Empress of a Thousand Skies
For fans of Pierce Brown and Firefly comes an epic sci-fi fantasy, hailed as "an important and relevant novel" by The New York Times.
Rhee, also known as Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty. She’ll stop at nothing to avenge her family and claim her throne.
Aly has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. But when he’s falsely accused of killing Rhee, he's forced to prove his innocence to save his reputation – and his life.
With planets on the brink of war, Rhee and Aly must confront a ruthless evil that threatens the fate of the entire galaxy.
Rhoda Belleza crafts a powerful saga of vengeance, warfare, and the true meaning of legacy in this exhilarating debut, perfect for readers of Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles and Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman's Illuminae Files.
Excerpt from Empress of a Thousand Skies
RHEE tore a path through the bustling marketplace, kicking up dust that fell slowly in Nau Fruma’s low gravity. The foreign tourists coughed and complained as she passed, but Rhee ignored them, scanning the fairgrounds for Julian as she clutched his miniature telescope to her chest. She wasn’t accustomed to being in a crowd; so much of her life had been spent looking down at one from a balcony, urged to wave and smile and look as ladylike as possible. But now, among the people, there was a jostle and roughness to it that Rhee found thrilling.
It was the golden hour, and the sun dipped just below the hori- zon. Risking a quick glance behind her, Rhee spotted one of the Tasinn plowing through the ebb and flow of bodies, headed in her direction. His khaki fitted uniform and polished badges stood out amid the sea of vibrant linen robes. His skin was ashen and pale, unlike the men who’d grown up on this desert moon and knew the heat of the sun by its true distance—not through the refracted beams and domed cities on Kalu. From here she could see that his hand hovered above the stunner strapped to his belt.
The Tasinn were the royal guard—her royal guards, technically, but they felt like a relic of her father’s era, wholly separate from the life she’d led here on Nau Fruma. They were an elite group of fighters plucked from the ranks of UniForce soldiers and trained in personal security. This guard was one of many men sent to find her so she could return home to Kalu, to the planet of her birth.
Rhee had been six when she left, just after her entire fam- ily had died in a crash—“an accident,” the authorities called it, a tragedy Rhee had supposedly been lucky to avoid. But she knew better. There were two things for certain: that her family had been murdered, and that she was supposed to have died at their side.
A homemade firework screeched into the darkening sky, its high-pitched fury petering out into a low whistle. It exploded in the distance. She wondered if her family’s ending had been that instantaneous and merciful.
Rhee slipped the telescope in her pocket and pulled her hood lower to hide her mismatched eyes, one brown and one hazel. She tucked back her jet-black braid and cut left between two rows of tents, squeezing past two laughing men. Dodging a tall woman carrying a cage, she flinched when the white bird inside flapped its wings—then felt silly.
“Stay at the ready,” Veyron had always said as he’d held up two calloused hands for her to box and kick. She’d cycle through combos until all she could hear was her heartbeat drumming in her ears. In the dojo she wasn’t a girl or a princess. She was simply a series of intentions: dodge, strike, block, kill.
Now her stomach felt twisted, like the cactus trunks she and Julian would find when they snuck past the palace walls. The smell of smoke and charred meat from a nearby market stall nearly made her gag. A Derkatzian girl with yellow eyes sat perched on a stool, fanning herself with one hand and holding out a root vegetable with the other. “Grown from real soil,” she called to those who passed.
Everyone was out: travelers and dealers from the fringes of the universe, local families, wealthy tourists. Tonight marked the eve of the Kamreial meteor shower, which came every 149 years. “Once in a lifetime,” the holos had said. “Never to be seen again.” Which was precisely why the Crown Regent had arranged this night for Rhiannon to travel back to the capital of Sibu. The beloved Rose of the Galaxy, returning to Kalu in a shower of stars. It was all image and spin: a big fat lie wrapped up in a pretty bow. There was no love lost between Rhee and the Regent Seotra, who’d taken control of the throne until Rhee came of age. He’d been her father’s childhood friend, and a decorated war hero before he’d entered politics to become one of the Emperor’s closest advisers.
Until Regent Seotra had betrayed her family.
The Ta’an was an old bloodline. The throne had been in her family for twelve generations, and you could trace the Ta’an back nearly three centuries. They were among the first settlers in the east. The dark soil of Kalu was part of Rhee’s skin, the ocean in her veins, the roots of the trees her own. She’d spent weeks replaying her memories of her childhood in the capital, so that when she finally returned, it would feel like home.
