She has to make choices that no one should ever have to. But her sacrifices will save millions. If she's lucky.
Galactic Storm Book 5
Princess Caoimhe has more determination than an Imperial Princess should have. It will get her killed.
Heading straight into the Terran Empire's enemy, the Rhimodian Cyborgs in the name of peace? The danger in the stars is far more wicked than anything she'd find in the palace, right?
Because nothing in the Imperial Palace is what it seems. And no one tells the truth about their agenda. Caught between what is right and what is commanded, Caoimhe must make decisions that no princess--no leader--should ever have to make to save her people.
Including risk everything against a devious opponent who will stop at nothing to win.
Bahran is a Tarnished Rhimodian. Because he made choices that went against his people and Master System, he has lost his shine. Fortunate that Harbin's unit accepted him.
When the Ambassadors arrive, Bahran is in the perfect location in the escort to witness exactly what happens to the transport. The true attackers, however, do not want him to live to share the information.
Bahran finds himself in the difficult spot of protecting himself and his data, and protecting the Terran pod. When he realizes that the pod's occupant was intimately entwined with his data, he shuttles them both to the nearest Rhimodian moon, to get the Ambassador to the peace negotiations, come what may.
It may even get him back his shine. If this mouthy Terran Princess doesn't make him crazy. One sight of her, and his Craving burns like nothing he's ever known.
And Caoimhe? She's not sure what to think of her rescuer. He's awfully careful. And this is no time to be careful.
She's been careful all her life.
The explosion radiated.
It hit her hard.
Slammed her into the white.
And the white was everywhere.
It captured her. Carried her.
"It was trying to kill you," came the dark voice.
Imperial Princess Caoimhe London Montgale Bron woke with a start, her hand on her chest. She felt the explosion this time. The heat.
Climbing out of her bed, the princess crossed to her refresher room to splash some water on her face. Get a sip to cool her mouth. She could almost taste the heat from the dream.
Explosions erupting right next to a person tended to be remembered.
She woke with nightmares about her mother's death almost daily, for the last decade since she'd died.
Since her mother was killed.
She glanced at herself in the mirror and brushed her dark hair away from her face.
She sighed and ran her hand over her face.
"A princess doesn't falter," she said.
And attempted to erase the emotions from her face.
Because it was the only way she was going to survive--if she was perfectly emotionless.
As the feelings started to back off, she woke up, and her mind was ready to work. She wasn't sure what she was going to work on, but there had to be something. She was a princess, after all. There was always something that needed to be done. Some correspondence she could answer or some such.
A hand-lettered note from the princess was always considered the highest regard, and Caoimhe liked doing it. When she had time, of course.
The only time she seemed to be able to do it was when she woke from one of those bad dreams. They put her mind at ease, the hand lettering.
She logged herself into her computer and opened her private digital letters. Everything had been through rigorous filters before it came to her, so she was not wasting time on unnecessary missives. Of course, she had daylight hours to do these things, but she also enjoyed doing it at night, when everyone was quiet and asleep.
It was all the usual things--would she attend this event or that event. To perform royal duties or represent the royal Empire in this particular ceremony or that.
Nothing particularly worthy of a hand-lettered note.
She pulled out her calendar and started booking the events into her log so that everything could be accounted for. Some she would have to run by her father. Others would be Bianca, her governess. There were others she needed to handle personally. Her charities for children who had lost parents in the war required her endorsement for a few things.
Normal royal duty.
One of the digital notes referred to a previous version that she didn't recall receiving. Caoimhe checked her backups and her archived files. No, nothing there. So she opened her trash.
There was the initial missive. She returned it to the main folder and glanced over the other trashed files.
Near the bottom was a letter from a sender she did not know.
She received very few communications that were not from someone she was at least mildly acquainted with. The layers of security that went into all the letters were quite astounding, and her private contact channels were monitored carefully. So very little got past the walls of protection, even if it was sent directly to the trash.
It made her curious.
She opened the message--a text-only missive.
You do not know me, but I need your help.
She almost stopped right there, for she'd received countless letters over the years that started in the very same way.
A part of her wondered about what the latest request for her help could be about. What charity needed her endorsement now? There was a reason it was in the trash section, of course. It had to be a fake letter. Maybe it was the late hour or her bad dream, but she decided she'd indulge herself and see what it was all about.
