Being struck speechless was a new experience for Kira, but then the man sitting across from her had a disturbing way of surprising her.
Graydon rested his chin on his hand and raised his eyebrows at her in silent invitation.
He couldn't have said what she thought she’d heard.
"Would you like to repeat that?" Because it had sounded an awful lot like he'd said he was keeping her—which was absurd.
A fact he had to know.
Graydon smirked, a cocky twist of the lips that made her want to reach across the table and punch him. "Is your hearing bad?"
The man known as the Emperor's Face was built like a mountain. Authority was stamped on every feature; arrogance along with it. The synth armor he wore seemed to eat the light, appearing a black so deep she was surprised she couldn't see her reflection in it. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with clearly delineated muscles even his armor couldn't hide.
His features warned of the stubborn personality inside even as they invited you to sit and stare a while. He was handsome, almost brutally so. He knew it too. Dark hair framed intense, stormy gray eyes and a face chiseled from granite. Thin lips that looked indescribably soft.
Yes, handsome if not for the fact the smug superiority that oozed from his pores.
Kira’s eyes narrowed.
Was this revenge? Some type of retaliation for hurt pride?
He'd asked her to stay, and she'd refused for reasons she couldn't reveal to him. Her mission was dangerous, requiring focus and sacrifice. Graydon was a temptation she couldn't afford.
She wouldn't have thought it of him. He was too self-assured for such petty things.
No, this was something else.
"Not at all," Kira said icily. "I just wanted to see if you were really as stupid as you're acting."
Graydon's smile flashed again, an amused lion impressed by his prey's struggles.
She ignored him in favor of examining the rest of those taking part in this farce. Liara, the Overlord of House Luatha, sat to the right of Graydon, her eyes bruised and her features exhausted. The battle for the planet had taken their toll on Kira's cousin.
Liara seemed resigned to events, her careful mask providing no hint to what she thought of the current situation.
Kira dismissed Liara almost in the same instant. Her cousin might hold a measure of familial loyalty to Kira, but she wouldn't risk the safety of her people for one she'd known for a handful of days.
She also dismissed Shandry, the healer who’d tended to Kira during her brief stay in Shandry’s healing room. The healer likely lacked any true power to influence current events.
Her attention shifted to the true threats. Silas and Quillon. Until now, they were unknowns. Maybe a little too interested in Kira, but ultimately unimportant. Except they'd proven they were capable of much more than she'd assumed.
She'd played right into House Roake's hands. Hadn't seen the ambush until she was already caught in it.
Kira sucked in a deep breath. Patience. Control. She needed to keep it.
The drone who was Kira's best friend hovered over her shoulder, his round spherical body no bigger than her head.
"They have a case," he said after a drawn-out moment where he considered.
Kira fought the urge to curse. Of course, they did. She had no doubt she wouldn't be here if they hadn't thought out every possible outcome from this conversation.
She was in the midst of a battle she’d had no idea was even taking place. They were three steps ahead while she was still struggling to see the game board.
The two men regarded her patiently. They were clad in synth armor the color of a blue so deep it appeared black at times. The armor was simpler than that of Liara's bodyguards, more in line with Graydon's people. It was serviceable, meant for battle rather than to impress.
House Roake. Her father's people. A man she had never met and hadn't given much thought to while struggling to survive the hell of her childhood.
Until recently, Kira had thought she was the product of experiments to create a super-soldier. Someone whose DNA had been warped before birth to create a killing weapon, meant to be aimed at the enemy and fired.
Turned out she was wrong. Instead, she was apparently a member of an alien race called the Tuann. Technologically advanced with social customs more suited to the feudal societies of old Earth, they had odd notions of how long-lost members of their race should be treated. Few of their people strayed from the accepted molds, which made Kira an anomaly.
"Let's all stay calm," Jace cautioned. The words might have been said to the room, but they were meant for Kira. Her former commander knew about her temper. "I'm sure there’s an easy solution to this."
