Queen of Swords
A Sanctify Novel - Book Two - Katee Robert
When the cards tell Ophelia Leoni she’s supposed to marry the Prince of Hansarda, the gunrunner grits her teeth and boards the starship that comes for her. It doesn’t matter if the ship’s commander is the gorgeous stranger she just spent a wild, drunken night with. As a Diviner, she’s painfully aware the cards don’t lie. Ever.
Boone O’Keirna knows Ophelia is trouble the second he sees the way she moves. Not about to let the deadly little hellcat marry his sadistic half-brother, Boone pretends to be the Prince’s emissary and kidnaps Ophelia. Too bad they can’t be in the same room without him wanting to throw her out an airlock–or into bed.
Even as they fight each other–and their explosive attraction–Ophelia and Boone sense something is wrong. Too much is going their way. Soon, they realize while the cards may never lie, the truth is sometimes hidden between them…and the future king of Hansarda is not one to take defeat lying down.
Praise for Queen of Swords:
“Robert’s Sanctify series kicks off in high gear. Humorous elements lighten the story’s overall space-opera mood, but there are many dark moments exploring genocide and tyranny. The characters and space setting are well developed and readers will root for the alpha hero, whose determination is easily matched by spunky, gritty Ophelia.”
- RT Book Reviews
“I was hooked from the opening line. Intricate world-building, a wounded hero, and a fabulous love story—QUEEN OF SWORDS is Sci-fi romance at its best!”
- Nina Croft, bestselling author of the Blood Hunter series
© 2012 Katee Robert
Ophelia couldn’t find her underwear.
They had to have been around there somewhere. She’d been wearing them last night, after all, but she was hard pressed to find that small piece of silk amongst the other clothing scattered about the room.
She stood up, hands on her hips, and scowled. Against her better judgment, her gaze slid to the man taking up more than his fair share of the bed. He was delicious. Absolutely delicious. Even relaxed in sleep, his muscles stood out beneath tanned skin marred by scars. The marks crisscrossed up his back and over his shoulders, perfect, shiny lines made by some kind of blade, or maybe giant claws. They were enough to make her reconsider her morning-after policy and crawl back into bed with him.
Her link beeped again, setting her teeth on edge. The damn thing was what woke her in the first place, and now she couldn’t even find it. Ophelia moved around the room, picking up her clothes. Yeah, she should definitely crawl back into bed with the hot man. She’d do damn near anything to escape the memories of Sanctify’s white hull looming before her ship, her crew’s frightened faces…
Nope. Not thinking about it.
And still no underwear.
Oh well. She shimmied into her pants and pulled on her shiny silver tank top. In the hazy light of morning, she felt rumpled and twitchy. Her link beeped again, giving her a better idea of where it was—under the bed. Growling uncomplimentary things, she sank to her stomach and peered into the shadows. Sure enough, the link’s small screen was lit up against the back wall. Ophelia grabbed it and headed into the bathroom, locking the door for good measure, and brought up her messages.
Her stomach clenched when her mother’s voice came online. “Good morning, daughter. I trust you slept well last night.”
It was like she knew what Ophelia had been doing. Considering she was a second-level Diviner—known as a Tyche by their species—it was likely she did. Ophelia shoved the hair out of her eyes, refusing to feel guilty. Or at least making a good effort at it. She’d lost her whole damn crew, for the Lady’s sake. A failure like that deserved a little drinking.
Her mother continued on, looking remarkably put together despite the fact the call had been placed before Keiluna’s twin suns breached the horizon. But then, Mama always looked put together. It was downright unnatural. “In any case, your father and I need to speak with you immediately. We will see you for breakfast.”
Corpse’s fingers traced up Ophelia’s spine and down her arms, raising goose bumps in their wake. Damn. Her mother might support Azure Enterprises, might agree with their mission, but she also never involved herself with the dirty details, let alone something so small as a run.
Something was up, something to do with the Lady’s business. That’s the only reason Mama would be the one making this call.
She cast a quick look around the bathroom and frowned at the flash of red in the hot tub. Crossing the black-tiled floor, she peered in. Sure enough, her underwear floated along the surface. Ophelia grimaced as she hooked them with a single finger and raised the dripping cloth. The dripping ripped cloth. All evidence pointed to her having the time of her life last night.