Seotra had rallied the support to send Rhee to Nau Fruma in the first place. “For her safety,” he’d claimed. And while it was a politically neutral moon according to the Urnew Treaty, it also kept Rhee as far as possible from her true birthright—the throne. It was a power move to remain Crown Regent and block her ascension to power. Seotra was worried.
As he should be. Rhee would see to it that he pay for what he’d done to her family. She’d trained for years for the very moment when she would end his reign, and his life.
She only wished she could kill him more than once.
“Honor, bravery, loyalty,” she whispered.
Rhee looked back toward the palace where she had spent most of her childhood. It was high up on the hill, just a short distance from the town, though it felt like a world away—a prison meant to keep her from the real world, and her destiny. It had once been the second home of her family. To the east of it she could just make out the throat of an old volcano, isolated, rising up from the flat desert plains around it. Crown’s Rock. Tai Reyanna, Rhee’s longtime governess, had remarked on how fitting it was for Rhee to be so close to a crown.
“Eweg nich! ” boomed a deep voice, and she was nearly knocked off her feet by a Modrussel. Its tentacle left a sticky resi- due on her clothing. Looking over her shoulder, she could only
make out antennae protruding from a high-collared outfit, its clothes soaked with a slimelike secretion—as their temperatures ran high, Modrussels were known to sweat profusely.
She hurried on. A message came through her cube just as she reached the square, and Tai Reyanna’s call sign flashed across her vision. Rhee’s blood leapt.
The Tai was a sect of teachers and caretakers, and Simone Reyanna was a Tai of the highest order. She served the royal fam- ily and had been Rhee’s exclusive governess ever since her family died. Rhee wasn’t used to ignoring her calls. But she wasn’t used to running off in the first place.
Rhee knew what she had to do. Sucking in a deep breath, she brought her finger to the spot behind her right ear and pressed to power down. Immediately she felt dizzy, disoriented, like some- thing essential had drained out of her. It was the security of being online, the comfort of never getting lost, the knowledge that every thought and experience would be recorded to play again and again.
But it was freeing too. Nothing would be recorded, and noth- ing could be accessed either. At least not the specific memories she’d programmed to recall immediately and in full, memories that seemed to absorb her. With her cube down, the chatter of the crowd instantly shifted from her native Kalusian language to different dialects from across the solar system. She forgot that her translator had been connected to her cube, and now the foreign words, tongue clicks, whistles, and beeps shattered the air around her. Her great-ancestors had managed without cubes, and Rhee wondered how they could have possibly learned so many lan-
guages just by studying.
“They’re auctioning off droids too. Decommissioned mod- els . . .” a boy ahead of her said. His Nauie caught her ear, a local accent with a singsong cadence.
Julian. He turned around even as she picked him out of the crowd. His blue eyes widened. They’d been the same height for as long as they’d known each other, until he shot up a couple of years ago. She had to look up into his eyes now, which annoyed her to no end—it was a competition she would never win.
“Shhhh!” she insisted just before he called out her name. “You have to power down your cube. Quickly,” she added, when it seemed like he might argue.
“You’re being paranoid,” he said. It was supposedly impos- sible to hack into someone’s cube, but there were rumors that Seotra and his lackeys monitored the citizens this way, by invad- ing their memories and observations through their cubes, and Rhee couldn’t risk it. “Besides, my mom told me if you do it too much you’ll go mad.”
So they said. Most people went their whole lives without going offline, but there were entire communities—hundreds of thousands of people in the Outer Belt—that hadn’t had native cubes installed. And what were a few minutes here and there offline? Rhee wouldn’t say she liked the feeling, but she liked the discomfort of it. With every minute she managed to endure, she felt stronger.
“Just do it,” Rhee said.
“I hate the way it feels . . .” But Julian put his finger to his neck and made a face like he’d been pricked with a giant needle, and Rhee relaxed. “And what are you even doing here?”
“Well, ma’tan sarili to you too,” she said, muttering the Kalusian greeting under her breath. Had she wanted him to be pleased? Rhee wasn’t sure.
She shoved her hand deep into her pocket and felt the cool telescope in her palm. It belonged to Julian—it always would. They’d known each other ever since Andrés Seotra had banished her—or practically banished her—to Nau Fruma nine years ago when he became regent. “My flight’s been delayed,” she added. It wasn’t exactly a lie, since the craft wouldn’t leave without her.
