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Star Bringer
Author: Tracy Wolff


Chapter 1

   Kalinda, Crown Princess of the Nine Planets

   “That’s it. Your privileges as companion-in-waiting have been officially revoked.”

   Lara lays out the giant purple monstrosity she’s selected for me to wear, undeterred. But I see the tiniest hint of a grin start to slip onto her lips. “And what privileges would those be, Your Highness?”

   “You don’t think you’ve got privileges?” I send her an arch look from where I’m sitting on the bed, but she’s already returned to smoothing out my dress. “So ungrateful.”

   One of the best parts of having your best friend also be your companion-in-waiting is that you can give her shit. Sure, Lara tends to stick to propriety even when it’s just the two of us, but our best moments are when I can get her veneer of decorum to crack. And the full-on grin she’s giving me now warms me up from the inside out.

   Of course, when your best friend is also your companion-in-waiting, she can talk you into doing shit you don’t want to do—like wearing giant purple dresses that make you look like a Kridacan desert slogg with a nasty case of space pox.

   “If by privileges, you mean the honor of waking up before five every morning, then may the Ancients bless you for the honor.” Lara continues unbuttoning the ugliest dress in existence before retrieving a matching pair of high-heeled shoes.

   I bat my eyes. “Admit it. You love our early-morning swims.”

   “Oh, absolutely, Your Highness.” She shoves her long brown hair out of her face, then picks up one of the heels and undoes its delicate jeweled clasp. “Almost as much as you love dates with ambassadors’ sons. Maybe I should mention to the Empress how much you miss Jorathon.”

   I narrow my eyes at her. “You wouldn’t dare.”

   Before she can answer, the pod we are traveling in comes to a stop. We have officially docked on the Imperial Space Station Caelestis.

   My stomach twists with a combination of nerves and excitement. I’ve been dying to get a look at the crown jewel of the Empire’s science program since the spacebreaking ceremony several years ago. But this is the first time I’ve actually gotten near her, and I’m practically coming undone with excitement.

   The fact that it’s also my first official duty away from the palace negates some of that excitement—as does the fact that I have to tour it in full Imperial Regalia while doing my level best not to screw anything up. If I make one mistake, the Council’s doubts will be confirmed, and I’ll be stuck in the palace for the next fifty years.

   Which is why I have no intention of messing up. The consequences don’t bear thinking about.

   “Give me your leg.” When I continue to scowl at her, Lara grabs my leg herself and starts shoving my foot into the shoe. She snaps the clasp shut hard enough to have me yelping, then reaches for the second one.

   “I keep telling you—I can do that myself.” I try to take the purple heel away and get a hand slapped for the effort.

   “Companion. In. Waiting,” is all she says as she starts slipping on the second shoe, albeit much more gently than the first.

   “Exactly. Waiting, not dressing.”

   “It’s the same thing, and it’s my job.” She snaps the second heel into place, and her expression softens. “You’re going to look gorgeous in this dress, Your Highness.”

   I sigh. “So gorgeous I might even find some hot Corporation guard or science nerd to show me a good time?” I waggle my eyebrows, just in case she didn’t get my emphasis on the word “good.”

   Her firm mask of propriety is back in place, her russet skin smooth and unmarred by so much as the tiniest grin. “Absolutely not. For so many reasons.”

   Lara holds the dress out for me to slip on feet first—less chance of me messing up the elaborate hairstyle she spent the last hour twisting my long hair into.

   “Kidding. I haven’t forgotten we’re here to talk about saving the entire system from total annihilation. I feel like that’s more important than me getting laid.”

   Lara mutters something that sounds a lot like, “Debatable,” but it’s so fast that I can’t call her on it.

   “Plus,” I add, “my mother went against the Council to send me on this trip. She’s trusting me to do a good job and not screw anything up. Sleeping with some random in a space lab seems like the definition of screwing things up.”

   I try to take a deep breath, the weight of everything I’m about to do suddenly way more substantial than it was a second before, but Lara is already buttoning me into a dress so heavy and jewel-encrusted, it might as well be body armor. There’s no longer room for movement of my diaphragm, which means joking around is definitely out. Unfortunately, so is breathing.

   “You look so beautiful, Your Highness.” Lara steps back as she finishes with the last of the tiny jeweled buttons. “What do you think?”

   “Are there any sloggs bigger than the ones from Kridacus? Because if there are, I definitely look like one of those.”

   “Nope,” she replies as she turns me to face the full-length mirror that runs along the wall. “Kridacans are definitely the largest.”

   I sigh glumly as I survey my reflection. “Then I’m definitely a new species. Hopefully of the nonpoisonous variety.”

   She takes the dress’s cape out of the closet and wraps it around my shoulders. Because, obviously, a giant purple cape is what it was missing.

   I glare at her, which she completely ignores as she fastens it with a brooch in the shape of a starburst just beneath my neck.

   Before I can try to talk her into leaving the cape off—overkill is an actual thing—the comms beep. Lara and I exchange a look, and I sigh heavily. Only one person would be calling the comms link right now, and her title begins with E and ends with double S. Lucky me.

   “What does she want now?” I mutter as I slide into the seat in front of the screen. Or, more accurately, try to slide. The dress makes it impossible, so I end up moving the chair aside and just standing.

   “To wish you luck, I’m sure.” Lara’s answer is circumspect—exactly how a companion-in-waiting should answer. Her expression, however, falls for a second into total annoyance.

   I snicker as I answer the call.

   The Empress narrows her eyes on me from the viewscreen. “I hope you don’t plan on laughing like that when you get off the ship, Kalinda. What is it I always tell you?”

   “A royal’s mask never falters,” I recite for the millionth time.

   “That’s right. I know you have this, Kalinda.” She sends me a smile that, for just a second, actually appears indulgent. But then naturally, she follows it up with, “Don’t make me regret sending you off-planet. Do I need to go over how important this is?”

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