For The Emperor
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by Christine W. Murphy
Category: Science Fiction/Romance EPIC eBook Award Finalist
Description: Jameelah was always prepared to die for her cause. Now, unless her plan to gain the attention of the Triden Emperor succeeds, she may have to kill for it as well. But peace has one last chance. She plants a smoke bomb at the royal wedding reception. After the explosion, Jameelah is betrayed by one of her own, and finds herself stranded in a runaway escape pod. She is not alone. One of the party goers lies bruised and bloodied at her feet. [Cover art by Dirk A. Wolf]
eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory, 1998 Hard Shell Word Factory
eBookwise Release Date: December 2002
54 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [487 KB]
Reading time: 329-461 min.
"Well written, plausible, For the Emperor, is a lusty, but thought-provoking tale of the what-could-be. The characters, their weaknesses and strengths, are beautifully drawn. The action is fast and furious. The love story is wonderful. Recommended!"--Under the Covers Book Reviews
"Christine W. Murphy provides a richly fashioned futuristic society...Readers will not be able to put down this book until the last page is turned! 4-1/2 Stars!"--Affaire de Coeur
"For The Emperor is a futuristic, a love story set in a real and compelling universe, peopled with believable humans whose main problem is that they must do what is right when the situation has made the consequences virtually unbearable. It reminded me of a science fiction Casablanca."--Science Fiction Romance
"This book contains some delicious passages of sexual tension. The characters are well-drawn, and the plot skips along at a good pace. There is always a sense of something bigger: the fates of peoples, empires, and ways of life hover over the minds of characters fighting their own personal battles and bugbears."--Thomas Myer, SF Site
"YOU'RE NOT HERE for the view, Jameelah dear. You're here to plant a bomb."
Jameelah stiffened at Rami's words, then forced herself to ignore him. Her field experience was limited, but she resented Rami's condescending attitude. The longer they worked together, the more disrespectful he became.
She turned and met the gaze of a Triden officer who saluted her from across the room. Scores of people milled between them, filling the space station ballroom with swirling colors. The officer's eyes glittered above his raised glass.
Before she could return his salute, Rami, disguised as a waiter, cleared his throat and glowered at her.
She returned the fluted glass to Rami's tray without lifting it to her lips. The amber wine smelled like her father's gardens -- heady, sweet, and intoxicating. Unlike the Tridens who surrounded her, Jameelah couldn't afford to become intoxicated.
She tugged at her gown, too tight as current custom on Triden-Prime dictated, and watched the Triden officer turn his attention to the golden-haired girl at his side. Her beryl-green dress with its frills and high collar made Jameelah's crimson gown look cheap. Jameelah's blond wig, selected to hide her shiny black hair, made her head itch.
How odd that the Triden didn't dance, but hovered by the girl in green who never left the wall. Did some rule of etiquette prevent him from dancing? Disappointment made her stomach flip. You are not a school girl pining after the most handsome man in the room. You are on a mission.
They knew little about the Tridens, and hoped the Tridens knew little about them. Jameelah would have preferred to study their new enemy longer before carrying out such a bold attack, but time was something her people did not have.
Jameelah stole another glance at the handsome officer. According to what little she knew, he wore the standard uniform for Triden officers at a public function. His black leathers -- Triden dress uniform -- carried no rank insignia, but he worked the room like a diplomat. A senior officer, at least.
Black-haired, with a slender, muscular build, he had the well-developed chest and arms required of a fighter pilot, and if they danced, her head would fit under his chin. The thought startled her. You really have been alone too long, girl.
A tinkling of crystal returned Jameelah's attention to Rami.
"The Triden dog likes his women young," Rami growled under his breath while he rearranged the glasses on his tray.
Jameelah had to agree. The girl looked about sixteen, a decade younger than Jameelah.
"If he treats you with disrespect, I'll slit his throat."
