Author's Note: So I'm having some writer's block. I'm torn between trying to finish some books I started a while back, or starting a new six-book series. I'm leaning towards the series...but like the Prophecy of Nature series, I'm having issues with the first book. Once I write the first book, I have the other five all planned out. I just can't seem to get past the first few chapters in Book 1. Sigh. Anyway, I pulled this one out of my vault in the meantime. It's a little different from my usual...It's primarily a romance, but this one is sci-fi. It's a little bit morbid and twisted at some parts, and I definitely did not stray from my typical "tortured" male main character. Unfortunately, it's probably going to be a WHILE before I finish anything new, and who knows? Maybe someone will like this one.

The parts in italics are flashbacks. You won't really find out how they relate to the story until much later in the book. I'll probably post one or two chapters a day.


"Mitzell! Mitzell? Where is that blasted boy?"

Little eight-year-old Mitzell put a hand over his mouth to keep from chuckling as he listened to the sound of his father's gruff voice nearby. This was always the fun part, when they realized he was missing and started to look for him. Waiting wasn't so fun. Once he'd hidden in his closet for two days before his family realized he was missing and started hunting for him.

Today he'd chosen the cabinet under the sink. It smelled like soap and bleach, but he liked hiding there because he could still hear everything that went on in the main level of their quaint, two-story home.

His family was not rich. They had local plumbing instead of the more expensive, more powerful city lines because that was what the house had come with. The house itself was made of wood, a material nearly obsolete in the high-tech world of Zythalia. It was also not very efficient in the winter months, when the biting cold could only be kept at bay by excellent insulation and a good heating system.

They had gas heat.

But this house was in the prime location for his father's business. He worked on computers, usually personal computers, but he did some government work as well. Most of his clients were located in either Zorbungia or Ezred, and this house was situated in the countryside just between the two major cities. His father's clients liked traveling out to him because they could get away from the hustle and bustle of the city for a while. They didn't mind traveling the extra mile since Mitzell's father was well known for his extraordinary skill with computers.

One man had traveled all the way from Hezrat in the north just to have the computer in his landskimmer updated with the latest software. Mitzell had never seen a landskimmer before. Most Zythalians traveled by hovercraft—round, pod-like vehicles that flew anywhere from five to ten feet off the ground, depending on if one was in the city or country. Vehicles had to fly higher in the city to accommodate for the large amounts of pedestrians. Landskimmers had wheels, though, and traveled low to the ground. Mitzell had rather liked the awkward way the vehicle bumped and jolted over the rough, snowy terrain.

Someone turned on the sink. There was a leak in the curved pipe where Mitzell was resting his knee, and cold water started to drip onto his worn pants and seep through to the skin underneath. Carefully, the boy tried to ease his leg out from under the pipe, but his foot scraped loudly against the cabinet floor.

Mitzell went absolutely still, fearing that he might be caught. He could hear someone stepping back from the sink and listening.

The boy held his breath.

Something exploded. That was the only explanation for the loud sound that came from the front of the house. He heard a shriek that sounded like his older sister. She was thirteen and a real snob. Mitzell was sure that she'd run across another mouse and was causing trouble again. The last mouse had been rather cute…before his sister demanded that their father kill the poor creature. It had been terribly mean of her. He almost climbed out of the cupboard just so he could see the look of absolute terror on her face as the mouse chased her around. The image alone made him smile.

Then he heard the deep voices. He didn't recognize them, but they sounded sinister and hateful. There was another explosion, and his mother cried out his sister's name.

"Stay there, Mitzell," he heard his father whisper as he patted the cupboard door gently.

Mitzell could hear his father's footsteps receding as he went to the front of the house to see what was the matter. His mother was screaming hysterically, and then his father started to shout as well, cursing the men. More explosions followed, and his father fell silent.

For another thirty minutes, Mitzell listened to his mother. Sometimes she screamed like she was in anguish, sometimes she groaned as if she were only in mild pain. Worst of all were the moans, the sounds Mitzell sometimes heard coming from her bedroom during the day when his father was in the repair room out back. His mother was often left alone to 'entertain' his father's clients on particularly easy jobs that would only take a few hours. Mitzell often heard his parents arguing late at night, and somehow he knew that it had something to do with what happened in his parents' bedroom while his father was working.

