It was a massive undertaking, but Valen had every faith that his sister would see it done. Nor was a woman on a mission, and when she set her mind to something, she was unstoppable.
Her voice in his mind drew Valen’s focus back to the present. Avoiding is the same thing as hiding, brother. Shouldn’t you want to be here for this? It’ll be fun!
Define fun, Valen thought, sending the message through their mental doorway. A muscle at his temple twitched, the twinge of a headache coming on. Valen sighed and rubbed his forehead with paint-stained fingers.
Another headache? Nor asked. Even through their mental link, he could sense her concern. For ever since Nor took control, and the galaxy was swept up in Valen’s compulsion...he’d changed in so many ways.
He was more powerful than he’d ever been, but he was also tired. The kind of bone-weary exhaustion he couldn’t quite shake.
It’s just stress, Valen thought back to his sister. Probably brought on by the medical droid you’ve had following me for two days now. Which, if you haven’t noticed, has mysteriously disappeared.
Her silence told him that she knew she’d been caught. He sighed as Nor backed away from the door between their minds, sending him a final image of the scene before her. A makeup artist with deep blue eyebrows was dabbing something colorful onto her cheeks, helping her prepare for the speech she’d be making in a short while.
You look beautiful, sister, he thought. The people will fall in love with you all over again when they see you on the feeds today.
Valen felt Nor smile just before the link faded. He knew she was worried about him, but there were so many other things Nor needed to focus on right now.
Like the Unaffected attacks.
It was something Valen had feared from the beginning, after he’d learned that some wouldn’t be affected by his compulsion. Their numbers were slim, if Aclisia’s extensive testing of the Zenith virus was anything to judge by. For every hundred that fell to Valen’s compulsion, bowing to Nor despite their original feelings toward her, only one resisted. So despite his unease, he’d never truly thought they’d be able to fight back.
But barely a week into Nor’s reign, a group of Unaffecteds had banded together and destroyed the military barracks on Tenebris that housed many of the newest recruits to the cause. Valen had felt the moment those minds beneath his compulsion had died. As if they were matches snuffed out. There one moment, gone the next.
It happened again, mere days later, on Adhira. A small but organized group of Unaffecteds had emerged from the jungle sector of the terraformed planet and struck down the communication towers. Nor’s video feed, which was on a constant loop across the galaxy, had been cut off for half a day’s time.
Though news of more attacks continued to trickle back to Arcardius from every corner of Mirabel, it wasn’t enough to strike terror in Valen’s heart. No, it would take a lot more than that to break him. But he saw the way Nor’s hands were often curled into fists. How her lips, normally smooth and polished, had crusted over with small scabs, from biting at them in her sleep. The last thing she needed was to spend even a single moment worrying about him.
Valen needed to stay strong for her. The Unaffecteds would fall eventually, when they ran out of steam. When they realized that the galaxy was beyond saving. And sending Nexus into the sky was the best way to achieve that, to ensure that Valen’s compulsion would be sent out across the galaxy forevermore, even long after he was gone.
Sometimes, Valen could scarcely believe what they had already accomplished; how quickly the galaxy had fallen beneath their joined hands. Having a scientist of Aclisia’s caliber on their side had been vital to their success in that regard. It had been her idea to send out the orbs full of tainted rain as soon as they’d seized control of Arcardius.
A war does not always require soldiers, she’d said, showing Nor and Valen how the weapon would work. Thousands of silver droplets falling from the skies across the galaxy, unleashing the Zenith virus upon all nearby.
So quickly, the Solis reign began.
So easily, the weak-minded Mirabellians had fallen beneath Valen’s compulsion.
Valen shivered a little as the wind blew through the treetops now, drawing the leaves down from the canopy overhead. They were a beautiful shade of purple and blue at their edges, the colors swirling together as they tumbled in the wind.
This garden, once a place he’d used to escape the darkness of his past, had grown brighter under the light of Nexus being built nearby. Even with the chill of winter soon to come, Valen felt almost cozy, safe in his own skin as he lay down by the water’s edge, his head on a thick pillow of moss imported from one of the garden satellites outside the Prime system.
Nor would do well with her speech today. The Unaffecteds would see her, and they would tremble in their hiding places. Nexus would be finished on schedule, and all would be resolved soon enough.
Of that, Valen was certain.
