Now head spymaster, Lyre’s loyalty lies with Sabine, the Empress she has loved since childhood. But when Sabine visits the secretive Cloud Vault, the floating citadel home that Lyre betrayed, Lyre’s elaborate web of lies starts to untangle. Her very presence threatens Sabine’s future, and Lyre will do whatever it takes to protect her lover…even if that means sacrificing herself.
Empress Sabine Corvus has lived a life of service, pushing aside her own desires for the greater good. With the Empire teetering on the brink of war with the traitorous Syndicate, she cannot afford to show weakness. Although Lyre’s spymaster skills are her greatest weapon, their bond is Sabine’s Achilles’ heel. Regardless of the price, she will not give Lyre up.
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This book is approximately 83,000 words
Carina Press acknowledges the editorial services of Deborah Nemeth
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The wolf pup's eyes were nearly lost in the soft fluff of tawny-gold fur. The ears were velvet folds, still too big to hold upright. A pink tongue lolled, and the creature made a little begging "please love me" sound that echoed off the high ceiling and earned a murmur of approval from the court. It was, without a doubt, sweet-tempered, well-trained and impeccably bred. As was the young man who nervously held the pup.
Both stared at Empress Sabine's stony face for approval.
"It is a generous gift," was all Sabine said, with precisely the same tone one would announce the milk had gone sour. Lyre, watching from the back of the cavernous Ameranthine audience hall, tamped down a grin. The senator in audience elbowed her son aside to jump in.
"Of course, one doesn't expect Her Majesty to have time to train a young wolf up on her own." Senator Heigi was a gnarled root wrapped in cheap leather. "Mine own son — Ando, stand up straight — he'd be at Your Majesty's service while at court —"
"Such generosity," Sabine repeated again and her smile thinned. "But I must decline, Senator Heigi. I couldn't possibly accept such fine ... stock from your noble House."
Lyre suspected Sabine wasn't just talking about the furry one.
"Her majesty doesn't have a wolf," Heigi said bluntly, causing a stir of gossip in the gallery behind her. The Imperial noble Houses had bred and raised dedicated wolf guardians for as long as the Quillian Empire had stood. The empress had lost her own young wolf to a messy assassination attempt years ago. Neuro-toxin. Lyre had nearly lost Sabine herself, and a roil of old fear lurched through her at the memory of it. A total debacle. Unsavory business. And not spoken of in polite company, least of all in the empress's presence. "My House would be honored to right this —"
"I'm sure," Sabine said with all the warmth of an icepick.
"A counsel, to take some of the great burden off your royal majesty's shoulders," Heigi said. Her tone wasn't even trying for placating. She thought she had standing. Bringing that overbred fluff ball — and the dog he carried — to court. Talking to Sabine like that. It pissed Lyre off. Sabine had been dealing with these little power plays ever since the throne room had been repaired. She could still feel the scorch marks in the mosaic floor.
"Perhaps if Her Majesty had the proper counsel ..." Heigi paused, risking a glance at Lyre and away. Oh yes, Lyre knew just what the senate thought of her. A trade-classer as spymaster. Common. Disrespectful. Then, as if pretending to just think of it, Heigi added, "I do have a daughter of age —"
"Thank you, Senator," Sabine interrupted. "Your concern is noted."
A snort at Lyre's shoulder told her that the newest member of the royal family had joined them. "See, that's what I like about Sabine," said Olivia, Sabine's sister-in-law. "When she says 'thank you' she can make it sound like 'fuck you.'"
Sabine had a relationship with words such that they would do anything she wanted them to. That power wasn't limited to words. If pure will was a language, Sabine was fluent. Lyre's mouth inched up and she glanced sideways at Olivia.
She was in Howl uniform leathers, flowing and layered like shadows. A small light gun was strapped to her hip. She was cradling what looked like a pissed-off orange pile of fur and menace to her chest.
"Bring an offering of your own, kitten?" Lyre asked.