"Yeah, Kira is once again humanity's bargaining chip for their continued survival," Jin said.
Jace slid him a quelling look. "It's not going to come to that."
But it would. Humanity was between a rock and a hard place with their old enemy the Tsavitee back on the galactic stage. They'd barely come out the winner during their last war with the alien race known as the scourge. There was no guarantee they'd triumph again—especially with Kira not quite up to her old standards.
The price for losing would be annihilation.
Neither humanity nor the Consortium would risk that, not with the Tuann offering ships and people to operate those ships.
The walls threatened to close in on Kira. Not a good feeling for someone who'd just transformed back from a monstrous creature that had ripped dozens of Tsavitee apart.
"Calm," Jace said, meeting Kira's gaze, his expression saying trust me.
Kira consciously relaxed, forcing panic and helplessness away. For someone used to controlling every aspect of her life—for soldiers, losing control usually resulted in death—it wasn't easy having that independence threatened. Jace had earned her trust. She’d give him a shot at this.
When he faced the Tuann again, Jace was poised, his bearing that of the rear admiral he’d become. "This news is unexpected. I'm sure you understand if we need a little time to process."
Silas's smile was conciliatory. "Of course. We want to make this transition as easy for the child of our House as possible."
"You could always let her go," Jin muttered.
"Jin," Jace warned.
Jin grumbled but didn't say anything else.
Silas acknowledged Jin before turning to Kira. "I'm afraid that is the one thing we cannot do. Your father was a special person for our people. His daughter will be welcomed with open arms. Please let us get to know you as you get to know us. That's all we're asking."
Kira stared at him with narrowed eyes.
He seemed earnest. Caring even.
"Why do you care?" Kira asked.
Silas's smile was peaceful and tranquil. "Because you're one of us and shouldn't face this world alone."
Raider snorted. "Good luck with that."
Kira had a long history of going it alone—as evidenced by her heading off on her own to live by herself in a ship rather than face the remnants of her old team.
"We are aware accommodations need to be made for your circumstances," Silas continued. "We're willing to arrange what you need to be comfortable with this."
Mighty big of him when he had driven a space cruiser through Kira's plans.
"This is a highly unusual ask," Jace said, carefully not looking at Kira. "We will need to contact our superiors. They need to be present for this conversation."
Raider crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, a neutral expression on his face.
Silas inclined his head. "We understand. The Emperor's Face anticipated this request and has a deep space connection standing by."
Jace's smile didn't reach his eyes. "How very thoughtful."
Graydon's lips tilted up the barest bit, warning Kira he found this entirely too amusing for her comfort. He must be doing cartwheels inside at having so thoroughly thwarted her. She'd be impressed if she wasn't so infuriated.
One of Graydon's oshota, elite warriors who were some of the deadliest fighters Kira had ever seen, stepped forward carrying what looked like a small rock. Amila's nod was respectful as she set the silvery amethyst stone in front of Jace.
They all looked at the rock. It sat there, doing what rocks do.
Jace's expression was befuddled while Raider raised an eyebrow.
The rock didn't move. No tricks were performed as it lay there—inert.
Jace cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I'm not familiar with this technology."
"Place your hand on it and think of who you want to contact. The anchor will do the rest," Amila said.
Jin made a fascinated sound as he drifted closer, pointing the lens on his front that acted as his eye, at the rock. It was an unnecessary affectation, an inside joke taken from old movies and TV shows from Earth. He had hundreds of mini-cameras built into his case, allowing him a 360-degree view of his surroundings at all times.
"It's mental based, isn't it? Like the Nexus?" Jin asked.
No one answered for a long moment.
"Yes," Amila said when the silence deepened further.
Jace placed his hand on the rock, his forehead furrowing.
"This is the CSS Valiant. You're using an unauthorized channel," a disembodied voice barked.
