Quick reminder, Zoom Romance panel this Saturday with 5 other authors, details here: https://ilona-andrews.com/APPEARANCES/
It’s FrInnDay again, and the Trial of Talent is over. There were smotherings done in poor taste, beautiful dancing, poetry, and harsh lessons in underestimating your opponent. One must never listen to Caldenia unless one is absolutely sure she is on their side. Was Kosandion impressed with the candidates? Did he appreciate his aunt’s schemes? After all, she did murder his father. Who knows the heart of the Sovereign? It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, beating in a rather muscular chest. Let us see what happens.
As the delegates filed out of the arena, taking the tunnels to their respective quarters, Kosandion leaned toward me and said, “I’ve heard my aunt takes frequent walks.” I confirmed that indeed, Her Grace enjoyed her daily stroll, to which he said “I should like to walk as well. It’s good to stretch your legs after so much sitting.” I nodded, stepped away, reached out through the inn, found Caldenia, who was on the way to her quarters, and quietly shared Kosandion’s newfound love of moderate exercise with her.
Now Kosandion pondered the trees by our pond while I waited a few yards away, watching over him, and Caldenia, who had taken an opportunity to change clothes, was moving through the inn toward us.
Sean stepped out of the bushes. He was taking the whole “traverse through walls” thing to the new level. It was honestly easier to just use an established door but popping out of random places appealed to him for some reason. I held out my hand and he quietly squeezed it.
“How is Surkar?”
“Healing. I sedated him.”
“Should we worry about him retaliating?”
Sean shook his head. “He knows when he is beaten. We talked before he passed out. He is coming to terms with it.”
“I don’t understand why he opened with such a straightforward attack.”
“Because it worked for him many times before. If you give an average person a gun and someone of Surkar’s size charges at them with a sword, most people will forget about the gun and try to get out of the way or throw their hands up to protect themselves. It takes training to overcome that instinctual response. Even if Kosandion had a shield and tried to block, the power differential is too high. Surkar would have broken the shield and Kosandion’s arm.”
“Kosandion clearly had training.”
Sean sighed. “As Surkar found out. I asked him if it ever occurred to him that a person of the Sovereign’s status, with genetic modification and unlimited resources, would have access to the best combat trainers available.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Why would he need them? He has an army and bodyguards. He doesn’t look like a fighter.’”
“The species prejudice tripped him up,” I said. “The Otrokars are so specialized that you can tell at a glance who is a range fighter and who is a front-line bruiser. Kosandion looks like he’d be a strategist or a tactician at best.”
“Yes,” Sean agreed. “Surkar judges his opponents by size and what they are wearing. Vampire knights are warriors because they are large and wear armor. Kosandion doesn’t look like a warrior, and Surkar discounted him as a physical threat. In his head, he would crush Kosandion like a gnat, and then the Dominion would love him so much for it, they would force the Sovereign to take him as a spouse.”
“So Surkar was planning to beat up a man he thought is a civilian and clearly no match for him? And he thought people would love him for it?”
“Doesn’t exactly portray him in the best light.”
Sean shrugged. “It was dawning on him when I left. If he’d stopped to think about it, that challenge would’ve never happened, but he hadn’t, because Caldenia filled his head with fog and nonsense. She never suggested that he challenge Kosandion. She just led him to that door, showed him the shiny world on the other side, and he jumped through it on his own.”
A door opened in the distance. Caldenia was incoming.
“Your favorite person is on the way.”
Sean made a low rumbling noise.
I shivered. “So scary.”
“Do you want me to babysit them so you can take a break?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Caldenia is more comfortable with me. I have a feeling this will be a difficult meeting, and you’ll just glower at her the entire time.”
“I don’t glower.”
I kissed his cheek. “Of course you don’t. You just do your wolf eyes.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He knew exactly what I was talking about. He didn’t trust Caldenia. It wasn’t personal. He didn’t dislike her, he just never forgot that she was conniving and unpredictable. Sean Evans didn’t care for surprises. Everything was fine if it was just the two of us, Orro, and Caldenia going about our daily life at the inn, but whenever a guest entered the picture and Her Grace chose to socialize with them, Sean watched Caldenia like a hawk, always expecting her to pull some sort of crazy scheme that would end badly. And, as we just saw, he wasn’t exactly wrong in his suspicions.
This time Caldenia had a definite goal in mind, but even when she didn’t, Her Grace still plotted and manipulated. To Caldenia, people were toys, and she arranged them in pretty patterns on her mental chess board, sometimes to gain something and sometimes just for her own amusement.