He glanced behind him at the boys he’d been speaking to, then turned away from them again, nudging her farther into the crowd. There was a layer of dust on his skin and matting his dark blond hair. Veyron, his father, was part Wraetan—but Julian looked Nauie through and through; his great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side was one of the original settlers on Nau Fruma.
“You know the Eliedio is one of the safest crafts out there,”
he said, reaching for his cube out of habit. “There’s only a two percent malfunction rate, and there’s never been any kind of accident that—”
“That’s not why I left,” she said, grabbing his hand so he wouldn’t power up. She dropped it quickly. Ever since their last spar, it felt strange when they touched. “I’m not scared, if that’s what you think.”
“Okay.” He tilted his head and squinted, a thing she’d seen him do a million times before. Rhee stiffened at the way he sized her up, the way he seemed so certain he was right. “I just thought, because of what happened to your family . . .”
“Come on,” she said, grabbing a handful of fabric at the edge of his sleeve. “The Tasinn are looking for me.” Rhee led the way as they threaded through another row of vendors, glad that Julian couldn’t see her face. She didn’t want to talk about her family. Instead she quickly described how she’d slipped away, evaded a Tasinn, and ignored her Tai’s call.
She gripped Julian’s shirt like it was a lifeline. He was her best friend—her only friend, really—and he was the son of her trainer, Veyron, who’d taught them side by side the past nine years. Julian didn’t like being offline for even a moment. He had to know everything, always—and loved using his cube to pull up some memory in order to prove a point, or to prove Rhee wrong. It was maddening. But now she wondered if she’d miss it.
It was getting darker. Hundreds of sparklers burned brightly. Night was falling quickly, and the sense of urgency felt big and real in Rhee’s chest. The sun was a massive, burning star—leaving, just like she was. But she didn’t know if she’d ever be back. Not after what she had planned.
They passed a crowd that had formed around a small make- shift ring, watching as two scorpions circled each other in the center. More of the insects were trapped in glass jars, trying to crawl their way out. A skinny bookie with sharp elbows hollered the odds and took bets on the side.
“So how much longer do you have?” Julian asked. “When does the craft launch?”
An hour ago. “Keep walking,” she said over her shoulder by way of an answer.
“Zuilie,” Julian said in a huff. “Are you going to be this bossy when you’re empress?”
He was joking. She was always this bossy, whether they were competing in archery, stealing moonplums, or playing pranks on the staff who tended to Rhee day and night. But that word— empress—was like a thick black smoke filling her lungs. An entire valley of Kalusian flowers would be cut down to decorate the capital city on her sixteenth birthday, the day of her coronation. In just one week’s time, she’d come face-to-face with Seotra. Then, she’d finally have her revenge.
She took a breath, stopped, and turned to him. “Listen. I came to tell you . . .” I don’t deserve this. “I don’t want this,” she said instead. Rhee held up the telescope that Julian must have slipped in her bag before they said goodbye. She guessed it had cost months of his wages from working in the greenhouses. It was made of silver—a metal so rare that it could be mined only in the Outer Belt, and it came at a steep price.
“That was your birthday gift,” Julian said softly. “You weren’t supposed to find it ’til you were on your way.” Rhee shook her head. He was hurt; she could tell. But it was too generous. “You hate it,” he said flatly.
“Don’t be stupid,” Rhee said as she shoved the telescope into his hand. There was dirt from the greenhouse under his nails. “I don’t hate it.” As if anyone could hate something so beautiful. “It’s just . . .”
She didn’t know how to explain it in a way he’d understand. In truth, she loved it. She’d loved everything he’d ever given her— found things, mostly. A tiny sun-bleached skull of a bat, or a jagged crystal that reflected the light in a rainbow if she held it just so. Rhee would be leaving those behind too. It felt wrong to accept anything from him. It felt like by taking something so special from Julian, she’d have to have a heart as pure as his.
Julian slid the telescope open. Each compartment was smaller than the last, tapering toward the eyepiece. At full extension, it was the whole length of his arm.
Just then a kid tore past them, the sparkler in his hand illu- minating Julian’s face briefly in the darkness. From this angle, she could see the scar from where he’d split his chin open years ago, scaling the south wall of the palace to see her. He’d just returned from the old ruins, looking for moonsnakes—and that night he’d brought the castoffs of their milk-white skin to show her.
