Read the First Two Chapters From Bonds of Brass

A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend—the man he trusts most and might even love—only to learn that his friend is secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.

We’re excited to share an excerpt from Emily Skrutskie’s Bonds of Brass, the first book in the Bloodright trilogy—publishing April 7th with Del Rey.

Ettian’s life was shattered when the merciless Umber Empire invaded his world. He’s spent seven years putting himself back together under its rule, joining an Umber military academy and becoming the best pilot in his class. Even better, he’s met Gal—his exasperating and infuriatingly enticing roommate who’s made the academy feel like a new home.

But when dozens of classmates spring an assassination plot on Gal, a devastating secret comes to light: Gal is the heir to the Umber Empire. Ettian barely manages to save his best friend and flee the compromised academy unscathed, rattled that Gal stands to inherit the empire that broke him, and that there are still people willing to fight back against Umber rule.

As they piece together a way to deliver Gal safely to his throne, Ettian finds himself torn in half by an impossible choice. Does he save the man who’s won his heart and trust that Gal’s goodness could transform the empire? Or does he throw his lot in with the brewing rebellion and fight to take back what’s rightfully theirs?


 

 

CHAPTER 1

My stomach drops when I see it. Not in horror—something closer to exasperation sculpts the feeling of my mess-hall-slop breakfast bottoming out. The hangar outside the equipment room rumbles with activity. Engines firing, boots on concrete, the crackle of announcements over the intercoms. I give the cacophony only dry silence in return, because Gal Veres has forgotten his helmet.

Again.

“One of these days, you’re not going to have me to cover for you,” I mutter under my breath as I cross the room and scoop it off the shelf. “One of these days, the officers are going to come down hard on your ass, and I won’t do a thing to stop it—I swear on the gods of all systems.”

But not today, and probably not tomorrow, either, and I’m already out the door with Gal’s helmet under one arm and my own under the other.

The hangar swallows me whole, folding me into the Umber Imperial Academy’s mad scramble. On a busy morning like this, at least three different flight drills are running simultaneously. The cavernous vault of the ceiling rattles at unsteady intervals as a line of ships passes overhead. People scamper back and forth—cadets, officers, mechanics—all of them moving with frantic purpose along the designated pathways painted between the spacecrafts.

This hangar plays host to every conceivable sort of ship, from narrow, sleek fighters to massive carriers that can skip between star systems at superluminal speeds. Every hull is marked with the obsidian and brass of the Umber Empire, shimmering in the low light. There’s not a junker in sight—all of these ships are less than five years old, their metal fresh from the mined-out asteroid belts of the former Archon Territories. I’m forced to stop as a Razor taxis toward the hangar doors, a hungry promise in the thrum of its engines. My heart lifts as the vibrations rattle down my spine. Soon, the pump of my blood swears. Soon I’ll be in the air. Soon I’ll be nothing but the raw impulse it takes to pilot a fighter.

Just as I’m about to take off at a run, a hand comes down on my shoulder, yanking me to the side. “What the rut—” I choke, but already they’re dragging me into the shadow of a skipship’s wing. I twist out of the grip and find myself staring down the suspiciously perfect teeth of Tatsun Seely. Three of his friends hover behind him, blocking us from the main path.

“Ettian Nassun,” Seely says, all charm and no sincerity. In the two and a half years we’ve been at the academy together, I think I’ve had about three conversations with the guy. Now he’s smiling up at me like we share some secret, and I’m not keen on finding out what it is.

“We’re gonna be late,” I tell him. Not that it matters to Seely—his whole crowd treats exercises with willful disdain bordering on open resentment. Which I understand. Really, I do. Seely’s an orphan of the former Archon Empire, like me. One of millions of kids whose lives were upended when Umber took our homeworlds seven years ago. Like me, his frame is stick-thin from half a life on Archon portions, barely rounded out from seven years of Umber abundance, though I’m a little taller and my skin is several shades darker. Like me, he was shuffled into the Umber military establishment once they opened this academy on the planet Rana, mere miles away from the former Archon Imperial Seat.

Unlike me, he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder about it.