Caldenia rounded the bend of the path. She wore a pale gown with a trumpet silhouette and a bateau neckline that cut in a horizontal slash just under her neck. The narrow sleeves were translucent, made of fabric that resembled tulle, and a small cape fell in graceful folds from her shoulders to her knees. The metallic fabric shimmered slightly as she walked, neither pink, nor beige, nor lavender, but on the crossroads of all three. It was a conservative dress that communicated power and maturity without reading old.
It was also a style she almost never wore anymore. The Dominion echoed in it. She looked like the head of state she used to be.
The inn chimed, and we simultaneously paused. The Dushegubs had decided to pummel the walls of the Pit. Sean squeezed my hand again and marched down the path. Right now was precisely the wrong time to piss Sean off, and the Dushegubs were about to find out why.
Caldenia and he passed each other on the path, heading in opposite directions. She raised his eyebrows at him and approached me.
“He seems rather annoyed,” she said.
“You permanently damaged Surkar.”
“I did no such thing.”
“You broke his spirit.”
“Then it wasn’t that strong to begin with. Pain is the best teacher. Whether he learns his lesson is of no interest to me.”
“Shall we walk, Your Grace?”
She glanced in Kosandion’s direction, took a slightly deeper breath, and slowly started down the path. Her nephew continued to study the trees, seemingly uninterested in us. Caldenia drew even with Kosandion, and he moved when she passed him, keeping her slow pace. They strolled down the beautiful path without saying a word. I followed a few steps behind.
Birds sang in the branches. A fish splashed in the pond.
“Have you heard of Seeslaathen, Dina?” Kosandion asked.
It was amusing how nobody expected me to do my homework. “Many thousands of years ago it was a Galactic Empire. It survived for generations, ruled by a single family, but eventually it fractured in two. One half gave rise to the Seven Star Dominion and the other to the Six Star Supremacy.”
“You are well informed,” Kosandion said. “It was a difference of ideology. The Dominion favors a constitutional monarchy with an elected government that shapes its laws and a royal head of state who presides over the executive branch. While the Supremacy favors…”
He let it drift.
“Tyranny,” Caldenia said dryly. “A civilized version of an autocratic government where the ruler’s power is absolute in theory and constrained by political considerations in practice.”
“How does that work with the collective consciousness?” I asked.
“Very well, actually,” Caldenia said. “The ugly truth about democracy is that it breeds anxiety. The responsibility for the government is shifted onto the body of the citizenry, who often lack the awareness and knowledge necessary to make an informed decision. They are tasked with electing their officials, they stress over it, they fall into despair when their side loses and act like their lives are over, and then when the government they elected inevitably does something they don’t want, they feel betrayed. There is no constancy in leadership, the policies vary wildly from one administration to the next, and one never knows where the nation shall be in ten years’ time. It is chaos.”
“A tyranny provides stability and rules. Follow the rules, and you will be safe,” she said.
“At the cost of personal freedoms,” I said.
“You would be surprised how many beings will gladly trade their freedom for safety.”
“Not me,” I told her.
Gertrude Hunt let me know that Resven and two members of his staff left the inn via the portal. Odd. He had been glued to Kosandion since they’d arrived. During the dates, Resven hovered nearby, usually just outside the room, in case he was needed. By the second date, I’d started providing him with a special waiting chair. This time he must’ve asked for Tony, because the ad-hal had walked him to the portal and stuck around in the Arrival Chamber, waiting.
Caldenia shrugged. “As paradoxical as it is, authoritarian displays tend to stabilize the public. The citizens find a strong, frightening leader reassuring. The tyrant is a monster, but it is their monster, and they take pride in their power.”
“To be fair, the Supremacy practices a limited tyranny. The Parliament of the Supremacy is also an elected body,” Kosandion told me. “Sometimes they murder incompetent tyrants.”
Caldenia shrugged. “Well, one has to throw the rabble a bone, Dina.”
This was the strangest conversation. They were both talking to me without acknowledging the other person existed.
Resven returned and brought another two people with him. They weren’t the same as the two who left. It must’ve been a team swap. We had given Resven, Miralitt, and Orata a lot of autonomy when it came to their own people, because they changed their staff depending on the situation, and none of us had time to approve every personnel member they brought over. We’d asked them to keep their personal team at three members or less.
“The ruling families of the Dominion and the Supremacy grew apart over the many centuries,” Kosandion said, “Yet each followed a similar method of selecting their rulers. At first, it was calculated marriages and natural birth, then a ruler with multiple partners and many children in hopes that one would prove suitable to govern, and finally genetic modification. A single heir bioengineered to lead the state and its people.”