Jameelah shuddered at the gruesome image, but Rami left before she could reply. He maintained his cover as a waiter with difficulty, striding past grasping hands instead of nodding over his tray while officers selected their drinks.
When the music started again, guests returned to the dance floor. Delay would endanger the mission. Jameelah approached the buffet table.
The Tridens were obscenely extravagant; the display of food and drink filled half the room. According to Imsada intelligence, the Emperor had ordered twelve space stations prepared for his wedding reception, and according to party chatter, he had ordered them all holographically enhanced to resemble his palace -- a reproduction of an Old Earth Scottish castle.
The uneven floor felt real beneath her feet. Torches spattered light against gray stone walls, and intricate tapestries and colorful flags hung from the rafters. Jameelah could almost forget she stood on a space station light years from the Emperor's home world of New Glasgow. But was she on the station that held Emperor Thane and his bride?
Jameelah's hand hovered over a punch-filled cup. A slice of lemon floated on its sugary surface amid a sea of cups topped with lime. An explosive disk waited on the bottom of one of them, programmed to activate at her touch.
"Don't touch that! It would be a crime."
Fear rippled through her. Caught. She froze, her hand flexed to take the punch. A hand clad in black circled her wrist like a cuff.
She spun from the table and into a waiting pair of arms. When she forced herself to look up, she knew the answer to the question she'd not allowed herself to ask, not even silently. The Triden officer's eyes were green.
His ready smile vanished, his brow wrinkled and his eyes clouded over with concern. "You shouldn't bother with synthetic punch. Not when the Emperor has gone to the trouble of providing wine."
The Triden seemed to be taking her pulse now, not restraining her. What did he make of her racing heart and sweaty palms? She knew so little about these Tridens. He wore gloves in a sealed space station. Why? The smooth, black leather matched the rest of his uniform, and the ends were cut away to reveal his fingers past the first knuckle. Bare flesh brushed her cheek.
She forced a teasing smile and spoke with a lightness she didn't feel. "I was warned to remain sober while dancing with officers of the Triden fleet, or pay the price."
"I'm a bargain, I assure you." With a laugh, the Triden officer drew her onto the dance floor and began to hum the Emperor's favorite waltz in her ear. Evidently, he was allowed to dance, and did so with great skill.
Jameelah couldn't suppress the shivers he sent down her back. He had delayed the inevitable for a few moments longer. Until the music stopped, she would not be able to return to the rows of punch. For now, dancing with this man was her duty.
When she sighed against his cheek, he gave a low laugh and slid his hands from her waist to her hips. He laughed again when she returned his roving hands to their proper place. How long had it been since she'd laughed?
It seemed she spoke the words aloud. Four years since Khay's death. Four years the widow of the Imsada's most famous martyr. While her hands caressed the Triden's shoulders, Jameelah imagined how Khay would have looked in such a uniform. Shorter. Two inches, three? She couldn't remember. The realization hit her like a fist. Every Imsada school boy could recite Khay's heroic deeds, and his widow couldn't remember how he'd felt in her arms. Jameelah blinked back tears.
"Are you all right?" the Triden asked.
She saw concern again in her enemy's eyes, felt it in his hands, which brushed her bare shoulders and sent threatening sparks down her back. They stood in the center of the dance floor, couples swirling around them. How easy it would be to lose herself in this man's arms, to lose herself on any one of hundreds of glittering planets that offered a future brighter than her own.
"Just thinking." Jameelah forced another smile. "Are you glad the war's over?"
The officer began to dance again, moving out of time with the others, slow enough so they could talk. "It's hard to say. I haven't had twenty-four consecutive hours free in years. But--"
"You don't know what you'll do without battles to plan and fight." She finished his sentence. That's how Rami felt. Jameelah couldn't imagine him without his war. She turned in the Triden's arms to look for Rami. His station at the buffet table stood empty. She forced herself to keep dancing, and not run off to search for him. "Now that you've bested the New Alliance, you'll be going after the non-aligned cartels, I suppose."