Mitzell wanted to climb out of the cupboard and make sure his father was still all right, but even after the final explosion silenced his mother's desperate pleas for her life, he could still hear the men's deep voices inside his house. They walked around, searching, and he could feel his heart beating all the way up in his throat as he waited for them to find him.

Finally one of them shouted and everyone went running upstairs. They sounded victorious, triumphant. And then, laughing like it was all some kind of joke, they left.

Terrified of what might happen to him, Mitzell stayed underneath the cupboard until the stench of death now permeating his house started to make him nauseous and he had to get out. The scent only thickened as he approached the front of the house. Since it was winter, his father had cranked up the heat. That in combination with the door that had been left open, allowing in all manner of insects and animals, had caused the bodies of his parents and sister to decay at an alarming rate.

He barely even recognized them beneath the blood and maggots. His father had a giant hole his forehead, and pieces of his skull had been blown away to reveal the brain that had supported Mitzell's family for so long. His sister had been caught in the throat by the same weapon. The worst of all was his mother, though. Her clothes had been torn from her body, which was covered with deep gashes and lash marks. The face that had once been beautiful was now mutilated beyond belief by the gunshot that had killed her.

Mitzell only looked at his mother and sister briefly. Trapped in a marriage of convenience, his mother had never cared much for the boy who reminded her so much of her loathed husband, and his sister only spared time for boys who were unrelated to her. They were always so absorbed with themselves, doing stupid girl things and ignoring both Mitzell and his father.

His father held his attention for a long time, though. The man of a thousand smiles, his hero. He was always the one to find Mitzell when he went into hiding. He was always there to reassure him, to offer him comfort and support.

Mitzell stared down at his father's bloody, mutilated body for a very long time.

Then, when he could not bear to stand any long, he sat down in a pool of blood and cried.


Chapter 1

Cora Laussen lay indolently on her purple satin cushions with a smirk of satisfaction at how beautifully her day was going.

She had slept well into the afternoon, waking only when she feared that her house might begin to fall apart from the hinges if she did not at least make an appearance downstairs. When she finally awoke, dressed, and descended the wide staircase leading down to the first floor of her gigantic estate, she was greeted at the bottom by her steward, Thom, who announced jubilantly that her invested stocks had doubled overnight, extensively adding to her already massive fortune.

Breakfast was consumed in quiet solitude in her grand dining hall, her eyes alight with merriment as she read over the morning newspaper at her long, mahogany dining table and found that her stocks had, indeed, doubled. She had invested well in two major corporations, one based on Zythalia that produced heavy artillery for the Imperial Army, the other a Padoran company that built ships for the reigning King's own fleet. Since her King almost always prospered, so did Cora. Her other stocks were in small, low-key businesses that she had known would do well in the high-tech, fast-paced Industrial Sector of her planet. On all accounts, she had been right.

After breakfast, which, considering the time, had served as more of a lunch than a morning meal, she had adjourned to her practice fields where she spent nearly an hour working on her form as half of her retainers watched with stupid grins on their faces. If Cora did not need those men to protect herself against the Zythalian Empire and their sporadic attacks on her home planet of Padora, she would have fired them all long ago.

With few exceptions, Cora detested men. For the most part, they were all arrogant, lying, deceitful beasts who desired nothing more than a hole in which to insert their masculine appendages from time to time. Cora's mother was the previous Duchess of Laussen—a small country on Padora located in the heart of the resort vacation sector—and unlike most of the wealthy aristocrats, whose honorary titles were most often based upon the amount of money they donated to the King's greed, she married a man she was deeply in love with. In the Zythalian Empire, a conglomerate of planets that Padora had yet to join, marriage itself was relatively obsolete. Men and women joined under one household to form alliances, to bring together two wealthy families, or one wealthy family and one powerful family…so on and so forth. Padora was considered archaic in its belief that an alliance should be more than just a contract, but an actual sanctified union.