Too bad she didn’t remember it.
She frowned, thinking hard, but last night was one big blank. Which had been the plan, of course. It had started at her favorite pub, The Hammer, and she vaguely remembered deciding to go dancing after midnight, but then everything faded into a pleasant grayness. She was going to have to make sure she tipped Lacy next time she was in—those drinks had been strong enough to make even her wince and Ophelia was all about more bang for her credits. Still…pretty soon she would have to tone it down on the whole blacking-out thing. Too much could go wrong, from her killing someone to getting kidnapped.
Dropping the underwear on the floor—something to remember her by—she walked out of the bathroom. After pulling on her boots, she took one last look around the room. Whatever else happened, she must have had a universe-shattering time. The bed covers were tangled on the floor, and the entire bed skewed sideways where the springs had broken in. And there were the telltale remains of spray-on condoms scattered about. Thank the Lady, because the last thing she needed right now was a baby. She couldn’t even take care of her own crew.
The man rolled over and she tensed, her gaze flying to his face. When he didn’t open his eyes, she breathed a little sigh of relief. He really was delicious. Those cheekbones were sharp enough to cut and that jaw certainly wasn’t weak. Still…he wasn’t pretty by any means. Such a waste when paired with a body like that.
She found her bag near the door and a quick check told her nothing was missing, so she walked out the door without looking back. It was bad luck, after all.
The prominence of red and black in the decor was enough to indicate where she was. Death’s Door. It wasn’t the safest area during the best of times and, since the riots, it was damn near fatal for someone like her. What in the hells had possessed her to come to this part of town last night? Especially with the patrols Sanctify had scouting the streets, ready to scoop up anyone who showed signs of being less than human. Gods knew they’d jump at the chance to nab one of their dreaded Diviner enemies. What happened to those unfortunate souls didn’t bear thinking about, especially knowing her crewmembers had suffered the same fate.
To save her.
Surely it wasn’t too early to start drinking?
She shook off the memories of those final moments on the Dutchman, before Akito and Kana drugged her and tossed her into an escape pod. She’d need to keep her head straight if she planned to make it out of here. Death’s Door wasn’t a place for nonhumans, no matter the flavor. Ophelia couldn’t begin to imagine how she got through the door in the first place. Sure, she looked human, but only until people saw her eyes. Even with the implants and upgrades available to anyone with enough cash, no one besides Diviners had eyes this shade of blue-violet.
Right now the only thing that mattered was getting back to her parents’ house. Mama’s call had her on edge, her mind full of questions, her instincts screaming warnings. Bypassing the elevators—too easy to get penned in—she took the stairs down, thankful no one else was up and around at this ungodly hour. As soon as she was outside, the band around her chest loosened a bit.
Above her, the sky stretched wide, a color somewhere between yellow and orange that would change several months from now when the winter storms hit. Ophelia slipped on a pair of red-tinted glasses, glaring at the flickering posters depicting the ancient High Priest of Ba’al. Attached to the walls of nearly every building on the street, they were larger than life, each taller than her nearly two meters, and their damn tech was so good the bastard actually moved. He waved an age-spotted hand and smiled, the words “Purity Will Protect You” flashing below his face. It made her sick knowing there were those who actually believed shit like that.
Unable to stand the sight any longer, she turned her attention to the thin crowd filtering through the streets. The only people out were dressed in muted colors and moved quickly about their business, hoods pulled up to conceal their features. As Ophelia watched, a small group of dirty teenagers skirted the edges of the buildings, their shifty eyes suggesting they were looking for their next score.
They were all human.
Shifting her bag higher on her shoulder, she started walking, keeping her eyes to the ground and her pace up. As long as no one looked too closely, she could pass for human. But the trick was not to draw attention to herself. Even as the thought crossed her mind, she heard militant steps that could only mean one thing. A Sanctify patrol, and one closing fast.
As if her morning could get any worse.
Ophelia kept her stride even, acting as if she had every right to be there, hoping to the Lady they wouldn’t look too closely at her. Those bastards jumped at any excuse for a public bonfire, and nabbing a Diviner would be a huge coup.They passed her at a fast clip, obviously having somewhere to be. The closest one, a tiny man with tattoos depicting Ba’al, cast a searching look her way but didn’t pause.
