It commanded her to understand the truth. To believe it, with every fiber of her being.
Nor Solis is the one true queen.
Lira had spent her entire life running from truths. In Adhira, she’d run from the truth that her mother had abandoned her. She’d run from the reality that her brother, Lon, and her aunt Alara wanted her to stay and rule from a cold, spiraling mountain that hardly saw the light. And when she’d joined a starship full of lady pirates...she’d run even then, flying the Marauder as far and as fast as she could away from Adhira.
But in that moment after she was shot, when she heard that command and was cast back out into the land of the living again...
Lira rose to her feet in the ballroom on Averia and looked up at the brightest light she’d ever seen. Queen Nor stood upon the stage, a pile of dead Mirabellian leaders at her feet, their blood drying in colorful rivers down the ballroom steps.
She’d smiled at Lira, at all the people standing around her.
And in that moment, Lira knew that she worshipped the queen. That the silver bullet had been not a curse, but a blessing meant to save her, to show her that when she followed Queen Nor, all would be as it should. For the first time in her life, she was at peace.
“You alright, Lir?” A voice drew Lira from her thoughts. She looked to her right, where one of her oldest friends stood, rifle clutched in her large hands.
“Fine,” Lira said, a small smile on her lips as she thought of the queen. “Perfectly fine.”
Breck was a giantess from New Veda, a natural warrior who’d spent her entire life behind the sights of a gun. She was the perfect soldier for Nor’s army, one who would give her life to serve the queen if she was asked.
“Again!” the commanding officer barked out, and Breck winked at Lira as she lifted her rifle and shot. A perfect bull’s-eye in the target.
The other soldiers scrambled to follow Breck’s lead. Lock. Load. Aim. Fire.
Lira’s next shot hit close to her intended mark, but she couldn’t yet match Breck’s accuracy. Shooting was still so new to her. She’d always preferred to use her own body as a weapon, but there were a lot of old preferences she’d once had that had melted away beneath the weight of Lira’s desire to please her new queen.
She’d spent the past two years of her life aboard the Marauder, a glass starship where her piloting skills were used to gallivant across the skies, following the lead of the Bloody Baroness, a space pirate notorious for raising hell.
Lira could see Androma’s face now—those metal cheekbones, the bloodlust in her eyes. What waste Lira had once laid to Queen Nor’s precious planets at the Baroness’s command.
Sometimes, when she thought of her past life, Lira still felt the ghostly heat of her scales warming on the surface of her skin. A lifelong struggle she’d tried to harness, her emotions getting the better of her far more often than they should. Those out-of-control emotions had hurt people, ruined her relationships, left her feeling like a weapon always on the brink of a misfire. But now, with a deep breath, a mere thought of Queen Nor...
Lira felt nothing. As if she were a hollow shell, blessedly free of the stresses she’d spent so many years trapped beneath.
A soldier groaned suddenly as the butt of his rifle smacked him in the eye. Horrific form.
“Not good enough, Krisson!” their commanding officer shouted, stomping closer to the line of soldiers clad in black, the Solis crest stamped on their backs and chests. Lira wore it on her own chest now, and it was displayed all across the city, waving from flags, brightly flickering on holoscreens across the glass towers that made up much of Arcardius. “Tighten up your grip. Deep in the shoulder. Fix your form, or I’ll tell the entire barracks that bruise on your eye is from Gilly!”
A small redheaded girl turned around from the line, a wicked grin on her youthful face. “Who’s to say I didn’t beat the shit out of him already?”
“Language, Gil,” Breck huffed under her breath, but she smiled as all the soldiers laughed, men and women alike, when Gilly turned back around and fired three consecutive shots dead-center in the target, three hundred yards away.
Lira smiled. Gilly knew her way around a weapon, and it was with the greatest joy that she got to watch the youngest member of her old crew serving the queen in such a spectacular fashion.
Together, the three girls were finally fighting for a cause that mattered.
Hoots and hollers sounded down the firing line as their commander signaled the end of their training session.