"This is Rear Admiral Jace Skarsdale. Confirm voice ID print, code alpha, romeo, delta, sierra, one, niner, two."
"Stand by." The voice sounded slightly startled. Seconds later, the person said, "Code confirmed. What can I do for you, sir?"
"I want a link to Admiral Himoto, Akira, top priority, highly classified," Jace said.
There was a click, and then a man appeared at the end of the table, his hands folded in front of him, his expression contemplative.
Admiral Himoto had been part of Kira's life almost since the moment she'd freed herself from her childhood captors. He was a father figure and mentor all rolled into one. He was the reason she'd joined the space force and the person who had forced her to see her unique traits as tools to be used and embraced rather than fought and feared.
He’d told her that her abilities might have arisen from the evil acts of greedy men, but she could choose what to do with her talents. She'd never forgotten that lesson.
Forces outside her control might shape her, but she was in charge of what she became. No one else.
For that reason, she would always love him, even if she no longer trusted him.
He had the weight of an entire race on his shoulders. One lost lamb didn't outweigh the duties he wore like a mantle.
No longer the young man of her childhood, Himoto had aged in the years she'd been away. He was of Japanese descent, and his hair had more gray and white now than black, with faint lines riddling his face. Despite that, the impact of his gaze showcased that same forceful personality she remembered from their first meeting. Eyes that were calm yet held a wisdom as deep as the ocean.
He didn't seem surprised by his abrupt summons, regarding them calmly. "Lord Graydon, to what do I owe this pleasure? I trust Kira hasn't been too difficult."
Graydon's teeth flashed. "You're a canny human. You knew exactly what we faced. A warning would have been nice."
Himoto allowed himself the briefest of smiles. "I did try. It's not my fault you refused to listen."
Graydon's chuckle was deep, but it didn't fool Kira. Despite the slight teasing, Graydon was a tiger with a man's shape, waiting for his enemy to show weakness. Only then would he pounce.
Himoto's thoughtful gaze moved over them. To Jace, he said, "I assume since you are calling me in this manner, things have not gone as planned."
"We've encountered a slight problem," Jace confirmed.
Himoto let out a weary sigh. "That is always the way."
Next to Himoto, a second man appeared. Younger than Himoto, his hair was buzzed close to his skull, creating the faintest shadow. A permanently dissatisfied frown had taken up residence on his face.
Himoto gestured to the second. "I've taken the liberty of inviting Admiral John Kent to take part in this conversation."
Jace looked like he'd bitten into a lemon.
It didn't take long for Kira to guess why when the man's deep brown eyes swung her way and his lip curled. "What did you do?"
Kira lifted an eyebrow, studying him for several long seconds. It was obvious this man disliked her despite never having met her. Why? An innate dislike for aliens? Or something else?
"That's some greeting you have there. Did you skip diplomacy school while becoming an admiral?" Kira drawled.
"Your reputation precedes you, Captain Forrest."
"Heh, and that makes you an expert," Kira guessed.
Raider's snicker was low, a smile playing over his lips before he looked down, hiding it. "He does have a point."
Jin chortled beside her.
Kira gritted her teeth. "Why are you here again?"
"To make sure you don't do anything stupid, remember?" Raider taunted.
"Good luck with that," Jin muttered.
Kira ignored both of them, studying Himoto instead. His lips tightened faintly. He wasn't thrilled with the other admiral's presence. That more than anything else told her something was going on at Centcom. Politics. Great. As if she wasn't getting her fill of them already.
Graydon caught her glance.
"This isn't going to work," she mouthed at him.
"We'll see," he mouthed back. "It'll be fun watching you struggle."
Her eyes narrowed. Definitely a little bit of revenge in this ambush.
She caught sight of Finn's carefully blank face from his position against the wall. The oshota had shadowed Kira almost since her arrival on Luatha. She'd accepted him as her shield which made them responsible for each other in some way Kira still didn't quite understand.