She waited until they rounded the corner before breathing out a prayer of thanks to the Lady. That had been close. Too close. Keiluna used to be the perfect place for Azure Enterprise’s base, lots of people coming and going, a population diverse enough for anyone to blend in. But then Sanctify had turned its bloody eye their way and taken over.
Oh, officially it was still owned by the Delegate of Quadrant Four, but those monsters had slipped in, whispering poison until the perfect opportunity arose. This time it came in the form of an “attack” on a human child by one of the Bolkerians. If anyone had stopped for half a second to think, they would have realized the alien meant the little one no harm, that the boy just got underfoot and the Bolkerian didn’t move fast enough to avoid him. It was a terrible, terrible accident that he’d been impaled, but it had been enough to spark a fire of hate directed at anyone different.
The riots had gone on for days, a bonfire set up in damn near every intersection, until the alien population was decimated.
And now Sanctify held the reins, ruling a people suddenly fearful of anything different.
Though her thoughts were consumed with darkness, the streets around her had begun to take on a more cared-after look, the busted windows replaced by metal bars and eventually by higher-end materials—the homes of people with enough credits to replace what was lost in the fires and violence. The faded paint, streaked with soot, changed as well, evolving into cheery blues, greens, and yellows. There were even carefully tended flowers blooming, the pretty purple ones so common on this planet, bunches of heart-shaped petals so full, they trailed over the window ledges to hang above the street. Their subtle scent teased her, as if this dash of beautiful could cover up the ugliness lurking within.
After a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention, Ophelia jogged up the three stairs leading to a yellow house with a muted blue door. She’d been trying to convince her parents to move somewhere more secure since even before the riots, but Mama liked to be accessible to her clients and Papa claimed the best place to hide was in plain sight, that no one would expect the leader of Azure Enterprises to be hiding on a planet controlled by their enemy. Ophelia thought it was bullshit, but once Papa got an idea in his head, there was no moving him. Mama was supposed to be the calm and rational one, but she wasn’t much better.
So Ophelia was forced to content herself with ensuring they had multiple escape routes and hideaways in case things went south.
The muzzle of a gun met her as soon as she entered the door.
She froze, a small smile tugging her lips. “Papa, put that antique away. It’s only me.”
Her father lowered his gun and Ophelia rolled her eyes. The damn thing was so old it probably didn’t even work. Then again, this was her father she was talking about. He wouldn’t haul around a useless weapon.
“Your mother is in the kitchen.”
An icy chill of foreboding snaked its way through her. “What’s going on, Papa?”
He shot her a look and stalked down the stairs. The fact he was cranky but not battening down the hatches should have been comforting. Instead, her anxiety skyrocketed. This was definitely about the Lady’s business, and she knew all too well how nasty things could get when someone didn’t heed the Lady’s warnings. It shouldn’t be so terrifying, since readings were an integral part of her world, but Ophelia couldn’t shake the feeling her life was poised on the precipice, readying to fall.
Lady, but she hoped not.
Boone woke the moment the Diviner got out of bed. He listened to her mutter and curse as she moved around the room before finally retreating into the bathroom.
Last night had been a mistake. He was only supposed to scope her out, see what was so special about some woman from Keiluna that made Kristian send spies to watch her.
She’d looked so untouchable sitting there with an entire bottle of the clear alcohol they brewed on-planet, wearing a tiny top revealing more than it covered and black pants looking painted on. But it wasn’t her body that held his attention—there were plenty of beautiful women flaunting themselves in the bar—it was the way she moved when she went for her second bottle. The loose way she walked, as if she were ready to spring into violence at any moment. It was a radical opposite from the pretties Kristian had carted back to Hansarda to populate his harem.
Really, she was more Boone’s type than his half brother’s. Her obvious battle training paired with the sweeping black hair and delicate features were quite the package.
Even with those damned violet eyes.
But the part that drew him in the most was the vulnerability on her face when she thought no one was looking. Her shoulders slumped, and her fingers framed the bottle in front of her as if it were the most precious thing in the universe.