Even still, wealthy Padorans tended to stick to their own kind. Most nobles on the half-pleasure, half-business planet would insist that they could not possibly love someone who was without money or influence. When Cora's mother defied everyone by marrying a man who was both poor and ambitious, she was utterly ostrasized. People still talked about how horrified they were when the Duchess married a man in trade, regardless of how seemingly devoted he'd been to her.

Until she got pregnant, anyway. When Cora's mother was too big to fulfill her wifely duties, she found her husband in bed with one of the maids and went a little crazy. Cora's father did not survive the ordeal, and the unlucky maid barely made it out of the Estate alive. After hearing the story of why Cora Laussen had no father from her steward's ever-chattering wife, the new Duchess had decided that men were not worth the trouble.

Thom she could tolerate because he was old and married and like a grandfather to her. She'd never known her own grandfather, but she had vague memories of her grandmother from just before she died when Cora was five. Aside from her steward, there was only one other man on Laussen Estate with whom she associated with any degree of regularity, and had he leered at her while she practiced her shooting and sword-fighting like those idiots she paid to protect her, he would have expected physical retaliation. Unfortunately, her men were not so understanding. The last time she trounced one of them for leering, the substantial beating only served to increase their admiration for her.

As Cora lay on her bed, thinking about everything that had occurred since she woke, she found her smirk turning into a frown. As wonderful as the day had been, she could not help but wonder at why she bothered to keep those retainers around. Granted, the Zythalians were a constant threat. Ever since their new Emperor took the throne when Cora was just eight, what had once been a six-planet Empire had become a ten-planet Empire, with still more in the process of submitting to the dreaded Blood Emperor. Since Padora was such a small planet, Emperor Mizur had yet to put much effort into enforcing his will there. Aside from the spaceship-building businesses that thrived on one small sector of her tiny planet, it was more like a giant resort, anyway.

People came to Padora to relax, to get away. Cora lived on Padora to do the same. She could have easily used the small fortune left to her by her mother and relocated to another planet, but she had discovered that she rather liked living in a society with few rules and even fewer consequences—as was the case with her mother, who was never even questioned about her husband's mysterious "disappearance."

Very little decorum governed the upper class of Padora, aside from the unspoken rule that aristocrats must marry their own, but that was more for their own safety than for their public image. Marriage was really just a formality most of the time, anyway. When the wealthy claimed that love could easily be found amongst their own, most likely they were referring to how easy it would be to find love elsewhere once one was suitably married. Houses of Pleasure were large homes, kept up by the lower classes for a price, where those of the upper class could mask themselves and, for one night, fornicate with whomever they chose. Padora was well known for its pleasure houses, and it was a common misconception that Cora, like most other women on her planet, was just as accommodating as the women who frequented those establishments.

Thanks to the story of her mother and father, however, Cora had chosen to eschew not only the concept of love, but lust as well. In all of her twenty-one years, she had never taken a lover. Most women in a position of great power such as the one she held would have married years ago and had countless lovers since.

Not Cora. Silly things like lust and love, and men especially, would only come in the way of her true great obsession: money. Money was the one thing in the world that Cora could depend upon, and the one thing she had in abundance. Ever since she inherited the role of Duchess, she had constantly searched for ways to increase her wealth. Not because she needed it. Not because she had any inclination towards charitable works—although certain members of her household seemed to think they had a right to donate anonymously for her. But because money, to Cora, could never desert you and leave you alone at the tender age of ten to face life's cruelties all on your own.

Lately Cora had been fretting—just a little, mind you—over the incompetence of Padora's King and how his stupidity might soon affect her income. While the King did not actually rule over the small countries on the pleasure planet, he did exist as a figurehead, speaking for the Council of Ten, who made all political decisions for the planet.

Cora despised him. His gender alone encompassed all of the reasons for why he was despicable, but the bastard took male arrogance to an entirely new level.

The Zythalian Emperor had requested, quite nicely for someone used to taking over planets by hostile invasion, that King Ulysses provide him with designs for the newest starship under production in Padora's Industrial Sector. He sent about fifty armed soldiers to make this request, but no one was harmed in the process—except for one of the King's bodyguards, who was a little too overzealous about trying to herd the Zythalian soldiers out of the throne room and lost a large chunk of his head for his efforts.

