Authors: Cynthia Garner
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction / Romance - Paranormal, #Paranormal, #Fiction
Not very many people cared to know, either. This solution had been practiced for millennia, and most system inhabitants were just glad to be rid of the troublemakers.
Her cousin looked confident in his plan. “The timing is perfect. The rift is due in just over a week. Once someone is placed in a holding cell and the rift opens, they’ll make their way through. The authorities could never touch them.”
She was through talking about all this hypothetical nonsense. “You think bribing a technician or two at the detention center will get your soul removed from your body so it can be sent through the rift when it opens?” Sirina couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with her cousin. He’d always been so levelheaded. So strong-minded. Yura’s death had affected him much more deeply than she’d thought. She had to convince him not to go through with this. “Let’s say you go through the rift. What then? Nobody knows what happens once you’re in the other dimension. You could simply cease to exist.”
“So I die either way.” He shrugged. “I’ll be with Yura again.” His voice dropped to a soft pitch as if his last words were murmured in prayer.
She gave his arm a little shake. “I can’t believe you. There’s no evidence at all that anyone survives being sucked into the other dimension. You’re going to die. How does your death honor Yura’s memory? The only thing you’ll accomplish is to remove a moderate leader from power. The vice chancellor is much more hard-line in his beliefs about Avasa. You could make things worse for us.”
He stared down at her. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Right.” Sirina let go of him and moved away. “Please let this go. Don’t get involved. This won’t fix anything.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Her cousin didn’t seem as sure of himself as he had moments ago.
She pressed her advantage. “You know I am. And this isn’t something Yura would have wanted. You know that, too.”
Some of the hardness left his expression, to be replaced with the softness of sorrow. “I do know that.” He heaved a sigh and sat back down. “I guess you’re right. Maybe…” His head bowed. “Yura’s love made me whole. With her gone, I lost what was best about me.” He looked up at Sirina, his eyes dark with grief. “I miss her so much.”
She went down on her haunches beside him and placed one hand on his knee. “I miss her, too.” She held his gaze. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”
He dipped his head. “I promise.”
She wasn’t sure he was serious. “I mean it. I don’t want to lose you, too.”
He looked at her again. “I won’t do anything stupid. You have my word.”
She searched his eyes. Satisfied she’d dissuaded him from his vengeful, ill-advised plan, she got to her feet. “Great. That’s great. Thank you.”
He stood as well. “I need to get going.”
“Listen, why don’t you come over for dinner tomorrow night? I’ll fix a salad and broiled marbox,” she promised, tempting him with his favorite meal.
He gave a groan. “Oh, gods. You know I can’t resist.”
She grinned. “Yes, I know. And I’ll top it off with more chawberry pie.”
“It’s a deal.” He leaned down and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “See you tomorrow.”
week later, Sirina’s fears were realized. She was eating breakfast at her home workstation, looking over security plans for an upcoming political rally, when she got a vid call from her brother. “Kester!” she greeted. He looked so handsome in his uniform.
“Have you seen the news today?” He sounded agitated, and she realized he held his mouth in a firm, grim line. His eyes were dark with worry.
“No, why? What’s going on?”
“It’s all over the news feed,” he muttered. “Turn it on.”
She pressed a button and the screen on the wall above her desk lit up. A reporter said, “Again, let me repeat: Kai Vardan, Supreme Leader of the Talisian Republic, was murdered six hours ago.” Tears streamed down the young reporter’s face, testament to how well liked Vardan truly had been. “All forms of communication were blacked out by the government while the initial investigation got under way, but we’re now permitted to bring this breaking story to you. I must warn you, the clip we’re about to show is graphic. Sensitive viewers may want to turn away.”
Sirina didn’t consider herself to be all that sensitive, but even if she were she didn’t think she would have been able to look away from the vid clip. It showed Vardan walking up to a podium, a smile on his broad face. His personal security officers, dressed in their dark blue uniforms, flanked him, two on either side, alert and willing to step into danger at a moment’s notice. Several more were behind him, including his chief of security, Jarrad T’heone, whom Sirina had met once at an official function for which she’d coordinated security. He had the tall, lanky build that all Talisians had, and a pair of shaded spectacles protected his light-sensitive pink eyes. A few more officers stood in front of the large crowd gathered to hear the Supreme Leader speak. Just as Vardan bent toward the microphone, a man raced onto the stage, arm outstretched. There was a flash of light, Vardan went down, and the man turned and ran back the way he had come.