"You've been listening to New Alliance propaganda, my dear." Those brilliant green eyes examined her again.
He had a kind face, angular lines temporarily softened by drink. She couldn't quite picture him killing thousand of innocents with a casual squeeze of his hand, but he had. At least he'd been trained to.
She knew that much about the Tridens.
Jameelah looked down, forcing herself not to pull away. She should act sympathetic -- a patriot celebrating the Emperor's marriage to Tamboria, the only daughter of the New Alliance President. Their union would unite two great empires and put a permanent end to the fighting. For everyone except the Imsada.
Jameelah allowed him to pull her a fraction closer than custom allowed. A spicy scent radiated through his uniform. Without conscious thought, she tugged on the damp, dark rings of hair that slipped beneath his collar. He groaned in response and bent to kiss her ear.
She turned her head to avoid his touch, but managed not to jerk away when he bent lower and kissed her shoulder. How could she think with this man's hot mouth on her neck? Jameelah took a deep breath and tried to remember her Imsada training.
She knew this much. You didn't ask a Triden officer about his work, and you never, ever, asked his name. Was her dance partner a pilot? Triden pilots fought to stay on the front lines. This man could be security. Her knees started to buckle.
He didn't seem to notice her weakness, but spun her into the circle of dancers. Under the influence of the swirling colors, she reentered the conversation. For almost an hour she allowed him to lead her through a discussion of politics and the latest thermo-vid release. For almost an hour, he made her forget.
Then a glimpse of Rami glowering at her returned her to reality.
The Imsada knew almost nothing about the Triden Empire, less about their new emperor. She had to learn more about the man who would soon control three-fourths of the galaxy.
Nodding toward the blond girl who watched them from a corner of the room, she asked, "Does she know the Emperor?"
"Just someone's sister." The Triden shrugged. "I would introduce you, but she doesn't enjoy meeting strangers. The evening has been a strain. First formal dance. She's shy...."
"Shouldn't you return to her then?"
"She absolutely insists I dance with you." He tried to pull Jameelah closer. She resisted, stepping back to see his face.
"She insists, does she?" Jameelah smiled at his obvious lie.
"Most definitely. She says you are very beautiful, and I must dance with only you. For the entire evening."
Jameelah sighed with relief. An escort, that's what he was. Assigned to squire some official's sister, and determined to enjoy himself in spite of it. But she couldn't enjoy her assignment, not with the lives of so many at stake. Besides, as much as she wanted to stay in his arms, she wouldn't be safe there if he found out who she was. Her stomach knotted at the thought.
He wrapped his arms around her again and whispered in her ear. "The problem is I don't have time to seduce you properly, my dear. I have to leave tomorrow."
His hot breath sent chills down her back and weakened her knees as thoroughly as her earlier fear.
The Triden touched his forefinger to her chin and raised her head. "I'm expected to spend my leave at home. You know mothers."
Jameelah shook off his touch and lowered her head. She didn't want to think of home -- bleak and joyless. Enjoying this man's caress made her feel like a traitor.
"Perhaps you could meet me at my ship?" he asked.
How senior must he be to have his own ship? Her first instinct was to make some excuse and find a new dance partner, but she wanted to blend in with the crowd. Besides, he might have valuable information. Did he know if this was the site of the Emperor's wedding or one of the eleven decoys?
"At your ship?"
"An inconvenience, I know," he continued. "A suite would be more comfortable, but my coming here was spur of the moment. I have to share quarters with my crew. But we'll be alone on the ship, and I can promise you all the comforts of home. The bed is big enough for two." He purred the last in her ear.
Even as her body responded to his seductive words, her mind screamed traitor. She pushed against his chest with her hands to regain a breath of space between them.
"Meet me in emergency lock five, after?" His fingers tightened around her arms. "What do you say?"