Olivia's brow did that scrunchy thing it did whenever Lyre used that nickname. She really had to know that's why Lyre did it. She twisted the cat in her arms away protectively. "Hells, no. B just was terrorizing the kitchen staff again and I promised to entertain her until the fancy stuff is baked. Plan B is mine. Sabine can get her own cat."
"Nobles are supposed to have purebred wolves. Ancient beasts of dignity and virtue," Lyre noted. The cat named, ridiculously, Plan B snorted at her.
"Fat lot of good dignity and virtue do in a fight." Olivia scritched the orange tomcat's chin with a sniff. "B could take that lot any day."
Lyre doubted it. But doubted even a wolf of the most minor House would be stupid enough to mess with the cat or its owner. Olivia wasn't just married to Galen, the empress's brother. She was a former enemy operative and leader of the new and terrifyingly efficient Howls, Sabine's stealthy arm of justice in the Empire. If the nobles saw Lyre as the poison behind the throne, Olivia was the blade.
A shadow of movement behind a pillar said Zahira, Galen's wolf, had trailed them in. A proper guard, though it seemed like the royal duke's wolf spent more time following Olivia around these days than her husband. Both made fools of themselves over the enemy merc-turned-Imperial-duchess. Pathetic, what a mate bond reduced a man to. There was little subterfuge to unravel here, even less immediate danger. Little work for a spymaster — sorry, advisor — to do.
So Lyre entertained herself in a variety of ways, estimating the weight and worth of the supplicants' clothes, counting the number of times Sabine's perfectly coifed hair caught the light, imagining how Lyre could uncoif it. The last game, admittedly, was Lyre's favorite and one she indulged in with only a passing nod to guilt.
It was all about the details. Lyre could identify the pin, just above the warm skin of Sabine's nap, that would unlock the gather of braids. Lyre's own hair was tightly coiled and would hold a braid locked against all comers, but Sabine's hair was wavy and giving. Lyre knew the softness of it beneath her fingertips, the way Sabine sighed if she traced her nails across the scalp behind her ear just so. Her fingers itched. She knew it. A long-ago stolen moment, remembered it, though Sabine sometimes acted as if she wished she didn't.
Lyre's gaze dropped down from her hair, and plans spun out there too. Sabine wore clothes chosen for authority in the formal throne room. High necks, stiff cuffs, expanses of blood-on-scarlet embroidery. It would have been heavy-handed in most places, but in the Empire it was downright austere as far as decoration went. The red tamed the dusky tones in Sabine's skin. Lyre preferred her untamed. She'd rather bite those buttons off, one by one. Taste the pulse of heat right there, at the collarbone. Kiss the vulnerable dip of skin of the woman Sabine hid behind armor. Ruin that empress facade, drop to her knees in front of that very throne and worship the woman underneath.
She would pretend that she might do just that someday, if she believed in lying to herself.
"Actually, hold her for a min." Olivia's voice intruded, followed swiftly by a snarling thicket of orange fur heaved into Lyre's arms. "I'm actually working for once."
"You, working?" Lyre held the critter away from her chest, for all the little good it did to keep a fine drift of orange hair gravitating toward her navy suit. Plan B didn't fight too much. He'd taken one swipe at Lyre after he'd first arrived to learn that Lyre didn't hold with the animal foolishness the rest of the Imperial nobles did. But needlelike claws took judicious pleasure in finding the seams of her uniform and digging in.
"You are the one who added Howls to the comms rotation. Got a formal com-link this morning. Check your slate once in a while, Liar. Geez."
Lyre could not precisely check her slate with her arms full of murder-cat, and she doubted Plan B would behave himself if loosed on a court full of chairs to scratch. Olivia ducked through the crowd, Galen's wolf close on her heels, and arrived at the dais just as the last supplicant was wrapping up.
"A formal query for the court from the Cloud Vault." Olivia only just remembered a clumsy curtsey midway through the sentence, a fact which would have normally annoyed Lyre if her blood hadn't chilled at the mention of the Cloud Vault.