Instead of conferring with the Council of Ten, as he was required to do, the King took the loss of his bodyguard to heart and not only declined the Emperor's request, but also told the fifty soldiers to tell Mizur that he could have one of Padora's precious starships only when he could find a way to shove the entire transportation device up his pompous ass.

They had yet to hear the Emperor's reply.

Cora scowled. She did not doubt that the Zythalians would take the starships by force, but she felt quite certain that she would be safe from harm even if they did come to Padora. The Industrial Sector was clear on the other side of the planet, far away from the resort areas, thus the only worry she had was how greatly the hostile takeover would affect her stocks in the company. Which meant she should not need over fifty paid men polluting her lawns at all hours of the day.

Something had to be done.

She pushed herself up off of her bed and threw a purple, silk robe over the violet chemise that she had slipped into after her bath. With her violet eyes filled with determination, Cora stalked down the hallway in her bare feet to the suite of rooms right next to hers.

Cora slept in her mother's room. She wore her mother's clothes, and sometimes she even looked a great deal like her mother, with her pitch-black hair and small figure, though she had inherited her grandmother's violet eyes. In order to refresh her memory of the two women she could barely recall, she often looked at old pictures and holograms of her mother and grandmother. Thom insisted that she was the spitting image of the small, fierce woman he often told her stories about. Cora was convinced she looked more like her grandmother, though. Her mother's features were sharper, more defined. Cora had a softness about her that her mother had never displayed in a single photograph.

None of that softness showed at that moment, however, as she stormed into the room that had once belonged to her father. The man who slept in what had once been her sire's private chamber, however, was most certainly not her husband.

"We need to talk." She had entered the room without knocking, and she found the man she had been looking for lying on his stomach atop the silken sheets of his large, four-poster bed. It was draped in green silk, just like the floor-to-ceiling windows flanking it. The floor was thick green carpet that almost looked like dark grass, and every piece of furniture in the room was made of gold. Cora's father had designed the room himself shortly after marrying her mother. Every piece in the room was handcrafted and worth a fortune. Every corner of the room was draped in silks and gilded in gold.

The man lying atop her father's very expensive and well-adorned bed, however, was not wearing a stitch of cloth on his muscular, tanned body.

Cora's face flared red with anger. "How many times do I have to tell you that you must always wear a shirt? Blast it, Alex, you could walk around with your dick hanging out for all I care, but if anyone sees that tattoo on your back, we are in big trouble," she scolded as she slammed the door shut behind her.

Alexander, a freeloader who had been living with Cora since she was just ten—the age at which she acquired Laussen Estate—rolled over and looked up at her with a playful smile on his handsome face. Even though he was male and more arrogant than the King himself, Alex was the only other man in all of Padora that Cora called friend. He was certainly the only man who could get away with being naked around her and not have to worry about losing any appendages.

His dark eyes were twinkling merrily as he looked at her, hair equally dark floating behind him in silky waves. Alexander chose to wear his hair fashionably long, but only because it was fashionable on Padora. When he had arrived at Laussen Estate eleven years ago, his hair had been short and the same green as the room he now slept in.

Padorans were typically dark-haired with light colored eyes. They most certainly did not have green hair. In fact, no one in the Nebunas Galaxy aside from a Zythalian could possibly have such a hair color. On top of that, most Zythalian males over the age of twelve also bore the black eagle tattoo on their backs that marked them as having begun the military training required of all purebred members of the Empire.

Cora had not realized when she was ten that it would be dangerous to harbor a renegade Zythalian. All she knew was that the handsome young man was hurt and alone and needed someone to look out for him. Cora herself had felt very much alone at the time, having just lost her mother, so it seemed like a perfect solution to both of their problems. With Thom's help, she nursed the young man back to health. With the help of some black dye, she changed him into a Padoran.