Which brings me back to his teeth and my suspicions. Because Seely’s chompers are not your everyday set. They speak to years of good dental work—the finest dental work, stuff that must have started long before the Umber Empire’s victory. You see teeth like his on governors, high-ranking officials, and probably even on imperials themselves.

And, presumably, on their heirs. At ten years old, Seely would have been far too young to be revealed to the rough-and-tumble world of galactic politics when the Archon Empire fell. If he was someone’s next in line—maybe one of the planetary governors in an interior system—he would have been tucked safely in the shadows, raised in secret for a role his blood destined him to play. And when Iva emp-Umber won her war and claimed her spoils, she stole his bloodright out from under him.

It’s a bit of a reach to explain why he half-asses everything, and it requires some logistical leaps to justify how he made it to the academy after the empire collapsed. But it’s probably the most interesting thing about Tatsun Seely, so I entertain the notion.

“Ettian, hey—” Seely snaps his fingers in front of my eyes, and I fix him with a glare.

“Seely,” I say coolly, “get to the tarmac.”

I try to shrug his arm off my shoulders, but he clamps down tighter, pulling our heads close together. “Yeah, I’m not taking orders from you,” Seely mutters, his voice dropping low and serious. His face contorts as he tries to maintain an amicable smile. “Doesn’t matter what fancy call sign the higher-ups give you—you’re one of us. And we need to talk about the company you keep.” His eyes track an officer as she bustles past, but in the shadow of the skipship, we’re off her radar.

“Really?” I snap. Now I get what this is about. I’ve caught the scornful looks Seely and his crew throw my way more than once. They know I was born right here on Rana. I come from the nearby city of Trost, the capital and heart of the former Archon Empire. Theoretically, I should be more pissed than any of them about the Umber conquest, but instead I’ve thrown myself headlong into the new establishment. We’ve been at the academy together for two and a half years—I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to confront me about it.

Archon is dead. It’s gone. I can’t carry it with me. The only productive thing I can do is latch on to the opportunities that rise out of the postwar reconstruction. That’s what’s kept me alive for the past seven years.

Seely’s pride doesn’t allow for that sort of thinking. It’s a miracle he’s survived this long. His lips curl up over those uncanny teeth. “Face it, Gold One, you’ve rolled right over for Umber. But we can help you fix that. There’s a chance to regain a little dignity. A little honor.”

His fingers start to fidget on my shoulder. To the untrained eye, it looks like a simple nervous tic, but every child born on Archon soil knows better. He’s tapping a rhythm against my bones, one of the ancient beats that sculpted the old empire’s culture. Some are soft and comforting, a resting pulse. Others scream of triumph in fast, emphatic strokes.

Seely’s beat is urgent. Rising. A call to arms.

It freezes my blood. Seely feels me lock up against him. He leans close, his breath in my ear. “Remember the knights?” he whispers. “Remember how it felt to see one flying over a city? A single human in a powersuit that could tear the wing off a fighter craft? We’re gonna be heroes like them.”

And just like that, I’m unstuck. I duck out of Seely’s grip, clutching the helmets uncomfortably against my hips. Sure, I remember the suited knights. The heroes of the Archon Empire, keeping the peace and fighting for justice across the systems.

They were the first thing Iva emp-Umber set her sights on when she decided to take our homeworlds and their abundance of metal-rich asteroid belts for her own. Thirty coordinated strikes destroyed every knight, their staffs, their headquarters. Not even a single powersuit remained in the aftermath. Knightfall, they called it. A declaration of war, painted in the blood of every single person we were dumb enough to call our heroes.

“I like my head where it is,” I tell Seely sharply. Guilt prickles through me as his expression drops to a stony glare. Usually the choice to fall in line with Umber rests comfortably on my shoulders—and in my well-fed gut—but when a fellow war orphan is scowling at me like I’m dirt, it’s hard not to feel it. “Look, for your sake, whatever it is you think you’re going to do… Don’t.”

“Told you he wouldn’t bite,” one of Seely’s companions says with a sniff. She glances over her shoulder. “He’s a waste of time.”

