Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight.
Here is the second snippet for Hidden Valor, third book of the Forsaken Valor series. Hidden Valor comes out January 29th!
“Anyone ever told you that you have too many secrets, Armstrong?”
I froze at those words, but continued walking as Jonna Hayden fell into step with me. “I take it we are in an area off the monitors?” I shot her a look, trying to gauge what she knew by her expression. That was harder to do than I would have liked. I’d become very good at hiding what I was thinking. Jonna could still teach me a lot of lessons, assuming she could be bothered to tell me anything.
“Answer a question with another question, you’re picking up some interesting habits,” Jonna shook her head. “We’re in a section of the corridor where the monitors are down for maintenance. Not just the standard monitors, either, the ones that Imperial Intelligence has in their private loop, too. Makes it hard for someone to guess where you came from which is probably why you were told to route down this corridor.”
“Who says I was told to come this way?” I asked. But now the Prince’s very precise directions on the route I took to and from his quarters in Iron Flight made sense.
“I am sure that you took a circuitous route to and from Iron Flight for no particular reason. You definitely didn’t meet with Prince Ladon and report on me or the Princess,” the acid in her voice could have etched steel.
Hock. I stopped and looked up and down the corridor. “You knew?”
“Not until you just confirmed it,” Jonna told me. “But seriously, making a deal with Prince Ladon, you have to know he’s a snake who will bite you whenever it is remotely convenient.”
“I know, it was the best of several bad options at the time,” I growled.
Jonna’s eyes widened, “Third Screening, Tangun’s Gate… Ladon didn’t get us, you did.”
“I needed a way to get him off our backs,” I growled. “Look, are we really going to discuss this… here?” I asked.
She shook her head, “Let’s go. I know a shortcut.”
She led the way down a side corridor and then out a hatch and onto one of the Institute’s many external catwalks. We were halfway along it when she turned, hooked one foot behind my heel, and pushed.
I didn’t have time to even shout in surprise. One moment we were walking along the narrow catwalk and the next I was over the drop, Jonna holding the front of my uniform by one hand, my feet barely on the edge of the platform and my body leaning out over from her push. The drop below me was beyond dizzying. The Institute was one of Drakkus’s Spires, the buildings rose taller and higher than anything else, a thousand meters across and over three thousand meters tall. All that I had below me was clouds. I had seen trainees here slip and fall off ledges similar to this.
“If you move your hands to catch mine, I will let you go,” Jonna hissed at me.
I remained very, very still.
“What have you told the Prince about me?” Jonna demanded.
I kept my voice level and met her gaze as I answered, “Only what Vars might know. You and the Princess don’t trust one another. You don’t seem fond of the Imperial Family. You keep to yourself and you don’t seem to trust anyone.”
Jonna stared at me, “You haven’t told him about my procedure? The organ transplant, any of that?”
“I’m not loyal to him, I’m just trying to keep him off our backs!” I snapped. “And if you don’t trust me on that at this point, you might as well just drop me, because I’ve got no reason to support Prince Ladon over my friends.”
Jonna frowned, but she pulled me back onto the ledge. I caught ahold of a stanchion and took deep breaths. “You could have just asked, you know,” I snapped.
Jonna took a few steps back, just out of my reach, her eyes still wary. “I had to be sure, I…” She shook her head, “I got the word about Century falling and I was trying to catch you when you left Jade Flight, right up until I realized where you were going.”
“So you decided to push me to my death?” I shook my head. “Jonna, I’ve dealt with you fairly every time. Even when you kicked me out of the Ragabonds, I still dealt fairly with you.”
“Right up until Tangun’s Gate, apparently,” Jonna snapped. “Was it the Princess’s plan or the Prince’s? How long have you been working with them?”
“I’m not working with ‘them,’” I threw that back in her face. “I’m trying to survive and trying to protect you, and yes, Princess Kiyu, too. As far as I know, she doesn’t know what I did, either.”