The assassin was masked, but she had a feeling she knew who it was. There was something familiar in the way he’d held himself, in the manner in which he’d run off the stage. Heaven help them all, Natchook had decided to be the “somebody” to take out the Talisian leader. She hadn’t dissuaded him after all.
As pandemonium erupted, the picture faded back to the reporter. Sirina muted the vid and dropped into her chair. Shock numbed her. She stared at her brother and whispered, “Sweet gods above.”
“I know.” Kester crossed his arms. “Do you think this has anything to do with…?” He stopped, his fingers tapping a nervous rhythm on one forearm. “He talked about something being done…” He trailed off again.
Her brother could only be talking about Natchook. “He told you?” Sirina sat forward.
Kester nodded. “He asked me to help him. I told him no.”
When he didn’t proceed, she prompted with a “But?”
His mouth went from firm to pouty, his body drew up straight and stiff. “I should have helped him.”
“And get executed, too?” She shook her head. “It’s good that you told him no.” With the enormity of Natchook’s act, belatedly she realized that communications were most likely being monitored. “I need to sign off now,” she said, sending him a warning look. “Watch out for yourself.”
“You, too.” Kester’s frown was sulky, as if he’d expected her to agree that they should have been Natchook’s cohorts. He had always admired their older cousin, looking to him as a role model. But Sirina had too much to lose to jump onto this particular crazy ship. She’d tried to talk Natchook out of getting involved. As far as she was concerned, she’d done her part. After all, he hadn’t come out and said he had a plan in place to kill Vardan.
But would that be enough to satisfy the authorities? She hadn’t alerted anyone to the potential threat, but in her defense she really had believed she’d dissuaded him from the plot. There had been nothing to notify them of.
Two hours later her door chime sounded. On her way to the front area of her quarters she paused by the security monitor and checked to see who it was. Her heart started banging against her ribs. The dark blue uniforms with gold epaulets marked the visitors as members of the Republican Guard, the personal security team sworn to protect the Supreme Leader.
Taking a deep breath, Sirina pressed the release button and smiled as the door swooshed open. She recognized the man at the front of the three-man unit. Jarrad T’heone, his face hardened with grief and rage, his eyes more red than pink, showed her his credentials. “Colonist lan Maro, we need to talk.”
Sirina kept a calm expression on her face though her pulse pounded in her throat like a trapped cootie bird. She motioned them in and closed the door behind them. “It’s nice to see you again, Jarrad,” she said, keeping her expression placid even as panic and anxiety began to roil beneath the surface. That they were here suggested they had picked up on her and Kester’s communiqué, but they couldn’t know anything. Could they? “May I get you some refreshments? Water, or perhaps a citrus cooler?”
“This isn’t a social call.” Jarrad glanced over her shoulder, his gaze tracking around the rooms he could see from where he stood. “Are you here alone?”
With a glance at his two companions, he gave a quick jerk of his chin. They immediately moved away from him and into different areas of her living quarters.
Sirina crossed her arms and tried not to let her growing fear show. “I’m not lying. There’s no one else here.” She glanced toward the hallway one of the officers had gone down. “Where is your writ allowing access to my home?”
“The vice chancellor has decreed martial law. Until we find the assassin and anyone who aided him, we have the right to enter any home and conduct searches.” Jarrad waited until his team returned before he motioned toward her main living area. “Why don’t we sit down? As I said, we need to talk.”
As she walked into the room, ice settled in her belly and spread outward. She licked her dry lips and settled into a chair. Jarrad sat down on the settee across from her while his two companions stood at attention behind him.
“Have you seen any of the news flashes today?”
It would be a mistake to claim ignorance. “Oh, my gods. You’re talking about the murder of Supreme Leader Vardan, aren’t you? I just saw a report on it a couple of hours ago.” She paused, widening her eyes for effect. “Do you know who’s responsible?”