“Look up there.” Julian pointed to the constellation of Terecot. Up in the sky, the maiden’s hair unraveled into a spiral that ended with a tiny orange light. He handed her back the tele- scope. “Don’t lose that spot.”
But Rhee struggled to find the light when she brought it to her eye. There was only a blue-black sky in the viewfinder, and as she searched left and right she grew anxious. She levered onto the balls of her feet, as if an extra two inches would bring her closer.
Julian guided the telescope higher. She could feel his cal- loused palm cupping her hand. Her hood fell back as she tilted her head up, and she felt his breath on her neck. A memory sur- faced without her calling for it, surfacing organically, making her skin prickle: the moment just a week ago when he’d pinned her in the dojo. If she’d turned her head just a fraction of an inch . . .
She gasped when Kalu came into sight. Swirls of orange and white cascaded across the planet’s surface. It looked just like the birthday sweet Julian’s mom had made Rhee when she’d turned twelve—whipped cream smeared on a warm piece of tenkang— simple and delicate and almost too beautiful to eat. She’d loved it more than the elaborate cake imported from Kalu. “Oh, holy ancestors. That. Is. Awesome.”
“You know the atmosphere on Kalu is so thick that they don’t get yellows in their sunsets?”
“I didn’t know that,” she said absently, still looking up at the brilliant planet. She remembered the sky and sunrise and sun- set, though, especially her last dawn on Kalu—blues and purples peeking over the horizon and scattering across the sky.
The moment she learned of her family’s deaths, she’d fumbled through all the memories on her cube, searching to recall their last moment together—only to wish she hadn’t. Her mother’s hair, gray and frizzy; the dark circles under her father’s eyes; her sister purposefully ignoring her. All of them angry, disappointed, colder-looking in recall somehow than they had seemed in the flesh. As if they’d already been dead for years.
No one told you that about the way recall worked: how easily you could ruin the things you loved. Rhee chose to rely on her organic memory to remember only the good moments: Joss sneaking dried myrah candies to her in bed when she was sick; insisting the tailor make them both a set of pants like their father’s; and flinging aside her parasol to cartwheel in the sun, over and over, in the buckwheat fields outside the palace. Her father, a tall man, lifting Rhee easily onto his shoulders for a daily walk along the palace perimeter. And her mother, undoing Rhee’s tight braids every evening—something a servant could’ve easily done—and rubbing her aching head with lavendula oil.
“Be a good girl” was the last thing she’d said to Rhee. And Rhee remembered nodding, as if she’d been saying I will.
But she’d lied.
Their father had given the sisters special coins once, souvenirs from a trip he’d taken in the Bazorl Quadrant—one for Joss and one for her. When her father ushered her family on the craft the night of the accident, Joss and Rhee had been fighting about whose turn it was to press the thruster deploy.
“Stars you’re stupid. Soil you’re still stupid,” Joss had told Rhee, flipping her coin to show Rhee it didn’t matter which side landed first. Rhee had been six years old, and furious. She’d snuck off while her parents were distracted. She’d wanted to go get her own coin—and prove Joss was even stupider. Acting like a baby, just like Joss always said.
She’d been gravity-bound when the craft launched, when it tore off into the atmosphere and disappeared. She hadn’t known, of course, that it would never return, that exactly four minutes after takeoff it would burn up in the outer rings of Rylier and crash, killing everyone on board, instantly.
All because her father had wanted peace. In signing the Urnew Treaty that ended the Great War between the planets, he’d signed his own life away. Seotra had warned him. Half the beings in the galaxy will want you dead, he’d practically snarled. His hands clutching onto the collar of her father’s shirt. Your own people will make you pay. Rhee had burst in at that moment, interrupting their standoff. No one had ever spoken to her father that way, or handled him so roughly. Rhee clenched her fists as she remembered the threat laced in the Crown Regent’s words, the menace she felt when she went through her cube playback, searching for all the memories she had of her father just before he died.
Your own people will make you pay.
As in, Seotra would make him pay. He’d made her father believe that he had to take their family and flee from some imminent danger on Kalu. But the only danger was Seotra himself.
Once her family boarded the ship, isolated from all of their friends and allies out of a need for secrecy, it would have been easy enough for Seotra to orchestrate the explosion that ended their lives. He’d had connections from the war. And there was no doubt in Rhee’s mind he’d killed plenty of men before he’d killed her family that day.