“Agreed,” I tell her, plastering a false, cheery smile over my face as I back toward the marked walkways.

“See you in the black, Gold One,” Seely calls. “And for your sake, stay out of my way.”

I scoff as I dodge back into the flow of traffic out of the hangar. Seely’s all talk—anyone who thinks they can do anything for the old empire at this point is all talk. If the Umber victory wasn’t secure when they won the war and executed the Archon imperials seven years ago, it was rock-solid by the time they opened the academy’s doors. Now Archon-born children grow up with good Umber foundations that keep the drums from pounding rhythms into their hearts. Reliable supply lines run from the richness of the Umber interior to all-but-barren Archon soil, and hungry new governors—often second children with no bloodright claim in their home territories—have stepped in to bring order to the newly acquired worlds. The region’s finally stabilized after the war cracked it open, and gods of all systems help anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to disturb that peace.

I break from the hangar’s shadow and into the bright winter sun. A curl of wind from the east brings with it the dusty scent of prairie grass, and some of it settles the frayed ends of my nerves. Between getting Gal his forgotten helmet and my run-in with the other Archon brats, there’s a good chance I’m going to be the one on the receiving end of an imperial-level dressing-down from the officers.

I lengthen my strides as I hustle down the tarmac, making for the row of Vipers lined up in their staging zones like knives in a drawer. My focus locks onto the third ship in the row—and as a result, I nearly run headlong into a young officer on her way back to the hangar. It takes me an extra second to recognize Jana as I try to keep from tripping over my boots.

“Ettian, hey!” she says, her smile bright as she resettles the shoulders of her crisp black uniform. Her eyes drop to the second helmet I’m carrying. “Again, huh?”

Jana’s one of an entire cohort of upperclassmen Gal charmed into adopting him the second he arrived at the academy. Even though she graduated to the officer ranks two years ago, she still checks in from time to time, and it’s not uncommon for her to come knocking at our door for a conversation that usually devolves into mindless gossip about ten minutes in.

I return her grin, backpedaling to keep my momentum going. “Again!” I tell her. I wish I had time to stop and chat, but there’s fire under my heels. Knowing Jana, she’ll probably swing by our room later tonight anyway.

She tips an informal salute at me, and I turn around and break into a jog. As I run past, some of the other cadets call out greetings that I try my best to acknowledge with quick jerks of my head. A few of them are already perched in their cockpits, doing their preflight checks. It spurs me faster.

By the time I make it to the Gold Twenty-Eight Viper, I’m clawing for breath, both helmets dragging me down like twenty-pound weights. But when Gal Veres turns around and sees me, it’s easy to forget all that. His smile glows, the breath he lets out fogging in the chilled air. He’s unfairly handsome, his skin a warm golden brown, his hair perpetually perfectly tousled, and his frame sturdily built from a lifetime in Umber abundance. How dare you, part of me groans. I need to be in my Viper already, comfortably settled in my gel-seat so I can forget how a single look from Gal sometimes feels like it might take my legs out from underneath me.

Before he has a chance to get a word in, I pitch his helmet at him. He catches it with a slight oomph.

“You owe me one,” I tell him. It’s not true, strictly speaking—I’ve been carrying his ass in classes since day one, but he’s carried me through our time at the academy in ways I can never fully repay.

But it’s Gal, so of course he plays along. He leans casually against the ladder to his cockpit, settling the helmet over his unruly undercut. “Thanks for covering for me—knew you’d have my back. I would have commed you to make sure, but…”

And then his smile goes wicked, and he slips my earpiece out of his pocket.

Hollow exasperation hits me like a gut punch for the second time today. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I groan.

Gal doesn’t toss it—he makes me come and pluck the device daintily out of his palm, his hooded eyes sparkling with delight. “Noticed you forgot to make your way to the comm station, figured you’d gotten distracted by something, you know the rest. And we’re supposed to trust you to lead us today?”

“Better me than you.”

“Rut off. I could be an amazing leader.”

“Your test scores say otherwise. And last week you couldn’t even get one other person in the cantina to try streaking the officer quarters with you.”

