“Another scar to add to my collection, courtesy of that bastard Valen Cortas,” she said darkly.
“That description of him is truer than you might imagine,” Dex said, settling into a chair next to Andi’s bed as Lon hurried to fetch the supplies he needed to tend her wound. “Considering he’s not the son of Merella and Cyprian Cortas.”
Andi stared at him, certain she’d misunderstood. “Come again?”
“Well, Cyprian is—or rather, was—his father,” Dex clarified. “But his mother...his mother was Klaren Solis.”
Andi’s jaw dropped. “What?” she yelped. “But...that means...”
Dex nodded. “That he’s Queen Nor’s half brother, yes.”
Before she could fully process the horror of that thought, Lon returned with a needle, some surgical thread and bandages. He coaxed Andi back onto the pillows and began repairing the damage she’d done to her wound as Dex filled in the rest of the story, telling her what the general had revealed during his dying moments.
How Klaren had somehow bewitched him during the years she’d lived on the Cortas estate as his prisoner. How she’d become pregnant with his child—a son he’d always feared would someday inherit his mother’s strange abilities. A son he could never trust, could never name as his heir.
A son who was half–Xen Pterran—or perhaps something else entirely.
“So Valen and Nor have some kind of compulsion ability?” Andi asked as Lon finished smoothing the new bandage into place.
“Judging from what happened during the Ucatoria Ball, I’d say definitely,” Dex said, his expression darkening. “All those people who were shot... I thought they were dead. But they weren’t bleeding. The room should have been full of blood, but there was hardly a drop. And then...” He shuddered, as if he were reliving the memory in his mind. “They started to rise. And when Valen told them to bow to their queen, they just...did. Without question.”
“The girls, too?” Andi whispered.
Dex nodded jerkily, and Andi looked away, her eyes welling. She breathed in deep, once, twice, holding back the tears that threatened to fall.
Tears wouldn’t save her crew. Tears were a weakness she couldn’t afford.
“We have to go back,” she said. “We have to free them.”
“It’s not that simple,” Lon interjected, shaking his head. “We have no idea how Nor and Valen are controlling them. How they’re controlling everyone. We can’t just go flying back to Arcardius and hope for the best. We need more information. We need a plan.”
“They want to be there, Andi,” Dex added, taking one of her hands in his. “Or at least they think they do. They’ll likely fight us if we try to take them away from Nor.”
She didn’t want to believe their stories of that night. But their faces were haunted, as if, even though they wished it weren’t true, they could not escape the reality of it.
The thought of leaving the girls in Nor’s clutches broke her heart. Valen and the Xen Pterran queen could be torturing them right now, or forcing them to do the most horrific things. But Dex and Lon were right—they’d never be able to rescue her crew if they got themselves killed in the process.
Andi squeezed Dex’s hand and nodded decisively. “So we find a way to free their minds and come up with a plan to get them out.”
“And then?” Lon asked.
Andi allowed an icy smile to spread across her face. “And then the Bloody Baroness will go hunting.”
CHAPTER 3 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
VALEN —THREE WEEKS LATER
Valen’s fingers twitched as he paced the floating garden that had once been the favorite haunt of his younger sister, Kalee.
Half sister, he reminded himself. Now that he was back on Arcardius, Valen found it all too easy to get lost in the memories of his past. A past in which Kalee had been the only bright spot; the only person he’d truly cared about. Merella, the woman he’d once believed to be his mother, had always been distant with him, never quite embracing him with the same warmth she’d given Kalee in abundance. And his father...
Well, now he knew the truth. Now he knew why Merella had never loved him, and why his father had always hated him.
The air was crisp today, a reminder that the cold season was approaching. With the first frost, the verdant plants and jewellike flowers of this garden would turn a frothy blue, a sign of hibernation. They would spend the five months of the cold season frozen between life and death—held in limbo, just like Valen had felt for his entire existence.
The only reason Valen stayed on Averia was because he loved his other half sister. The floating mountain that was home to the Cortas estate had always felt like a prison to him, and even now, with the Cortas family gone, his memories of them continued to hold him captive. But Nor had rescued him from his false life. She had saved him by giving him a name.