He'd been living with her, freeloading off of her, ever since. Cora had ceased keeping track of the hundreds of dollars Alexander spent without her permission. It only frustrated her anyway, and as long as she was still rich come the end of the month, she chose to ignore his little indiscretions.

"You are the only one who bothers to barge in here without knocking, love, so why should it matter if I am fully clothed or not?" he teased, his dark green eyes twinkling merrily.

Cora looked at him scathingly. "I hate it when you get playful like this. And if you call me love again, I will sever the miniscule location of your brain from that horrific naked body of yours."

Alexander cast her a stricken look. "That truly hurts, Cora. To think you would cause such a dear friend so much harm…but worse, for you to downsize what is so obviously the largest, most beautiful…"

Cora did not take the bait and look down below his waist. As many times as she had seen Alexander naked, as many times as he had tried to get her to look anywhere but at his face, it never worked. She was not afraid that she might be tempted to take their relationship to a deeper level at the sight of his sexual organ. The only way for Cora to maintain a comfortable relationship with Alexander was to view him as a brother, so she could never think of him sexually. Thus it was not fear of desire that kept her from looking down, but fear of injury.

No one had properly explained to Cora how the male body functioned, but her maids were always gossiping about who was sleeping with whom, who wanted to sleep with whom, who was sleeping with someone else's whom…It was absolutely ridiculous. Because of their gossip, however, she had begun to imagine that men walked around with a weapon between their legs, a fierce stick of woe that could destroy a woman's sanity. If she looked, she might lose her mind.

"Put some clothes on," she snapped, interrupting his lengthy description of something that she had already decided could not be nearly as magnificent as her friend made it out to be.

With a dejected sigh, he obeyed her orders. He stood up and stretched, if only to irritate her because when he pushed himself upwards like that he was almost a foot taller than her. She hated that Zythalians were so tall, almost like giants. Alexander's height was one of the few inexplicable aspects of his body that Cora had had to deal with over the years. The other was his eye color. She still hadn't found a way to make eyes that were such a dark shade of green they almost merged with his pupils change into anything lighter. Very few Padorans were born with dark eyes, but a dark-eyed man who stood at six and a half feet tall…

So far, no one had guessed Alexander's origins. Cora rarely interacted with those of her class, and the only people she ever invited to her Estate were involved in the many businesses she owned stock in. As Alexander was inevitably bored to tears whenever Cora started talking business, he managed to make himself obsolete on those rare occasions. Thankfully, her staff was discreet enough not question her houseguest. With how badly the Padorans despised the Zythalians and their precious Empire, it would be disastrous if anyone beyond Laussen Estate ever found out that a Duchess was offering safe haven to the enemy.

"What is it you wish to discuss?" Alexander asked her when he had finally managed to slip into a comfortable pair of brown pants and a loose-fitting white shirt. He patted the space beside him on his bed, and Cora obediently walked over and took a seat on top of the dark green sheets.

"I want to fire my retainers."

Alexander frowned. "All of them?"

She rested her head on one of his massive shoulders with a sigh. "Well, most of them," she grumbled, and then she turned her head so she could see his clean-shaven profile and added, "I will only keep the ones who are old or married."

Her friend's expression lightened a bit, and he lifted his eyebrows. "Were they leering at you again?" he asked. "I told you that you should not practice without me. They only do it when you practice alone."

Cora pushed away from him and immediately bounded to her feet. "I should not have to be in the company of a man to keep from being stared at like a piece of meat!" she seethed, irate that he would dare to suggest that she alter her daily routines for the sake of a bunch of slobbering men.

"If you had any idea how incredibly beautiful you are, you might understand why men stare at you like they do. Take it as a compliment, Cora. If they try to act on their desires…then I will personally deal with them in the most imaginatively excruciating ways possible. But if all they are doing is staring…" He let his voice trail off and shrugged.

"I do not like it when they stare. It makes me uncomfortable, and I want them gone tomorrow!" She knew that she sounded like an insolent brat, but she didn't care. This was her Estate. Though her mother had left her a decent fortune, Cora had worked very hard to increase her wealth so that she could enjoy a long and luxurious life. It wasn't fair that anyone should disrupt her perfect existence.

