He stood in the corner of the room, conferring with several of the personal guards he commanded on her behalf. His gaze flickered in her direction for a moment, and he smiled lovingly when his warm, brown eyes met hers. They glowed against his dark skin, familiar and inviting. Nor gave him a small smile in return, her heart warming at the reminder of his presence. Zahn was always there to support her when she needed him the most.
With a sigh, Nor turned her attention back to Darai. Her adviser and honorary uncle wore the trademark frown she’d seen so often of late, further accentuating the scars marking his wise, ancient face. Sweat beaded on his upper lip as he scanned the speech documents he’d prepared for Nor just this morning.
“It’s unfortunate news about the Unaffecteds, Majesty,” Darai said. “But Zahn and I had a meeting with Aclisia just this morning, and she assured us that we are still on course for Phase Two. Construction of Nexus is continuing on schedule, and Aclisia is making considerable progress on her efforts to adapt the Zenith virus for use in the satellite transmission system.” He paused for a moment, then added, “And I feel inclined to remind you that we expected there to be some...” Darai waved a hand, as if searching for an explanation just out of reach. “...some flaws when we unleashed the virus on the galaxy.”
“Yes, yes,” Nor snapped impatiently. “But we never expected these Unaffecteds to have banded together so quickly. It’s been less than a month, and they’ve already shown considerable coordination and strength.”
“Laughable strength, Majesty,” the producer said. When Nor turned to glare at him, he seemed to realize he’d spoken out of turn, and shrank back into the shadows of the room.
Nor looked back to Darai. “We never anticipated that they would have such finesse in the way they’re attacking. It’s as if they’re being led.”
Zahn interjected before Darai could respond. “By whom?” he asked. “A shivering child? Their attacks are pathetic.” He moved to stand behind Nor, resting his hands on her shoulders. “Their attempts are merely a fear tactic, and one that has already been dismissed. We’ve imprisoned all the Unaffecteds we’ve been able to find, and we’ve heightened our security measures at every military base on the capital planets. They won’t find it so easy to resist for much longer.”
Zahn’s touch and reassuring words soothed her somewhat, but not enough to dispel the anxiety Nor found herself feeling more and more every day.
“You look like you’re in pain,” Darai said. “Smile, Nor. This problem will be solved soon.”
“And the problem of Valen?” Nor asked suddenly, thinking again of her brother’s health.
Darai gave a curt nod. “The boy is pushing himself to his limits. But I have seen power like his before. He will endure.”
Nor met her uncle’s gaze. They both knew where Darai had seen such things before. Abilities like Valen’s, like their mother’s, weren’t found among any of the many races that populated Mirabel. No—that power hailed from somewhere else, a place that was as yet out of their reach.
But not for much longer. Not if their plans came to fruition, as Nor hoped.
“What if he doesn’t?” she asked. “We cannot push him so far that we lose him. I won’t do that to my brother, and our mission will fail without him.”
Darai frowned, then turned away to busy himself with something across the room.
Nor sighed and ran her golden prosthetic hand across the dark wood of Cyprian Cortas’s old desk as the makeup artist resumed his work. The old General of Arcardius had been dead for weeks now, thanks to Valen. It was the greatest gift she could have offered her brother, allowing him the honor of murdering the man who’d caused them both so much pain.
As soon as they’d risen to power, Nor and Valen had ordered the servants to clear away the old photographs and family paintings. They’d burned them out on the lawn, the tower of smoke rising high in the sky above the floating mountain estate. All traces of Cyprian Cortas were now gone from Averia—except for the late general’s desk.
That, she’d kept as a reminder to herself. A reminder that she’d made this galaxy hers.
She planned to expand upon that dream, and the Unaffecteds would not stand in her way.
“There is also the matter of the Unaffecteds being incapable of coming out of hiding,” Nor’s uncle said smugly. He signaled the producer to come forward. The man stepped from the shadows, and Darai snatched at one of the man’s four arms, holding it out into the light.
Silver veins spiderwebbed their way across his skin. They were beautiful; like artwork in their own right.
And a perfectly executed side effect of the Zenith virus, generally appearing a few days after the infection fully settled in. Any who were affected practically glowed with it, like moonlight swimming just beneath the surface of their skin.