Sabine raised a brow but waved a hand for the building's artificial intelligence, CHARIS, to call the mes sage up. Lyre flung the cat half over her shoulder, scrambling for her slate as the lights dimmed.
"Empress Sabine de Roucheux of the Quillian Empire." A voice silky and creeping like ivy echoed from the senate wall. There was no visual, simply the symbol of the Cloud Vault — a spinning green and silver Mobius — circling softly on the misted wall. It was supposed to represent an ongoing symbiosis of life and knowledge. Lyre had always thought it looked more like a particularly venomous snake.
The Cloud Vault was less a country and more of a collective — a powerful and politically neutral international guild that kept its work and its citizenry infamously secret on a large floating citadel. From its aerial fortress, the Vault collected, maintained and advanced all known remaining technologies of the old era. It had the best nanotech capabilities in the world, and shared its knowledge with other countries sparingly. There was never-ending debate about the technology and secrets the Vault held. The Cloud Vault did not engage, did not intercede, did not lower itself to act on the international political stage.
At least not publically. Evidently, something had changed.
Plan B was making a scrabble at her uniform frippery, but Lyre didn't notice. The voice droned through the appropriate formal greetings while Lyre's thumb danced over the slate to scan the message. She didn't recognize the voice. She should recognize the voice. Any voice speaking for the Vault.
"My name is Dr. Micha Sylvere, a senior advisor speaking on behalf of the Cloud Vault." The voice continued, heaping empty praise on Sabine and her court. Sylvere. Not a name Lyre knew. She could skin herself for being a twice-fool. She'd been so happy to ignore the Vault's existence for personal reasons that she'd let information run dry. She should have —
Her thumb twitched, scanning across the purpose of the message a second before Sylvere got to it.
"We have watched with concern the recent hostilities formed between the Quillian Empire and your Syndicate neighbors. We have grieved along with you at the destruction of Meteore and celebrated your skill in bringing together your people."
Bringing together your people was an awfully pretty way to describe a bloody coup attempt. Senators had thought Sabine weak, and found willing coconspirators in officials from the Syndicate, the secretive country to the Empire's south. Together they'd planned to assassinate Sabine's brother, Galen, and then remove her from the throne. When the assassination had failed thanks to Olivia, they'd laid siege to the court proper here, in Ameranthe. It'd been a slaughter. Sabine had survived brutal treatment, lost sight in one eye for it, but had been sitting, bloody proud, resolute, and ready to die, on the Imperial throne when Lyre and her scouts had finally broken the siege.
A familiar tight feeling surged in her chest at the memory of it. Her Sabine. Ridiculous that Lyre had ever feared someone could have brought her empress down.
"We are aware of the difficulty negotiating a suitable truce with your Syndicate neighbors. That is why we have taken extraordinary steps to open the illustrious Cloud Vault to host your talks. We formally invite you and any delegation you require to join us and enter open discussion with the Syndicate leadership in order to forge a peaceful future for both Syndicate and Imperial citizens," Sylvere was saying. "We look for ward to welcoming you, here, on the Cloud Vault, and to support you with all the resources our glorious flotilla has to offer."
On the flotilla. And Lyre's alarm ticked calmly over to horror. A frost of shock kept her in place as Sabine was nodding, mulling over the message. The fallout of the decimation of Meteore demanded that the Syndicate and Empire discuss a treaty, but the Syn prime minister had been impossible to pin down. Talks were stalled. A formal communiqué like this, extended in front of all the court, really only had one answer. Rejecting the invite would only encourage the warmongers in the senate, and delaying would make her look weak. But it was impossible. Above all, Sabine could not — Lyre couldn't let Sabine within a league of the floating city. If she did —
A stab of pain lanced her hand. Lyre dropped Plan B with a hiss, but the swipe of claws had been enough to stop her hemorrhaging thoughts. She jolted out of the shadows toward the throne, trying to catch Sabine's eye, but the empress was already nodding, announcing she would welcome parlay with the treacherous Syndicate and exact a reasonable retribution for the Empire's losses.