Alexander sighed deeply. "You and I both agreed that the price would be worth the extra protection. I have more experience in this area than you, coming from a planet that knows little but war. Can't you trust me when I say that those men are needed?"

"I have trusted you on that account long enough. We have had many of those men around for years now, Alex, and not once have we needed them!"

"But you know that as soon as we get rid of them, that is when the Zythalians will attack."

Cora snorted. "Not bloody likely. They want the starships, not the resorts," she reminded him.

"The former Emperor would have settled for taking what he wanted and then leaving. This new Emperor, though…he will not stop until every Padoran has paid for the sins of one. Please, Cora. At least until we see how the Emperor will react to what King Ulysses did," Alexander pleaded.

Cora glared down at him with her hands firmly planted on her hips. She continued to glare at him for the next few minutes, waiting for him to back down.

He didn't. Alexander never backed down, not when it came to protection, and especially not when it came to Cora's protection. Family and honor were two codes that were very important to her friend. Since she was the only family that he had, he felt that it was his duty to protect her. This was one battle that she could not hope to win.

"Fine," she eventually relented with a growl of dissatisfaction. "We will keep them for now, but I will hate you for this for…" She placed one small, pale finger on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "The rest of the day. See you tomorrow, Alex."

"I suppose it would do me little good to remind you that Padora is a worthless speck in this galaxy with which we need not bother ourselves."


Emperor Mizur, the dreaded Blood Emperor as he was often called, glanced thoughtfully at the man who kneeled before him. He wore the typical, stiff garments of a Zythalian military man—black shirt with long sleeves that clung to his muscles and black pants that fit snugly, a single red stripe slashing down the center of the right pant leg announcing his position as General. In spite of his elevated military rank, however, he had not come to the throne room armed. No one was allowed to bring weapons to the throne room except for Mizur's host of guards, who stood in front of him like a pack of dogs.

This man should have been an obedient, faithful dog as well, but somewhere the Emperor had taken a wrong turn. Well…he preferred to think of it as a detour, one that would eventually lead his faithful servant back to the road of obeisance. For the time being, even with his head bowed in reverence, the man still had the nerve to speak to the Emperor sarcastically, as one might speak to an old comrade.

General Zahn and the Zythalian Emperor were not comrades. In fact, the two men hated each other so much that it was a wonder they were able to tolerate being in the same room with one another. Mizur had adopted Zahn when he was just a child, had given him personal training to mold him into the perfect military leader, both strong and cunning. Zahn had shown a brilliant grasp of strategy from an early age, and Mizur had chosen to play on that, to bring it out.

Apparently, in spite of his knack for it, military life did not suit the General. He grew bitter over the years, came to hate the hand that fed him.

In spite of that fact, at the tender age of seventeen, Zahn had been given control of the Emperor's entire army.

The danger of it all made Mizur want to smile. It was exciting, having such a foe in a position of power. Mizur lived off of danger and excitement.

"Please stand, General Zahn. If you cannot speak to me deferentially, you might as well stand before me as an equal," Mizur said with a wave of one darkly tanned hand. All Zythalians were born with skin that was naturally olive in color, though the darkness varied from person to person. Mizur's skin looked darker than most because of his shockingly white hair. Zahn's looked paler because his hair was a dark, cobalt blue.

The General stood very slowly, as if to intimidate his Emperor. The act of defiance made Mizur smile, only because he knew that Zahn would never act on that defiance. Usually he needed only to threaten a person's life to deter that person from disobeying his orders, but some particularly stubborn people often required a little more…persuasion. His General, his adopted son, had only one weakness for the Emperor to use against him.

The Empress.

The woman he had allied himself with was detestable. Mizur had chosen to marry her only because of the small empire she had brought with her to the marriage. Otherwise he could have chosen any woman. But Gorfuth, a planet with three habitable moons that was really quite powerful in its own star system, was to be one of Mizur's first conquests. When he brought his new wife home—forced, was more like it—little Zahn had taken to her immediately. So even after Mizur discovered that the despicable woman was barrfen thanks to an infection she'd suffered years ago, he continued to keep her around if only to keep Zahn in line. Otherwise he would have searched for the next in line to the Gorfuthian throne a long time ago and disposed of the worthless woman.

