Chapter 1: Against Guards and Arranged Marriages
Taren used his cane to part the curtain of leaves and vines hanging before him. A stranger would’ve thought him terribly out of place, sneaking around the jungle wearing a white tuxedo and dancing shoes. Fortunately, there were no intelligent life-forms in the area. Narrowing his eyes against the glare of the setting sun, Taren gazed out at the landscape.
An enormous cathedral sat on an elevated plateau. It had tall towers, archways, and the traditional stained glass windows of a medieval cathedral from nineteenth-century Earth. It was one of the few of its kind in the solar system. The architectural marvel was partially obscured by the multitudes of people standing around in their evening best, waiting for the princess to appear.
Knowing the guards would be on the lookout for him, Taren wrapped a thin, metallic choker around his neck. A virtual mask appeared like a clear dome around Taren’s head once the clasp clicked into place. To anyone else, he would look like his dad, Colonel Horatio Platinum, who had received an invitation and had every right to be at the royal wedding. As he strode out of the jungle, Taren muttered to himself, practicing his imitation of his dad’s voice.
He walked through the lines of parked hovercars at the base of the plateau. Every time he leaned his weight against the cane, he squeezed the rounded handle. Tiny explosive darts were launched from a secret compartment located toward the bottom of the cane; they sped over the grass and attached themselves to the turbines of the hovers beside him. By the time he approached the guards stationed at the foot of the incline, the cane’s explosives reserve was empty.
The line of guards snapped to attention and chorused, “Sir!”
“At ease, gentlemen,” Taren drawled.
One of the younger men saluted him, staring at something just over Taren’s shoulder. “Good evening, Colonel Platinum.”
“Simons,” Taren said, coming to a stop in the grass.
“May I see your invitation, sir?” the guard asked, unclipping a handheld scanner from his belt.
Taren reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and glanced at the two guards standing on either side of Simons. “Jefferies, Kim-Sung, aren’t you supposed to check my person? See if I have any weapons on me?”
The older of the two guards, Jefferies, shook his head. “We would never, sir.”
“You’d be wrong,” Taren snapped. “Anyone could be a threat to the crown, gentlemen. Anyone.” He handed the thick paper invitation to Simons and then held his arms out to his sides.
Jefferies and Kim-Sung stepped forward to wave their metal wands over him. When asked to remove his jacket and turn out his pockets, Taren produced a pair of sunglasses, a small tin of mints, the keycard to a hovercar, a leather wallet, and a pocket square. His items were returned to him after a quick inspection.
“We’re honored that you reconsidered and chose to attend the festivities tonight, sir,” Kim-Sung said, puffing out his chest. “Know that your son’s actions haven’t changed our opinions of you. Your impeccable reputation and selfless service to this planet have not been forgotten among our ranks.”
Just last week, Kim-Sung had laughed at a stupid joke Taren told about a Folinar, a juggler, and a priest walking into a bar.
“I’ll thank you not to speak of my son,” Taren deadpanned. “He’s dead to me.”
“Of course, sir,” Jefferies said. “My colleague meant no offense, sir.”
Taren leaned on his cane and stepped past them. “Good evening, gentlemen.”
“Sir!” they all said as he walked away.
Up the incline Taren limped. He kept his head held high and maintained his dad’s signature frown despite the mosquitoes buzzing around his head and the sweat trickling down his spine. His parents were currently dining at a Peruvian country club on the other side of the royal city. Taren knew this because it was meant to be his goodbye dinner. Should his dad ever be questioned concerning this evening’s events, he would have more than a hundred witnesses to corroborate his whereabouts. Still, Taren felt a pang of guilt.
A holographic note left on an end table was not the goodbye his parents deserved. But it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
At last, he joined the crowds at the top of the plateau. Humans milled about in cliques, laughing, chatting, and recording themselves with their electronic devices. The amicable Folinar made conversation with humans with the help of translators, or chomped on the appetizers being offered by android servers.
