“Empress?” the Lord called softly.
It was the next day. Usov and Watts stood just inside the door of what looked to the mercenary like a sitting room. The Lord had not spoken to him when the guards delivered him here. He had merely dismissed them and escorted Watts inside. The mercenary could see he was still pissed from yesterday.
Empress Minu was on the balcony gazing out over the wispy clouds floating by. She turned.
The sight of her took Watts’ breath away. Not because she was such a beauty, though she was attractive. No, it was not her body with all its gentle curves, or her raven black hair, or even her creamy cocoa colored skin. No, it was her eyes. Watts remembered another pair exactly like them from decades ago in a whorehouse on the Outer Rings of Pygia. A girl named Talya. She had the same emerald green eyes with flecks of gold sprinkled in them. Just like Talya’s, Minu’s turned up at the outer corners. Those eyes had haunted Watts’ dreams years after he left Talya.
When the Empress smiled Watts could swear he saw Talya before him again except that his lover had possessed skin as white as the snow fields of Taradon and would have been in her seventies like Watts. This woman was somewhere around forty or a well preserved fifty.
“I understand from Usov that there has been a grave misunderstanding,” she said as she walked in from the balcony. “I must take responsibility for not letting him explain. I wanted to tell you myself.”
“They say confession is good for the soul,” Watts prompted. He tried to concentrate – to ignore Minu’s resemblance to Tayla. He wanted to maneuver the Lord into another blow up.
He would be ready this time. He would disarm Usov and take the Empress hostage.
“Please feel free to tell me why you would have the Lord buy you children in the slave market of Galla II. No, wait…they’re not for your enjoyment, right?” He asked. “They’re playthings for your friends, right?”
The Empress sat down in a chair and fixed those unsettling eyes on Watts. The idea skipped through his mind that this woman might be a relative of Talya. No one could have eyes that close to hers without being related.
“You really have had a very rough life, haven’t you?” the Empress said with a hint of pity in her voice.
“I don’t need you talking down at me, whore,” Watts taunted verbally, baiting the Lord. Though the word held no significant for Watts (he had loved many a lady of the night) it seemed to press all the right buttons to agitate the great Lord Usov.
“Empress?” Usov hissed under his breath.
Watts had lit his fuse. The only thing holding him back was the presence of his boss. Just one more push.
Watts asked. “What kind of a man pimps for his woman?”
Usov exploded, but Watts was ready this time. He side stepped the blow and let the momentum carry the lord forward. Watts came down with locked hands on the middle of the man’s back. He crumpled to the floor. Watts grabbed the weapon from its holster at his side and drew back with the intention of planting a blow across the back of Usov’s head.
“No! Father!” the Empress cried in protest.
Watts pulled up short. He turned on the woman who had run up behind him and stood a mere foot or two from him.
“What did you say?” he asked. He knew what he heard. He just couldn’t believe his ears.
“I said, Father.” She reached out and gently touched his shoulder. “I don’t want you to kill your prospective son-in-law before you have the opportunity to get to know him.” She smiled and Watts knew it was true. This was his daughter. She had to be his and Talya’s daughter.
“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have let the charade go on this long, but I imagined it so differently in my mind,” she apologized. “I never thought you would jump to so many false conclusions.”
Usov rolled over and came up off the floor.
“I am not pimping,” he hissed in anger. “How could you think such a thing?”
“Easy,” Watts admitted. “I saw you buy every child in the slave market.”
“I said it before. You have a filthy mind,” Usov repeated himself. “The same thing you have done for your young friend, I have done for dozens of children over the years. I was buying them to save them.”
Minu put a restraining hand on Usov’s arm. She smiled up at him.
“You will have to excuse, Usov. He is very protective. It is his nature and a quality I much admire in him.” She turned and took a seat, motioning her two companions to also take chairs.
“We have a school here,” Minu explained. “It is my favorite personal charity. The children are brought her to live and learn. Once they become adults they are given a dowry and sent out into the verse to hopefully carry on the good habits they have acquired here.” She reached out to Usov who had taken a seat beside her and cupped his cheek with her hand. “I didn’t expect Usov to come home with so many, but we will make room.”
“Usov was really there for you,” the Empress continued. “Please, sit down. I will tell you all about our rescue plan.”
Watts sat down across from the Empress. “You are Talya’s daughter?” he asked.
“And yours. My name is Minu,” she introduced herself. “Mother would have been so pleased that you remembered her.”
“Would have been?” Watts asked.
“She and my step-father were killed almost thirty years ago in an accident during a sky race. My step-father loved speed and my mother loved him.”
It was all starting to fall into place for Watts.
“Your step-father was Emperor Mallie.”
“Yes. He married mother when she was going to be thrown out of the brothel because she was pregnant with me. She was his consort at the same time as she was yours. They never kept my heritage secret from me. Mother kept track of you all the years she was alive. She knew about your many missions as a mercenary. She could have contacted you at any point while she was alive.”
“Why didn’t she?” Watts asked. “I didn’t know she was pregnant. I would have come for her and you if I’d known.”
“I think that is the reason she didn’t contact you,” Minu explained. “You were like a wild thing to her. When she spoke of you her eyes grew distant. She recounted the adventures you told her of your missions over the months you were together. I don’t think she wanted to cage you with a family.”
“The Empress kept track of you all these years since her mother’s death.” Usov offered.
Watts noticed Usov was making an effort to be civil to his prospective father-in-law. They were both going to have to do their best to mend the rift between them created by the unfortunate misunderstanding of each others motives and actions. It wasn’t the man’s fault that he did things that looked suspicious to Watts.
“I have worked as her security head for many years,” Usov continued. “When I saw the message about William Braden’s release I remembered the story she told about your mission with the Bradens. We knew where you were. Minu sent me to fetch you.”
“I thought you would be safer here with the security force of Karakas to protect you,” Minu explained.
“But when I arrived at your home you had already left.” Usov squeezed Minu’s hand affectionately. “I searched the place for clues, but you hadn’t left any behind. We have a number of valuable informants dating back to the former Emperor’s time. I sent your photo to all of them. One of the hydra contacted me from Galla II saying they had you. I was afraid they would hold you for ransom, but that wasn’t the case. The hydra that captured you wanted it to look like a sale so he wouldn’t have to share with rest of his clan. They are nasty beasts.”
“Usov was there at the slave market for you. The purchase of the children was just his good heartedness.” She patted Usov’s leg as he sat at her side. “He had to confirm it was truly you with a DNA test before your purchase.” Minu explained. “We couldn’t take the chance of a deception on the part of the hydra.”
Watts shook his head. It was so much to take in. His daughter an Empress. His Daughter. He was a father. A father to one of the riches women in the verse. This was going to take some getting used to.
Watts was still trying to shuffle the information into some semblance of order when Shattuck burst into the room.
He and the two guards chasing him slid to a stop when they spotted the three other occupants.
“Mr. Rye,” Minu said. “I am so pleased you could join us. Please sit down.” She motioned for Shattuck to take a seat. “We have a lot to discuss.” She waved her hand toward Watts. “I believe you know my father, Ezekiel Watts.”