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Chapter One

Ximena ran her fingers along the white marble walls as they walked. The cold surface soothed her nerves and helped her orient her thoughts properly. Too much confusion in her mind led to bad things, not that she'd ever let it get to that. Her authority was a heavy responsibility, but she'd been raised to shoulder it since birth.

The tunnel they moved down was brightly lit, almost enough to hurt her eyes, but not quite. The marble that sheathed everything might have looked sterile except for the few black doors that dotted the long passage. They were the secret entrances to every room in the Palace, used by only a few servants and security personnel. It was a major breach of protocol for her to be here.

Why are you doing this, Xi?” Zefirino asked.

She shrugged tiredly, unsurprised by his question. She'd been waiting for it. “It is my responsibility.”

He put a hand in front of them, stopping her. The mark of his rank, Aegis Strike Leader, was tattooed on the palm of his right hand. She eyed the circle with the two strikes bisecting it and stifled a sigh. He let his hand drop. “No, it is not. It is too dangerous. I could question her for you. I should question her for you.”

She frowned at him. His handsome face was troubled. She wished she could reach out and smooth the worry lines away, but such familiarity would shock him, desperate as she was to feel his skin, accept that he was a living, breathing man who stood beside her always. She sighed out loud, instead. “We tried it your way and she would not speak. I need to do this.”

He looked at her steadily, the olive green of his eyes never wavering. Not for the first time she found herself admiring the cool green of his stare. He was a handsome man, not that she allowed herself to think of him that way very often. She looked down, wondering how he could stand there like that, so still. He never fidgeted. His tight black uniform hugged his body, highlighting the muscles hard-won through years of training. Weapons were strapped to his arms and legs, small black lumps against the synthetic fabric of his clothing.

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