And, of course, there were Mirelings standing closely together, sipping exotic drinks and ignoring everybody else. Unlike the Folinar, who resembled tall, tail-less, flat-faced monkeys constructed of pink putty, the Mirelings varied in height and appearance. Their planet, Palnach, was said to be composed of 90 percent water, so every creature who came from there was amphibious. With a glance, Taren took in their scales, gills, fins, webbed hands, slimy skin, and bulbous eyes.
Under the veil of excitement, there was a hint of tension. Up until a month ago, Jurthaan IV and Palnach had been enemies.
The Mirelings and the Folinar had been at war over vibromite—the only mineral in the galaxy strong enough to withstand the weathering of water and time. The Mirelings hoped to use the vibromite to rebuild and expand their underwater cities, but vibromite caves were considered sacred places to the Folinar and therefore untouchable. The humans discovered Jurthaan IV—the one planet in the solar system with breathable air—during this conflict. Desperate for a new home, they struck a deal with the Folinar, providing soldiers in exchange for land to colonize. Outnumbered, the Mirelings were forced to retreat. While the Folinar and the humans rejoiced in their victory and began building a new civilization together, the Mirelings planned their revenge. They returned fifty years later with more numbers, better weapons, and improved ships.
Only by surrendering a quarter of the vibromite caves to the Mirelings and arranging this wedding had Jurthaan IV avoided another war. And many members of the Folinar and the human race were still unhappy about the turn of events. Taren was surprised there weren’t protestors marching around the base of the plateau.
Stationing himself along the outer rim of the masses, he set his eyes on a spot in the sky. He shook his head at the server androids when they offered him food or drinks. Though the sun had set and the world was bathed only in a pale yellow glow, Taren slipped on his sunglasses. He hiked up his sleeve to examine the face of his wristwatch. Queen Miyako’s hovercar would be pulling up right…about…now.
He tapped the temple of his sunglasses to adjust the zoom. Everything was enlarged. Through a gap in the crowd, he caught sight of the familiar black hover gliding up the incline. Excited chatter rose as others noticed. The cameras floating above everyone’s heads swiveled to face the front, like a swarm of metallic birds. The hover stopped just before the gathering of guests. A guard climbed out of the passenger’s seat, sauntered over to the back, and opened the door. Not too long ago, that had been Taren’s job.
From inside the hover came a petite foot in a high-heeled golden shoe. Thin fingers reached out to grasp the hand the guard offered. Then came an enormous poof of lace and chiffon, or more like an imitation of lace and chiffon. Ersatz was the softer and more durable synthetic fiber everyone was wearing now; it was made to look like the most fashionable textures from Earth, which added to its popularity among humans. Taren dialed back on the zoom so that he could see his princess in her entirety. Kylee Wen Dao emerged with difficulty. It seemed the rest of her dress was still in the hover, hindering her movement. She stepped out over the grass. The blindingly white material kept coming, until finally, she was free of the hover.
The twenty-one-year-old was a natural beauty, with almond-shaped eyes the color of burnt umber, high cheek bones, and full lips. Kylee wore the ceremonial wedding makeup today, a mask of white powder with a stripe of blue across her eyes and golden paint lining her eyebrows. As her personal bodyguard—ex-bodyguard, that is—Taren knew for a fact that, given a choice, she’d opt out of wearing any kind of makeup, even to a formal event.
The princess had often said that she’d wear her hair in a ponytail for the rest of her life if she had a choice. Today, she’d been forced to endure a hairstyle that involved four miniature braided buns poised at the top of her head and roped together with pearls.
Kylee once told Taren that her ideal wedding dress would be something simple, made of an ivory satin imitation that ended just below the knee. But there she stood, cloaked in a snow-white monstrosity with a plunging neckline. There was a blue sash around her waist, which sported a silver broach resembling sea coral. This, of course, symbolized the union of the two planets.
This wasn’t the wedding Kylee would’ve wanted. This was Queen Miyako’s work. Not that Taren was surprised. The queen thought she knew what was best for her daughter and refused to hear anything to the contrary.
Princess Kylee released her guard’s hand and walked down the aisle that had been created for her with ropes of flowers. The people pressed in on either side, whispering and sighing and taking pictures. Kylee masked her discomfort behind a gracious half smile. Taren lowered his sunglasses just a hair down the bridge of his nose. The enlarged version of his princess shrank back to normal size as she glided by. She looked so distant, so vulnerable—
Taren shrugged away his concern. They would be together soon enough.
