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Alena Petrova Dubov slammed her fist on the table. Glasses jumped and clattered, jerking the attention of the generals to her. "You expect me to fuck who?"
The tightly clustered group of men jumped back from the strategy screens, belatedly bowing. Alena gripped her anger and glared around the darkened room, finding techs jumping off their seats to bow in the cramped space between the monitors. Only the muted beat of the flesh-tech powering the equipment packed into the war room broke the silence.
The first to straighten was General Mishenka, her most senior soldier. A smile twitched across his wizened face. "Are you prepared for the coronation, Majesty?" His dark gaze slid over the pale silk gown and the ornate curls twisted into her dark hair. A shadow passed through his eyes. "You look like your mother."
Alena's gut cramped. Damn him. She focused on the salad bar and awards decorating his dress uniform, remembering her mother pinning more than one of the shining medals on his broad chest. The anger curled in her gut again. No, he was not distracting her with her crippling emotion. Righteous anger held her. "Yerik Danevich's replacement. My strength-giver. Why the hell have you chosen Flight-Captain Borodin?"
Mishenka tugged at his jacket and lifted his jaw. His dark eyes grew hard. "He is the finest choice we can give you. His DNA scan proved him compatible for the bond you must share."
A bark of laughter escaped her, and she waved her hand at the surrounding screens. Images of troop movements, fleets, and terrain flashed across their wide surface. The generals had started to plan the last desperate defence of the city of Rodin."He is a part of the enemy that's all but wiped us out."
"Have you met the flight-captain?"
Alena stood back from the table. "No."
"I wouldn't judge him too hastily, Majesty," said another general, stepping forward. General Zhilkin, a soldier who had served her mother for over twenty years. His rows of medals gleamed in the sharp light powered by portable generators ... and there was yet another reminder that the city was lacking its true empress. "He is a very fine officer."
"And that's enough for me to get naked with him?"
She was the heart of the city, a part of the centuries old Dubov cyber-genetic design. Performing the ritual with men bred from the house of Volkov, she would activate her dormant genes and give life back to the city. A city that had shut down with the death of her mother.
Zhilkin flushed. None of them liked the truth behind what the coronation of a Rodin empress actually meant. No other empress in history had to be pleasured by two men as a final mark of her ascension to the throne. He stepped back, his gaze fixed on the table, and he said nothing more.
"Well, that's one no." Alena pinned each of the remaining four generals with a hard stare. "Anyone want to give me another option for my strength-giver?"
Mishenka's mouth thinned. "We are out of options. Borodin is the only officer with the correct descent from the house of Volkov."
Alena laughed. "I'm to have the most threadbare coronation known to a Dubov empress. No formal banquet, no foreign dignitaries, and now a strength-giver with barely the right amount of genes to activate mine. Wonderful."
"Majesty." Mishenka straightened. "The attack that killed your mother and sister took out a huge chunk of our armed forces, including your designated strength-giver, Yerik Danevich." His jaw tightened. "Our only hope of reenergising this city lies with you, as you say, fucking this man."
Anger twisted in her stomach, and she wanted to lash words at Mishenka. He'd been her mother's strength-giver four decades before ... and she never looked at him again. The rejection had bitten deeply. He was enjoying belittling her now.
She waved a hand at the screen. "How long before the Talar fleet break through the city shield?"
One of the other generals, Orlov, tapped the centre screen. The image of the city shrank back, forming into a glittering pearl in the planet's atmosphere. His actions were quick, sharp, the man no doubt happy to discuss anything else rather than what she would be doing with the rising of the first moon. "The independent generators are holding. And in a normal situation ... and if we're lucky ... I'd say three days. But the first bonding with the knowledge-giver drains the city as new systems reactivate. Calculations fluctuate. We will, of course, devote every effort to maintaining the shield."
"Thank you, General Orlov." Alena's stomach had dropped. The Talar fleet shrouded them, bombarding their shield with energy weapons. Later in the night, the city shield could collapse ... Alena didn't want to think about what would happen to her city then. Or to her. It appeared she had no choice but to accept Flight-Captain Borodin and move forward with the coronation. "Has he been fully briefed?"
A smile twitched over Mishenka's mouth, something sharp, smug, and Alena wanted to smack it off his face. "I did so myself."
She held down a wince. The sudden image of the sour-faced old general naked and ... no, she cut out any further thought. Some things were too foul. "I will see you in the throne room."
Alena turned on her heel, young sentries jumping to open the heavily panelled doors. She strode out, her spine straight, her chin lifted. Everything had gone to hell in the last few months. The war with the Talar had exploded forty days before, when they'd butchered the rightful heir to the Rodin crown, Eva, at a peace conference. Ten days later, her sister Vana had her throat slit by a traitor. Alena had found her small, pale body crumpled and shoved under her bed.