“She downed the last two of Prince Ladon’s escort—”
“I did that,” I interrupted her. “I took her weapon, and I took Ladon’s rifle and shot both of you.” I gave her a minute to think that through. “Everyone wanted me to do something. Dekkas Richardson wanted me to support you. Imperial Intelligence wanted me to take you down. I realized that I could get Prince Ladon off all our backs if I gave him the opportunity to save face.”
She shook her head, “You could have said something.”
“Sure, in all these times we are under observation, I’ve had all these great opportunities to explain everything, just like you’ve been confiding with me all the time, telling me all the stuff I need to know, right?” I scoffed at her. “Maybe if you told me where the monitors were down or where else we could talk, I could do that, but you seem to be incapable of sharing anything.”
Jonna flinched away from the real anger in my voice. “Fine. We’ve both got secrets. I assume Intelligence is satisfied with you watching me?”
“Watching you, watching the Prince, watching the Princess, they want the whole package,” I growled. But I didn’t let on that it wasn’t Imperial Intelligence that knew all that, it was one man. Institor Dyer knows pretty much everything about me.
“You’re walking a thin line,” Jonna told me. “You have to know that Prince Ladon is using you, and when you cease to be useful, he’ll discard you.” She hiked a thumb back at the corridor we had come from, “Prince Ladon directing you through corridors without monitoring from even Imperial Intelligence? That means he wants some cut-outs, which means he’s not going to hesitate to set you up for a fall if he sees any angle in it for him.”
I hadn’t thought that much about it, but it pretty much matched my impression of the Prince thus far. He didn’t seem to care much about anyone but himself. “I’ll have to be careful,” I told her, “I already knew that.”
She gave me a dubious look, remarkably similar to ones that Jiden had given me when I was doing something that would get me in trouble with our parents. Seeing as Jiden had been far more likely to do that, and that Jonna was arrayed against the Emperor and Royal Family plus those Houses allied with them, the hypocrisy then and now stood out to me.
“We should go,” Jonna told me after a long moment, “Sooner or later, someone is going to notice you’ve been out of monitored areas for a good period and they’ll start to ask questions. If you’re going to keep playing the Prince’s toady, we don’t want him to suspect you were meeting someone else.”
I followed her down the ledge, keeping closer to the wall than I normally might. Height in and of itself didn’t bother me, but I’d have to be made of solid steel to not be shaken by my brush with the edge of the Spire.
Jonna’s “shortcut” took us into a section of maintenance corridor. I didn’t ask her how she knew the access codes to use it, but it popped us out into the corridors near Jade Flight’s new quarters. Each year’s cohort had their own cadre and staff and area. My cohort, freshly minted second years, had individual quarters with sections of lab spaces, classrooms, and simulators for us to conduct our training.
“We’ll be stepping into monitored corridor in a moment,” Jonna shot me a glance, “this back corridor isn’t monitored, but it’s normally used for bringing in equipment for the labs. Think of any good reasons why you were out of observation?”
“Nothing really comes to mind,” I admitted.
“Didn’t think so,” she sighed. “Well, this should make your bosses happy…”
Before I could ask what she meant, she pushed open the door, giggling and looking over her shoulder, “Well, Vars, that was… educational.” She ran a hand through her hair and adjusted her uniform.
I froze there in the doorway, realizing that anyone watching would draw the assumption that we’d been kissing. Even as I realized that, two of Jade Flight’s Initiates rounded the corner and saw us.
Princess Kiyu was at the lead, in the midst of discussing some detail with Bahn from her team. She spotted us and froze. Her green eyes went wide as she looked between Jonna and I.
Jonna straightened her uniform and gave me a sharp nod, but I didn’t miss the gleam of mischief in her blue eyes. She knew that the Princess was coming, she timed it for just this…
The realization didn’t help me in the slightest. “Vars,” Jonna nodded and me and then strode away. All I could do is nod back, then nod acknowledgement to Princess Kiyu and Bahn and then stride off as fast as I could, my face flushing and my ears burning.
Hidden Valor is coming next week! Here’s the first snippet:
Chapter 1: The Heights I’ve Reached
Prince Ladon kept me standing as he read over the report I’d written up on Princess Kiyu and Jonna Hayden’s activities. He had a bit of a sneer on his face. “This is all?” He looked up finally. “Conversations about classes? I expected more from you Vars, much more.”