“That was a clever trick of Aclisia’s,” Nor said, admiring the man’s veins.
She herself did not bear them, nor did Valen or Darai. Their minds were still free, rooted to the cause since the beginning of their time in Mirabel.
Nor looked down at Zahn’s hands, still resting on her shoulders. He, too, lacked the silver veins, for she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was utterly committed to her reign.
And to her happiness.
“The Unaffecteds will have to come out of hiding eventually—to gather supplies, to recruit,” Darai said. “And when they do, they’ll be discovered, captured and made ours.”
Nor nodded, smiling at that.
“Just a bit more, Majesty,” the makeup artist said as he uncapped a tiny pot of Nor’s classic crimson lip stain. Behind him, camera drones bobbed in the air, while attendants perfected the lighting.
It was no wonder Valen wished to hide away from such things. He was content to work in the shadows. But Nor lived for her time to shine beneath the bright lights.
“All done now, Majesty,” the makeup artist said, standing back to admire his work. “You’re a vision, as always.”
He held up a small mirror for Nor, earning another good mark for himself. She scrutinized her reflection carefully. The artist was talented, but even he couldn’t conceal the stress that added a certain darkness to Nor’s expression. Her lips, rouged as always, were beautiful, but she held them in a frown, and she could still faintly see the bite marks she’d created in her sleep. Her eyes, normally vibrant as the stars, looked dimmer than they had in months past. But her hair, thank the Godstars, hadn’t been affected by the stress. It was perfectly curled beneath a crown made of deepest crimson, bits of gold embedded below its sharp points.
“Beautiful,” Nor said, tilting her head this way and that. “Thank you, Tober.”
The man bowed and backed away behind the bright lights. Zahn stepped back as well, allowing Nor to stand from her chair.
“Beautiful indeed,” he murmured, leaning in to kiss her cheek. Nor felt herself glowing in the light of the appreciative look in his eyes as he smiled at her once more before joining Tober.
Nor busied herself with sweeping the wrinkles from the front of her gown as Darai joined her. “The Unaffecteds will bow in fear soon enough,” he said. “Just say the lines we practiced.”
Nor felt a flash of irritation. “I have done this before, Uncle.”
“Back on Xen Ptera, yes. But not like this. Not as the True Queen, wearing her rightful crown,” Darai replied.
Nor smiled with satisfaction, turning toward the screen the newscaster droids had erected so that she could watch herself in real time. That rightful crown glinted atop her head in the bright spotlights, shining like a beacon that would inspire every mind across the galaxy.
“Ready, my dear?” Darai asked. He shuffled away at her nod of dismissal, joining the others behind the lights.
Nor took a deep breath and clasped her hands together in front of her. She stood tall, the crown heavy atop her curls, the weight of it like a promise.
She would not bow to anyone. But everyone would bow to her.
“Cameras rolling in 3...2...1...”
Nor looked ahead at the camera drones bobbing in front of her and began her speech.
“People of Mirabel.” Her voice was steady. Hypnotic, in the way she’d learned to speak to draw their attention. The way her mother had spoken, years ago. It was one of the few memories Nor still had of her—Klaren’s voice carrying out like a melody, beckoning all to join her tune.
Nor saw herself on the screen now, just as the rest of Mirabel surely saw her. Regal. Terrifying. All because of Valen’s compulsion, far stronger than Nor’s ever could be. “I come to you as your queen, asking you to join me in working even harder to build the future we all wish to attain. We must be vigilant in our efforts to complete Nexus, and to root out all those who wish to defy our cause.” She paused momentarily for effect. “With your help, by moon’s end, we will finish the construction of Nexus, and a new era will rise.”
Nexus. It held all of her hopes and dreams for the future.
A massive satellite being built on this very floating mountain, large enough in diameter to rival a small planet. When it was launched into space, it would be the key to everything, sealing her claim on every mind across Mirabel.
And giving her access to the weapons systems on every planet in the galaxy.
It was awe-inspiring, a tremendous creation that would take weeks, still, to build. Resources and ships and workers from all over Mirabel had come together to construct it, and when it was completed...