“No one was drunk enough. But it’s gonna happen someday. We’ll make academy history—first to make it to the head’s door and back.”

I knock my shoulder into his, laughing softly as I slip my earpiece in. Behind Gal, I catch a glimpse of Hanji, another cadet in our year, as she moseys toward her station in the control tower. She gives me a wave, then makes a suggestive gesture involving both of her hands and a wicked tilt of her eyebrow. I grapple with the urge to pull a face at her, keeping my stare pinned on Gal instead.

Hanji and Ollins, another member of her merry band of miscreants, made a bet where Gal and I are concerned. If Gal finds out the terms of that bet, I might as well float my Viper into the path of an oncoming dreadnought.

“What?” Gal asks, and I realize I’ve stared a moment too long.

“Huh? Oh, just… I saw Jana on my way over,” I blurt. Smooth, Ettian.

“Yeah, she came by to say hi.”

I glance around at the tarmac, the line of Vipers, the distance from here to the hangar. “Came by?”

“Jealous? I can ask if she’s got friends who are into, y’know, all of this,” he says, gesturing from my head to my toes.

“Who isn’t?” I shoot back, setting my helmet over my head.

Gal snorts. “Got me there,” he says, and something skitters sideways in my stomach. Before the comment has a chance to settle, he claps me on the shoulder. “C’mon, Ettian. Big day. Let’s get these ruttin’ birds in the sky.”

I cuff him back, grinning, then lift a finger to my earpiece and flick my comms on. “This is Gold One. All units report in.”

As I jog to my own Viper at the opposite end of the staging zone, my ears fill with the noise of thirty rowdy cadets sounding off. At my back, Viper engines whine through their preflight checks, rattling my bones. I clamber into my own cockpit, dropping into my gel-seat as I will myself to focus. It’s just noise. No rhythm beneath it. No thoughts of the past. Only the wide-open future, the black above, and the sureness of the ship beneath my hands as I taxi onto the runway.

When the tower signals, I throw everything I have into the Viper’s thrusters. I rocket for the fringes of Rana’s atmosphere with the formation at my rear, begging for my heart to calm down.

But the frantic thump-thump-thump in my chest is a little too close to drums for my liking.

 

CHAPTER 2

The human mind isn’t built to process hurtling through a vacuum at skin-peeling speeds in a cockpit just big enough for a single pilot and all of his fear. The Viper around me is sleek and athletic, and the engines at my back roar as I urge a little extra speed out of them. The vast dark of space envelops me, the stars washed out by the daytime glow of Rana five hundred miles beneath us. I should be pissing myself.

And yet.

My mind goes a little inhuman in the cockpit of a Viper. My awareness pushes its limits, my body forgotten in favor of the ship around me. My eyes unfocus. My heartbeat steadies. Any residual anxieties vaporize in the void, yielding to the immediacy of flying, and instinct takes over the way my hands twist and pull the craft’s controls. The readouts spit information about the vector my ship is sailing on, but I don’t need it.

All I need is the feeling. That’s what keeps me in formation as we sweep through the black. The distance between each ship is measured, but instinct is what holds us there.

“This is Gold One. Execute first maneuver,” I announce to the comm.

I fire the attitude thrusters, pulling my nose up. My Viper’s engine drives a frantic tattoo into my spine. The burn is silent outside the craft, deadened by the vacuum, but inside my radio goes live. Thirty Vipers fill with the howls and whistles of cadets being jammed down into their gel-seats by the vicious inertia.

The glowing curve of Rana eases into view and then slides back out as we complete our arc and level off. At the edge of my vision, I catch the shine of Viper noses as the rest of the formation follows my lead. “Gold Twenty-Eight, get that vector straightened out,” I grumble as one of them lists off-track.

“Sorry, Ettian.”

My teeth set on edge, but I can’t help the smile that tugs the corners of my lips. I’ve given up on trying to get Gal to use call signs during exercises, and so has most of the senior staff—though they certainly won’t cut me any slack for letting him get away with it. His Viper jerks in my periphery, settling shakily back into formation.