He’d had to talk to her, to see if her personality held up the physical promise. Surely she was as empty-headed as the other women Kristian cultivated, a pretty face who could barely hold a conversation.
Boone really should have known better.
He was in trouble as soon as he heard her throaty sex-vid-star-would-kill-for voice. It didn’t help that she’d been telling some poseur to shove off before she jammed his balls down his throat. The combination of strength and weakness was an intoxicating one he had no hope of resisting.
The bathroom door swished open, jerking him back to the present. He listened to her breath hiss out as she sat across from the bed.
Boone contemplated trying for another round. He could still taste her on his lips, and it was driving him crazy. They’d been together more times last night than he could count and still he craved the feel of her skin against him. But last night was a mistake, and not one he could afford to repeat. Maybe if he kept thinking that, he’d start to believe it. Besides, she’d hate him soon enough. All of Kristian’s floozies did. Just because she seemed different from the countless others didn’t indicate a different outcome.
As soon as she left the room, he rolled back over and stretched. He was tired and sore and felt fantastically used. The woman really was something.
His wrist unit beeped, and Boone sighed. Couldn’t Jenny give him a few minutes to enjoy the afterglow? He opened the call, leaving the screen blank. His little sister didn’t need to see where he was and start asking questions. “What?”
“Now, now, is that any way to speak to your favorite sister?”
“You’re my only sister.”
Jenny laughed. “Technicalities.” Even without the screen on, he knew her gray eyes, so similar to his own, were dancing with mischief. Which meant trouble for anyone in her sights.
Boone flopped back on the bed and propped his head on his free arm, the movement pulling at old wounds. He rolled his neck, fighting against the tide of memories threatening to drown him. Kristian coaxing him down to the dungeon to hide from the old man. The chains digging into his wrists. The knife, gods, that damned knife…
“You’re not even paying attention to me!”
He could have kissed his sister for pulling him free of the past, even as Boone hoped to the gods he wasn’t going to have to clean up another of her messes. “What do you want, Jenny?”
“What’s she like?” She was only snooping. Thank the gods for small favors.
Boone glared at his wrist unit, but it wouldn’t have intimidated her into silence, even if she could see him. Jenny wasn’t afraid of anything. “You are not calling to ask about Kristian’s new whore.” To call her that felt like a betrayal, but he slapped down the feeling. She may have been amazing last night, but if she became a member of the prince’s harem, she was an enemy, plain and simple.
“Bo-oo-ne.” Jenny stretched his name into three syllables. “Stop playing with my emotions and tell me what she’s like. Is she vapid? Lazy? A royal bitch like the last one? Come on, I’m dying here.”
Jenny was silent for what felt like an eternity. A new record. “No? That’s interesting.”
“Yeah.” He pictured those violet eyes gone hazy with passion. “She’s not at all like we expected.”
“Can we use her?”
That was the question. Judging from last night alone, the Diviner wasn’t a woman someone used lightly. Hells, she’d probably fillet anyone who tried. “I don’t know.”
“You sound weird. What happened?”
Of course Jenny would pick up on his distraction. “Nothing. We’ll talk later.” He reached over and ended the call. Almost immediately, the unit rang again. Boone clicked it on. “Damn it, Jenny—”
“Hello, little brother.”
He froze, his gaze glued to the screen showing the man who had been his enemy for nearly ten years, ever since he’d chained Boone in the dungeon and tried to cut the skin from his back.
Dread curled in his gut. “Kristian.”
It took fifteen minutes to jump in a sans shower and change her clothes, but Ophelia couldn’t talk with her mother reeking of sex and wearing the same clothes she left the house in. Feeling significantly better, she made her way back downstairs to the kitchen and paused in the doorway, taking in the scene from so many childhood talks. Mama sat at the table sipping a steaming cup of her favorite tea, the warm glow of Keiluna’s twin suns filtering through the large windows. The only jarring note of the whole picture was a small frown line between her mother’s brows. Mama never frowned.
“Come in, daughter.”
She did as she was told, sliding into the seat across the table. “What’s happened?”
“Always so impatient.” The words were right—Mama was never one to rush—but there was strain evident in her tone.
“Mama, what’s wrong?”