She’d never shared the memory with anyone. No one would’ve believed a child. And now that she was grown, mere hours from becoming empress, there was no need to tell anyone, ever. She’d have her revenge on her own terms.
“Just take it,” Julian said now, motioning to the telescope in her hand. “Pretend it isn’t a birthday gift. Let’s say I’m just letting you borrow it ’til I see you next.”
’Til I see you next, she repeated in her head. By then, every- thing would be different.
She’d learned that there was no guarantee of anything, or anyone, ever.
Streaks of orange and red cut across the black sky. Shining, burning, bubbling. Edges chipped away as the meteors moved at impossible speeds. Cheers erupted all around them as every- one burst into applause. Rhee couldn’t record it; she’d just have to remember how she felt at this moment, looking up into the void, every joy and fear inside her boiling, as if she were the same temperature as the supercharged rocks hurtling across the sky. With each flare the question she’d asked herself for years burned brighter and brighter inside of her: Why her? Why did she survive?
“Do you think I’m good?” she asked him suddenly. There was a prickling sensation in her throat.
“Rhiannon . . .” He trailed off. After all these years, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever heard him say her whole name, and she didn’t like it—didn’t like the formality of it, the way it made her feel as though she’d already floated far away from him, and from this life. But wasn’t that what she wanted? Wasn’t that bet- ter for everyone? He seemed as if he was going to say something serious, but finally he shook his head and took her hand. “No. I think you’re weird.”
They’d held hands a million times before. To help each other over the crest of the sand dunes, or to pull the other up off the dojo mat. But now, he laced his fingers through hers and squeezed. She held her breath, wondering if she should squeeze back, if it even meant anything, if she was overthinking it completely.
The crowd to the left began to murmur. People parted like water cleaved by the prow of a boat, revealing a tall, white-haired man. He was too old to be a Tasinn. He had a slightly uneven gait and a funny rhythm to his walk, as if one leg was longer than the other. Veyron. She and Julian wrenched their hands apart.
His expression was illuminated in the light of a nearby torch: sad, knowing, stern. He barely looked at his son. Instead, Veyron touched the back of his neck and spoke something into his cube. She could read his mouth: I found her.
With every step Rhiannon took, the long, white corridor of the Eliedio seemed to narrow—as if the royal ship were slowly closing in on her.
It was done. They’d left Nau Fruma, and it would be years before she’d see Julian again. There was no sadness to draw from, only a static numbness. She’d opted to keep her cube off; she didn’t want to remember any of this.
Rhee focused on Veyron’s coat, which trailed behind him like a flag at half-mast. Because she was meant to be empress, the rules of decorum stated that no one should walk in front of her. Yet Veyron did, evidently still angry with her for running off. She could tell Tai Reyanna was irritated by this transgression; she made a point of standing behind Rhee, though they’d often walked side by side.
“There are a variety of festivities planned upon your arrival,” Tai Reyanna said, delivering the words in the breathy, high- society accent she’d urged Rhee to adopt. She walked slowly and deliberately, just as she did everything—and Rhee could hear the many fine layers of her formal silk robes swishing as she moved.
“How exciting,” Rhee responded. She hadn’t meant it to sound so sarcastic. Her footfalls were heavy, and though she knew it was the craft’s artificial gravity, there was a heavy feeling in her chest, too, as if her heart were pumping liquid metal to every part of her body. Her hair had been rebraided so tightly that her head ached. She looked down at her hands. Her palm still tingled where Julian had touched her.
“It is,” Tai Reyanna agreed, and Rhee could hear the chastise- ment in her voice. She was native Kalusian, like Rhee, and they shared the same broad cheekbones and tan skin. “Our Empress, coming home at last. Have you seen the holos today?”
When Rhee shook her head, the Tai took a handheld device and projected a three-dimensional image into the air as they walked. A Countdown to the Coronation logo appeared, the swirly script curling around an image of Rhee taken last year—digitally enhanced to bring out the green specks in her one hazel eye. She wasn’t smiling in the image, which Kalusian focus groups reported made her look older and more determined. There’d been a big media push as of late to convince the public that a teenage girl could rule the galaxy.