It’s about time, Lira thought. They’d been at it for hours. She slung her weapon over her shoulder and stepped away from the larger group, joining Breck and Gilly at the edge of the warehouse. The girls took seats together by the watercooler, where the next formation of soldiers waited for their turn at target practice.
Gilly’s red braids bounced as she slumped into the bleachers, craning her neck to look the other two girls in the eye. “Go ahead and try to tell me that shot wasn’t sexy as hell.”
Lira gave her an indulgent smile. “You’re talented, Gilly. A true asset to our queen.”
Breck nodded in agreement, taking off her cap, the golden Solis sigil on it sparkling as she set it down beside her. “Sexy. As. Hell.”
They were like sisters, the three of them, their bond forged through a past they all wished to forget.
“But seriously. You’re doing good, Gil,” Breck added. “Keep it up, and you’ll be out there in the galaxy soon, shooting Unaffecteds, clearing out the nonbelievers.”
“Do you think Queen Nor will ever come down and visit us?” Gilly asked.
Everyone wanted a chance to see the queen, to kiss her hand or simply gaze upon her. She’d turned Mirabel from a place of hatred and darkness to one of glorious, peaceful light. Under her reign, everyone was united behind one cause.
Lira shrugged. “She’s so busy, ensuring Nexus is built and the plans for Phase Two are set in place.”
“Let’s not forget her efforts to take down Arachnid and his so-called resistance,” Breck added, her face set in a grim expression.
Lira’s blood went hot at the thought of those betrayers. Ever since they’d seen Arachnid’s threat playing across the feeds, Lira had felt even more committed to protecting Queen Nor’s rule. Arachnid and his rebels had no place in this galaxy, and Lira would make sure they bowed down to their rightful queen, even if she had to hunt them down one by one herself.
“They won’t be a problem for much longer,” Lira said. The Unaffected numbers were few, and Nor’s army was many, spanning all the planets across the galaxy.
“I wonder how the queen is feeling about all this. What is she going to do?” Gilly asked. Although Gilly was brave, she was still very young, and she tended to worry about things Lira generally didn’t even think about. Their queen was strong, of course, but with so many factors demanding her attention, Lira hoped she was aided by loyal aides and advisers. All-powerful or not, Queen Nor was still just one person.
“I’m sure she’s doing fine,” Lira told Gilly reassuringly. “Especially knowing how capable her army is. We lessen her burden, and we’ll do whatever it takes to stop the rebels.”
“Right now, there are more important things for the queen to handle, like Phase Two. A few rebel sympathizers are nothing but pesky insects,” Breck added, giving Gilly’s shoulder a squeeze. The small girl smiled.
“What is Phase Two?” Gilly wondered.
Phase Two hadn’t been shared with the grunt soldiers like them yet—the queen needed to keep many of her plans under wraps for now, until the Unaffected threat was eliminated. But Lira knew it would be glorious, and she’d do whatever was asked of her when the time arrived.
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Lira said. “We’re blessed to be able to serve her together. That’s enough for me.”
Breck lifted her cup of water in agreement.
“I served beside you both for two years on Andi’s ship,” Gilly said, draining her water and tossing her metal cup into the bin beside the bleachers. “That traitor.”
The sound echoed like a tiny gunshot that Lira felt in her chest. Sometimes, she still thought about Androma and wondered where she was. But then guilt riddled her insides for spending even a moment thinking of the traitorous young captain of the Marauder. If Andi was on Nor’s side, she would have been here now, with the three of them. She would have put her skills to use serving the rightful queen.
Instead, she’d taken the Marauder and soared away, with Dex and Lira’s twin brother, Lon, in tow. A coward’s move, if ever there was one.
Lira could still see Lon’s face, so much like her own—the same smile, the same ocean-blue skin. But he’d chosen the wrong side. Andi, too. Lira had once considered Andi to be her family, every bit as much as Lon.
Now she felt ashamed to have ever been so closely connected to two Unaffecteds.
A bang came from Lira’s right, drawing her gaze as the double doors of the warehouse suddenly hissed open.
“Looks like it’s showtime,” Gilly said, eyeing the new arrival. She began to bob on her toes expectantly. “Aclisia’s here!”