Today's Reading

I mentally counted to ten. I was thirty-one, a former soldier, and currently one of the best thieves in the galaxy—dealing with assholes was practically my job description and had been for a long time. And while breaking the man's nose would be eminently satisfying, it wasn't worth the hassle. I was trying to help the steward, not cause more trouble. Luckily, the elevator arrived before my self-control faltered. As we boarded, the steward dipped his chin in gratitude, which was thanks enough.

We arrived at the transport hub without further difficulty. The passenger liner's gravity matched Valovia's, which was slightly lower than FHP standard, so the transition out of the ship felt seamless. I slipped my steward a tip, then sighed and added a second one. I tilted my head toward the human couple who were still loudly complaining. "Please ensure this goes to their steward. I have a feeling they are going to forget their manners."

The young woman bowed deeply. "Thank you, Ms. Stafford. Is there anything else I may assist you with?"

"No, thank you."

She opened the transport's door. "Your destination is already programmed. Enjoy your stay."

The sleek hotel transport was as nice as the suite I'd just left, with deeply padded seats, a fully stocked minibar, and a panoramic tinted glass window to let passengers enjoy the sights. Aerial transportation was banned in Zenzi, thanks to the Imperial Palace, so the vehicle rose a mere meter before gliding forward and merging with the ground traffic.

I poured myself a glass of excellent Valovian red wine out of a tiny bottle and then watched the scenery slide by. Zenzi was a massive city, and the spaceport was on the edge of it. The Valovian Empire spanned at least a dozen known planets—and probably more we didn't know about. If Valovia was the empire's heart, then Zenzi was its brain.

And Empress Nepru ruled with a gloved fist from her seat in the Imperial Palace.

After a decades-long war, the Valovian Empire and the Federated Human Planets—commonly shortened to FHP or Fed—had finally settled into a fragile peace for the past three years. But a month and a half ago, the last time I'd been on-planet, I'd learned just how fragile that peace truly was, because either the empress or the FHP was actively working against it.

Hell, maybe they both were. Tavi was attempting to track down what was happening, but I'd left her and the rest of the crew of Starlight's Shadow behind to pursue my own goals. Guilt filled my chest, but I tried to shake it off. Tavi would be fine. She had the whole crew to look after her. Of course, I considered half of that crew my family, so it wasn't exactly reassuring that they were all in danger, but at least Eli, Tavi's first officer, would be the voice of reason. And even if things got bad, they had a freaking telekinetic in the crew now, and Torran would protect Tavi with his

Tavi would be fine, but I wouldn't be if she found out I was on Valovia without backup, which is why I'd neglected to mention this little trip to her. We communicated fairly often, so I'd have to come clean if I ended up taking the job, but I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.

I settled more firmly in my seat and sipped my wine. Outside, the orange sun was low in the sky and sinking fast. Solar days on Valovia were only ten hours long, but rather than working and sleeping in short increments, the Valoffs had combined two solar days into a single buratbos, a twenty-hour "day" with two sunrises and sunsets. And because the Imperial Palace was on Valovia, the twenty-hour day became the Valovian standard, much like the FHP
standard was twenty-four hours thanks to humans starting on Earth.

The ship had timed it so that we'd arrived in the second half of the 'buratbos,' which matched up with evening standard time. The transition wouldn't be too harsh, but every time I visited, the Valovian schedule fucked with my sleep. I did fine on planets with extremely long days and nights, but the frequent transition between the two threw off my body's internal clock.

However, never having to wait very long for darkness to descend did tend to make my job easier.

The steady flow of traffic grew heavier, and the interesting architecture of the outer edge of the city gave way to towers encased in glass as we reached the central district. In my experience, cities all tended to look very similar once they reached a certain population density. Zenzi might be a smidgen more beautiful than the FHP's early utilitarian cities, but physics worked the same everywhere, and there were only so many ways to build a skyscraper capable of housing thousands of people.

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