Not Cortas, but Solis.
He owed her everything, for the way she’d allowed him to see the truth of who he really was: a man with compulsion in his blood, with a rightful claim to a life that was so much richer than the one he’d always known, but never truly felt part of. And even though he held control of the minds across Mirabel... Nor was his true queen.
With every moment that passed, with every new soldier that set out across Mirabel to spread the Zenith virus, more minds were added to Valen’s nexus of connections. At first, he’d felt the exact moment when each silver bullet hit its target. The bullets contained a serum that Nor’s two-headed scientist, Aclisia, had perfected back on Xen Ptera. She’d somehow replicated strands of Valen’s DNA and used them to create a virus that forever linked the minds of its victims to his own, leaving them vulnerable to his compulsions.
The noise had been too much to bear at first.
The first few connections during Valen’s training on Xen Ptera had nearly overcome him. Nor had supplied traitors and criminals for him to practice on, and he’d often lost himself to their dark thoughts in those early days. Darai, the ancient adviser who’d served Nor all her life, had assisted with Valen’s training in the beginning, but Valen hadn’t been able to tolerate his condescending nature for long. Nor had taken over then, and eventually, Valen had learned how to control his power.
Over time, he discovered a way to quiet the minds, to lock them away in their very own realm, so that when a new mind was added, it was simply background noise. He’d strengthened the mental boundaries around that realm, building walls around those other minds, until they were contained in an impenetrable fortress that rivaled the obsidinite prison he’d once been trapped in on Lunamere.
And then, finally, there was silence.
Now he need only hear the minds when he pleased. And with the help of the Zenith virus, Valen could reach them from anywhere in the galaxy. He compelled them to serve Nor, their true queen—no matter the cost.
Hiding away again, little brother?
His sister’s teasing voice cut through the birdsong in the garden. It entered his mind like a warm, comforting blanket, soothing Valen in a way nothing else ever had. He’d come to love their connection, his power feeding off it every time they spoke into each other’s minds.
On Xen Ptera, they’d shared a life together—two years spent honing Valen’s powers. And all the while, his heartless father never came looking for him. Valen had once cared about pleasing the general, but now he knew that hope had been futile. Foolish, and utterly pointless. His father had never been capable of loving him, of feeling pride in his son.
Now all he cared about was pleasing Nor, and making up for the time they’d each lost to their tainted childhoods—Valen a prisoner to his father, Nor a prisoner to her pain and grief.
Now they could delight in their shared freedom.
I’m not hiding, Valen thought back to Nor, a smile spreading across his face. I’m simply avoiding a certain adviser who gets on my nerves. Whenever Darai calls a meeting, you can guess what my next move will be.
Valen could practically see his sister rolling her golden eyes on the other side of their link. She knew he felt a strong dislike for the old man. Darai reminded Valen of his father—something about his face, or perhaps the darkness in his eyes. He always felt like Darai didn’t think he was good enough, worthy enough, to be so closely linked to his precious Nor.
Valen suspected that part of his distaste was due to the history Darai and Nor shared. The old adviser had practically raised Nor, and she saw him as an uncle, albeit one who frequently irritated her. And during all their years together since Nor’s birth, they’d never had to pretend that Mirabel was all that mattered. They’d always known the truth, while Valen was still playing catch-up.
With a scowl, he tossed a rock into the pond across from him, startling a purple-eyed creature lazing at the water’s edge. It scampered away, fading into the overgrown foliage, and Valen followed its path until his eyes landed on the massive silver ring floating beyond the garden, just visible through the trees.
The monstrous satellite had become Nor’s new obsession in the wake of their takeover during the Ucatoria Ball. Engineers, scientists and workers had been laboring around the clock these past few weeks, perfecting every angle and plane of the device that would amplify Valen’s compulsion ability, sending his message to every corner of the galaxy.
The True Queen of Mirabel is Nor Solis. Protect her, honor her, worship her cause.