MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It was the feverish gossip of the palace maids that got Aidan’s attention. He was bent over the rubbish bin, just outside the kitchen. Straightening up, he flicked a vegetable peel from the collar of his uniform and stood in the back doorway, concentrating on the girls’ whispers. Several princes from the neighboring planets of the Four Quadrants had been arriving since yesterday, each one more handsome than the last.
Normally, Aidan would brush off anything connected with the royal family—they were hardly his idea of decent human beings—but talk soon turned to the gifts each prince was rumored to be bringing as they all vied for Princess Delia’s hand in marriage. The idea of treasures brought in by potential suitors was too tempting to ignore.
With his usual stealth, Aidan slipped into the busy kitchen unnoticed. The other staff barely gave him a second look; it was just the girls, too busy with their own chores to afford him more than a blushing glance.
He spied the deliberate care the head chef took with displaying the flowers beside the array of mini cakes—plus the ornate napkin ring. Aidan knew the valuable piece would end up in his possession by the end of the day. His reflexes were so quick, sometimes all he had to do was notice an object and the next thing he knew, it was in his pocket.
He’d spent years successfully nicking cutlery and palace trinkets during his time as a kitchen chore boy, and had amassed a substantial escape fund. He pictured the almost-full metal box under his thin cot. He was so close to freedom! And with the headaches coming in faster intervals, he knew his time was dwindling.
The chef beckoned one of the serving androids lined up at attention, identical in their gray dresses and white aprons. “Take this directly to the guest suite in the east wing,” he ordered. “It’ll be my head if the prince’s tray is late.”
The android’s lack of emotion made her the perfect victim, or rather innocent accomplice. Aidan watched her carry the tray out of the kitchen, making up a plan on the spot.
Images of a room full of priceless treasures filled Aidan’s imagination as he waltzed through the bustling kitchen and down the servants’ corridor. He was enough of a constant to go unnoticed, plus experience in thieving had taught him that if you looked like you belonged, everyone assumed you did.
Aidan followed the android as she took the service transporter to the upper levels of the palace. The smooth lift swooped to a stop, making his stomach rise and fall. Wordlessly, the servant made her way down the hallway of the east wing. The bright polished area was a stark contrast to his stepfather’s cottage on the fringe of the Dark District. Built into the great mountain, the palace still had traces of the hard stone within the walls and floor. It was a perfect combination of technology and raw element.
But Aidan had no use for such luxury at the moment. He was focused on his new goal. The android stopped outside a door, then pressed her palm against the calling pad on the wall. The door slid open.
“Lovely work, darling,” Aidan said, reaching up and touching the soft spot behind her ear. There was a click under his finger and the android froze. It was a trick he’d learned a few weeks back while eavesdropping on the royal android technician—blending in to the point of being invisible had its perks.
Aidan took the tray from her and put on his best fake smile. “Compliments of Her Royal Highness, Princess Delia,” he called out, marching into the room. Then he added under his breath, “Heir to the throne, privileged daughter, and all around boring, typical spoiled royal.”
He noticed the fancy clothing on the bed. The jacket was adorned with shiny buttons and a pressed collar. Voices came from beyond the smaller door across the way. He couldn’t tell if it was a heated conversation or a lovers’ spat. No matter, all Aidan needed was a few precious seconds to scan the room.
Then he saw it. Nestled under one of the uniforms was the silver hilt of a dagger. Aidan put down the tray, taking care to first remove the gilded napkin ring and slip it into his pocket. It was a greedy gesture, but he reasoned a little insurance never hurt.
Picking up the embellished piece, Aidan noted the inlaid jewels and deduced this was probably a courting gift rather than a weapon. Something this beautiful should never shed blood.
The door opened. “You there!” A partially clothed man with a short haircut stood in the smaller doorway glaring.
Aidan gave an exaggerated bow as he hid the dagger behind his back. “Compliments of the royal kitchen, Your Highness.” He swept his other hand toward the tray, then did a quick twirl as he slipped the dagger into his pocket and made his way toward the door. “Enjoy the cakes,” he sang over his shoulder, unable to keep the smile off his face. Not only were his days of being the chore boy over, but the ornate dagger guaranteed the last bit of cash to get him a ticket off this miserable planet. The doors slid closed behind him and he let out a satisfied sigh.