“No apologies, Gold Twenty-Eight. Get it right.” It’s hard to say with a straight face, and I can picture the way Gal’s smirking in his own cockpit. “Rest of you, this is Gold One. Execute second maneuver.”

I close my eyes and spin up my gyros with a twist of the controls. I could flip my Viper with a preset, but where’s the fun in that? Pure instinct sends my craft end over end—540 degrees, for show—and pure instinct fires the engines at the right moment, the attitude thrusters locking the Viper straight along the inverse of its former vector as the main burn kicks, driving me into my seat with the force of a missile strike.

That pure instinct is why I’m Gold One.

“Ruttin’ showoff,” Gal mutters over the comm, and bursts of laughter snap through from the other pilots.

“Jealous bastard,” I shoot back, and Gal chuckles.

“Keep it professional, Ettian,” he warns.

“Cut the chatter, Gold Twenty-Eight,” I reply, but he knows I’d rather he didn’t. Even though this is technically my drill and I should be keeping things serious, these flight exercises are a formality. Rana’s Imperial Academy is a playground, a regimen of basic training that puts us in the shoes of pilots before we graduate for the leadership tracks. In true combat, none of us would be flying Vipers. We’re destined for the command centers of a dreadnought, overseeing troops that will deploy from the cityships.

I wish it were otherwise. I prefer the Viper. In this cockpit, everything’s under my control. It’s simple and pure. I’m responsible for myself and myself alone.

Not today though. As leader of this exercise, I’m expected to keep all thirty cadets on my wing under control. Even with the Viper demanding my attention, a part of me pulses with constant awareness that the senior staff will be watching every move I make. They can excuse some friendly chatter, but if anything serious goes sideways, it’s my hide on the line. I know for certain some of the officers aren’t thrilled about an Archon whelp holding steady at the top of our class, and they’re just waiting for an excuse to rip my command away.

“This is Gold One. Execute—”

“Wraith Squadron, detach,” a familiar voice announces, cold and clear. A single fighter peels off the back of our formation.

Wraith? My gaze drops to the Viper’s instruments. “Seely—Gold Eight, what the hell are you doing?” I snap. “This is Gold One, and I do not authorize whatever—”

A shriek of static cuts through the radio, and in my periphery, nineteen more Viper hulls fall away. Something goes fuzzy in my brain as I watch my control dissolve. My formation flies on, cut by two-thirds, holes torn in its former perfection. This can’t be happening. Why is this happening? Sure, Seely hates me, but how in any system’s hell did he convince nineteen of our classmates to ruin my drill? There’s no way the bitter little rutter has that much clout.

My heart rate doubles, my mind reeling as I try to inventory which fighters have fallen back. At my left, I spot the glint of sunlight off a Viper’s nose—Gal’s Viper. He’s still with me.

“This is Wraith One. Form up on me,” Seely announces.

“Seely, what the hell is going on?” I shout, wrestling with my controls. Another spin of the gyros flips my Viper around, pointing me at the stray flock as I continue to sail backward in what’s left of my formation.

They’re shifting into an arrowhead. An attack pattern. My mouth goes dry. This isn’t disobedience. This isn’t just to stick it to me. This is something more. Something worse.

“Gods,” Gal whispers over the comm. “Not now. Not… Ett—”

Seely’s voice overpowers the line, full of authority I never suspected him of possessing. “Wraith One, authorizing weapons free.”

Every lesson I’ve ever had about leadership under pressure crystalizes in my mind. “Gold One, evasive action immediately,” I scream at what’s left of my fighters. The Vipers split like they’ve been cleaved by a knife.

All except for Gal, who bolts across the black with no regard for pattern, for order, for any sort of direction that might save his ass.

Something in his brain has gone animal. Not the pack-animal mentality you sometimes slip into when you’re flying in formation. No, Gal’s just doing everything in his power to run.

“Heavens and hells,” I swear, twist out of formation, and take off after him. The comms go live with confusion, the other pilots uncertain whether they’re supposed to follow me.

Above the chatter, Seely’s voice comes through loud and clear: “This is Wraith One. Shoot to kill.”