Her step faltered, and she was thankful that the doors had closed behind her. The little antechamber gave her a moment of solitude to get herself under control. The empress of the Rodin was unbreakable, almost beyond human. Alena had to remember that in everything she did.
They'd executed the collaborator the same afternoon.
She'd watched. Alena let out a slow breath. The bastard couldn't die too many times for her.
Her mother and her sister Antonina had died as the Talar took out their transport. And then the city had shut down with the death of the woman at its heart, the Empress Charlotta. Everything from the shield to the biofiltration plants now ran on finite auxiliary generators ... until Alena completed her coronation ritual.
"Did they give you a reason?" Her oldest friend, Sacha Ivanovich Volkov, stepped through the archway of the antechamber, breaking into her thoughts. "Was there no one else?"
"No," she said. Alena moved past him, not yet ready to discuss Flight-Captain Vadim Caethes Borodin any further. Sacha matched her pace in silence, and for that she was grateful. Her thoughts were in turmoil. The Talar had wiped out her family in a matter of weeks, desperate to gain control of her empire. In the impossible event that had given Alena the throne, the man marked for her since childhood had died with her mother. She'd known another man had to replace him ... but her generals' replacing Yerik with the enemy? It had broken what little dignity and strength she had left.
Alena focused on the even march of the guards who trailed them. She'd been on her way to the throne room with Sacha when he'd told her of Vadim. The shock of it had propelled her, fury igniting, into the generals' war room.
She resisted the urge to scrub her face. Her mother's ladies-in-waiting had washed, dressed, and painted her. Disturbing their creation? More than her hide was worth. The wry thought took the edge off her fury. Staring around the marble walls of the curving corridor, she told herself there was nothing she could do. If the Academy of Sciences had confirmed Vadim's suitability, then she had to accept it. The city was more important than her personal feelings. Always would be.
Alena stopped, looking ahead to the braided guards standing outside the throne room only twenty metres ahead. She drew in a calming breath and straightened her shoulders. The thump of yet more boots behind her kept her silent, and she watched as the generals from the war room marched past, giving her hasty bows before disappearing into the throne room.
Alena turned back to her friend. "This offering up of Vadim. It's not following protocol, Sacha."
Sacha smiled, the bright disarming smile that fooled everyone into thinking he was just a pretty face. He sat on the marble seat carved into the great arched window and stretched out his legs. The scabbard of the thin ceremonial sword he wore scuffed against the smooth white flooring. "There's nothing either of us can do about it. I've played hide-and-seek with a security detail for weeks as they protected my Volkov heritage for you. And this." He waved a hand over the dress uniform he wore, all gold braids, buttons, and tight-fitting black serge. His leather riding boots gleamed in the cold light. "Just look at me."
"Every inch the dashing officer. We simply won't talk about the hat." With a scowl, he unstrapped and pulled off the ornate and feathered black monstrosity. Alena held down a smirk but obviously not well enough as asasSacha glared at her. "What?"
"I'm a scientist."
"You're an aristocrat first." She sat next to him, the cool of the marble bleeding through the thin silk of her gown. Alena shivered and watched her breath steam in the air around her. The city ran on low reserves, and that meant conserving heat, even in the imperial palace. She rubbed at the goose bumps prickling her arms. "At least you get a coat."
Sacha snapped buttons and shrugged out of the braided black jacket. He dropped it over her shoulders, and she slid her arms into thick fabric warmed by his body. Hugging it close, she grinned at him. "My prince."
He rolled his eyes. "Hardly, Alena." He tugged at the thick white cloth of his sleeves, straightening the stiff cuffs. Then he cursed. "They've got me prissy already."
Alena laughed and let the humour ease her straining nerves. "I suppose I have to accept the generals' command." She played with the decorative sleeve of his jacket, running her fingers over tightly stitched gold thread. "I was born to this."
She stared around the colonnade with its ornate arches, inlaid with gold and precious jewels. A knot twisted in her stomach, and she willed back the sudden sting of tears. It was wrong for the palace to be so empty, for her to stroll to the library and not find one sister pouring over some mouldy tome. To know that another wasn't locked up in a room with their mother, absorbing yet more state politics. And Vana. Alena clamped her jaw tight, fighting back the pain in her chest. Vana's death had left a hole in her heart.
Sacha's hand closed over hers. A brief touch that had a tear slipping free. Her throat tightened, and she forced herself to suck in new air. She was the empress now; emotions couldn't control her. More than that, she was the only woman left with the genes to reactivate the city. She patted his hand and pulled the other free of his touch.
"I'm the last heir," she said, stark reminder to herself that she had to be strong.
"I'm sure they wouldn't offer Vadim Caethes Borodin if the situation weren't so desperate."