“We’re less than twelve hours away from making history, when Princess Rhiannon Ta’an will take the blood oath and swear her fealty to the people of Kalu,” Nero Cimna announced. Appearing as a holo that seemingly walked alongside Rhee in the corridor, the Countdown host wore a black short-sleeved shirt with a high, rounded collar, as was custom in diplomacy posi- tions. As ambassador to the office of the regent, he’d interviewed Rhee several times in the past few months. Asking her a series of frivolous questions about her upcoming coronation, he’d smiled in a way that showed off his perfectly square jaw and made Rhee flush. He had that effect on millions of viewers.
“Last-minute preparations are still under way,” Nero continued. Rhee had seen in the studio how the cameras filmed him from every angle; the holo feed adjusted to suit and integrate the viewer best. The footage cut to a live feed of Lenys Valley on Kalu, just outside the capital. The sloping hills of the valley, green and lush, created a natural amphitheater where the coronation cer- emony would take place. Rhee would be front and center as she went through the ritual of slicing open her palm to symbolically spill her blood for Kalu. A crowd of thousands had already col- lected and would wait there through the night. Flower arrange- ments were still arriving, and a small army of people seemed to be moving things back and forth for no apparent reason other than to fuss. The whole event looked extravagant, cloyingly beautiful, and like yet another careful orchestration from Seotra.
“We’ll see it in person soon enough,” Rhee said, gently low- ering Tai Reyanna’s hand. Her Tai turned off the feed so that the hologram zipped closed and disappeared. “I’m eager to speak with Regent Seotra. Will he be available when we arrive?” His name in Rhee’s mouth tasted bitter, acidic, but she needed to keep track of his every move.
“Of course.” Tai Reyanna raised her eyebrow, giving Rhee a questioning look. “He’s been preparing for your arrival for months.”
And I’ve been preparing for years, Rhee almost said.
Veyron didn’t even acknowledge their conversation. Tonight he seemed even quieter than usual—and she felt that familiar shame she’d often felt from her trainer: that she’d somehow dis- appointed him.
“We’ll need to discuss the logistics of your arrival,” Tai Reyanna continued as they reached a fork in the corridor. “Shall we head to the bridge? The captain is ready to meet with us.”
Rhee stood between two paths, her mind racing with invented excuses to avoid whatever Tai had planned. She’d have to pass the entire onboard staff en route, who were no doubt furious with her for running off earlier.
“Perhaps the girl needs to rest first,” Veyron said, his back still to them.
“I’d like that. Veyron could escort me to my chambers,” Rhee said quickly. He was not a man of many words, but he was perceptive. He’d given her an out. “It’s been a long day.”
Other than a slight thinning of her lips, Tai Reyanna concealed her displeasure well. Rhee knew she’d never admit how distasteful she found it that Veyron was half Wraetan. There were old wounds from the Great War that Rhee feared would never be healed.
“Yes, it has been a long day, hasn’t it?” Tai Reyanna said after a moment passed. There was blame threaded into her tone; it had been a long day because Rhee had delayed their flight. “We’ll be sure to reconvene after you’ve gotten some rest.”
The closer they got to the coronation, the more Rhee had dared to defy her Tai, though it didn’t change the mixture of terror and respect she had for the woman. She bowed her head before Tai Reyanna could change her mind, essentially dismiss- ing her. The ceremonial Kalu headdress that sat upon Rhee’s head shifted slightly, and she had to steady it with her hand. It had a colorful plume that gathered at the top of her head. She’d been forced to wear it, just like she’d been forced to change into a red dress embroidered with gold thread. The grit had been scrubbed
from her tan arms, which now prickled with goose bumps.
Veyron and Rhee continued on after Tai Reyanna excused herself. It felt strange to be walking in silence—especially after the long procession of Tasinn and security sweeps. Whenever Rhee had complained about the escort, since the time she was a child, Tai Reyanna always replied with the same answer: “They’re for your protection.” And Rhee had always bit back the same answer: All the security in the galaxy didn’t protect my family.
At the end of the corridor, Veyron tapped a code into a silver keypad. Just as Rhee caught up to him, the door slid up with a quiet hiss and opened to a large room with floor-to-ceiling win- dows. Her ancestors were projected via holo onto the only solid wall in the room. Clustered along a small ledge were offerings— grain, fruit, myrah candies. Not her quarters, but a room of wor- ship. She nodded to Veyron in respect and thanks. He’d been raised on Wraeta; honoring the ancestors was not part of his religion, but he knew that the practice always calmed her.