Without a royal-blooded Gorfuthian, Mizur would have no real power over that planet or any of its moons. Damned contracts and agreements drawn up before he'd even come to power. But Zythalians were sticklers for contracts, and so were Gorfuthians. So Mizur kept his wife around,f every now and then threatening to beat her or lock her away for months on end if Zahn refused to obey a command.

"Now, I take it from your previous remark that you are not pleased with the idea of taking over Padora?" Mizur asked the dark-eyed man standing beneath him. Now that he stood to his full height, he was nearly seven feet tall. Taller than Mizur by over half a foot, though the Emperor rarely stood up from his throne long enough to judge the height difference between them. It didn't bother him that he was shorter than most Zythalians, if only because he was the Emperor and had the right to be whatever height he damn well pleased. No one could judge him. If they did, they would die.

"It seems like a worthless venture to me. There are other planets in this star system that serve greater purposes than Padora. We can find equally useful ships elsewhere," Zahn assured him.

"Equally useful, but not equally fast," Mizur argued. "I have heard rumors that their latest model starship, the P-22, can travel from Padora to Zythalia in two days without a hyper jump. Our fastest model takes two weeks. Do you have any idea how useful a whole fleet of those ships would be? We could plan more surprise attacks, more sting operations…" He waited to see the look of dismay on Zahn's face, knowing that this one battle would lead to countless others for someone who had seen plenty of war in his young life.

As usual, however, Zahn's face remained devoid of emotion. The boy was really starting to perfect that impassive façade of his.

"If that is your wish, Emperor, then I will obey. I only hoped you would see reason on this. As you just mentioned, our ships take two weeks to travel from here to Padora. We can use the hyperdrives on the way there, but for the return trip we will have to settle for the regular drives. Including the time it will take to overpower their Industrial Sector without destroying the ships…"

"I want the whole planet."

"What?"

"I don't just want the Industrial Sector, General. I want the entire planet. That fool King of theirs actually had the nerve to insult me, and because of that there will not be a single man or woman left in power on that planet when you are through with it, do you understand?" Mizur said sharply.

"You would do this all over an insult?" The fluorescent lights inset in the ceiling of the large throne room highlighted the surprised expression on Zahn's face.

Mizur relished in that crack in his adopted son's composure. His shock alone was enough to make this worthwhile. "Yes. I would. I want none of their despicable nobles left alive. Every man, woman, and child with noble blood is to be killed."

"You want me to kill the children as well?" There was a hint of outrage in those dark, defiant eyes.

A slow, malicious smile spread on Mizur's lips. "Especially the children," he said coldly. "You have your orders, General. You will leave immediately. If I hear that you stopped by your worthless mother's room for even a minute, she will be whipped."

With a contemptuous glare, the dark-haired man turned and walked stiffly out of the room.

As soon as he was gone, Mizur turned to the man with bright red hair who stood directly to the left of his opulent throne. Like the rest of his guards, this man was dressed in red silk garments. They looked more like over-sized men in bathrobes than the deadly killers that they were, but Mizur liked for his men to feel comfortable and look rich. They preferred it that way, as well.

"I have checked all of the security cameras from the rooms he employs. There is still no sign of one. Have you heard anything from any of his men about a new mistress?" he asked the man.

"No, my lord," Rozun, the head of his personal guard and his most trusted confidante, curtly replied.

"It's been nearly a year now. Is this another silent rebellion, do you suppose?" Mizur wondered. "Or perhaps he has simply become more clever at hiding them from us?"

"Some say that he no longer desires the company of women," Rozun explained.

"Is that all it took?" the Emperor murmured thoughtfully. "What a novel concept."

A slow smile spread across his lips. He hadn't imagined it would be this fun to raise a son, a son that was not his own. It did not matter that his adopted son despised him, that he probably dreamed about killing him. He was exactly what Mizur had wanted him to be—a woman-hating killing machine.

The smiled broadened.

It was just like they said. Like father, like son.