“GENERAL CORTAS,” ANDI GASPED.
She practically fell into a chair, her legs going weak beneath her.
The general’s face had haunted Andi for the past four years, sworn to destroy her in every dream—sometimes in her waking moments, too.
She was at a loss for words.
The last time she’d laid eyes on General Cyprian Cortas, she’d been a desperate girl in chains, seated alone at the trial where she was convicted for the death of his daughter.
All the tallies on her swords combined couldn’t cover up the pain of that first death.
Guilt brewed in her gut, and Andi was sucked back into her memories, back to that fateful night on Arcardius.
Wind in her hair, the kiss of freedom coating her skin as she sprinted through the hallways, Kalee beside her.
Laughter bubbling between them as they snuck onto the general’s personal transport ship.
The click of Kalee’s harness, buckled tight in the copilot’s seat, and Andi’s nervous laughter again as she looked at her charge, the girl she was sworn to protect.
“Are you sure about this?” Andi asked, her fingers curled over the throttle.
Kalee lifted a pale brow, a smile tugging at her lips. “As my best friend and personal Spectre, I command you to do this, Androma.”
The engine purred as Andi started it up. A feeling of excitement coursed through her at the sound.
Kalee smiled. “For once in your life, have some real fun.”
“I have to admit, you’ve looked better,” General Cortas said, yanking Andi back into the present, leaving her breathless beneath the man’s stare. The burn scars on her wrists ached beneath her cuffs.
All these years, she’d tried to suppress the memories, only to have them brought back with a sudden cruelty as sharp as a whip. The man in front of her was a victim of her foolishness. Beside her was the man who’d rejected her love.
The two of them, together? It was nearly enough to shatter Andi.
She forced her eyes up at the screen, grateful her crew wasn’t here to share this moment. She could feel them now, trying to reach her, but she denied them access each time a request pinged in to her com.
Some things a captain had to face alone.
The general had aged since she last saw him. His once-brown hair was now peppered with gray, and wrinkles creased his sun-worn skin. His body looked tired, though his brilliant blue eyes sparkled with the very same scrutiny he’d always had.
“You’re the one behind all of this?” Andi asked, forgetting the formal deference she’d been trained to show this man since birth.
“I’m a very powerful man, Androma.”
The general of Arcardius was seated at a silver desk. Behind him, a large window showed a spectacular view. The sight pained her, and yet she couldn’t look away.
Waterfalls flowed over a floating gravarock into streams far below. A vast landscape of color stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with glimmering glass structures that made up the capital city of Veronus. This was the planet she was no longer able to call home. Even from here, she could see the domed glass building in the center—the Academy, where she and thousands of other military students had trained. It was also the place where she’d learned to dance. Where she’d been introduced to the throttle of a ship after she’d chosen piloting as her military training path. It was there, at the Academy, that her greatest dreams were born. She’d been handpicked to become a personal Spectre for the general’s daughter, a status most Arcardians only dreamed of achieving.
She’d spent every second by Kalee’s side afterward.
Until the crash.
Until her very public death sentence, with millions of hateful eyes watching, deeming her a traitor.
“What do you want from me?” Andi asked now.
For a while, the general said nothing. He worked his stubbled jaw back and forth, as if chewing on a thought he wasn’t sure he should share. His chest was peppered with glowing silver and gold beacons, heavy with the weight of the accomplishments and medals he’d acquired during his long reign as the military leader of Arcardius.
I’d like to kill you, the way you killed my daughter, Andi imagined him saying.
I’d like to give you the traitor’s death sentence you truly deserve.
A million possibilities, all of them grim.
And all of them well deserved, filling Andi’s gut with another layer of guilt. Another bit of heaviness to carry with her to the grave.
But when the general spoke, his words weren’t of punishment or death.
“You’ve been quite busy since we last met.” He snapped his fingers, and a cyborg woman shuffled forward from the corner of the room. Her head was bald and smooth, bits of metal interspersed with artificial flesh, similar to Andi’s cheekbones. The cyborg held a holoscreen out to the general, which flickered to life in his hands.
“‘Blood Stains the Skies above Pazus,’” General Cortas read from the screen. He tilted it ever so slightly, and Andi could make out the telltale red-and-gold title of a news feed. She sunk low in her chair, remembering that story. It had gone viral across Mirabel.
The general sighed before continuing. “Two black market ships were shot down in the sky sixteen months ago, which ended many lives when the debris fell onto a Pazian village. Black market arms dealers paid you a large sum to haul their weapons for them, and when things got a little complicated...you attacked your enemies’ ships without thinking twice about what destruction it would cause.”
She took complete responsibility for those deaths. She’d never thought the debris would get through the atmosphere in such large pieces, let alone hit one of the few settlements on Pazus.
“You were never caught,” General Cortas said, his voice low, “but I knew it was you. That’s what you do, Androma. You leave a path of chaos in your wake, and you don’t ever look back to see whose lives were ended because of it.” His blue eyes flashed at her.
Worlds away, and Andi still withered beneath that icy stare. But she refused to take his bait, to breathe out a word that this man could twist and turn on her in an instant.
The general tapped the screen again, and another headline materialized, this one with a photograph of the Marauder in all of its varillium-sided glory. “The Bloody Baroness,” General Cortas said, setting down the screen, “is mentioned in thirteen cases since last year, six of those involving numerous deaths. And I have no doubt, Androma, that there are many more cases that went unnoticed. You are one of the most notorious criminals in all of Mirabel.” He sighed and shifted in his seat. “Which is why I hired Dextro to find you.”
“Then get on with it,” Andi said. The words poured out of her, unable to stay locked inside any longer. “Give me the injection, like you really wanted to do all those years ago.” It was her mistake that led to Kalee’s painful death, and it was only by a twist of fate that Andi escaped joining her charge.
Andi looked back at the general. “If you wish to kill me, go ahead. But let my crew go free. I’ll take the blame for our crimes in Mirabel. All of them. If this is about...” She couldn’t bring herself to say the name. Her scars ached again at thoughts of the past. “If this is about your daughter...it was an accident, General. A mistake.”
“I’m not here to speak of the past,” the general snapped. His voice was pained, and he took a deep breath before speaking again. “I’m a powerful man, Androma, but a desperate one.”
“Desperate for what?” Andi asked. “To finally see me die?”
General Cortas leaned back, wincing as if in some hidden pain, and folded his hands on top of the silver desk. “I’m not here for revenge,” he said.
Andi blinked in surprise. “Then...what is it you want?”