The guard pivoted back to the car to offer his hand to Queen Miyako. Her Majesty looked like a plastic, malnourished version of her beautiful daughter. Her dark hair had been curled. She was dripping in diamonds, and her Jurthaan IV blue ball gown was just as large as the bride’s. Taren spared her only a glance before lazily making his way toward the cathedral’s entrance. The people he passed gave him annoyed looks but then turned their gazes back to the parade of bridesmaids and flower girls coming down the aisle. By positioning himself close to the entrance, he was one of the first people to enter the building after the wedding party.
The cathedral’s interior was rumored to have stone columns, vaulted ceilings with breathtaking artwork, enormous chandeliers with real wax candles, wooden pews of hand-carved mahogany, wrought iron candelabras, and marble floors. Everything kept in pristine condition. The only alterations to the building were the walls, modified to mirror the scenery outside. Brides could choose to have their wedding ceremony in a historical place from nineteenth-century Earth, or they could have the comfort of air conditioning and protection from the elements while still being able to enjoy the spectacular outdoor view.
Taren was momentarily surprised to pass the threshold of stone and wood, and find himself back outside. There was virtual grass underneath his feet. A chilly breeze indicated that the AC had been turned on. Rows of chairs had been erected in a rectangle and were the only suggestion that there were borders to the area. There were guards patrolling the exterior, but Taren couldn’t see them through the reflective walls. At the end of the aisle was a wooden archway, heavy-laden with pink hydrangeas and ivy, under which stood a minister and the Mireling prince, along with his groomsmen. Bodyguards in disguise was more like it. Taren noted the bulges of hidden weapons beneath their jackets.
Prince Maju was built like pampered royalty, with undeveloped muscle beneath his silver tuxedo and scaly green skin. Gills cut across both sides of his neck and frills grew behind each ear. His glassy black eyes stared at the entrance of the cathedral, unblinking. His webbed hands were clasped loosely before him.
Taren wrestled with a rush of hate. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. Instead of taking a seat like all the other guests trickling in, he limped toward the front of the room.
The Mireling king and queen had to be there somewhere, but Taren hadn’t spotted them simply by looking around. It was possible they were sitting in a private balcony, protected by more reflective walls. Allowing their son to get married on an enemy planet was a bold move, even if the Mirelings’ weapons were laughably superior to Jurthaan IV’s. They were smart to stay hidden from the public.
“How’s one to find the bathroom in this invisible place?” Taren asked a passing guard.
“There’s a sign right over there, Colonel,” the man said, pointing at a stand across the way.
Taren nodded in thanks and walked toward it. He had to pass Prince Maju to get there. The groomsmen tensed, watching him through narrowed eyes. Taren ignored them. The stand pointed at another archway, this one made of stone. The moment Taren walked under it, the mirror image faded to reveal an alcove with three average-looking doors sporting the universal male, female, and unisex signs. He shouldered past the men’s restroom door and strode inside.
Once safely behind the locked door of a handicapped stall, he pressed a few buttons on his watch. The face glowed before it projected the blueprints of the cathedral. Taren tapped the face twice to enlarge the image floating in midair above his wrist. In any other situation, he’d connect his watch to the homing beacon implanted in his hip. An orange dot would then appear on the blueprints, indicating his current location. He assumed Queen Miyako would have people tracking his locator, however, which is why he’d carved it out of his body the other night and slipped it into the pocket of a homeless man he’d crossed paths with on the street.
He’d have to do without knowing exactly where he was on the map. He studied the image. Maneuvering around the exterior wouldn’t be a problem, but those invisible walls on the inside most certainly would. Once he’d memorized the location of the interior exits, he dismissed the holographic image and emptied out his pockets.
He tore open the leather wallet shell to reveal the grip of a small hand cannon. The tin of mints was actually an ejection port in disguise; the hovercar keycard was a laser bolt magazine he’d expertly wrapped in foil and embellished with a magnetic stripe. Once the pieces were assembled, Taren held a loaded weapon. The pocket square was, in reality, a two-foot-long by one-foot-wide piece of thin smart metal, programmed to obey his voice.
