Excerpt from Chapter Twenty-One

To Utara, all dreams were meant to be perfect. They were nothing yet everything. Or so she wanted to believe.

The lyrical sounds of afternoon – birds chirping merrily, the rustle of trees, the soft rumble of departing thunder – had ceased. Yet a great pull beckoned her to stay immersed in the heavy warmth draping over her. Happiness and an indescribable connection hovered at the brink of her consciousness.

A light tap broke the ethereal silence. A door opened. A chill. Her skin tingled. Her eyes shot open with a start.

The hints of the setting sun’s lustrous scarlet and vibrant orange cast an eerie hue across Vespa’s room. A quick check at the bedside chrono confirmed that Utara had fallen asleep and missed over an hour of the day. The shadow lurking at the door didn’t frighten her, but a husband waiting gravely silent for his wife was cause for alarm in its own way.

Utara shot upright in the bed, “What is it?”

“Ashbar commed looking for you.” He held open his right hand, fingers unfurling to reveal her personal comdee. A small button blinked red – priority communiqué – but it wasn’t buzzing incessantly as it usually would. “I came upstairs to check. I wasn’t snooping at your desk.”

“How did you know it was Ashbar?”

“He pinged Oggie about fifteen minutes ago.”

“Of course. The backdoor method of finding your boss.” Utara’s brow knotted. She really needed to speak to him about that. It wasn’t proper for the Cultural Minister’s aide to be using Wynde Industry connections –

“Maybe you can give him a pass?” Daemyn’s voice was devoid of its usual authoritativeness. Pretending to ignore him, she rose from the bed and smoothed the folds of her dress. Daemyn offered no extra room for her to pass. His eyes followed her as she eased her shoulders sideways and slipped into the hall. They moved down it silently.

Daemyn didn’t speak until they were halfway down the stairs that led to the airy kitchen on the ground level. “Ashbar’s always got your best interest at heart, you know. He wouldn’t have bothered Oggie if it wasn’t important.”

Utara started to open her mouth to protest, then swallowed the words. It was hard enough to fight enemies when she was embattled in a war of wills with her own husband. She gazed out the panoramic windows, trying to draw strength from the unbending shape of the mountains. “Did he happen to mention to Oggie the nature of this demand on my immediate attention?”

“No, but he didn’t really have to. Oggie started looking on the newsfeeds, and we connected the dots pretty fast.”

Mention of newsfeeds made Utara fear the worst. “Another attack?”

“That would be far easier to deal with, my dear.”

Sadly, that was true in some regards. Daemyn was a straight-shooter, but Utara had dedicated her lifetime to a career in politics. Every move was based on perceptions, and winning often meant preemptively deflecting before your opponent even got a chance to swing.

He reached for the tall drink he had left on the counter. “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

Utara sighed. Daemyn knew the answer.

“Good news it is.” The corner of his mouth curled slightly. “In light of his full cooperation with the government of Prime, the Orkan ambassador and his staff have been released from custody.”

“What?” Even knowing what the Prime Minister was capable of, Utara was flabbergasted.

Daemyn held up his finger to ward off any further questions, such as what could be possibly worse?

“Fine, the bad news.” Utara tried to mentally prepare herself, to stop creating an infinite number of horrific possibilities.

“The media is starting to openly speculate that there really were only four survivors outside of the port.”

“Shig.” Her hand popped to her mouth. Cursing just wasn’t in her nature.

He laughed. “Bet you feel better for it, right?”

Perhaps she did, for a fraction of a second, but Utara wasn’t ever going to admit it to Daemyn. He enjoyed unwinding her carefully cultivated persona far too much, and she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. “No, it doesn’t change anything. I… have to go.”

“And things were going so well, here.”

“You have a warped sense of well.”

“We were together. I think that counts for something.”