As Jana prepares an assault on the Star Stone, Olivia receives the captive Tilly.
A serious young man in a well-tailored Royal Intelligence Agency uniform saluted from my office doorway. “She’s awake, Your Highness.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” I kept my tone formal but offered a warm smile, “Please escort Miss Smythe-Warrington to my office.”
The young man’s eyes betrayed just a hint of surprise but his response was prompt. “At once, Your Highness.”
As my door slid shut, I tapped the interoffice comm, “I’m expecting a subspace call from Lady Jeanine. Alert me the moment it comes.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” came the surprised reply. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything on my schedule.”
It wasn’t on Jeanine’s schedule, either. “It’s an unscheduled call.”
“Very well, Your Highness. Shall I clear your schedule?”
“Yes. After the RIA delivers a woman to my office, allow no interruptions beyond notification of the subspace call from Lady Jeanine.”
“As you command, Your Highness.”
“That includes my husband.”
My assistant hesitated briefly before replying, “Yes, Your Highness.”
William could get past the woman by simply ignoring her admonition, but he’d respect my wishes for anything short of a dire emergency. Confident one of the two people capable of precipitating an emergency of that scale was on her way to my office, I began mentally prepared for the upcoming war of wits and words.
Minutes later, the same young RIA officer returned, this time accompanied by the lady thief. Disheveled and still suffering from stun shock, Tilly remained remarkably beautiful. The anger smoldering in her eyes simply added to her undeniable appeal. No wonder William was drawn to her.
Tilly met my gaze without a hint of shame or sorrow. “Olivia.”
The Lieutenant backhanded Tilly’s cheek. “Use Her Highness’s proper title!”
“Screw you,” she spat.
The officer raised his hand again, but I interceded. “That will do, Lieutenant.”
“As you command, Your Highness.”
Before I could send the man away, my assistant’s head popped into view. “The subspace call you were expecting has arrived, Your Highness.”
The call came almost an hour sooner than expected. Jeanine’s people moved quickly, I’ll give them that.
“Tell them I’m on my way.” I turned to the RIA officer, “Come with me and bring the prisoner.”
A short walk later, I left Tilly and the Lieutenant outside the subspace center’s door. As soon as I settled into the seat, Jeanine’s image materialized on the screen.
Taking the initiative, she said, “I assume Tilly is alive and unharmed?”
“What, no pleasantries? You didn’t even ask after my pregnancy.”
Jeanine’s green eyes narrowed, “You wouldn’t have taken my call, much less worn such a smugly satisfied expression if your baby was anything but healthy.”
“True, but I’m told it’s considered polite to inquire. It sets a friendly tone for the conversation and establishes a convivial rapport.”
“If you want convivial, send for Tilly and let me judge her condition for myself.”
I smiled, “There’s no need to be so snippy, Jeanine. You had but to ask.”
The Lieutenant answered my tap on the door immediately. “Send the prisoner in. You will wait out there.”
His eyebrows rose, “Your Highness—?”
“That is an order, Lieutenant.”
“Of course,” he replied. “My apologies for my presumption, Your Highness.”
I waved this off as Tilly joined me in the room. As the door slid shut, I turned back to the screen, “As you can see, Tilly is alive and unharmed.”
Without asking permission to sit in the company of royalty — tsk, Tilly’s lack of manners would appall her great-grandmother — the thief settled into the seat next to mine. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she drooped against the backrest.
Jeanine’s gaze swung to the other woman, “Is that true, Tilly? Are you all right?”
“Besides being her prisoner,” Tilly jerked a thumb in my direction, “I’m okay. Still hung-over from being stunned, though, so don’t let my exhaustion worry you.”
Jeanine’s face relaxed a bit, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of there as quickly as possible.”
I arched my left eyebrow, “How do you propose to accomplish that?”
Jeanine’s attention swung back to me. “Through negotiation. You know, the way civilized people deal with situations such as this.”
That was a dig at my past attempts to kill Jeanine. And, if I was being honest, she had a valid point. I responded with a simple nod of acknowledgment and waited for her first offer.
It took Jeanine a couple of seconds to realize I wasn’t going to say anything. “You surprise me, Olivia. I expected a list of demands.”
“What is the point? You’ll never agree to exchange Jana for Tilly.”
“Damned straight she won’t!” Tilly said. “And I wouldn’t let her—”
I placed a finger over Tilly’s mouth and, in my most condescending tone, said, “Shush, child. The adults are speaking.”
Jeanine shot a warning glance at Tilly, who swallowed whatever her no doubt acerbic retort. Then Jeanine said, “You’re quite correct, though that didn’t stop Jana from telling me to offer that exchange. What I am willing to offer is the immediate removal of Jana and her compatriots from Xapreathea. Tilly included. I’ll have them brought to Neert and keep them within the Duchy until you decide they may travel beyond its borders.”
I put a finger to my chin as if I was considering the proposal. I shook my head, “This deal benefits you greatly. I, on the other hand, see nothing in my favor to balance that.”
“I’ll turn over every bit of information I have gathered concerning the secret we discussed during your last visit to Gaunner. Furthermore, I’ll give my word to never speak of it again to anyone. My oath applies to Drake as well.”
If word ever got out that the Queen and I planned the destruction of my own spaceship — a deadly disaster created so the Prince could heroically rescue me and fall in love with his damsel — we might face open revolt. Worse, I would lose William’s love and trust. Jeanine knew her offer would tempt me.
Ignoring Tilly’s curious stare, I said, “I already have an oath from you concerning that information. As long as no harm comes your friends or family, you’ll remain silent. With that in mind, I have a counter-proposal. Jana and her friends will surrender to me. I will hold them only until such time as they have been thoroughly debriefed. I believe the RIA will want Jana’s assistance strengthening our network’s security, as well. They’ll be treated as guests and I’ll grant them pardons afterward. You have my oath they’ll be free within one year.”
Tilly’s head shook back and forth as Jeanine considered my offer. The thief wouldn’t enjoy such confinement, of course, but my offer was more than fair. Despite that, I could tell Jeanine wasn’t going to accept it. I don’t know what was going on in that mind of hers but some private concern loomed large in it. Perhaps it was that odd story about the Star Stone genetically modifying my child but I couldn’t fathom Jeanine truly believed that.
Finally, with reluctance, Jeanine shook her head. “No, Olivia, I can’t do that to my friends.”
“That’s unfortunate, Jeanine. Unless you have something else to offer, it seems as if we are at an impasse. Perhaps Jana will respond to a planet-wide broadcast and exchange herself for Tilly.”
I hoped that last bit would goad another offer from Jeanine. It did.
“If you allow Jana and her friends, including Tilly, to leave Xapreathea on the Rising Star, I will appear before the Star Stone and relinquish my claim to the Duchy of Gaunner.”
Will Olivia accept Jeanine’s offer? Find out in Chapter 59, coming Friday.