Chapter Three: Aedan

Ronan and Nadira had left to navigate Hub politics a week ago. Something to do with the Council, and trade agreements. Didn’t know, didn’t really care.

Nadira would navigate things, and Ronan would destroy anyone who was in her way.

And Davien was left to handle station security.

He wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, which meant we all suffered.

But Davien wasn’t the only one waiting for me in the control room

“There he is!” gushed a rich male voice as I came into the office.

Oh no.

I’ve been so busy carefully not thinking about Kara’s words that I hadn’t picked up the scent.

A tall male, immaculately dressed in crimson and white, bounced up from one of the plush chairs that Nadira had insisted Ronan’s office needed.

They were especially useful when people walked in for the first time. Command was deep in the heart of Orem Station, but we’d fixed screens over all the walls.

Sometimes they showed data for specific missions, or cam feeds from decks where trouble had been reported.

But most of the time they showed exactly what you’d see if you weren’t in the station. Space.

The ships coming in and out of port.

But mostly just the deep black.

Which was where I’d like to throw a certain someone.

“Why is he here?” I asked Davien.

“Because I’m the Emperor and can go where I want?” answered Vandalar.

I snapped my head back towards him. “You’re not the Emperor yet.” A terrible thought struck… “Are you?”

“Actually,” the dark blond man dropped back into the chair, the idiotic façade slipping away. “It’s going to be soon. Grandfather’s facilities are fading, and he knows it.”

Davien and I shot each other frowns.

To be trapped in your body, knowing your mind was slowly leaving, betraying you. It was the worst nightmare for all of us.

“If anything, the business with General Melchior has made him more determined than ever to step aside early.”

Vandalar rubbed his eyes and I noticed the strained, fine lines around the outer corners that told of more sleepless nights than human men were designed for.

“But he wants everyone around for the big day.”

“We’re not going,” Davien said flatly.

Vandalar laughed, low and long, finally tipping his head back to rest against the back of the chair.

“Oh no, that’s not what he meant. Not at all. But thank you. I just had the most pleasing vision of all of you stopping in, glowering until the court finally fell silent.”

“No,” Davien growled.

“Still, I’ll treasure the imagined memory.”

“So, what do you want?” I snapped.

What I wanted was a shower. To get a fresh order of steamed buns and actually get to eat them this time.

To stop dancing around things with this layabout.

Vandalar’s face turned stern. Possibly, almost regal.

“I need you to find my aunt,” Vandalar answered. “My great aunt Eladia, really. My grandfather’s favorite sister. She’s gone missing.”

“It’s a big galaxy out there,” I leaned back in the chair, thinking wistfully of dinner. “Missing doesn’t really give us much to go on.”

“Believe it or not, I’m not an idiot,” said Vandalar.

“It’d be easier to remember if you’d stopped acting it,” said Davien.

“Maybe you can have that interesting AI of yours remind me every time I enter Orem,” Vandalar said dryly. “I’ve heard it’s remarkably useful.”

I could do that, chirped Nixe.

Void. She’d been listening to the whole thing.

“Nixie, everything that’s ever said in this room is private, you understand that, right?” I demanded of the air, to where ever Nixie had decided to place her interfaces.

“Except for family you mean, right?”

“It may be the best you get,” Davien shot at Vandalar.

“That’s fine,” Vandelar waved dismissively. “I don’t understand your family, but it’s no crazier than mine.”

“Ask Eris before you tell anyone else,” Davien clarified the order. “Make sure Eris thinks they’re okay to know.”

I can do that, I can do that right now, I’m doing that while we’re talking.

Of course she could.

And I’ve put in a reminder notice so that every time your ship comes in it will get a special surprise! Won’t it be fun?

Vandalar looked nervous.

We probably all did.

“That’s great,” he said weakly.

“So, tell us more about this aunt of yours,” Davien sighed. “When did she go missing and why?”

“And what do you want us to do about it?” I threw in.