What could it hurt? She decided to check the file's location and origination data.
The data revealed no sender, but it did show a general location.
She stared at it.
Rubbed her eyes.
Because if she saw that, it said it was from Rhimodians.
The cyborgs that they were at war with.
"Oh, this must be fake," she whispered, but she continued to read it.
I am a soldier for the Rhimodians. I am contacting you because I have been informed that you are most likely to help.
I believe your people have some Rhimodian soldiers held as prisoners.
I want to return them to their people.
Please contact me so that arrangements can be made.
Caoimhe blinked. "How strange," she whispered. "Talk about a crazy way to bring me into a scam."
And she knew it was a scam.
Why in the world would the Terran Empire have Rhimodian prisoners? They were at war, yes, but the Terran Empire did not take prisoners. For quite a few reasons, but primarily because the Terran military was rather ruthless. Their "take no prisoners" attitude was well documented in the Terran Empire's history.
So why would a Rhimodian think they had prisoners?
* * *
The following day, after Caoimhe woke, she still felt that nibble from that missive she'd found from that alleged Rhimodian.
No matter what she told herself, it stuck with her. That something about it rang true, though she could not imagine what it was. She'd looked at it twice this morning and saw nothing that spoke to her any differently than someone attempting to get her attention. It was the same, yet it felt different.
Why she didn't know.
Surely it wasn't real, and he wasn't a real soldier that had contacted her. There were so many who wrote scams. She was just another victim. It was probably just a fluke that she saw it since she probably got those kinds of communications all the time, just that her people dealt with them.
Yet, there was something about it that gave her pause.
She headed down to the dining room for her breakfast. Eleanor was already there, and she smiled at Caoimhe.
"Did you sleep?" Eleanor asked.
She shrugged. "A few hours. You?"
"I slept for both of us, I think."
Caoimhe smile. The two of them were opposites when it came to sleep. Eleanor slept a lot. Caoimhe didn't sleep much. When they were younger, Caoimhe would sleep with Eleanor to take care of her, as she always said at night. Their mother had always said Caoimhe would baby and care for her sister.
And all her life, that's what Caoimhe has done. She's protected and cared for her sister so that nothing terrible happened to her.
Regardless of the circumstances. The Emperor did not appreciate it, but there was little he could do. The Empress permitted it, and when the Empress died, the Emperor gave the girls whatever they wanted to pacify them. More of an attempt to keep them quiet, Caoimhe had always suspected.
Good little princesses remain quiet.
Good little princesses are perfect.
Good little princesses do not speak about their mother's death.
And for all their lives, that's how the two princesses were. As much as they could be, of course. It had been harder on Eleanor over the years because she was younger. The poor girl had even had some trauma memory wiping done. Now, Eleanor pushed medical professionals to remove the procedure, except in extreme circumstances.
While her father didn't like Eleanor's charity, he didn't stop her from doing it. Probably because he wanted her to be available to marry if he managed to secure another treaty.
Caoimhe, however, he saw differently.
Being the oldest, she was the one who would inherit the title of Empress and lead the Terran Empire. So he'd been preparing her for that for the last few years. She'd been working in the Royal Senate, learning government procedures and how everything tied together.
It also gave her a way to make friends with many system senators and learn who was in her father's pocket and who was more open to different ideas.
Like ending the war.
Something she'd been wanting to facilitate for several years now, but finding the backing and the proper channels to make it happen had been difficult. It seemed her father would cut her off every time she got close to finding some kind of hole to get her ideas heard.
"Good morning, Imperial Princess," the Emperor said as he came into the dining hall.
He looked his usual tall, slender self. Today, he wore a red and white woven cloak that broadened his shoulders and made him look intimidating, even without his crown.
"Good morning, Emperor," Caoimhe replied.
Her sister, Eleanor, replied with the same greeting, and the two of them sounded like songbirds mimicking each other. At least, that's what Caoimhe always thought.
He didn't bother looking at Eleanor.
"And what is a part of your plans for today," he asked as he seated himself at the head of the meal table, his gaze landing on Caoimhe.
For once, why don't you ask your other daughter? She wondered. But she didn't dare say that. It seemed the Emperor had little to no use for his other daughter, except as a backup plan for his negotiations.