The android was frozen with her arms out front as if she were still holding the tray. “Nice working with you,” Aidan said with a wink. “Forgive my hasty departure—”
“Thief!” the prince yelled from the other side of the door. “I’m calling the guards!”
Aidan scrambled for the servants’ lift only to find it was on another floor. Doubling back, he sprinted down the corridor, his boots slapping a guilty echo. He turned the corner and saw the main lift ten feet down the hall. It was a risk for a servant to use it, but he had no choice. He pressed the call button, swearing under his breath as nothing happened.
The voices of the Queen’s Guard echoed like rolling thunder from the far end of the hall. How did they get here so fast?
Aidan looked around and spied a tall alcove. Sucking in his breath, he slipped behind the life-size statue of some long dead royal he couldn’t care less about. Molding his back into the curved niche in the wall, he felt the familiar twinges to both temples and knew things couldn’t get much worse. Another headache was building, and this one promised to be the torturous kind that squeezed his skull to the point of passing out. And even though it meant relief, passing out now would guarantee him a lifetime in the dungeons.
Standing as still as stone, Aidan stared at the other statue across the hallway in its own alcove. He held his breath as the guards closed the distance. He estimated there were at least three of them, and all would be armed, he was certain.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the Queen’s Guard come into view. Tall and imposing, the black cloaks and swords evoked a chilling respect from anyone who came face-to-face with them.
The leader paused directly in front of Aidan’s alcove. The other two guards halted.
“Slippery bugger,” he muttered, looking down the long empty corridor. “Take the stairs. He can’t have gotten far.”
“Yes, Colonel Yashin.” There was a swish of capes as the guards turned and ran in the opposite direction. Aidan slowly relaxed.
The lift sounded as the doors opened. Aidan bounded inside. He reached for the main floor button, but then paused—the guards would be waiting for him, no doubt. His finger shifted and he hit the top button.
The lift came to a stop and the doors opened, revealing the launching bay. He was stunned for a moment, never having been close to this many grand ships before. Then Aidan saw a row of Queen’s Guard gliders. They had fifty times the maneuvering capability of the beat-up sky dodger he skimmed over Pirate’s Canyon. They were probably trickier to fly as well, but this day was apparently made for taking chances. All he would have to do was hop on one, and the sky would be his.
Before he could race to the nearest glider, a vessel on his left came to life. The door eased open as if summoning him. “A Queen’s Guard Patrol ship,” he whispered, equal parts awe and trepidation.
He could get much farther in a ship than an open glider, maybe even make it to another planet! No longer thinking about the metal box under his bed, Aidan seized the opportunity and eased his way inside.
He stared at the complex cockpit, suddenly overwhelmed. Anxiety set in. Aidan pulled at the collar of his shirt, frantically unbuttoning the top button. Then his hands felt the chain and the smooth disc around his neck—his medallion. Aidan touched it and closed his eyes. His mother’s voice echoed inside his head. “Always safe.”
With this new calmness, he took in his situation. “All right, you beautiful machine,” he said to the control panel, scanning the array of switches and buttons. “It seems you and I are destined to have an adventure.”
The general setup was similar to the smaller dashboard of the glider his stepfather owned. He was certain he could start the ship. But fly it? Er … no.
Aidan rubbed his thumb along his bottom lip, considering his next move. He knew what the future held if he didn’t take this ship. He imagined his stepfather, glowering from the head of the table, criticizing Aidan’s every gesture.
And never mind the sneers from his stepbrothers. There would be Drake, bulging arms and low forehead, grinning with each rude remark. Then Morgan, pale and apathetic, sitting beside his older brother, staring at the scene without comment—like always.
I’m done with them, Aidan thought. The dagger and the ship, and the opportunity they represented, were making him brave.
A jaunty sense of hope quelled his apprehension. “Machines are simple,” he said, hoping to sound confident. “Just tell it what you want it to do.”
He pressed what he assumed was the main power button. The computer-generated voice of the ship was serene. “Prepare for launch. In T minus ten…”
There was a shudder as the ship’s power thrusters came to life, knocking Aidan off his feet. The back of his head bounced off the hard floor. The computer continued to count down as Aidan fought the darkness creeping around the edges of his vision. This time he was certain things couldn’t get much worse.
Copyright © 2020 by B.R. Meyers