“We’ve been on break the past month, Your Highness,” I told him as calmly as I could manage. What did the idiot expect, that the two of them would be discussing how to overthrow the Empire? Even if I had really been his loyal spy, it would have beggared belief that I’d have something incriminating after only a few weeks of working for him.
Of course, I wasn’t his spy. I wasn’t even Vars, the son of the late pirate marauder Wessek. My name was William Alexander Armstrong. I wasn’t even from Drakkus, I’d grown up on the dry, dusty world of Century and the real Vars had kidnapped me and kept me as his prisoner and slave. I’d escaped and taken my revenge on Vars and Wessek, but in order to survive here on Drakkus, I’d stolen Vars’ identity and taken his place here at the Drakkus Imperial Military Institute. Prince Ladon, though, thought I was Vars, and furthermore, I had convinced him that I would be his agent and spy on my only two real allies and in exchange, he hadn’t had the three of us murdered.
“All the more reason you should have had more for me,” Ladon’s lips drew back and he threw his datapad down on his desk. “Classes are about to start up once more. Once they do, neither of us will have time to meet frequently. I’m giving you one week, to the official start of classes and I want to see something more interesting than…” he shook his head, “tactical preferences. Do you understand me, Vars?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” I told him.
“You had better, Vars. I’m taking a risk taking you on as your sponsor. My father is still quite cross with you for what happened at Century. It was quite embarrassing, him having to withdraw like that,” He shook his head, “And before you think I’m stuck with you, you should be aware that I still haven’t told him or anyone, really. All I did was stop the boot pressed against your neck.”
Prince Ladon’s father, Crown Prince Abrasax, had been the patron for Wessek. The two of them had some kind of plan to take over my homeworld, but it hadn’t gone well, thanks to my sister and my grandmother. Crown Prince Abrasax had shown up with a huge fleet, but my grandmother, the Admiral, had found out about the arrival thanks to my sister, Jiden. From what I’d heard, the Crown Prince had been forced to power down his weapons and withdraw.
It was the first time in decades that anyone had forced the Drakkus Empire to do anything. That kind of black eye hadn’t sat well with the Crown Prince, and he’d blamed Wessek and his son Vars for their part in the failed operation. Of course, since I’d taken Vars’ place and Wessek and Vars had both died in the process, that left his wrath coming down on me.
“Understood,” I told Prince Ladon. I didn’t let any of what I felt onto my expression. I had grown very good at hiding my real emotions, hiding everything about me, in the past couple of years. It was amazing what the constant threat of death did for my ability to focus.
“Dismissed, Vars,” Prince Ladon waved a hand. “And don’t let anyone see you on your way out. I wouldn’t want our arrangement to become public.”
I left, slipping out into the corridor, keeping the hall monitors interrupted with the code the Prince had given me for that exact purpose. I was going to have to come up with something to give Prince Ladon, something to keep him satisfied, without doing actual harm to Jonna or Princess Kiyu.
I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was going to have to figure something out. Some part of me whispered that it didn’t matter what I figured out in the short term, Prince Ladon wouldn’t be satisfied until both of my friends went down, and he saw me as a means to that end.
I was going to have to figure out what to do about that. One thing at a time, I told myself.
Coming Soon! The 3rd book of my Forsaken Valor series:
I’ve lived the past two years of my life on the ragged edge. Kidnapped by pirates, my family murdered, I’ve lived as a prisoner and escaped only to fight for my life on the streets. I’ve lied, I’ve cheated, I’ve stolen, and I’ve even killed to survive.
And now I’m at the center of my enemies’ most exclusive military institute, hidden under a stolen identity. I’ve managed to earn the trust and support of a small group of allies, and maybe, just maybe, I can use that to get back home.
But if I do that, I’ll probably get them killed. Even worse, someone has set them in the crosshairs of a plot that puts millions, maybe billions, of lives on the line. I can’t walk away, I can’t abandon them, not when the only advantage they have is me, a hidden dagger poised to strike at the Heart of Drakkus.