Taren took a moment to reprogram the choker around his neck. Anything that would identify him—the thumb-shaped birthmark at his temple, the distinctive oak-brown color of his eyes, the round shape of his nose, the dimple in his chin—were blurred. If anyone were to look at his face now, they’d only see an olive toned smudge and a coil of black hair.
The chances of Queen Miyako believing that some rebel group had organized the disruption of this wedding and the abduction of her daughter were slim to none. However, keeping the other guards in the dark about the extent of his abilities would give him the upper hand in this fight. Having the security team scrambling to verify his identity once he and the princess were away could potentially buy them some time as well.
The protocol for big events such as this was for all guards to check in with their team leader, who would then give the event coordinator the green light to begin. So, Taren waited and listened. The low murmur of voices and movement continued for close to ten minutes. The door to the restroom opened a few times, letting men in and out. Eventually, a guard was sent to do a sweep of the restrooms. Taren heard the high-pitched fuzz of an earpiece and the clomping of heavy boots. Stepping forward, he unlocked the door to his stall.
“Yes, sir. I’m checking them now,” the guard said.
“Listen for tone and inflection,” Taren’s dad had once said. “Which syllables do they stress? What emotions could be behind their words? How could those emotions alter their voice?”
“I’m checking them now,” Taren mimicked just as the guard stopped by his door. Then he leapt forward, yanking the door open and slamming the butt of his weapon into the stranger’s throat. The guard fell with a muffled choking sound. Taren masked this with a cough as he fished the earpiece out of the stranger’s ear and stuck it in his own.
“What was that, Hamilton?” a voice snapped.
“Damn bird flew into the window and scared the piss out of me,” Taren muttered, using his best impersonation of the guard he’d just knocked out.
“Is your earpiece working all right? I thought I heard an echo earlier.”
“I’m hearing you just fine. Must’ve been a temporary glitch,” Taren said. “The restrooms are clear.”
“All right. Get back to your station. I’ll let Eileen know we’re good to go.”
Taren dragged the unconscious guard into the handicapped stall and propped him up against the wall. Then he slipped out through the bathroom window. Even from the outside, he could faintly pick up the traditional wedding march. He pressed two more buttons on his watch, and static hummed louder in his ear. A timer started in Taren’s head. He had one minute before the channel was cleared.
He aimed his sidearm at the back of a guard standing by the edge of the plateau.
This looked like the new guy who’d started just a few weeks ago. He had a wife and a small child. Taren took a moment to switch his weapon to stun. The guard fell in a burst of blue light.
Taren swiveled around and stalked to the edge of the wall.
Fifty-seven. Fifty-six. Fifty-five. Fifty-four. Fifty-three.
Taking a moment to peek around the stone, he saw two guards walking along the side of the building.
Two more shots and the men were lying facedown on the ground.
He spun on his heel and slinked in the opposite direction along the wall.
Forty-nine. Forty-eight. Forty-seven. Forty-six.
He peeked around the edge again, then jerked his head back to avoid being seen. Waited a moment for the call of alarm. Heard it and then leapt into action.
Forty-five. Forty-four. Forty-three. Forty-two. Forty-one. Forty.
He stunned two more guards. Dodged the blaster shots of a third. Dived, rolled, and leapt to his feet again. Aimed at the guard’s chest and squeezed the trigger.
Thirty-nine. Thirty-eight. Thirty-seven. Thirty-six. Thirty-five. Thirty-four. Thirty-three.
The wedding march played on inside. Plasma shots from above hit the grass with sizzles and pops. Taren raced back around the building to hide from the sniper.
If it was Montenegro, he’d be in the bell tower. Taren plastered himself to the wall, dug around his inner jacket pocket for his sunglasses, and shoved them onto his face. Thanks to the zoom feature, he was able to spot the barrel of a rifle peeking out from between the two front columns.
Thirty-two. Thirty-one. Thirty. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven. Twenty-six.
