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Nothing in Alexia’s life had prepared her for this—for standing before her brother, trying to find a way to ask why he had tried to kill her.

Vivek was bound, of course, secured in an antique carved and cushioned chair that had never been designed for this function. Dmitri and Kristoph stood wary guard behind him. Not that Vivek had given them any trouble. From the moment they’d arrested him, he’d seemed quietly resigned to his fate.

Vivek. Vik. Alexia’s baby brother. As children, they’d played with each other, fought with each other, challenged each other and stood back-to-back against anyone who tried to come between them. Vik had been the wild one, the adventurous one, always full of questions. Always demanding answers.

Now it was Alexia who needed answers. Even if she couldn’t imagine any answer to the question of why he’d tried to kill her that she’d actually want to hear.

If he was afraid, he didn’t show it. He sat as calm and composed as if they’d been settling in for brunch. As though his wrists weren’t shackled behind him and his ankles weren’t tied to the chair.

He’d committed treason. Tried to assassinate the Emperor. An attack on the Empire itself. But all Alexia could see was her little brother. The most insistent question running through her mind was how could he do this to her.

“Is this because I kept stealing your favorite stuffed animals when you were eight?”

Vik’s eyes, his heart, were full of—of all things—pity. “I knew you’d try to make a joke of this.”

“Tell me what I’m supposed to do. What I’m supposed to say. The absurdity…I can’t even make sense of what happened.”

“No. I don’t imagine you can.”

“So then help me. Explain to me how…why…what this was about.”

Vik shook his head, still full of the pity that pulsed against Alexia’s empathic gift in waves.

How had it come to this? When had they pulled apart so completely?

“You had to have known you wouldn’t succeed,” Alexia said.

To that, Vik shrugged. “We’ll see.”

Behind Vik, Dmitri rolled his eyes.

But Vik was an empath too, and he felt Dmitri’s disdain. His bitter smile made that clear.

“It’s over,” Alexia reminded him. “You failed. You might as well just tell me what this was all about.”

Again, that twisted, knowing smile, but he said nothing.

What could she say? How to get through to him? Because she wanted—needed—to understand. How he could have done this. Forget the Empire. Forget injustice, real or imagined. How could her little brother have tried so hard to hurt her? To kill her?

Forty years, now, since Alexia had taken the investiture and become Emperor. Those forty years had been quiet—at least, as quiet as the Empire ever became. No wars between clans; no serious power struggles within families. Even the demons and the Dark World had seemed to be behaving themselves. Until now.

“Don’t think this is over. Don’t think I’m done with you.”

Alexia gestured for Kristoph to follow her and left Vik in Dmitri’s capable hands.

Despite his rank, Kristoph was often written off by the politicians and courtiers that surrounded Alexia. Easy to believe Kristoph was at her side because he was decorative. And he was decorative. Extraordinarily handsome—even for a Swan—with pitch-perfect manners and a cultivated detachment that allowed him to blend in to the background noise of the court. What few people realized was how little escaped his notice, whether it was ripples in the fabric of the court, or the upset Alexia was trying right now to hide.

Which was one of the reasons why, of all her closest friends and advisors, Kristoph was the person from whom Alexia withheld nothing. He was her co-conspirator in matters great and small, her secret-keeper.

But even to Kristoph, she couldn’t bring herself to admit what she was feeling. How disturbed, how hurt she was by all of it.

“This is going to be a political nightmare,” she said.

A trickle of surprise and then concern ran through Kristoph. Alexia was fairly certain she knew what that was about. It was utterly uncalled for. “Of course, there are also personal matters. Conversations with the family to consider, and so on.”

Except that family—Alexia wasn’t sure how to even think about talking to Vik’s children, to her grandson. Politics, she could do. “Find out for me everything he was working on. I need to know there aren’t any negotiations about to fall apart or matters of state about to surprise me.”

“Yes, my Emperor.”

Politics would be the easy part. Easy to think about. Easy to puzzle through. As for the rest…

Nothing was more complicated than family.

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Barbara J Webb

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