Cross-legged on the cot, Cress was cradling her portscreen against her chest. The temptation grew by the hour to send a comm to Thorne and the others. Her curiosity was killing her, and the separation from them had left her anxious and lonely. But she wouldn’t risk the signal being traced. She wouldn’t put them in any more danger than they already were—or herself, for that matter.
Still. Being so disconnected was agony.
“You don’t know if the video played?” she asked.
Jacin shrugged and went through a process of checking the gun’s ammunition and safety with practiced movements. He tucked it into the holster.
“I know the queen recorded an impromptu broadcast of her own. I guess she dragged the emperor out for it too, but it didn’t broadcast in Artemisia, so I don’t know what it said. It could have just been wedding announcement garbage.”
Cress licked her lips. “If I could have access to the security center again, I could find out—”
She glared at him, and was met with a finger jutting toward her nose. “We already risked enough. You’re staying here.” Turning away, he adjusted his shoulder armor, looking once again like the queen’s loyal servant. “Long shift tonight—I’m on duty for the entire wedding and celebratory feast. But most of us are, so it should be quiet around here at least.”
Cress sighed. There had been a time when the quiet and solitude would have been comforting. That was what she’d been accustomed to aboard the satellite, after all. But now it made her feel even more like a prisoner.
“Bye,” she muttered, before adding half-jokingly, “Bring me back some cake.”
Jacin paused with his hand on the door. His face softened. “I’ll do my best.”
He pulled open the door, and froze.
Cress’s heart leaped into her throat.
Another guard stood in the hall, his hand raised to knock. His attention flitted from Jacin to Cress.
Recovering faster than Cress, Jacin crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb, blocking the guard’s view of her. “What do you want?”
“Who’s she?” the guard asked.
“That’s my business.”
“Oh, please.” The guard shoved aside Jacin’s arm, forcing his way into the small room. Cress pushed her back against the wall, squeezing the portscreen so hard she heard the plastic creak in protest. “Lots of guards might take mistresses, but not you.”
The door shut behind him.
Cress was watching the stranger when she heard the click of a gun’s safety releasing.
The guard froze, his back to Jacin. His gaze turned surprised as he raised both hands to the side of his head.
“Who said anything about a mistress?” Jacin growled.
Cress swallowed. This guard was unfamiliar, with dark eyes and wavy hair cut above his ears. She didn’t remember him from the ambush at the docks, but she couldn’t be sure.
“Not the welcome I was expecting,” said the guard.
Jacin kept the gun aimed at his back. “I don’t like people knowing my business.” His face was calm. So calm it terrified Cress almost as much as a stranger’s presence. “Kinney, isn’t it?”
“I never got to thank you for vouching for me at the trial.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Take his weapons.”
It was a long moment before Cress realized Jacin was talking to her. She gasped and scrambled off the bed. The guard, Kinney, didn’t move as she took his gun and knife and backed away again, glad to set the weapons down.
“I’d rather not kill you,” said Jacin, “but you’re going to have to give me a really good reason not to.”
Kinney’s eyebrow twitched. He was looking at Cress again. He seemed curious, but not as afraid as he should have been. “I saved your life.”
“Covered that already.”
“How about the sound from the gun will bring every guard running?”
“Most are already on duty. I’ll take the risk.”
Cress thought she detected a smile, but then Kinney turned around to face Jacin. “Then how about because I saved Princess Winter’s life?”
Jacin’s eyes narrowed.
“There are rumors of rebellion in the outer sectors. I just got back from a raid on RM-9, and while searching the house of a known rebel sympathizer, I was pretty shocked to run into none other than the princess herself. I believed her dead just like everyone else.” He cocked his head. “It must kill you, to have everyone thinking you killed her out of some petty jealousy. I admit, I believed it. I’ve been half-tempted to kill you myself, for retribution, and I know I’m not the only one.”
A muscle twitched in Jacin’s jaw.
“Sorry I misjudged you.” Kinney lowered his arms and hooked his thumbs over his belt. Jacin didn’t move. “I know you care for her more than any of us.”
When the silence stretched painfully thin between them, Cress asked, “So … she’s alive?”
Kinney glanced back at her and nodded. “I told her to go into hiding. As far as I know, everyone else still thinks she’s dead.”
Jacin sounded like he had sand in his throat when he asked, “Did she look all right?”
Kinney’s lips curved with amusement. “I’d say she looked a lot better than just all right, but then you’d probably shoot me after all.”
Frowning, Jacin lowered his gun, but didn’t put it away. “So you saw her. That doesn’t explain how you saved her life.”
“Jerrico was there too. I guess he knew about the queen ordering her to be killed. He wanted to kill her and drag her body back here, so I shot him.”
Though he tried to sound nonchalant about it, Cress heard his tone waver just a bit.
“Did you kill him?” Jacin asked.
They stood in a face-off for a long time before Jacin said, “I hated that man.”
Jacin’s muscles slowly began to unwind, though his expression was still suspicious. “Thanks for telling me. I’m … I’ve been worried about her.”
“That’s not why I’m here. I came to warn you. We saw a royal podship out there that shouldn’t have been there, and I’m willing to bet it’ll be traced back to you. If I figured it out, she will too. The queen might think Winter is dead now, but she’s going to find out the truth soon enough.” He paused. “Who did she threaten to kill if you didn’t do it?”
Jacin gulped. “No one.”
“Yeah, right.” Kinney glanced at his weapons lying beside Cress but didn’t move to pick them up. “She ordered my little sister to be killed once, after I released a maid who’d stolen a pair of the queen’s earrings.”
Cress’s eyes widened. Jacin, however, looked unsurprised.
“Well, whoever it was,” Kinney continued, “you’re both going to end up dead if you don’t stop wasting time and get the hell out of here before Levana finds out you lied to her.” He turned to Cress. “Can I have my weapons back now? I have about five minutes to report for duty.”
After a hesitation, Jacin nodded and put his own gun away. He was still frowning as Kinney reclaimed his gun and knife. “Why are you risking your neck for me … again?”
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