ACKNOWLEDGMENTS—LINDSAY CUMMINGS (#litres_trial_promo)
About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)
CHAPTER 1 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
Dextro Arez had never truly believed that the Godstars were tangible beings.
They were soul-felt, a comforting presence inside your heart, an idea that filled your mind as if soldered on with iron and fire. Always nearby, yet as far away as the stars in the night sky.
Dex’s body was tattooed with the Godstars’ white constellations; a living shrine to their power and strength. Here, on his left arm, were the twisting, intertwining patterns that symbolized the twin Godstars of life and light. And on the back of his right shoulder, stretching up toward his neck—the angular constellation that marked the godstar of hope.
But tonight, as Dex slumped forward in his chair, the thick, rigid lines of the godstar of death stared up at him from his left hand. The tattoo stretched out like a narrowing eye as he clenched his fist. Dex looked away from it, swallowing hard. He felt as if death were truly here—a beast breathing down his neck as he turned his gaze to Androma’s pale, still form.
Andi had been unconscious for nearly a week now. Dex knew that it was due at least in part to the painkillers they’d given her for the wound on her chest—a parting gift from the traitorous Valen Cortas, who’d turned his blade on her after stabbing his own father during Queen Nor’s attack on Andi’s home planet, Arcardius.
But Dex also wondered if Andi’s mind just wasn’t ready to return her to this world yet, too terrified by what had transpired in the moments before Valen tried to kill her. And if that were true, how long would it be before she came back to them?
Wake up, he pleaded silently as he watched her. We can’t do this without you, Andi.
Whatever this was, Dex wasn’t quite sure. The fate of the entire galaxy had changed, the hopes and dreams of so many melting away into the shadows the moment Nor Solis took control. They’d all assumed that the Cataclysm had destroyed the threat of Xen Ptera forever; that the final battle had drained the planet’s resources and broken the will of its people and their queen. No one had ever imagined that Queen Nor would someday rise again, or that she’d somehow have the ability to bring all of Mirabel under her dominion.
There was only one person who might have the power to free the galaxy from Nor’s rule—and yet completely unaware that the lives of millions now rested in her hands.
Wake up, Andi, he thought again.
She looked so frail as she lay on the soft white medical bed now, lost in sleep. Dex winced as he imagined what she likely saw there.
Never dreams, not anymore.
The harsh lights of the med bay bounced off of the silver plates implanted across Andi’s cheekbones as Dex leaned back, stretching his aching muscles. He’d hardly moved from this spot since they’d fled Arcardius, determined to be by her side when she finally awoke. Determined to be the one to tell her all that had happened...even though he couldn’t yet find the words to do so.
Dex closed his eyes, remembering that fateful night. Remembering the desperate words of Cyprian Cortas, the former General of Arcardius, as he lay dying in this very med bay.
The fate of the galaxy is at stake. The leaders are dead, and I’m sure their successors soon will be, as well... Androma is the only Arcardian on this ship once I die. If she survives... Androma Racella will be the rightful General of Arcardius.
General of Arcardius. Leader of the planet that had once wanted her dead. Godstars, how she would hate the very idea of it.
Dex sighed heavily and shifted his chair closer to Andi, tentatively grazing a hand against hers. The warmth of her skin was soothing, that small sign of life the only thing that made the knot of tension inside him loosen in the slightest. He studied the thick white bandage on her chest, just below her collarbone. Hidden beneath were the dark stitches that held her skin together. Mending the flesh that Valen’s knife had torn apart. Dex had seen and inflicted plenty of wounds, some far more gruesome than this. But seeing Andi in such a state brought back a wave of memories that sent his head spinning out of control.
Valen Cortas stood before Andi at the Ucatoria Ball, blood dripping from the knife that he’d just plunged into her chest. Andi fell to her knees, grasping for the hilt with shaking hands, wrenching the blade free. Then she swayed, and the knife tumbled to the ground as Andi collapsed, surrounded by a growing pool of her own blood.
He was too late. For a heartbeat, Dex thought she was dead. All around him, the room was growing quieter, the screams dying down. A few more shots here. A few more there. The thump of a body hitting the floor. The click of another silver bullet sliding into a rifle’s chamber.
Dex finally reached the stage. The system leaders were huddled together in their chairs, bodies of Patrolmen littering the ground around them. But Andi was the only person he had eyes for.
“Hang on,” Dex said to Andi. His fingers found her throat. A tiny heartbeat beneath her skin. “You just hang on.”
Dex blinked at the sound of Andi’s sudden groan.
He realized he’d been squeezing her hand too hard. The ends of his fingernails, ragged from chewing the past few sleepless nights, were biting into her palm. He let go at once, but leaned forward all the same, unable to look away from her face.
Her eyelids fluttered.
For a moment, Dex feared she was dying. That her stitches had become infected, or the blood that Lon had donated in the few precious moments after their escape had mixed wrongly with hers, universal donor or not. Perhaps even the godstar of death, still so hauntingly present in this room, was laughing as he raised a shadowy scythe and readied himself to bring Andi to the other side.
But then her eyes opened.
Gray as a storming sea.
Dex let out a whooshing breath that he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding.
“Hey,” he said, feeling the tightness flood from him, gone in an instant. “How are you feeling?”
“Dex?” For a moment, Andi simply looked around, as if trying to make sense of her surroundings. She seemed calm, just a person waking from a sound night of sleep.
Then her eyes slowly moved to lock onto Dex’s, and confusion seemed to sweep through her as her forehead wrinkled.
“What...happened?” Andi asked. Her voice was raw from disuse, a whisper trying to break free into something more.
“You’re alive,” Dex said, unable to stop a smile of relief from spreading across his face. “You’re safe.”
“Safe?” Andi asked. She tried to sit up and groaned, a hand flying up toward the white bandages covering the knife wound in her chest.
This was the most awake she’d been in days. Dex took a deep breath, reaching for her hand, still unsure of how to explain it all to her. She may have been gravely injured, but she wasn’t a child. She wasn’t weak in her heart or her soul. She could handle this, though it might come close to breaking her.
“There was an attack on Arcardius,” Dex said. “During Ucatoria. Do you remember?”
Andi’s eyes hardened.
“Nor Solis...she came, and...” Dex’s words trailed off. How could he explain what had happened? How could he tell her that an entire ballroom of people he’d thought dead had suddenly risen and pledged allegiance to the very woman who’d attacked them? The very woman they’d all feared, hated, for nearly ten years?
Worst of all, how could he tell Andi that her crew was among the dead-then-risen who had joined Nor’s side?
“Where is Lira?” Andi asked suddenly. “Breck and Gilly?”
Dex’s heart nearly stopped beating. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
And then he saw Andi’s expression change as she remembered, the memories slamming into her, making her recoil away from him.
“My crew,” Andi croaked out, voice still raw. He handed her a cup of water. She gulped it down greedily.
“Androma,” Dex pleaded. “I tried. I tried to get to them, but...there was so much chaos. So many enemies. And you were dying.”