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The beautiful orange, turquoise, and silver of the setting sun had no effect on Star tonight. Fear controlled her. She had run out of time.
Tyereen sat back as a slave offered him Emperor Carnis's favorite wine.
"Something wrong, T'Nagar?"
Tyereen blinked before he realized the Emperor addressed him. Fatigue dulled his mind and reflexes, but he couldn't afford any lapses now. He was too close to his goal to make a careless mistake. "I was only admiring your palace."
"You were admiring my slave," stated the Emperor.
Tye only shrugged. He wouldn't argue the point.
"I could offer him to you as a gift." Emperor Carnis laughed at Tye's startled look. "Not your type? Perhaps one of my young female slaves?"
Tye shook his head. "I'm sure they're all very nice, but I'll decline."
"That's right. You vowed abstinence while away from your homeworld." The Emperor sighed as he leaned back against his throne. "Not something I could do."
Gong. The Emperor stood and faced the main archway.
Tye could hear the whisper of slippers against the marble floor. The Emperor gave a slight nod to an older man standing near the archway who stepped out of sight for a moment. Then in a flurry of horns, Carnis's bride stood in the ornate arch
He hadn't realized how beautiful she was. Their reports told of her basic features, but none spoke of the auburn highlights, the exotic slant to those violet eyes, flawless skin so pale it almost looked translucent. He never thought the combination would make him want to run his fingers through her long brown hair, kiss her violet eyes. No wonder the Emperor wanted to marry the girl.
Sheslowly approached the throne area, followed by a small entourage of young female slaves. Aloof, regal, she glided across the floor. Despite his best effort to remain detached, all Tye could do was stare. Something about the woman made his blood boil. All of a sudden, his job got a lot harder.
"Welcome, my dear." The Emperor captured her hand and kissed her knuckles before gesturing to the empty throne next to his.
And right next to Tye's.
In a rustle of silk and beaded gauze, Star took her seat.
Entertainers flipped and danced, wowing the crowd, drawing gasps from the people gathered to honor the Emperor's bride. She didn't feel honored. She felt like a trophy on display for all to see.
After the jugglers finished, three magicians suddenly appeared before the dais. Although the rest of the guests gasped and then clapped, Star sat unmoving. All she could think of was her impending marriage. Her skin crawled knowing this man would have complete control over her body. He wasn't kind; in fact he could be jealous of the simplest things and quite volatile.
A tingling along her spine made her shift. Who would make a point of staring at her? The Emperor would have the person killed. Glancing to her left, she found Carnis's guest watching her. She looked away and then back. He continued to keep his eyes on her. The hairs on the back of her neck rose . How dare he. Her thoughts scattered when a slave stepped forward to pour more wine.
She nodded before looking at the new guest.
"T'Nagar?" The Emperor addressed the stranger.
So that was his name. How unusual.
Anger flashed across his face for a moment before he smiled. "No, Emperor. My people don't normally imbibe."
"That's right. But your loss." The Emperor toasted T'Nagar. "I don't remember your father ever following these rules. He always enjoyed my wines."
"I bet he did, sir." He held his cup close to his chest. "Father was known for loving any kind of wine."
"Perhaps you would prefer another beverage. Something a little gentler for you?" The Emperor laughed at his little jab.
Star straightened her spine a little when T'Nagar's jaw clinched. He didn't like the Emperor's comment at all. "Water will be fine."
One of the young slaves picked up another jug and offered it silently to the man.
He paused for a moment. She watched as he fought to control the anger blazing in his grey eyes before he held out his cup.
The Emperor smoothed his neatly cropped beard. "Water is more fitting for you? I'll have to remember to keep a good supply on hands for your visits. At least until your father can make these trips again."
T'Nagar didn't answer. He just glared at the floor and sipped his water.
Star took a sip of her wine. Even though T'Nagar looked the opposite of the Emperor, light hair, more rugged, he frightened her just as much as the Emperor did. She could sense the barely leashed hatred boiling in the man. Didn't Carnis see this?
A glint of light flashed in her eyes. She looked around, wondering where it came from. The throne room was open, with the exception of the upper balconies across the room. Her gaze slid to Carnis. If he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary maybe she imagined it.
T'Nagar leaned back in his chair, trying to maintain his control without breaking the cover he had worked so hard to create. Inside, he seethed with anger. How dare this little prodar of a man insult him. He wanted to kill the man, but needed Carnis to trust him right now. He needed access to the palace this evening to do a little reconnaissance. Then he could contemplate the best way to kill the man. Slowly for sure, but it had to befit the crime the man committed. Tye smiled at the thought. He needed patience, that was all.
A glint of light blazing across the bride-to-be's eyes caught his attention. His brow creased. Turning toward the back of the room, he scanned the balconies. Who in their right mind would try to commit murder now?
"Something wrong, T'Nagar?" asked the Emperor.
He knew he should turn back and answer the man, but he had to know what caused the light. There! It came from the upper left balcony. T'Nagar saw a slight movement. Light flashed again, he spotted a metallic tip of an arrow aimed at the center of the Emperor's throne. If it met its mark, the Emperor would die before he could exact his revenge.
Not while he had a breath in him.
He watched the sniper out of the corner of his eye, ready to move the moment the arrow took flight. His sensitive ears heard the cock of the bow. Just as he leaped to his feet, he heard the Emperor shout.
Star saw the flash again. Was someone trying to kill her? Without a second thought, she leaped to her feet. Her gown caught around her legs, forcing her to fall to the floor.
The Emperor's angry roar rattled the chandelier.
Star felt the Emperor's hand curl into her hair and pull. She grabbed her head in pain. A loud thunk made her jump. The Emperor pivoted on his heels. When she expected him to tighten his grip on her hair, she felt him let go of her instead.
She looked up and noticed the Emperor staring at his guest. The man had an arrow caught in his grip.
The pounding of feet filled the hall as the outer perimeter guards raced after the shooter.
A murmur rose amongst the guests. The stranger had saved the Emperor.
The Emperor made a sharp gesture alerting his head guard to step forward. "I want the culprit alive."
He then turned his attention to T'Nagar.
"You saved my life?" Carnis shook his head in astonishment. He retook his throne, ignoring Star, his soon-to-be bride, still prostrate on the floor.
"Looks like it." T'Nagar switched the arrow to his other hand and flexed his fingers.
Several slaves helped Star to her feet. She brushed her gown before she sat back down. Her mind had problems accepting how he caught the arrow in mid-flight. She didn't think it possible until now. Yet the arrow in his hand proved it could be done.
"I'll give you anything you want." Carnis leaned forward in his chair.
Star slid her gaze to Carnis. What was he up to? She could feel his excitement build as he spoke to T'Nagar.
"I know just the thing." He clapped his hands together.
"Emperor." T'Nagar's brow creased. "Your hospitality is all I need."
"This kind of bravery must be rewarded." Carnis smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Name it."
T'Nagar laughed then took his seat. His eyes cut to Star.
She wished he hadn't done that because the ominous silence let her know she was now the center of attention.
"I know." The Emperor stood up again. Making a big show, he placed his hand on Star's smaller throne. She didn't like the glint in his eyes. "My betrothed. It shows how much your deed means to me. She is yours."
Two people gasped and said "What?"