I sat sprawled on the tastefully luxuriant sofa in the tastefully spacious living room of the tastefully exorbitant skyscraper where the Majdas had set me up. It just oozed taste. Despite all that, I loved the place, because the entire wall opposite the sofa consisted of a window. A panorama of the Vanished Sea spread out far below the tower, deep in purple shadows, a spectacular contrast to the red sunset that blazed on the horizon. I'd spent my life underground, denied the surface until my sixteenth birthday, that day I defied the unwritten code of Cries, walked out of the Undercity, and enlisted.
The Majdas let me live in this penthouse in return for my agreeing to stay on Raylicon to work for them. Of course my living in one of their properties made it easier for them to spy on my actions. We played a constant game where I blocked their sensors, they counteracted my blocks, I counteracted their countermeasures, and around and around. In the end, they never could outdo my blocks.
"Max, do your sensors pick up any bugs?" I asked. I preferred to converse aloud, now that we were alone, but I was always careful.
"Nothing." His voice rose out of my gauntlet comm. "I'll let you know if I do."
"I don't get this job," I said. "Why hire me? The Jagernaut Forces have their own internal affairs investigators. I can't see them asking an outsider for help, especially a former army officer. I never had any connection to the J-Forces."
"Perhaps that's why. They want a fresh perspective."
"Maybe." I wasn't convinced. "And who the hell is that woman?"
"I don't know. I haven't found anything about her on the interstellar meshes."
Of course she was in the meshes. Everyone was. You couldn't go off grid anymore, not unless you were some deep undercover agent, and she hardly struck me as the type. Then again, that could make her an effective operative. "You think she's a spy?"
"No," Max said. "I saw no indication of military training in her posture, attitude, or anything else about her."
"That could just mean she's good at what she does."
So he didn't believe it, either. I knew he didn't have genuine emotions, but he had become so good at simulating doubt, I couldn't tell the difference.
"I don't think she's a Majda. But why would they associate with someone who is so far off the grid, you can't even find her picture or name?"
"I don't know."
I thought about it. Oh, shit.
"Max," I said.
"Our mystery woman said something odd."
"She said many odd things. Which one?"
"She's only been at her job for two years."
"Why is that odd? Most people have jobs and many are new."
"Think about it." I sat up straighter on the couch. "Who got a new job two years ago?"
"Many people. Probably billions."
"Not people that General Vaj Majda bows to."
"General Majda didn't bow to anyone."
"She might as well have, given the way she was acting. Two years ago, Max."
"No, I'm not." I got up and started pacing. "Who is the only person with enough power to keep her identity completely off the webs? To keep General Vaj Majda at her beck and call?"
"Having an agreement that the general would stand out of earshot while you talked hardly constitutes beck and call."
"Seriously?" I stopped pacing. "Vaj Majda was standing like her bodyguard. Two years ago, Max. That's when Dyhianna Skolia ascended to the throne, after the death of her parents. That woman is the goddamned Ruby Pharaoh."
I waited for Max to tell me I was wrong. Please tell me I'm wrong.
"Your analysis has merit," Max said.
"I'm dead," I muttered.
"It is a great honor."
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.