Rhee walked toward the windows, bowing before every ancestor and lighting incense as she passed, until she reached the portraits of her own family: her father, her mother, and Joss. If their bodies had been discovered, their cubes intact, she might have been willed certain memories they’d put aside. But even those had disappeared the day they died.
Through the glass, Kamreial fire rained against the darkness of space. In the distance, Rhee saw a pulsing orange light.
Kalu no longer seemed like a fixed point in the enormous sky, but a future she knew would be hers. Another chill ran over her arms. She’d be meeting with various dignitaries, and she’d
been prepped by Tai Reyanna in the customs of every planet, until she could curtsy, bow, and sign in her sleep. But there was still much to learn.
She touched her neck instinctively to recall the well-worn memory of a family breakfast, startled to forget she’d powered off. On the cube, her memories weren’t arranged chronologi- cally but by how often she’d revisited them—and this particular memory was always stacked at the top of her queue. But now, without the cube, Rhee had to search for this memory, closing her eyes and climbing down her memories as if feeling along the roots of a tree.
Her father at the head of the long table, teaching, always. “As empress, you must be fair, but decisive,” he’d said, smear- ing his toast with one stroke of butter, as if to demonstrate his point. He’d been talking to Josselyn, of course. Her older sister had known all her life that she would rule.
Funny. Without the cube, parts of the memory receded into the background while others rose to the surface. How Josselyn had fed a piece of meat to their hounds under the table, winking at Rhee as if they were in on a secret. While on her cube, she had never replayed the memory that far.
She opened her eyes just as a particularly dazzling display of flares burst across the sky. Orange marks clawed against the darkness and faded just as quickly. The silence made it feel like a sacred act. Or an omen.
She looked over at her trainer, who threaded his fingers behind his back. He faced the window, shoulders squared and chest out. Like the soldier he was. He’d barely said anything since
“Are you angry with me?” she asked him.
“No,” Veyron said, though he wouldn’t meet her eye. “But they do things differently in the capital. Running away from your duties would not have been tolerated there.”
“They’ll think whatever they please.” Her habit of wear- ing pants, her martial arts training—it would all strike them as odd. But Rhee feared something worse than popular opinion. She feared that after all this time, all this preparation, she would freeze when the time came to avenge her family and kill Seotra.
But she could not allow Seotra to live. He’d masqueraded as her father’s friend, but it was Seotra who’d arranged for their departure and seen them off that very night. How many times had she replayed the memory of the fight she’d interrupted?
Half the beings in the galaxy will want you dead. Seotra’s bared teeth. The certainty, the hatred, in his voice. Surely this was why her father had gathered them in the darkness of night. Seotra made the Emperor believe they had to flee for their lives, and then he destroyed their craft.
“The Crown Princess has always been so obstinate,” Veyron said now.
Crown Princess. She scowled at her trainer. “You know I don’t go by that title.” It was Joss’s claim. She’d been next in line to inherit the throne, and only because of her death would Rhee be empress.
“I do.” He nodded again as he gazed back at the door behind them. The lights of the flares made red slashes across the side of his face. “But as we grow older, we must also accept the people
“What do you mean?” Something in his tone made prickles of anxiety spiderwalk up her back.
Veyron turned, and she saw for the first time the look on his face. He had dark skin from his Wraetan side and blue eyes common in second-wave Kalusians—an unusual pairing, and evidence of his mixed heritage. It was strange to see him upset; he was always so good at concealing his true feelings. At that moment, his resemblance to Julian was striking. “I’m sorry, Rhee. I hope the gods forgive me.”
Before she could say what, Veyron grabbed her throat and pushed her hard against the window. Her headdress fell from the force of the impact, and Veyron stepped on it, crushing the feathers under the tread of his boot. From his thumb to his index finger, the length of his hand fit cleanly around Rhee’s neck. He lifted her off the ground and squeezed. She felt her windpipe closing. She gasped for air as she tried to claw his fingers off one by one.
It was impossible. His familiar face—the face of her best friend’s father, of the trainer she’d known for years—seemed to warp before her eyes. Everything was slowing. Her tongue felt thick and dry, and she fought for breath. White bursts of light softened the corners of her vision. The ancestors peered at her from their portraits, holos frozen in time, waiting to see how it ended. Would she would join them?
“I’m sorry, Rhee,” he repeated. Even as Veyron brought his other hand up to her throat, tears were welling in his eyes. “They gave me no choice. I had no choice.”