The wedding march was reaching its crescendo. Kylee would be at the archway by now. Taren gritted his teeth and leaned out, aiming at the nearest column of the bell tower. He managed three shots before the barrel of that rifle was pointed down at him. Leaping back against the wall, he held his weapon up by his shoulder and waited.
Twenty-five. Twenty-four. Twenty-three. Twenty-two.
The shots stopped coming. Taren stepped back out and fired two more blasts, aiming at the base of a second column. Would that be enough to weaken them? All he could do was hope. He was running out of time.
Twenty-one. Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen.
Taren threw himself against the wall as Montenegro returned fire. He fished out the smart metal and brought it close to his mouth. “Trifist.”
The material condensed to obey. When it was finished transforming, he held a metal, boomerang-like weapon with three six-inch-long blades and a triangular handle at the center. Had this been a real trifist and not an replication, the blades would’ve been crackling with electricity. But in this case, the electricity wouldn’t be missed. All Taren had to do was hit the weakened support columns and the bell tower would collapse—theoretically.
Once the blasts stopped coming, Taren leaned out, aimed, and then launched his new weapon. He didn’t watch it meet its mark, choosing instead to jump back to cover, but he knew he had succeeded when he heard the roar of collapsing stone. The trifist sailed back into his waiting hand.
Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen.
“Back to normal,” Taren murmured, glancing up at the bell tower, which was now a partially-collapsed heap of mortar and brick. The smart metal flattened out again, and he stuffed it into his pocket. Whipping the glasses off and stuffing them into his pocket, he raced back around the building to the bathroom window. And tried not to think about Montenegro.
Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Nine. Eight.
After he climbed back inside, Taren disabled the choker and reached for the cane keeping the unconscious guard company in the handicapped stall.
Seven. Six. Five. Four.
He marched out of the restroom. The guests and guards inside the cathedral seemed unconcerned by the sound of the bell tower debris raining down over the roof.
Three. Two. One.
Princess Kylee stood before the Mireling prince, arm in arm with her dad, King Yoshiro. The sovereign only in name was the same height as his daughter, dressed in a stiff, white general’s uniform with golden lapels. He looked exhausted. Queen Miyako, sitting in the front row, grinned at the back of her daughter’s head.
The loud static in Taren’s ear cleared up, giving way to a cacophony of confused screaming and barked orders.
Squeezing the knobby handle of the cane detonated the explosive darts latched onto the hovercars at the bottom of the plateau. The aftershock rattled the ground. Taren placed a steadying hand against the wall and watched the chaos that ensued. Chairs were overthrown as the guests jumped up and ran for the nearest exits. Many encountered invisible walls instead. Others sprinted toward the smoke they could see in the distance, as if hoping the front doors were still open.
The groomsmen wrapped their arms around their prince and retreated, stumbling back into the invisible altar and maneuvering their way around it as one awkward, shuffling entity. The guard closest to the queen stood before her with his arms out, wild eyes searching the room, mouth moving quickly as he tried to communicate with his superiors. The remainder of the guards wrestled with the people racing in all directions, trying to forge a path to the princess and the king. The hysterical bridesmaids shoved Kylee and King Yoshiro apart. Kylee staggered and spun and was pushed aside, falling back against an invisible wall.
Taren shoved his gun into his waistband and ran. He dodged around people, took an elbow to the jaw, and got his foot stepped on, but he used his cane to smack the frantic guests out of his way, steadily making his way to the princess clinging to the wall. Kylee’s face was slack with a dazed, confused sort of look. And then her eyes locked on Taren. She pushed away from the wall, hiking up the skirts of her gown so that she could run to him.
Taren’s trek through the crowd became even more desperate at the sight of tears trickling down her cheeks. They left lines in her makeup, ruining the illusion of a perfect princess. She’d never looked more beautiful.
They met at the wooden archway. Taren took her in his arms and kissed her. She laughed and sobbed and kissed him hard, her fingers digging into his shoulders.
“Happy to see me?” he asked once they’d parted.
“Very.” Her grin slipped away. “The Mirelings—”
“Can we focus on the consequences of my actions after we’re far, far away from here?” he asked.
Kylee nodded, suddenly serious. “Lead the way.”