Jameelah realized with relief there would be no "after." When the festivities ended in an unwelcome flurry of smoke, she would leave the station with Rami and his men. The explosion would leave her dance partner inconvenienced, no doubt, and angry, most definitely, but unharmed.
Rami and the others had agreed to try things her way, her late husband's way, one last time. But if this demonstration of Imsada determination failed to gain the Emperor's attention, blood would flow. Without Khay's influence, she wasn't strong enough to stop it.
Jameelah avoided answering the Triden's question by asking her own. "So you're looking forward to peace? New duties?"
He shrugged and smiled again. "I haven't decided what I'll do now that the war's over. How about you?"
Jameelah bit her lip to keep from answering. How could she look forward to peace? Martyrs like her dead husband found peace in the grave. Men like Rami, who knew no life other than seeking revenge for their murdered fathers and brothers, didn't know what it meant.
Her dance partner stared at her with that puzzled expression again, losing track of the steps when he bent to look into her eyes. Jameelah realized she'd waited too long to answer.
He touched her cheek and she shivered. Then he traced the outline of her mouth with his bare thumb. The soft leather of his glove grazed her chin. As if out of her control, her head tilted toward him and her lips parted. She closed her eyes when he lowered his mouth to hers. His lips, velvet soft compared to his rough fingers, teased her mouth more fully open. He tasted cool and fruity, like the wine she had refused to drink.
Like the wine, she should refuse him now. Tridens evidently expected public displays, but Rami might be watching. He wouldn't understand this act was necessary to maintain her cover. Necessary, she thought, as she pressed her mouth firmly against the hungry lips that tasted hers. When the Triden pulled away, she felt empty. She shivered before she opened her eyes.
He sounded formal when he spoke again. "Don't worry about business dropping off now that our Emperor has promised peace. I'm certain you'll find something. There's always a lull for companions at first, but for someone as engaging as yourself...."
Jameelah realized with a start that the man was calling her a whore. Surely the Tridens weren't so different that she misunderstood. The room seemed to tilt as she fought to control her anger. "I can take care of myself, war or not."
She tried to twist away, but he folded her more tightly in his arms. Using her Imsada training, she could have this man on the floor in seconds. How dare he insult the widow of Khay-Alva? She imagined the scene -- the tipsy, arrogant fool sprawled on his back at her feet.
Before Jameelah could compose an angry retort, a bearded man towered over her dance partner's shoulder. Jameelah jumped at the intrusion. The stranger's beefy hand descended and locked around the Triden's arm, which still held her.
Instead of "snapping to" as Jameelah expected, her escort gave her ear a teasing nip. "What is it,
"Sorry to disturb you, Lieutenant."
Did she detect sarcasm in the giant's tone? And how could the Triden be a lieutenant? He was far too old. She guessed captain, at least. Fear replaced Jameelah's anger. She studied him again when he turned toward Gunny.
Streaks of white marred the lieutenant's curly black hair, fine lines creased his mouth and eyes. Well over thirty years old. An aging lieutenant with his own ship and enough influence to attend the Emperor's wedding reception? Who was this man?
"Spit it out," the Triden barked.
"We've got company," Gunny replied, apparently unruffled by his lieutenant's impatience. "You'd best get back to the young lady. If you're not too drunk."
The Triden growled an acknowledgment to Gunny.
Jameelah twisted in the Triden's arms to see five khaki-clad New Alliance officers swagger across the room. As always, her stomach clenched at the sight of the Imsada's long-time foe.
For five hundred years the Imsada had fought for the land these soldiers had taken from her people.
After defeating them, the Tridens might make peace with the New Alliance; the Imsada never would.
The Imsada couldn't afford peace. It would kill them.
"Will there be trouble?" she asked.
"Of course not." The Triden's hands tightened almost unbearably on her arms. "Thanks to our Emperor's taste in brides, these New Alliance fellows are our very dear friends."
He looked sober and concerned. "I have to get back to work."