Sacha's attempt at soothing her didn't work. Mention of Vadim only set the problem more firmly. He was Talar, and they had murdered her family. "He's the enemy."
"He's a loyal Rodin officer."
The support surprised her. "You're happy to go ahead ... with him?"
Sacha sighed. "We're losing the war. Losing everything we are. Am I willing to share your coronation with a Talar half-breed?" He shrugged. "Yes."
"I blame Yerik. If he weren't dead, I'd kill him again."
Sacha laughed. "My poor, unlamented cousin. So you prefer him to this Talar?"
His wicked blue gaze slid to her, alive with humour. He knew she'd always thought his cousin was a grunt, a man only concerned with blasting the enemy and then fucking whatever was left. "All right, maybe I wasn't looking forward to Yerik." She made herself smirk, her gaze flicking over Sacha's smooth features and black hair falling straight over his face. His hair shone in the final rays of the sun cutting through the leaded glass. Sacha was beautiful ... and knew it. "Though I took comfort in the fact that he, like all of the house of Volkov, was excessively pretty."
Sacha matched her smirk and gave a brief nod. "Thank you, Majesty."
She looked back to her hands and found them knotted in her lap. Unlacing her fingers, she willed herself to be calm. The generals had sprung Vadim on her. Alena knew him only by reputation, had never dug into his past. A fearsome soldier in the Imperial Guard, commanding some hell-hole of a back-water colony ... Hell, she didn't even know what he looked like. "Have you met him?"
"Vadim? No." Sacha leaned back, gripping the marble seat and arching his spine. His hair flopped from his eyes. "I hear he has the pale eyes of the Talar, and a scar disfigures half his face." He straightened and chopped a hand to his shoulder. "He comes maybe to here. The Talar aren't known for their height, after all." He smirked. "Or their length."
Alena glared at him. "You're a shit, Sacha."
"Yes, Majesty." He let out a heavy breath. "The Volkov have attended the empress at her coronation since, well, forever. Vadim doesn't break that tradition. He's a Volkov on his mother's side."
"So they said." Alena pushed herself to her feet and pulled off Sacha's jacket. Chill air washed away all warmth, but she held down the shiver. Never show weakness. Her mother's often-repeated words found their way into her brain again. And her mother never had. The empress of the Rodin had to be almost mythical. Stoic, powerful, untouchable ... especially to her children. Well, the three Spares. She had shown some interest in the heir. Never in the others. In some ways, it was a relief.
Alena gave his military jacket back to him, watching him shrug into it, fasten the ornate buttons, and jam the hated hat back on. Her fate couldn't be put off any longer. "Yes, Vadim's a Volkov, but his father was a captured enemy slave."
"He's served for fifteen years in the Imperial Guard. You survive that long..." Sacha let the words trail away.
"I know his reputation. How he's ruled his outpost with the iron fist of a general. His kills. And so on and so forth."
"He's worthy of being your strength-giver." Sacha pulled at his sleeves, straightening the creases. "And to be practical, he's all you've got."
Alena straightened her shoulders. "I know that too."
She turned, her slippered feet silent on the marble floor. Sacha offered her his arm, and she placed her hand on his sleeve, resisting the need to grip it tight. She'd known Sacha since she was a teenager; with him, she could be herself. Even if she was Her Imperial Highness, the Princess Alena Petrova Dubov, last heir to the throne of Rodin. She winced. That knowledge didn't ease the tension in her gut, only tightened it. Everything rested on her. The strength of her armies, her fleet, her city. Everything.
"Eva, Antonina, hell, even little Vana would've slid easily into the role. This wasn't meant to be me, Sacha."
"You're here. Yes, it was."
Pinching him wouldn't be imperial. She did it anyway, and he yelped. "That's not helping."
Sacha laughed. "Alena, you're not a blushing virgin. It's simply an ancient ceremony that calls the empress into her power."
"And this is the scientist in you talking?"
"Do you want me to get technical about your genome, technology, and far too much interference by your imperial Dubov ancestors?" She gave him a sharp look. "No. See?"
Guards nodded and opened arched ebony doors, pushing them back with a slow groan over the gold tiled floor of the throne room. Dignitaries crowded the gilded hall. Pale clouds of incense filled the air, drifting out to the colonnade. Alena's gaze followed the path of the golden tiles to the curved steps set before the throne. A dark figure stood at their base, wearing the same ceremonial uniform as Sacha.
"He's an unknown," she murmured.
"I'm sure Vadim's been given full instructions." Sacha's breath brushed her ear, and a shiver ran through her. "He'll know what's required."
"Will he?" Alena straightened and ignored the uncertainty twisting her stomach into knots. "I hope so. The fate of the city depends on it."