“Not yet.” He clasped his hands across his flat stomach and studied her. It took all her willpower not to fidget. “We’ve had the security system searching all communications that happened two months before and these last several hours following Vardan’s death.” His gaze never left her face. “You should know that we intercepted a vid comm between you and your brother from earlier today. It was… an interesting conversation.”
What could she say that wouldn’t incriminate her or Kester? As hard as she thought, she couldn’t come up with anything, so she remained silent.
“Smart.” Jarrad crossed one leg over the other. “I realize that many Avasans don’t…” He faltered, his lips tightening for a moment. “Many Avasans
hold Kai Vardan in very high regard. But he was a good man. A decent man. He didn’t deserve to be killed.”
“No, I agree he didn’t.” Which was why she’d told Natchook to drop the idea.
“I’ve known the man for ten years,” he went on. “I was more than just the chief of his personal guard. I was his friend.” His jaw flexed.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Sirina leaned forward and splayed her hands. “But I can’t help you.”
“No?” He stood and stared down at her. “I think perhaps you can. Who were you and your brother talking about earlier?”
She shook her head. She had to steer him off this path. “It had nothing to do with—”
“Don’t,” he warned, his voice raspy, anger flaring in his eyes. “Don’t make things worse by lying to me about something I already halfway know the truth of.” He clasped his hands behind his back and looked at her a few moments. When she didn’t respond, he continued. “Let me tell you what I do know. Based on recordings from security cameras in the area, your cousin Natchook ot Renz stopped in to see you last week. I know that a masked man attacked and murdered Kai Vardan. I know that when the assassin ran off the stage he had a slight limp in his left leg, like Natchook.” His jaw flexed again. “I know that six hours later you and your brother talked about someone who had asked you for help with something, and I know that if your brother had helped with whatever that something was, he would have been executed. The only crime punishable by death is the assassination of a head of state.”
Sirina didn’t respond. How could she? She was pretty sure the assassin was her cousin, but she couldn’t say that with absolute certainty. And in her world, regardless of how the Talisians acted, people were innocent until their guilt was proven.
Jarrad scowled. “Still nothing to say?”
She shook her head.
“It would be best if you cooperated, Colonist lan Maro.” His expression grew unyielding. “Or I can’t promise a pleasant outcome when all of this is resolved.”
Shock robbed her of breath. “Are you threatening me?”
“Not at all.” His rigid stance relaxed. “I’m merely stating a fact.” He took a deep breath and held it a moment, then let it out, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and staring up at the ceiling. “Listen, Natchook is my friend. At least, I thought he was. Now I’m wondering if maybe he used me to get close to Kai.” When he looked at her again, his eyes were moist with emotion. “What can you tell me about that?”
“Nothing.” Her voice wobbled, and she cleared her throat.
She was no good at prevarication; her stomach was a writhing knot of anxiety and guilt. “He told me once that he made a point of getting to know you. But I’m sure he came to value your friendship.” She had to believe that her cousin wasn’t so hardened as to have felt nothing for this man he’d called friend.
“Right. He valued it because it got him closer to Kai.” Jarrad’s face lost its softness as his gaze sharpened. “I can see we’re not going to get anywhere here. But don’t think we’re finished. The fact that he came to see you before committing this unspeakable crime is damning.” He turned toward the door. “And in case you think of perhaps meeting up with Natchook, think again.”
He and his team exited the quad and, as she peered through the window, she saw him pause to converse with the other officers. Then Jarrad drove off in a hover car, leaving the two men behind to stand guard at her door.
Natchook’s conversation with her had been partially hypothetical. Even if she’d thought he might get involved, she’d never dreamed he would be the actual killer. If she’d told Jarrad the specifics, what could he have done with the information? She had nothing to do with the assassination and hadn’t seen or talked to Natchook since the event took place.
Yet here she was, under detention. She knew the authorities believed she knew something about the attack, either before or after, but she also knew she was a prisoner in her own home because she was Avasan and therefore presumed guilty.