Of which both people in front of me were prime examples.
“A century and a half ago, there was a biological attack on the Dominion’s ruling family,” Kosandion said.
Caldenia gave him a sharp look.
“The perpetrators were found and eliminated, but the damage had been done. A vicious hereditary disease ravaged the bloodline, threatening to permanently end generations of careful genetic selection. It wiped out three quarters of the family. For thirty years the ruling family struggled to carve it out of their genetic code, but it came back again and again. It killed all of the children and destroyed hundreds of embryos in the natural and artificial wombs.”
I never heard of that. It was not in any of the Dominion or Supremacy documents.
“The bloodline of the Supremacy carried an immunity to that disease, attained through careful spousal selection and pure chance,” Kosandion continued. “The Supremacy benefited from a strong Dominion, which served as a buffer between it and the Hope Crushing Horde. A secret agreement was reached under the pretense of paying homage to the ancient unity of bloodlines. Caldira ka ret Magren, the Domina of the Supremacy, agreed to carry two heirs of Sovereign Rebastion to term. To ensure the full transference of immunity, no artificial womb would be used. The embryos would be implanted, one at a time, and she would carry her children to term within her body.”
“She loved her children before they were born and even more after. How could she not? A child who shares heartbeat with their mother…” Caldenia fell silent.
Sadness flickered in Kosandion’s eyes. There was more to this somehow.
Kosandion resumed his story.
“The creation of an heir is a complex process, one that commands full attention from both parents. The heir is not conceived but crafted. Whether the gestation takes place within the mother or within an artificial womb, the genetic makeup of the heir is radically different from their siblings. The heir’s purpose is to rule.”
“Raising the heir, providing them with education and guidance demands full attention from their parents. Even if their parents are in a committed and loving relationship, they delay having more children until the heir is on the cusp of adulthood. And those other children are not heirs, nor will they ever be. If the heir dies, another enhanced embryo carrying the desired set of genes will be created and in time, a new heir will be born.”
“It seems like a very lonely childhood,” I said.
“By design. The heir’s first priority is the nation,” Caldenia answered.
Kosandion nodded. “Too much attachment to one’s siblings can lead the ruler to make decisions based on emotion rather than logic.”
“The age gap also ensures that the other children will not compete for power. Although they will be no match for the heir, some do try despite their shortcomings.” Caldenia sounded harsh. “Unfortunately, when you raise a tyrant to exercise their power at will, rules go out the window, even if they’re sensible.”
“Caldira agreed to bear the heirs only if they could be raised together until the youngest reached ten years of age. The Dominion had no choice but to agree. Two heirs were born, a female and a male two years apart. They were raised together as brother and sister, and their mother doted on them both. They had the best education, they shared the greatest tutors, yet their curriculums differed drastically. The older, female child was raised to be the future Domina, while her younger brother was to become a Sovereign.”
“When they were twelve and ten,” Caldenia said, “they were torn apart with the expectation that they would never see each other again outside of the rare state function. To put it into Earth terms, no family reunions. No BBQ, no Thanksgiving turkey, no Christmas. None of those rituals that bind family together.”
“Years passed,” Kosandion continued. “The female child became the Domina and eventually gave birth to an heir. Her daughter died when she was fifteen, assassinated by a separatist faction. A decade later she tried again. Her son lived into his thirties, insisted on personally leading a fleet into war, and died doing so.”
Oh. I didn’t know. Caldenia’s public file never mentioned family. Her face was devoid of all expression. She looked like a mannequin.
“Her brother became the Sovereign and lost three heirs. When his fourth was in adolescence, the Sovereign and his wife had two more children, conceived in the natural way, a boy and a girl. The heir was judged to be old enough to be permitted unlimited access to his siblings.”
“What about his aunt?” I asked. “Did he ever see her?”
“Four times,” Kosandion said. “First, she visited secretly when he was born. He doesn’t remember that visit for obvious reasons, but he was told about it. The second time was when he was three and very sick. She sat by his bed, held his hand, and swore to murder everyone in the room if he didn’t survive. The third was when he was twelve. She had come for the Ten Year Summit between the Dominion and the Supremacy, and late at night she met him for five minutes under heavy guard to tell him that she was proud of him and his accomplishments.”
Caldenia gazed at the pond, as if she had gone deaf.
“What about the last time?” I asked.