The archway had been placed at the back of the room, at the very center. Taren visualized the blueprint in his mind’s eye and pivoted in the direction he was 99 percent sure the nearest exit was.
He pulled out his gun. “Stay low and stay close.”
Kylee kicked off her high heels, wove her fingers through his belt loops, and hunkered down by his waist. They moved as one. Taren didn’t bother with stealth now that he had the princess. He jogged through the crowds, stunning anyone who got in their path. They were five feet away from freedom when someone finally noticed them.
“There!” Queen Miyako’s voice screeched above the noise. “Platinum has my daughter! After him! After them!”
Taren sprinted forward, his gun down, his free hand outstretched. Something hot clipped his shoulder. His muscles seized, deadening the feeling in that arm. His fingers opened of their own accord. The gun fell. Taren gritted his teeth against a scream of pain and pushed onward, zigzagging around people, dragging Kylee with him. His outstretched hand smashed against something wooden. Kylee knocked into the invisible door with a cry of surprise. Taren cast a frantic glance over his shoulder, his good hand searching for a handle. At last, his fingers closed over a knob. He twisted. Pushed. A wave of humid air washed over him.
“Time to run,” Taren said, pulling the princess out.
“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” Kylee squeaked, straightening up.
Together, they crested the back edge of the plateau and ran down the slight decline to the jungle stretched out below. The wind tugged at Taren’s curls and jacket. It felt heavenly against his skin, which was warm from the rush of blood just underneath. The uneven ground threatened to trip him, but that catlike grace his fellow guards always envied kept him upright. Kylee cursed and grunted as her bare feet beat against the ground, but she kept pace with him, one hand holding the bulk of her skirt, the other gripping his hand. Despite the blue blaster shots and the angry shouts echoing down from the top of the plateau, Taren found himself grinning.
Because he wasn’t thinking about what they were leaving behind. Only what lay ahead.
The ground leveled out beneath them, making it easier to pick up the pace. Kylee panted beside him. When Taren glanced at her, he saw that she had completely sweat away the makeup. Globs of it were stuck to her eyelashes and clumped in the corners of her lips.
“Almost there,” he said. “We can slow down once we reach the trees.”
Her eyes flickered in his direction. She gave a quick nod.
Under the vines, past the trees, over the roots. A branch whipped past and slapped him across the face. Taren shook it off and kept moving. Finally, a parked cargo cruiser emerged from among the green. Taren let go of the princess’s hand to smash a palm against the button that would lower the loading ramp. Kylee doubled over, swallowing huge gulps of air. She stood upright once the ramp touched the ground.
“Since when…do you…have a ship?”
“Since this morning.” Taren walked up the ramp and massaged his shoulder, still tense from where the stun blast had caught him. “I’m hoping she’ll be inconspicuous enough to go unnoticed once we leave the planet.” He glanced back when he didn’t hear her following.
Kylee still stood in the grass, turned away from him, her brow furrowed as she looked back the way they’d come.
For one horrifying moment, he thought she’d look at him with that sad, tired smile she often gave when she had to make a choice for the good of the planet—a choice that usually went against her own wishes.
His heart pattered anxiously in his chest. “Princess?”
Kylee faced him with a start. “Right. Let’s go.” She gathered the skirt of her gown and ambled up the ramp.
Relief flooded his body. But then he felt guilty. She might not have wanted to be a princess, but she still cared about her people. If they suffered because of this, if her happiness caused their ruin, she’d never forgive herself.
Taren held out a hand to stop her. “You can still change your mind.” The words tasted bitter, but he forced himself to keep going. “If you’re not a hundred percent sure this is what you want, you can stay here and wait for the guards to catch up. I can—”
“Fly away and start a new life without me?” Kylee asked with a snort. “Are you sure you know how eloping works?”
“So am I.” She smirked and walked around him. “The Mirelings will still get their precious vibromite when they sign the treaty. My parents can avoid a war without the wedding. We’re doing this, Platinum.”
Taren let out an exaggerated breath. “Oh, good. Because I honestly have no idea how to fly this thing. I just guessed last time, and I totally botched the landing. It was a miracle I didn’t crash.”
Kylee’s laugh echoed around the cargo bay.