Finn's eyes met hers. He'd tried to warn her during her last encounter with Graydon that things weren't over. Kira should have paid more attention.
She tuned back in as Jace was explaining the situation. "The Tuann have graciously decided to keep their word; however, there is a problem."
"What sort of problem?" Kent demanded.
"We’re happy to give you the ships," Silas spoke up. "But you will find yourself unable to leave the planet with them."
Himoto's expression remained calm as Kent's eyes narrowed. "What good are ships if you won't let them out of your system?"
"I don't think we're explaining correctly," Silas said, his forehead furrowing slightly.
"It's not that they won't let us fly them home; it's that we can't," Jace said.
Kent's severe expression didn't thaw. If anything, he seemed more frustrated than before. Himoto shifted in the chair, steepling his fingertips in front of him as a thoughtful frown settled on his face.
Kent was the opposite, aiming a look at Jace that said he thought the rear admiral was an imbecile. "Have the Tuann give you a crash course in flying one of their boats and then bring it home."
Kira fought the urge to roll her eyes. As if flying a complicated piece of technology like a Tuann ship was as easy as flicking a switch. It seemed Kent's rise in the military hadn't come with a set of brains.
"Our ships are keyed to our specific attributes," Silas said. "I'm afraid unless you are Tuann and are able to harness ki you will not be able to operate them."
"And who are you?" Kent demanded, squinting at the Tuann.
Silas smiled and inclined his head. "My name is Silas. My companion and I represent House Roake."
"House what?" Kent asked.
The skin around Himoto's eyes tightened the tiniest bit.
"Real stellar leadership you have there," Kira murmured in Japanese.
"He has many other admirable attributes," Himoto told her, again in Japanese.
Kira resisted the urge to blow a raspberry, tempted to call bullshit. What kind of leader engaged with a hostile ally without learning the cultural mores upon which their society was founded? Not a good one—especially in light of the often fractious relationship the Consortium enjoyed with the Tuann. They'd misjudged the Tuann during first contact, and nothing since had eased the stigma their past actions had generated.
Kent's attention came to her, and he frowned again. "What will it take for your people to teach us what we need to know to make these work?"
Silas cocked his head as Graydon lifted an eyebrow.
"He's being deliberately obtuse," Jin murmured.
Raider and Jace didn't say anything. The look on their faces told her they agreed, but their ranks in the military meant they couldn't publicly chide Kent no matter how much they wanted to.
"I think I agree with you, Jin," Kira muttered back.
She tapped her fingertips against the table as she considered. The question was if Kent was doing it deliberately.
It would make a deceptively useful tactic. More so when it was used like it was now, as a bludgeon to try to force the outcome he wanted.
It might have worked had these people been human. Not so much with Tuann, who could do quietly stubborn better than even Kira. She could already see the mood in the room shifting. Any gains Jace and the Curs had won during their actions against the Tsavitee invasion were rapidly disappearing.
The Tuann appreciated the fine art of subtlety. They were the sleek snake in the grass, not a boar driving its head mindlessly against the nearest obstacle.
Kira briefly considered interfering and saving Kent from himself, but why do that when he was being the perfect distraction.
"What are our options?" Kira murmured in Japanese in a voice meant for Jin.
Raider shifted beside her, leaning closer.
She'd prefer to have this conversation in private, but she doubted she would be afforded that privilege.
"Not many," Jin admitted. "They have you over a barrel. There is precedent. It's rare, but it's there."
Kira refocused. When they'd arrived on this planet—ostensibly to meet her mother’s people, House Luatha—Jin had gone through the Tuann laws—those he could get his hands on. An informed Kira was a smart Kira. They'd thought getting Liara to give up her family claim to Kira would be the end of things. Turned out that assumption was wrong because Kira was uncommon in the Tuann community.