“Here’s what I have.” Vandalar tossed a tablet to me.

Despite myself my eyebrows rose.

“A ransom demand?”

“A very specific one, yes.”

“Someone apparently feels they don’t have anything to lose.”

“All, of course, couched in the politest of phrases,” Vandalar snarled. “But yes, they’re holding the Princess Eladia hostage.”

I kept scrolling through the list of demands. “Whoever this Flame character is, he seems to want quite a lot.” I scrolled further.

“Mostly weapons, you’ll notice.” Vandalar commented dryly.

“How do you even know he’s got her?” Davien asked.

“We know it’s her because he was kind enough to send a tissue sample. Apparently, he means business.”

I tapped the side of the commtab. “No way it could have been grown or cloned or any of the usual methods?”

Vandalar threw his hands in the air. “Of course it could have been. But it doesn’t seem likely that a warlord on a backwater Fringe planet would have access to my great aunt’s cells to even start the cloning process enough for a sample.”

Davien shrugged. “Fair point.”

“I still don’t understand why you want us involved,” I leaned back in the chair, stretched a little, watched a small merchant class ship leave dock. “If you’re about to be the Emperor, couldn’t you deploy a few hundred of those fancy guards of yours, take over the place, scour it to the ground until you find her?”

“I could.” Vandalar’s expression changed, making it clear that this time I was the idiot. “But as you might have noticed from trying to keep a single space station in line. Every time you solve one problem another pops up.” He turned to watch the ship slowly move away, before its engines caught and it streaked into a jump.

“At the moment I’m working on solidifying my control of the capital. Making personal visitations throughout the Hub and making sure that all of our alliances and governors aren’t going to start another rebellion.”

“We’d appreciate that,” Davian replied. “The last one nearly took us out.”

Vandalar bowed, continued. “Kerrind has been off the Imperial radar for almost one hundred years. The only contact we’ve had with them was before I was born. One of their warlords came to court asking for weapons.”

He ran his hand through his hair.

“My grandfather sent them away without an audience. I don’t think it was the best idea. Apparently, they spent the next couple of generations tied in a civil war that sent them more or less back to the Stone Age.”

Vandalar tossed a data chip to Davian, who threw the data up on the screen.

Maps, flight paths, population data.

All probably horribly out of date.

And he didn’t care.

“I want this done discreetly. Go in. Find my great-aunt and get her out of there.”

I looked at Davien, still bewildered. “I still don’t know why any of your team can’t do it.”

“Did I mention that part about them going back to the Stone Age?” Vandalar snapped. “Maybe that’s a bit much. But as part of the truce between the warlord’s all high tech has been forbidden.” He rubbed his eyes. “Everything that would be helpful to any of my men would mark them immediately as an outsider.”

“Or belonging to one of the warlords,” I added. “You know whoever they are is keeping the good stuff for themselves.”

“That might be true,” Vandalar nodded. “But that still doesn’t help me. If at all possible, I want to avoid upsetting the peace they’ve gained there. Ideally, I’d have someone on the ground who could make a report on the situation, advise on how to bring them back into the Imperial fold.”

“Good luck with that,” I said. “Sounds like the place is ready to be all kinds of upset no matter what you do.”

He raised one eyebrow. “It’ll be more upset if my great aunt isn’t at the rehearsal for the coronation in ten days. So far we’ve kept Eladia’s disappearance a secret from my grandfather, but once he learns of it, all bets are off. He’ll take half the navy and lay waste to this Flame’s stronghold until he gets her back.”

“Well, then you wouldn’t have to deal with Kerrind and its problems at all,” Davien offered. “Sounds like there wouldn’t be enough of them to cause you trouble for another generation or two.”

“That’s not exactly how I’d like to handle it,” Vandalar muttered. “I think the only ones who could get my aunt out of there without sparking another war would be one of Lyall’s Wolves.”

Davien looked at me and I groaned.

Getting a new shirt would have to wait.

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