“It was years later. The Dominion faced civil unrest. In theory, everyone agrees that the realm must evolve or die. In practice, people resist change because it threatens their way of life. They have the luxury of not worrying about the future of the nation. They care only about their survival in the here and now. Not everyone supported the Sovereign’s reforms, no matter how much they were needed. A plot was hatched to kill him, and he was infected with a biological agent that resurrected the dormant genetic disease. It was never fully eradicated. It had just been suppressed.”
Caldenia crossed her arms on her chest and stopped by a bench facing the water. Her nephew stopped next to her. They stood five feet apart, not looking at each other.
This was all so sad and terrible.
“The Sovereign knew he was dying,” Kosandion said. “If the true cause of his death was discovered, as it would be, the fitness of the heir would be called into question. The genetic weakness of the previous generation was too well documented. The Dominion, which already faced an external threat from a foreign power and was experiencing a civil crisis, would fracture even further. The heir was still very young, half a year from adulthood. He lacked the power base sufficient to avoid a civil war.”
“They would’ve killed him,” Caldenia said, her voice harsh and tightly controlled. “They would’ve murdered the heir and the other two children and then they would’ve clawed their way to the throne over the bodies.”
“The Sovereign had to die in a way that would hide all signs of the disease. Someone had to kill him and take credit for it. The Sovereign couldn’t be murdered by some random nobody because that would make the dynasty look weak. He couldn’t be killed by someone from within the Dominion, because that would make his entire faction look incompetent in failing to detect this threat and endanger his son’s ascension.”
I didn’t like where this was going.
Kosandion stared at the pond. “The assassin had to be someone powerful. Someone frightening. Someone with the means and the motive, who could make this murder so loud, so outrageous, that the entire Dominion would unite in sympathy behind the heir. Instead of a weakling who failed to anticipate and resist a threat, the late Sovereign became a martyr, his name a battle cry.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
“The Sovereign asked his sister for help for the very last time. And she came.”
“Of course, I came. He was my baby brother,” Caldenia said quietly. “In the end, family is all we have.”
“The fourth time my aunt visited me, I watched her poison my father,” Kosandion said. “Resven had brought me to witness it. I stood in a hidden passage and watched it so that later on, I could stand before the Dominion and name my aunt as his killer with honesty and sincerity. The Dominion would feel my anguish and my sorrow and know they were true.”
“I am so sorry,” I told them.
“Keep your pity,” Caldenia said. “I knew the consequences.”
I had never seen Caldenia so fragile. In this moment, she seemed made of glass, as if a careless touch would shatter her. She’d given up her throne and plunged two nations into conflict to save her brother’s children. And knowing her, she hadn’t hesitated for a moment.
Tony, Resven, and the two visitors crossed the inn and were coming down the path toward us.
Kosandion smiled, a bitter parting of lips. “It cost my aunt everything. She had been feared before, but now she was reviled and despised. Her decades of careful governance had been forgotten. The Supremacy turned against her. She fought to hold on to power, but eventually she abandoned that struggle and fled.”
Caldenia gave him a long look, and the fragility evaporated. “And yet, I’m alive and doing quite well. The entire galaxy has been trying to separate me from my head for years, yet here I am… what is the saying, dear? Living my best life.”
Kosandion finally turned his head and looked at her. “I am glad you are well.”
She looked back at him. “No need to get all solemn about it, my dear. Don’t forget, I have seen you in swaddling clothes. Not only am I doing well, but you still seem to require my aid.”
Kosandion bowed. “Thank you for Surkar.”
“It was a small thing. Don’t bend your head. You are the Sovereign.”
“And you will always be the Domina.”
Her Grace snorted. “The Domina of what? I left those fools with a strong nation that functioned like a well-oiled machine. In less than a decade, they managed to fracture it into three puny kingdoms, one of which you have annexed.”
“In fairness, they formally requested the Dominion’s aid,” Kosandion said, his eyes hiding a smile.
“I don’t mind that you helped yourself – Galaxy knows somebody should have saved them from themselves – but I don’t understand why you left the other two unattended. If you wait for them to fight it out so you can swoop in when they are at their weakest, there won’t be much left. They are too stupid to know where to draw the line. You should crush them, my dear. Frame it as a rescue of the Dominion’s dear brothers and sisters. It would help your image and give the military something to do before they will get antsy and starts dreaming up a coup. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…”
Two kids came down the path and stopped. A girl around fifteen or so and a boy a couple of years younger. Caldenia saw them and fell silent.
“They know,” Kosandion said softly.
She didn’t answer him.
“Would you like to say hello, aunt?”
She swallowed. “Yes.”
Kosandion offered her his arm and led the Domina to meet her niece and nephew. I stayed where I was, giving them all the privacy they needed.
Nobody was in danger here.