Her parents weren't from one House but two, a marriage meant to cement an alliance between two foes. It left Kira in the rare position of being dual House. Since she’d been kidnapped before her parents could designate her as one House or another, it meant both Houses had a claim. And lucky Kira, she'd convinced Liara to rescind her claim, clearing the field nicely for Roake.
Kira rubbed her forehead. What a clusterfuck.
It wasn't Jin's fault he'd missed this. Neither one of them was familiar enough with Tuann culture to understand all of its nuances. It placed them in the unenviable position of having to feel their way through half-blind.
"We could run, but—" Jin trailed off.
The Tsavitee were back. Humans would need all their allies.
She might have pulled away from humanity, needing the distance to heal while putting her long-term plans in motion, but she had no desire to see the Consortium fall. She cared for too many of them.
Kira stared at the table, hating she'd been pushed to this point. Options were limited. There was no easy path forward; whichever way she turned, something would be lost.
Since she'd never formalized her retirement, it left her open to the military’s will. A will Himoto had already exercised once by ordering her to Ta Da'an, House Luatha’s planet.
As soon as Kent figured out what the Tuann really wanted, it'd happen again.
The only thing she was surprised about was that Himoto hadn't already acted. She lifted her eyes to meet his impenetrable stare. He'd never been easy to read with that stoic face. Age hadn't changed that much.
"I don't think you have a choice," Jin said, knowing where her mind had gone.
"I think you're right." She hated that it had come to this. Hated that she was going to have to shut a door she'd kept deliberately cracked.
"What are you about to do?" Raider asked, the lazy amusement on his face disappearing.
He'd known her long enough to know she wasn't going to let herself be caged. Not unless it was her will.
"Nothing I don't have to," Kira assured him.
Raider appeared less than reassured. But then, he knew her better than any of those present except for Jin. Their history was long. Even if it was fraught with tension and soured with dislike toward the end, there had been a time where they'd been as close as siblings.
"I don't care if you have to tow the damn things," Kent was saying, his eyes snapping fire as he glared at Jace. "Just find a way to get them here."
"Admiral, we are happy to provide the people required to fly our ships to a human station of your choosing," Silas offered.
Silence reigned. Kent's gaze flicked from Silas to Jace to Kira and back again. "What are we talking about then?"
"There's a price for their cooperation," Kira said, finally stirring.
Kent stared at her. "Don't leave us in suspense."
"In exchange for our cooperation, we would like the Lady Kira to accompany us to our home," Silas said, inclining his head showing respect to Kira.
Kent was quiet for several seconds, his forehead furrowed as if he was trying to decipher whether there was a hidden message in there. "Let me see if I have this straight. You’ll give us the ships, people to operate the ships, and all you want is her?"
"We would like the opportunity for her to get to know us. This seems to be the only way to make it happen." Silas's smile was genial.
"More like keep her indefinitely," Jin muttered.
"Is that a drone?" Kent asked, squinting at her friend. "What is a drone doing giving its opinion in a situation like this? Is that even possible?"
Kira's hands tightened into fists, the brash admiral suddenly not as amusing as before.
Kent didn't wait for anyone to answer, flicking his hand dismissively. "It doesn't matter. This problem is easily solved. Take her. Rear Admiral Skarsdale, please accompany those ships home."
"No." Kira's words ripped through the air, forestalling the admiral from flicking off his screen.
He frowned at her. "What do you mean no?"
Kira ignored him, focusing on Himoto. "You asked for ships. I got you ships. You asked me to free myself. I did. My debt is paid."
Himoto didn't speak as he regarded her thoughtfully.
"You don't get to say no," Kent said disdainfully. "You're a member of the space force. You serve at our needs, just like every other soldier."
"Already done," Jin said.
"What are you doing?" Jace asked, his attention swinging to Kira.
"What I have to," Kira said, not second-guessing herself. She focused on Kent again. "Regulation 5.63—any service member who has served their first two tours can put in a packet to end their service if they have not been called to a combat rotation for the preceding three years."