Her mother took a deep breath and folded her hands around her cup. The white of her knuckles was yet another indication of worry. What in the seven hells was going on? Mama was never less than serene. Something had her spooked. Ophelia found herself reaching for the thick metal bracelet on her right wrist. It could snap into a dagger with the click of a button—one of the many inventions that put their little gunrunning business on the radar of anyone willing to fight Sanctify.
“Daughter, there is something we need to discuss.”
Ophelia rolled her shoulders, trying to dispel the tension knotting its way through her body. “I’m not really in the mood for one of our talks.”
“Yes, I know. You’ve been hiding for two weeks now, avoiding me and the Lady.”
Her mother held up a hand, forestalling the protest that wasn’t coming. She was right—Ophelia had been avoiding her. Or, rather, the constant reminder of what happened when she didn’t trust the Lady. Her crew’s terrified faces flashed through her mind, gone almost as quickly as they’d come. She shouldn’t have gone on that last mission. She shouldn’t have ignored the warning in the cards—
“I was willing to give you time to grieve and work through things on your own,” her mother continued, breaking her from the downward spiral of her thoughts, “however, there are things at work that are beyond our own personal comfort. The Lady’s work.”
Ophelia clutched her mug tighter, telling herself there was nothing to be afraid of. As long as she kept whatever the cards told her close this time, nothing like that would happen again. Not to say something bad wouldn’t happen—bad things happened all the time, that was life—but it wouldn’t be her fault if they did.
“What’s going on?”
“Always so impatient,” her mother said again.
“I get it from Papa.” No one in their right mind would accuse her mother of such a messy emotion.
“Yes, I suppose you do.” Same answer as always, but there was a hint of sadness in Mama’s violet gaze. It looked like there was more she wanted to say, but she smiled serenely instead. “Have you eaten?”
Ophelia bit back a scream of frustration. This was how Mama worked, how she’d always worked. Just because Ophelia only got more impatient with age didn’t mean anything. She obediently went to the InstaChef and scrolled through the selection, picking out egg substitute, tofu, and insta-spuds because she knew Mama would disapprove. Childish, but so was making her wait.
Mama sniffed. “You shouldn’t put such things in your body.”
It was an old argument, comforting in its predictability. If Mama had her way, they’d only stock synth-free food, but this was probably the only disagreement Papa ever won. Ophelia took a bite of the eggs and sighed. “Can you please tell me what happened now?”
“Of course.” Mama tucked a strand of pale hair behind her ear. “The Prince of Hansarda has asked for your hand in marriage.”
Ophelia choked, spewing half-chewed eggs. “You’re joking.” Marriage. Even thinking the word made her want to flee to the nearest spaceport. She could jump to one of the Far Reach planets, be gone before anyone knew she was running in the first place.
“You know better daughter.” Mama grabbed a hand towel to clean up the mess, effectively blocking Ophelia’s path to the door.
Obviously she was going to have to resign herself to having this conversation, “Why me?” Even as she asked, a suspicious thought wormed its way into her mind. When Mama just watched impassively, she gave it voice. “Because of the guns. He thinks marrying me will give him access to Azure.”
It wasn’t a bad plan, as such things went. They were the main supplier for everyone and anyone who worked against Sanctify, and thanks to Mac, Azure’s resident genius, their “little” family business possessed the most cutting-edge technology, both defensive and offensive. They used the loose governing practices of the Star Council the same way Sanctify did to take advantage of the individual planets left to govern themselves.
But they were completely anonymous. Or they should have been. “How does he know who I am?”
Mama dropped the dirty towel into the laundry shoot. “Perhaps he’s heard tell of you.”
“Unlikely.” Ophelia made it a point to keep a low profile. The only exception was her nighttime activities here, but Keiluna was a party planet—or it used to be. Before the riots, it would have been odd if she spent so much time here and didn’t drink herself stupid with some regularity, just another vacationer with more money than sense. Which was the point.
How in the hells were they going to clean up this mess? This guy was prince of an entire planet. It wasn’t as if she could waltz in and shoot him dead for knowing who she was.
