That didn’t matter. He would protect Sabine.
“I’m not letting you by, and I don’t care if I have to kill Damien. He wouldn’t care either.”
The man grinned and leapt forward, his strong attack catching Mat off guard even though he was prepared for it. As he desperately tried to recover and push back, he kept missing opportunities and several slices soon ran across his arms and sides. He kept reacting as he would if he were fighting Damien, but this man’s moves were completely different and his instinctive reactions were putting him in danger. He grit his teeth and kicked Damien back once more, barely missing a blow to the head. He hastily retreated, breathing heavily. He shouldn’t be getting beaten this badly. They should be evenly matched.
Damien feinted, and he gasped as the blade tore across his chest and ripped through his flesh. He winced and caught himself on the wall, then pushed forward to catch Damien just as the man was about to enter Sabine’s room. He managed to pull him out. He was thrown to the ground and another blow lashed across his chest and belly. Dread seeped through his body as he struggled to stand up and failed. Damien sneered at him before turning to the Sabine’s room again, weapon raised and drenched in blood.
A flash of light from the hallway and six guards rushed into the room, cornering Damien and cutting him off from Sabine. Mat sank to the ground and watched as Damien fought his way through them and leapt into the escape ship, clearly recognizing that he couldn’t get to Sabine and needed to flee. A blur of bodies as the guards tried to grab him, stop him, do something, and it looked like one person managed to get into the ship just before the door snapped shut. One of the remaining guards leaned over him and began examining his injuries, already calling for a doctor.
He closed his eyes and ignored the pain in his chest and belly. What had happened to Damien? Was that how he had hurt Sabine before? Had he hurt anyone else? His blade had already been stained with blood when he unsheathed it; he must have attacked someone else first. Cold hands applied bandages and pressure to his wounds and he bit his lip. Damien had been spending the night in Adrian’s room…
Opening his eyes abruptly, he shoved the doctor back.
“Adrian,” he gasped. “Go to Adrian.”
The doctor nodded, confused, and frowned when he grabbed his sleeve.
“I’m going too,” he said.
The doctor looked annoyed but helped him to his feet. Worries swirled through his mind as he wondered what was wrong with Damien and if Adrian had finally pushed the man too far. They had seemed so happy together earlier in the evening, but he had a bad feeling about what was going to be waiting for them in Adrian’s rooms.
The door to the rooms Adrian was staying in was open, and the doctor nearly dropped Mat as he leapt forward to the still body on the ground. Adrian lay in a pool of blood, hand only inches from the comm unit. He had clearly managed to drag himself from somewhere else; the trail of blood led to his bedroom. Mat fell to his knees and grabbed Adrian’s hand, tears welling up in his eyes as Adrian’s pale face tilted slightly to look at him. He was barely aware of the doctor and the other medical personnel who soon followed. All he could bear to look at was Adrian’s face as the faintest hint of a smile spread across his lips and he squeezed Mat’s hand.
“You were right, Mat,” he whispered, coughing up blood. Mat stroked his forehead, tears flowing freely. “He does love me, and he killed me.”
“No,” he choked. “No, you’re not going to die, you can’t!”
“I want you to have this,” he murmured, eyes darting around to indicate the room, the planet, everything. “I know you can do it. You could always do everything, even when you were a child. Adopting you was the best decision I ever made.”
His vision blurred and he sobbed, leaning down to kiss Adrian’s cheek.
“You’re not going to die,” he whispered, but Adrian’s face was calm, a thin stream of blood trailing out the corner of his mouth as his eyes slowly shut. He turned to the doctors.
“He’s going to live, isn’t he?”
None of the doctors responded; they were too busy trying to save Adrian’s life. A second batch of doctors appeared and one of them, Emma, pulled him away from Adrian’s body and began bandaging Mat’s wounds.
“We’re doing the best we can,” she said in answer to his slightly hysterical questions. “But he’s lost a lot of blood and several of his vital organs are damaged. It’ll take a miracle for him to pull through.”
He pushed her away as soon as she finished bandaging his torso. A miracle. It would take Sabine. He got to his feet and sprinted back to his rooms, ignoring the cries from the doctor. But he was right. She was a healer and could heal Adrian. She could heal anything. She would be the miracle that Adrian needed. There were guards stationed outside of his room now but they let him back inside without a challenge, since the rooms were his. He dashed inside and went to Sabine’s side. She was still unconscious.
“Wake up, Sabine,” he said, shaking her gently. “You have to wake up now. Adrian depends on it.”
No response. He shook her a little harder. “Sabine, you have to come back from wherever you are. I need you here, now.”
Her breathing didn’t even change, though he leaned close to her lips to see if he could feel anything. He placed his bare hand on her forehead, knowing it would cause her pain, but she didn’t react. Tears welled up in his eyes. This was his only chance, the only way Adrian would survive. He thought of Adrian dying and slumped to the floor, resting his face in his blood-soaked hands. He was covered in Adrian’s blood, and his own. All because of Damien, or whatever that Damien lookalike had been. Was this how Sabine had been hurt? And how was he supposed to snap her out of this coma in time to save Adrian?
If Adrian died, then he would never look at the world the same way again. He would be unable to be as happy, or as cheerful. Some essential element of his life would have been stripped away and the pain would flail him every time he did anything that reminded him of his adopted father, which would be everything he did in his life. He would have to quit the army, because Adrian had taken such pride in him when he informed his adopted father that he had gotten the post as one of Kreutzer’s top captains, and Adrian had been thrilled as he worked his way up the ranks until he controlled Kreutzer’s army outright. Adrian had always supported him, no matter what he did.
He would never forgive Sabine, whenever she woke up. He would still love her, but there would be resentment in his heart that she had failed to save Adrian’s life no matter what her personal circumstances were. Similarly, he would never forgive Damien. He didn’t think he could forgive Damien even if Adrian lived, however. No matter what had happened and why Damien had become so foreign, as if he were someone else, it was no reason to hurt Adrian.
Tears flowed down his cheeks and mingled with the blood on his hands as he crouched in Sabine’s room and wept, knowing that each moment he spent here was a moment that Adrian could be dying. He should be with Adrian, holding the man’s hand as he slipped from life into death, but he couldn’t bear it. He wasn’t strong enough. A sob broke loose and he huddled in pain, not caring that the guards outside could hear him. If they knew that Adrian was dying, they might act the same. After all, the entire planet was about to be reshifted. Adrian had indicated that he was leaving everything to Mat, but he didn’t know anything about running a black market and besides, he was going to be the heir to Kreutzer. He couldn’t do both, and he couldn’t bear to choose between his living king and his deceased father.
“Sabine,” he whispered. “Please wake up. Please. I need you so badly right now. I need you. Please.”