Loosening his grip on Jameelah's arms, he resumed dancing. He held her stiffly, maintaining the precise distance between them dictated by etiquette, as he steered them toward the girl.
Jameelah tried to relax in the Triden's embrace while she reminded herself of her duties. She forced her fear and anger down deep inside her. They must both get back to business now.
"Emergency lock five," he reminded when he released her. "Don't forget. Wait for me." He squeezed her hand, and was gone.
She stood alone on the dance floor a moment, uncertain her legs still worked. Then she threaded her way to the buffet table, watching the Triden greet the New Alliance officers. The young girl, half hidden behind the Triden, clung to his arm.
Her fingers curled into fists, Jameelah strode toward the rows of punch. Despite her body's inappropriate reactions to this man, she had not forgotten her duty. For the second time that evening, her hand hovered over the cup topped with the lemon.
Rami had chosen the hiding place well. The punch stood undisturbed. Everyone drank wine. Find the one with lemon. Three to the right, one down. Jameelah lifted the cup and palmed the explosive disk that clung to its base. The unyielding surface came to life when its sensors tasted her fingers.
Again, Jameelah looked across the room at the Triden officer. She tingled with the remembered warmth of his embrace and the promise of his hard body pressing urgently against hers. Despite his good intentions, circumstances would detain her eager dance partner, and she could not wait for him at emergency lock five.
She nervously sipped the sour punch, taking one last look at the swirling couples before fading toward the back of the room.
Jameelah didn't have time to admire the view. She was here to plant a bomb.
Alec walked away from the New Alliance officers, every muscle tensed with the strain of turning his back on them. Lorna stood clutching Gunny's arm. Alec forced himself to smile.
His half-sister looked so fragile, so vulnerable. Squaring his shoulders, he nodded to Gunny, signaling he should entertain their guests. Left alone, Lorna retreated to the back wall.
Before going to her, Alec turned to check on Gunny, the man who had cared for him since the day he was born. Gunny joked with the New Alliance officers as if, two months ago, they all hadn't been trying to kill each other.
Taking another moment, Alec scanned the room for his dance partner. He hadn't expected to find someone so fascinating at his brother's wedding reception. It wasn't often he had the chance to meet what his mother would call "an independent woman."
Unable to spot her in the throng, Alec resigned himself to his duties as Lorna's escort. He would find the woman later, and if things worked out as he hoped...well, it wouldn't be the first time he missed an appointment with his mother.
He crossed the toe of his right boot behind the heel of his left to make a well-practiced about face. A flash stopped him.
Before he could react, a roaring blast picked him up and sent him flying backward.
He didn't hear his own scream when he slammed into the wall. For a moment he was aware of only one thing -- he couldn't breathe.
"Lorna." He felt his lips form the word and suddenly his lungs began to work. He choked on dust-filled air.
Alec called again. "Lorna!" He struggled to lift his head off the floor to see over the scattered debris. He knew he yelled because his throat was raw with the effort, but he couldn't hear anything above the roar that surrounded him.
In the glow of the emergency lights, Alec could see a man-sized hole in the wall and injured guests scattered over the floor. The hologram of his family's estate had disappeared with the power failure, revealing utilitarian off-white walls and floor.
He and Lorna had stood no more than twenty feet apart when the explosion ripped through the bulkhead, but with the castle hologram gone, he'd lost his bearings. He struggled to remember precisely where they'd stood in relation to the punch table, the only landmark he could see.
Dammit. He should have been paying attention. Lorna was his responsibility. Then he saw it -- a patch of green fluttering behind an overturned table.
Alec dragged himself forward. A steady rain of dust and debris clogged his throat. When he pushed aside the fallen table, he began to shake. Golden hair spilled over a green dress.
After taking a deep breath, he forced his body to cross the final inches to where Lorna lay in a crumpled mass of chiffon. Instinct took over as he felt for signs of life.
