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 to think him odd. 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 stain 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 that 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. Some stragglers called to him by name. He nodded in acknowledgement but didn’t stick around to chat.
Every time he leaned his weight against the cane, he squeezed the rounded handle. A tiny explosive dart, launched from a secret compartment located toward the bottom of the cane, sped over the grass and attached itself 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 at 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, eying 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 lurched 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 box of mints, the keycard to a hovercar, a leather wallet, and a pocket square. His items were returned to him after a quick look-over.
“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, this man had laughed at a stupid joke Taren had 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 his dad’s signature frown on his face 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 city. Taren knew this because it was meant to be his goodbye dinner. Should his dad ever be questioned concerning the events of this night, he would have more than a hundred witnesses to collaborate 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 made out of pink putty, the Mirelings varied in height and appearance. Their planet, Palnach, was said to be composed of ninety percent water so every creature who came from there was amphibious. At a glance, Taren saw 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 during this conflict, the one planet in the galaxy with breathable air. Desperate for a new home, they struck a deal with the Folinar (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.
It was only due to surrendering a quarter of the vibromite caves to the Mirelings and arranging this wedding that Jurthaan IV had 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. Despite the fact that the sun had set and the world was simply bathed in a pale yellow glow, Taren slipped on his sunglasses.
He hiked up his sleeve to examine the face of his wrist watch. 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 crowds, he caught sight of the familiar black hover gliding up the incline. Excited chatter rose as people noticed. The cameras floating above everyone’s heads swiveled to face the front, like a swarm of freakish 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. He bristled for a second.
From the depths of the hover came a petite foot in a high heeled golden shoe. Thin fingers reached out to grasp the hand the guard offered. Then there was an enormous poof of lace and chiffon. Taren dialed back on the zoom so that he could see the rest of his princess. Kylee Wen Dao emerged with difficulty. It seemed the rest of her dress was still in the hover, providing some resistance to her movement. She stepped out over the grass. The blindingly white material kept coming. 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. As her personal bodyguard (or ex-bodyguard) Taren knew for a fact that, given a choice, she’d opt out of wearing makeup to a formal event. Kylee’s face was caked with powder and glitter now. And she wore fake eyelashes.
The princess had often said that, if allowed, she’d wear her hair in a ponytail for the rest of her life. Today she’d been forced to endure a hairstyle which involved four miniature braided buns poised at the top of her head and roped together with pearls.
Kylee had once told Taren that her ideal wedding dress would’ve been something simple, made out of ivory satin that ended just below the knee. But there she stood, cloaked in a snow white monstrosity with a plunging neckline. There was a blue satin sash around her waist, which sported a silver broach that looked like sea coral. This, of course, symbolized the union of the two planets.
This wasn’t the wedding Kylee would’ve wanted. This was all Queen Miyako’s work. Not that Taren was too 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 by 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 and malnourished version of her beautiful daughter. Her dark hair had been curled, she was dripping in diamonds, and her ball gown of Jurthaan IV blue was equally as large as the bride’s. Taren only spared her 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 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, the only suggestion that there were boarders to the area. Taren knew there were guards patrolling the exterior but couldn’t see them through the walls. At the end of the aisle was an archway heavy laden with pink hydrangeas and ivy, under which stood a minister and the Mireling prince, Maju, along with his groomsmen. Bodyguards in disguise was more like it. Taren could see the bulges of hidden weapons beneath their jackets.
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 trickling guests, he limped toward one of the guards stationed by the front row.
“How’s one to find the restroom in this invisible place?” he asked.
“There’s a little 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 as he passed. Taren ignored them. The sign pointed at another archway, this one made of wood. The moment Taren walked under it, the illusion of invisibility faded to reveal an alcove with two average looking doors sporting the universal male and female signs. He shouldered past the men’s bathroom 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 had slipping it into the pocket of a homeless man he’d crossed paths with on the street.
He’d just 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 again.
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. He took a moment to program the choker around his neck to distort his features and then took a deep breath.
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 men’s 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 saw the heavy soled boots walk in. Stepping forward, he unlocked the door.
“Yes, sir. I’m checking them now,” a man’s voice 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 and hit the back of his head against the tile floor. Taren masked the sound 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 in 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 bathrooms 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. Two more buttons were pressed on his watch and static hummed more loudly in his ear. A timer started in Taren’s head.
He had one minute before the channel was cleared.
Taren aimed his gun at the back of a guard standing by the edge of the plateau.
This almost looked like the new guy who had started just a few weeks ago…He had a wife and a small child. Taren took a moment to switch the gun 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 face down 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. 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 briefly 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 the other column.
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 moving, 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 imitation, the blades would’ve been crackling with electricity. But in this instance, 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 inner jacket pocket, he raced back around the building to that bathroom window. And tried not to think about Montenegro.
Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Nine. Eight.
After he climbed back inside, Taren tore the choker away from his neck, shoved it into his back pants pocket, and reached for the cane keeping the unconscious guard company in the handicapped stall.
Seven. Six. Five. Four.
He marched out of the bathrooms. The guests and guards inside seemed unconcerned by the sound of the bell tower debris raining down over them.
Three. Two. One.
Princess Kylee stood before the Mireling prince, arm and 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 one more time detonated the explosive darts latched onto the hovercars at the bottom of the plateau. Taren felt the aftershock, rocking through the ground. He 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, or where they believed the nearest exits to be. Many encountered invisible walls instead. Hordes of sprinting people made their way 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 an invisible alter 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 raced forward; they shoved Kylee and King Yoshiro apart. Kylee staggered and spun and was pushed aside until she fell back against an invisible wall.
Taren shoved his gun into his waistband and ran. He dodged around people, took an elbow to the jaw, got his foot stepped on, and used his cane to smack a few 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. It was as if the explosions hadn’t even registered in her mind, only the frenzied crowd. 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 wading through the crowds became even more desperate at the sight of the tears trickling down her cheeks. They left lines in her makeup, ruining the illusion of the 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, 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 determined. “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, pivoting in the direction he was ninety-nine 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, Kylee at a crouch. 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 raced forward, gun down, free hand outstretched. Something hot struck his shoulder from behind. His muscles seized, deadening the feeling in that arm. His fingers opened of their own accord. His gun fell. Taren gritted his teeth against a scream of pain and pushed onward, zigzagging around people and dragging Kylee with him. His outstretched hand smashed against something wooden. His whole body came to an abrupt halt. 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. But she straightened up and sprinted at his side nonetheless.
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, warm from the rush of blood just beneath. The uneven ground threatened to trip him but that cat-like 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, made it easier to pick up the pace. Kylee panted beside him. When Taren glanced at her, he saw that she had completely sweated away the makeup. Globs of it were stuck to her fake eyelashes and clumped to the corners of her lips.
“Almost there,” he said. “We can slow down once we reach the trees.”
Her eyes flickered in his direction and 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’ hand to smash a palm against the button that would lower the loading ramp. Kylee doubled over, swallowing huge gulps of air. She stood up straight 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, half-turned away from him, 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 around 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 through his body. 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.