Ophelia crossed her arms over her chest, fighting back panic. If he knew who they were, then the information might be floating about the techno-waves, waiting for anyone interested to pick it up. They had to get out of here, had to hunker down until they came up with a plan. Sanctify would love to permanently remove the thorn in their side that was Azure Enterprises. Not to mention the coup it would be for them to find not one, but two, Diviners. She shuddered to think of the possible fate awaiting her.
Ophelia wasn’t a fan of death by burning.
Or being slaughtered with lasers like her crew had been.
She took a deep breath and tried to slow her racing pulse. “Obviously there’s something you’re not telling me, otherwise Papa would already have us on the run. What’s going on?”
Mama motioned to Ophelia’s bag where she’d dropped it on the floor when she came into the room. “Do a reading.”
She went completely still, remembering the last time her mother uttered those words. Dread twisted in her stomach, radiating outward until it was a physical weight on her shoulders, a noose ready to tighten. To a Diviner, the cards were both a gift and a curse, acting as a conduit to the Lady’s will. Whatever the reading said, she had no choice but to abide by it. She couldn’t risk anyone else she cared about being caught in the fallout of not obeying the Lady. Ophelia wanted to scream in fear and frustration, to rail against how perfectly trapped she felt by those damn cards.
The hairs on the back of Ophelia’s neck stood up, but she did as she was told, reaching into her bag for the box containing her cards. It was engraved and made from the obsidian wood found on Beshmai. The planet wasn’t on interstellar maps—it had been found by Ophelia’s great-great grandfather, Jeremiah, on one of his countless explorations. He’d kept the location a secret and the natives allowed him and his descendants to visit, holding them in high regard.
Shaking off her thoughts, she pressed the dual switches to release the lid. Her cards had been Jeremiah’s, the bag containing them frayed from countless years of loving use. They poured into her hands like long-lost friends, instantly quelling her growing unease. Yes, this is what she needed, even if she dreaded the message.
Ophelia shuffled the deck and cut in three times, flipping over three cards in quick succession. Sheer stubbornness kept her in her seat when she wanted to run from the message waiting in front of her. She closed her eyes and took a few cleansing breaths before facing her fate.
Her hand moved almost of its own will to the first card. The Fool. A journey begun. She touched the second card. The Wheel of Fortune. A turning point, a change in luck, whether for the bad or good. The Ten of Cups. A fortunate marriage, contentment of the heart, and the perfection of human love and friendship.
It couldn’t have been clearer if the cards spelled out: Marry the prince and live happily ever after.
Ophelia sat back and rubbed her hands over her face, suddenly exhausted. “I don’t want to get married.” The stranger’s face from last night flickered through her mind, gone in an instant, just like any chance she had of ever meeting him again. Her mind raced to find another meaning, another message.
A way out.
She knew better now. To deny the cards was to invite disaster. Because Ophelia hadn’t listened last time, Sanctify had hijacked The Dutchman and killed her crew. Grief surged hot and thick in her throat until she could barely breathe for the need to cry. But she wouldn’t give in to the impulse. She didn’t deserve the relief. Akito and Kana might have lived if she’d listened when the Lady communicated the warning.
But she hadn’t listened, too focused on the big payoff they’d have gotten to stop and consider the risks. Guilt joined her grief, almost too much to bear.
She would do as the cards said, no matter how unsavory the task, because Ophelia couldn’t handle any more innocent blood on her hands.
“I know, daughter, I know.” Mama stood and wrapped her thin arms around her. “But the cards never lie, and this is the fate they’ve laid out for you.”
Papa cleared his throat, startling both of them with his appearance in the narrow doorway. “You don’t have to do this, baby girl.”
Ophelia’s stomach took residence somewhere north of her heart. She wished she could give him the answer he wanted, to erase the horrible look from his face. Too bad life never worked out like that. “I have to.”
“This is your doing, Marianna,” he growled, crossing the kitchen and shoving a finger in her mother’s face. “If it wasn’t for your ridiculous superstitions and woo-woo feelings, she wouldn’t feel like she had to go.”
Mama let go of Ophelia and wrapped her fist around the offend-ing finger, pushing it away. “She has to go. If you try to keep her, there will be consequences.” She paused. “Just as there were last time.”
“Don’t you dare throw that in my face, woman. What happened on The Dutchman was a terrible tragedy and nothing more.”