"Lorna, talk to me." Alec touched the pulse point on his sister's neck. She stirred. He dropped his head, resting briefly on her arm. A shudder wracked his body as he forced himself to believe what his senses told him. She was alive.When he turned to look for Gunny, Alec realized the roaring didn't come from the carnage before him, but from inside his own head. Lorna's chest heaved and her eyelids fluttered, but he couldn't hear anything above the unrelenting noise in his ears. He pushed aside the thought that his deafness might be permanent.
A blast of compressed air shooting from a broken pipe and the rubble in its path kept Alec and Lorna isolated -- trapped in a corner, thirty feet from a maintenance exit. At least the air was blowing in, not being sucked out into space.
"Gunny!" Alec squinted through the smoke and dust. He could see flashing red lights, but couldn't hear sirens. If alarms intermittently blasted the call to emergency stations, they were safe for now. If the long wail sounded evacuation, they could measure their lives in minutes.
Finally, Alec saw Gunny. He stood on the other side of the rubble, his weapon drawn. Alec reached for his own sidearm, but came up empty. Damn! The stunner he'd clipped inside his jacket sleeve had disappeared.
Great. Unarmed, separated from Lorna's guard, and no idea what was going on.
Gunny shouted. Alec could see his mouth move. How many deaf pilots do you know? He fought down a new surge of panic.
Apparently no follow-up attack was coming. The cowards who set the bomb must have left the station. Before he could run down the list of likely suspects, Alec remembered the blond woman he'd danced with all evening. She was nowhere in sight. Their rendezvous might have saved her. If she left before the explosion hit, she would be near the escape pods. God, he hoped so.
He tried to stand, but pain shot down his spine and sent him gasping to the floor. When Lorna moved, hope welled in his chest. She opened her eyes and clutched at his arm.
"Don't move, baby. I'm right here." Alec felt for her wrist again. Steady pulse, responsive pupils.
He ripped off his gloves to search for broken bones and shrapnel. Familiar heat rushed through his palms when he passed them over her body. He shook too badly to be certain, but except for his sore back, they appeared to have escaped unscathed.
Lorna's blue eyes were wide and filled with fear. She was trying to tell him something, and he couldn't hear a word. Lorna had always come to him with her troubles. She always said he was the only one who would listen to her. Now he could only pull her onto his lap and rock her in his arms.
He felt her shake, felt her tears wet his hands. Someone was going to pay for hurting his sister.
Anger surged through him, but he forced it down. When help came and he no longer had to take care of Lorna, he would allow himself to feel again. Then he would make whoever committed this vile act of terrorism pay.
"Everything's fine. They'll get to us soon." Alec spoke with confidence he didn't feel, not certain Lorna could hear him.
Why the hell did his brother Thane have to get married on some space station instead of on New Glasgow? Damn him for getting himself named Emperor and damn him for having too many enemies to count.
Apparently, someone didn't like the idea of the Emperor marrying Tamboria, daughter of the most powerful man in the New Alliance. Alec certainly didn't, but he had contented himself with getting halfdrunk.
Someone else had resorted to violence.
Movement across the room caught his attention. It would take time for emergency personnel to clear a path. Lorna's survival depended on his ability to get them out of this mess.
Alec looked over his shoulder at the door. The corridor on the other side led to the secondary emergency locks where he'd docked his ship. He sagged against the floor. He would never make it that far, not carrying Lorna. If not for his miserable back, they could have left the station by now.
Lorna shook him and pointed. Gunny waved, their four-man crew crowded around him. They appeared ruffled and agitated, but whole. Dammit, he had to hear what they were saying.
A puff of cool air hit Alec's back. The door behind him had opened, and by the look on Gunny's face, the news was bad.
Before Alec could turn, someone tore Lorna from his arms. He grabbed her legs, and after a pull that sent a screaming pain down the length of his back, he held her again. For a moment she rested in his arms as if nothing had happened.
Copyright © 1998 by Christine W. Murphy