He yawned, his headache pulsing a little harder as he closed his eyes and let his consciousness slip deep into the confines of his mind, seeking the one place that was safe and sound and entirely his own.
A fortress made of night.
Iron bars that ensured no one else could enter. Only he belonged.
The velvety moss a cushion against his head, Valen allowed himself to relax, to remember the first time they met—a moment of hope and light after the twisted darkness of Lunamere. And as he fell deeper and deeper into his mind, losing himself in the memories, he hardly noticed the twin droplets of blood that slipped from his nostrils, a deep crimson against his pale skin.
CHAPTER 4 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
Power. She had always had it, but now she was it.
The Mirabel Galaxy bowed to Queen Nor Solis. Its inhabitants worshipped her, and there wasn’t anything that could disrupt what she and her brother had created.
Or so she’d thought.
“What do you mean the Unaffecteds are winning?” Nor hissed at Darai as he stood in front of her in his gray robes. He winced at the venom in her voice. “There’s no war for them to win. Their numbers are few and scattered. Their attacks on us have been pathetic at best.”
Still, the mere mention of the Unaffecteds had her bristling, an unwelcome blight on her morning. No reign was meant to be perfect, if history was told true. But Nor could still imagine it: a galaxy that did not dare, not even a single person, to defy her.
“Look left, please, Majesty,” the makeup artist whispered. Nor tilted her head slightly, and the man brushed a shimmering dust across her cheekbones. “Lovely,” he said, smiling as he dabbed his brush back into the palette. The effect, she knew, looked heavenly, but it did nothing to ease her frustrations.
Nor tried to reach Valen again, but the doorway between their minds was empty, as if he’d backed away from it. He had likely withdrawn to his mind castle, where even she could not travel, exhausted as she was from the past several days.
Valen’s compulsion abilities were far more powerful than Nor’s. She’d known it from the moment she met him in Lunamere. But the constant strain of compelling so many minds at once was taking its toll on him. She saw it in his thinning arms and his emaciated frame, as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Dark circles bruised the skin beneath his eyes, and though he smiled often in her presence, it wasn’t quite the same as it had been before.
He’s strong, she reminded herself. He will continue to be strong, because he knows what’s at stake.
And because Nor couldn’t do what Valen did. It was why she’d needed him for this mission of theirs. Nor’s compulsion worked in small, subtle ways. She could get someone to lend her an ear longer than they would have liked. She could ease the tension in a room. But when it came to controlling, to truly holding someone’s mind hostage...only Valen had inherited that strength from their mother’s bloodline. Somehow, Nor had been passed over in that sense.
It had given her a reason to hate her mother for many years—until she’d discovered that Valen existed. Until that moment, in his cell in Lunamere, after so many years of anticipation and training with Darai, when Nor was able to compel Valen not to fear her. To listen to her, and eventually, to understand the truth of his lineage.
She prodded at the mental doorway again, seeking his presence. But she knew he was likely working, as he always was, on continuing their reign. So much for listening to her speech.
It’s worth it, Nor told herself, pushing aside the protective tendencies she felt toward her younger half brother. You must give Valen his space, so he can better serve your cause.
“Are we nearly done?” the producer asked. He stood across the room, his four arms crossed over each other with impatience, and Nor almost commanded Darai to remove him from her presence. But he was good at what he did, having filmed her himself before they’d even left Xen Ptera. He’d created the loops that were even now broadcasting on the feeds across the galaxy, a constant reminder of her presence.
They’d had to prepare much ahead of time, knowing how swiftly the Solis reign was to sweep across the galaxy. Valen’s compulsion did what it needed to do, ensuring that the people obeyed her. But Nor wanted them to love her. To be obsessed with her, incapable of escaping her voice, her name, her image.
So from the moment she’d taken charge, the video loops had begun. Even now, one of them was being displayed down in Veronus, the capital city of Arcardius, far below the estate Nor now called home. The feed was in every glittering shop window, every home and every warm, packed bar where she knew the Arcardian citizens, now her loyal soldiers, proudly proclaimed their adoration for her.
“My art takes time,” the artist said, raising a blue brow as he chose another shade. “You would be wise not to press me.”
Nor smirked at that, and decided she’d keep the artist as her personal attendant from here on out. Not only for his skill in enhancing her beauty, but also for an attitude worthy of her court.
Behind the artist’s intricate pile of braids, another face could be seen.