"Research, it seems," she replied.
"What are you researching today?"
"Terran historical documents."
"Proof that the Terran Empire did not take prisoners during wartime activities."
"And why is that important?"
"Idle curiosity," Caoimhe said.
"We have a wager," Eleanor added. "I thought I had read that the Empire had taken war prisoners before, and Caoimhe was certain we never had."
The Emperor's gaze cut to Eleanor, then back to Caoimhe. "You are right as usual, Caoimhe. We have never taken prisoners of war. The Terran Empire does not believe in attempting to rehabilitate prisoners. This year's prisoners are next year's rebellion. They are a waste of time."
Caoimhe nodded. "I thought it was something like that." She glanced at her sister, happy that she'd helped her cover for the question. "I told you."
Eleanor rolled her eyes. "You always have to be right, don't you?"
"She always is right," the Emperor said.
"Thank you," Caoimhe replied. She said the words, looking at her father, but she meant them for her sister.
Fortunately, a glance at Eleanor, and she knew her sister knew that as well.
The three of them finished their breakfast, and Eleanor and Caoimhe returned to their suites.
Eleanor glanced at her after they got away from their father and were far enough away from the dining hall. "What was that all about?"
"I heard a rumor that the Terran Empire might have prisoners of war," she whispered.
Eleanor blinked. "We don't do that. Take no prisoners and all that."
"I know, which is why it doesn't make any sense. But I heard--"
"Where did you hear this?"
"In my missives."
Eleanor rolled her eyes. "Sister, someone is scamming you."
"I wondered that, I did but--"
"It is a scam, I promise you."
"Maybe it is, but what if it's not? This war has been going on far too long. What if there's more to it than just war and anger and the Emperor wanting vengeance?"
"There's always more to it, you know that."
"But I feel like this is important. I'm not sure why."
"Show me the file."
When they got back, Caoimhe showed her the digital letter.
"Scam. It's a scam."
"Are you sure?"
"Is she sure about what?" Lady in Waiting, Freya asked as she walked into the suite.
"Caoimhe got a scam, and she thinks it's real," Eleanor said.
"Like you thought the ion germination process was real?"
"Hey, that would have worked if you would have let me bury that box," Eleanor said.
"Or we all would have had seven ears by now," Caoimhe said, laughing at the memory of Eleanor getting sucked into a scam about fast-growing plant food.
"Regardless," Freya said. "What's got you both so concerned?"
"This," Caoimhe said. "She thinks it's fake. I think there might be something to it."
Freya came over and looked at the file. She started pulling up the hidden coding and going through the digital gibberish that made little sense to Caoimhe.
"When did you get this?"
"I'm not sure when it came through. I found it in my trash files when I was looking for something else. Did I open a virus or something?"
Freya shook her head. "Not that I can tell. However, it's not from here."
"Well, it says--"
"No, I mean, it's not from the Terran Empire."
Caoimhe blinked. "How can you tell?"
"Everything that comes through the Terran network has an origination coding. Like a stamp that can't be removed. While some programmers can get really good at hiding it, it's still there if you know what to look for."
"So?" Eleanor asked.
"This doesn't have it."
"Which means, what, that it's legitimate?"
"I wouldn't go that far. I would only say that it originated outside of the Terran Empire. Also, whoever wrote it somehow knew all the security codes to get past the Terran protection and walls to get it into your personal logs."
"That's terrifying," Eleanor said.
Freya glanced at Caoimhe and smiled. "You should answer it."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because if you answer, I can send back a tracer code, and we can see what kind of origination it has. They're incredibly good if it's a local system hacker, and I want to break their technique. If it's not local, and it's from somewhere else, I want to know how they got through the security."
"It's security. It can be hacked," Eleanor said.
"Not this. It's like you shooting a knitting needle at the speed of light, through a wormhole, and hitting me in the eye, while I'm on the other side of the galaxy."
"Possible, but highly unlikely."
"Extremely unlikely," Freya said.
"So I should reply."
Freya grinned. "You really should. This could be a lot of fun."
"For you, the computing programmer."
Freya shrugged. "If I have to wear these dresses, I ought to have fun while I do it."
"Okay," Caoimhe. "What should I say?"
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