They all froze, gazes flying to Mama’s face. Papa made a choked sound, his face turning a deep burgundy. Once he got going, he could yell for hours, and Mama would just sit there and watching him, using a few choice words to piss him off further.
Ophelia slid from her seat and moved between them, forcing their attention off each other. “I’m going. End of discussion.”
He sighed, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “Then sit down, baby girl, and I’ll make you some real breakfast.”
She obeyed, pulling Mama down with her. Her mother gave a soft smile. “Things will work out.” Because she was Tyche, Mama got feelings sometimes that were as accurate as if she used the cards. The problem was they weren’t always specific.
The smell of bacon—real bacon—filled the room, making Ophelia’s mouth water. She’d loved watching her father cook ever since she was a child, had spent hours in this kitchen with him. He certainly didn’t look like the homemaker type. His shoulders were absurdly large, closer to Bolkerian than human—minus the spikes, of course.
He set a glass of orange juice in front of her. “You don’t have to go. It’s too soon. Stay here and we’ll keep you safe.”
Ophelia ignored Mama’s huff and took a sip. “I have to go.”
Papa had always held a blatant hatred for the cards. She suspected it went back to his years as a lieutenant of Sanctify—much like his outdated belief women couldn’t do everything men could. He may have lost his innate hatred for anything nonhuman, but he still couldn’t quite make himself believe. To Papa, the cards would always be superstitious nonsense, not the all-important guide they were to Diviners. It was yet another thing that always managed to come between them.
He growled and flipped the bacon. “He’s using you to get into the family business.”
“I know.” And she had no idea how the prince knew in the first place. It didn’t sit well with her, but Ophelia had to trust the Lady knew what She was doing. She took another sip and set her glass on the table. “He won’t get anything from me. If you think otherwise, then you don’t know me very well.”
“I know, baby girl.” Papa turned around, wielding two plates full of bacon and pancakes. He set them in front of her and Mama before retreating for the final one. “But I’m worried about what he’ll do when he finds out.” Papa exhaled loudly, dropping into his chair. “And I don’t know who we’re going to replace you with.”
Ophelia opened her mouth to suggest… Oh hells, she didn’t know, but he beat her to it.
“I suppose I’ll have to take over until I find someone.”
Her mouth snapped shut with an audible click and Mama sighed. Ophelia knew very well how that conversation would go once she was out of the room. It wouldn’t be pretty. She thought fast, picking a name at random. “What about Cain?”
“He’s impulsive and abrasive. He’d be killed within a week.”
One could argue the same traits applied to her. She took a bite of bacon and chewed slowly, the meat tasting of ash on her tongue. The synth crap couldn’t compare to real meat, but right now she couldn’t even enjoy it. “You’ll find someone.”
He shrugged and began shoveling food into his mouth. Obviously there would be no more talking about it. She and Mama shared a significant look and began cleaning their own plates. For a time, there was only the sound of forks scraping against porcelain and the occasional slurp from either Ophelia or Papa.
This memory was what she’d wrap around herself to ward off homesickness when she was gone. Strength and love radiated from her parents as they gave their silent—and grudging, from Papa—support. Ophelia had never doubted they loved her, but in this moment she could almost see it.
It would have been the perfect moment if not for the fate hanging over her head, as inescapable as death.
Someone pounded on the front door, the sound booming through the house like the Reaper’s summons. Ophelia shivered and jumped out of her chair, moving as if in slow motion. The air had a weight to it, fighting her movements. Or maybe it was all in her head.
She threw open the door to reveal a man, his hand still raised from the beating he’d given the faded wood. Ophelia froze, her gaze traveling over weathered boots, pants stretched over large thighs, a shirt that did nothing to hide the muscles beneath, and the cache of weapons his jacket barely concealed. She stopped counting after three lasers and two blades. This man was trouble in the worst way.
He was also the same man whose room she left not an hour ago.
How had she thought him nothing special before? What a fool she was. While he still couldn’t be considered pretty, his icy gray eyes were extraordinary, so light they were nearly colorless. They pinned her in place, seeming to look inside her soul.
Ophelia had the sudden suspicion she was being judged…and found wanting.
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