Raider made a choked sound.
Kira took a deep breath. Was she really doing this? Yes. Yes, she was. She wouldn't bow to the dictates of someone like Kent.
This move was drastic, but it would give her room to maneuver. More importantly, it meant none of her actions beyond this point could be used against the Consortium.
"I won't be trapped again. I've defended humanity above and beyond what most ever hope to commit. I've sacrificed again and again. This was the last time."
"This won't work. That packet has to be hand-delivered," Kent warned.
"Nothing in those regulations says it has to be done by the person submitting the packet."
Kira and Kent were locked in a staring match. Each daring the other to blink. Only this time, Kira didn't plan for it to be her.
"You're bluffing," he said finally.
"Tell me again how you order me to give up my freedom for a few ships that won't even protect you when the Tsavitee come," Kira dared.
Fury and stubbornness lit Kent's eyes. He was going to do it. He was going to force her hand.
"Kira, think. You can't take this back," Raider said urgently.
"It should have been done a long time ago," she said softly. "There's no going back. Only forward."
It hurt to break Kent's gaze and look at her longtime friend, sometimes enemy.
Jace was silent, frozen disbelief on his face.
"You wouldn't dare," Kent said. He didn't realize she was a wolf whose leg was caught in a trap, willing to chew it off.
A knock sounded from out of sight.
Himoto met her gaze, his lips twitching. "This is unexpected. Quite the element of surprise."
"I learn from the best."
His head dipped in a nod. "Come in."
Kira thought she saw momentary surprise flash across his face before he composed his expression.
Graydon shifted, the tension rolling off him, drawing Kira's attention like a bee to honey. His eyes were fierce, his shoulders tense.
That's right. Breathe it in. She'd outmaneuvered him.
"I win," she mouthed.
His eyebrows snapped together.
"That doesn't mean anything," Kent tried.
"For someone of your position, you're not particularly smart," Jin said. "The Tuann are sitting right here. What kind of people do you want them to think you are? The kind who would sacrifice your own people? The kind who lies for your own self-interests? You're not really presenting humans in a sympathetic light here."
"J1N shut down," Kent snapped. "That's an order."
A chuckle rolled from Jin. "I don't take orders from you, meat sack."
Kira ignored the exchange.
Himoto looked considering before he speared her with a gaze. "Well done, dear, but I still have one move left. You really shouldn't have wasted time gloating."
Kira's lips parted.
Himoto didn't wait, reaching forward and tapping a button out of sight. There was a brief tone as Himoto's hologram snapped out of existence, leaving them staring at empty air.
Kira shook her head and blinked. She stood slowly.
He couldn't have.
A smile broadened on Kent's face. "Remember—last order given."
Then Kent's feed snapped off too.
Kira shook her head again. No. This wasn't happening.
"I'll be damned. That old fox outsmarted you," Jin said with awe.
Kira's teeth clenched; her gaze still focused on the spot where Himoto had been.
"The regulation you cited only works if you can confirm receipt of your resignation," Raider said thoughtfully. "Until you do, you're still considered active."
"Which means you have to obey the last order given," Jace finished.
And that was to accompany Roake home.
Graydon's smirk caught her eye. He mouthed, "I guess it's still my win, coli."
Kira inhaled deeply. Strangling the Emperor's Face wouldn't help her situation—even if it would make her feel better.
Kira slapped her hands on the table and shoved her seat back. "No, I'll find him and cram that resignation down his throat."
Himoto wasn't winning like this.
"That would be considered leaving your post without orders. You'd be considered AWOL," Raider said, studying his fingernails. "They still court-martial for that."
"I don't care," Kira hissed, too far gone to care about the ramifications of her actions any longer.
"Oh, boy," Jin said. "She's snapped. Someone needs to do something before she does something drastic."
"You're dying," Shandry said, her words cutting through the drama.
Available February 5.