The senators fluttered out of the tiered seats, disgruntled and murmuring, like pigeons disturbed into flight. Lyre met Sabine and Olivia at the bottom of the dais.
Olivia frowned. "Where's B?"
Probably skulking around something expensive and breakable. Lyre didn't care. She made the flutter over her shoulder extra vague, which earned her a scowl and curse as Olivia stalked off to find her cat.
"A moment of your time, Empress," Lyre said.
A smile blossomed on Sabine's lips, soft and easy and unrestrained for a breathtaking moment before her training took over and she gave the mildest incline of her chin. She took Lyre's offered hand and kept a proper one pace ahead of her toward the senate doors. Her walk was smooth, gliding. So effortless no one could possibly notice the way Lyre's fingers twitched a warning on her elbow when an obstacle appeared in the blind spot of Sabine's right side.
An empress wasn't allowed to stumble in front of her court. Not even a low-vision one. Perhaps especially not then.
"Long live the empress," nobles murmured as they passed. Said from one side of their mouths, because the others were already too busy gossiping about how their bright young empress would fall. Vultures, all of them. Lyre didn't know how Sabine kept from strangling them all, sometimes.
"Long live," Lyre muttered out of the side of her mouth. The uneasy ghosts in the back of her mind stirred louder.
The quiet click of the door to Sabine's private quarters shut behind them and appeared to snip the last of the marionette strings holding Sabine's shoulders tense. She slumped against the wall as Lyre passed her. "Sweet Lady, tell me that's the last supplicant appointment for the day."
"That's the last supplicant for the day." Lyre needed to talk some sense into Sabine, but it would do no good talking to her stressed and exhausted. The liquor cabinet served as a good place to hide her mood as she rifled through it. She came up with a bottle made of enough cut glass to make a better weapon than container, and poured generously into two chilled glasses. She pressed one into Sabine's hand, then took up her customary irreverent sprawl across the couch.
Sabine pressed the cold glass to her cheek and closed her eyes with a quiet sigh. The ice rested against the ticking skin of her silver right eye. "Bless you."
The silver ocular shell protected the damaged eye underneath. Sabine had rejected a cybernetic implant. The shell was the latest med-tech, but that didn't mean Lyre liked the necessity of Sabine's discomfort. The scarred skin around her eye looked better, no longer irritated and healing. But Sabine squinted more, laboring to use the vision-assist technology in the shell that was cutting edge and not at all fully tested. It was designed to help make sense of the little remaining vision she had on that side. It was also unreliable, exhausting to use. Lyre wished she'd forget the damn thing, but Sabine felt pressured to appear invincible to the court.
"If your shell is still bothering you, you should tell the medics," Lyre said as a gem of condensation slid off the glass and jeweled Sabine's rich skin. It hung there, like a star against a night sky, before disappearing over the crest of her cheekbone.
"It's not. The new fitting is fine. It stopped itching months ago," Sabine lied. Lyre didn't bother to point out that the tic restarted again with the denial.
"You should cut your appointments. Skip this summit at the Vault, maybe. Lady knows it's not a good idea —"
"I'm not cutting anything." Sabine didn't quite sulk, but her other eye squinted open. "It just requires a lot of concentration to focus. I'm not used to it yet. I'll get used to it."
"You'll get exhausted, is what you'll get. And then I'll have to deal with a tired empress getting sloppy, making mistakes."
"But that's what you do best." Sabine hummed as she pushed away from the wall and joined her in the seating area. "You always take care of me."
An unsettling sensation rose in Lyre's chest, one-part warmth, one-part warning. She shifted her attention to her drink. "That's a full-time job." She quickly moved the topic of conversation to safer ground. "I need to talk to you about the Cloud Vault."
"Bother. There will be arrangements to be made. I'll have CHARIS call Galen and Liv back." Sabine perched on the arm of the couch behind Lyre, hip nudging her toes for room. "Sometimes I think a war would be easier."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Treason of Truths"
Copyright © 2018 Ada Harper.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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