I throw everything I have into the engines as the vacuum around me comes alive with the flash of boltfire. Gal swerves erratically, and my heart leaps into my throat as one of the bolts skims his Viper’s wing. I hazard another glance at my instrumentation. Watch as the twenty defectors point their arrowhead directly at Gal’s retreating tail. Not at the remaining nine Vipers holding formation as they flee across the black.

Just Gal.

“What the rut do you think you’re doing?” I seethe through my teeth. I watch Gal on the instruments, my face heating with fury as another burst to the engines drives me deeper into my seat. This isn’t the Gal I know—the Gal I’ve known for years, the one who pranks the senior staff, who struggles to keep even the most stalwart ships flying steady, who doesn’t fear anything the way he should. Something’s terribly wrong.

My calm evaporates into the vacuum.

I flip a switch on my radio controls, activating every distress beacon on my dashboard. “Base, this is Gold One. Twenty of my squad have… They’re not following orders, and they’ve turned on one of my pilots. They’re shooting to kill. Requesting—”

I hesitate. I shouldn’t hesitate—the whole point of the academy is training me to act when the situation is dire. I twitch my controls to dodge another round of boltfire that streaks across my Viper’s nose.

“Requesting ground support and awaiting further instructions,” I conclude. The Viper rattles around me as my engines max out their burn. I flip the radio back over to the exercise channel, where Seely’s still spinning orders to his mutiny. A note of indignation lances through my panic. It’s bad enough Seely’s trying to kill Gal, but with the single line available between our ships, everyone has to listen to him do it.

“Gold One, the rest of you go to ground,” I shout over Seely’s noise.

“Wraith One, split it. Let’s cut him.”

The drumming starts as a single beat, a single hand slapping a dashboard, the noise big enough to fill a single cockpit. One hand, then ten, then twenty as the defectors’ formation cracks in half. Variations slip into the rhythm, and my vision goes fuzzy as I watch the nine cadets still under my command bolt for Rana’s gravity.
I know this beat too. It’s been seven years since I heard it last, but the rhythm of an Archon war cadence is etched into my heart. It’s the rallying cry of our fallen empire, and for a terrifying moment, I forget every word I told Seely this morning.

The defectors cast their net wide, herding Gal, playing off the way fear is driving him. But fear’s not driving me—not in the same way. As Gal swerves again, burning off his speed, I nose up along his wing.

“Gal,” I say, and his vector steadies. Even over the rumble of the drumming, he hears me.

“Ettian, I’m so sorry—”

“No apologies.” I try not to flinch as another scattering of bolts slices past us. Gal’s Viper jerks, and I’m forced to swerve, tipping my gyros enough to dodge him. Even in all this confusion, my reflexes are as sharp as they were in the years after the empire fell. That time taught me a lot of things, but above all else, it taught me to improvise.

“Hold steady. I’m going to try something,” I grunt.

“Easier said.”

“I know.” I twist my gyros, flipping my craft belly-up, and punch the attitude thrusters. My Viper slots neatly underneath his.

Gal’s voice is on the edge of panicked laughter. “Don’t you dare hump my ship.”

“Thank me later.” I yank my landing gear’s release and jam the button that spins up my electromagnets. These things are meant to hold a Viper to the skin of a dreadnought, but they work just as well on the metal of another light craft. My ship snaps against his with a dull thud, and Gal yelps.

“You’re going to get us both killed,” he mutters, but he’s already cutting his engine and stilling his gyros.

If he can’t fly his way out of this, I’m going to do it for him.

With a heavy burst from my thrusters, I pull us into an arc, taking stock of the defector formation closing in on us. Two lines of ships spread out in a V, meaning to herd and crosscut us with their fire. Already they’re adjusting course to follow where we lead. The drumming fades—the pilots need both hands now.

My vision goes dark at the edges as I tighten our vector. Vipers were designed to move around the pilot, keeping inertial forces on the body as minor as possible. Flying in curved lines is bad for biology, doubly so when the ship’s center of mass is no longer focused on your head.

“Gal, you with me?” I choke, leveling us off. “You gotta talk, elsewise I’m going to think you blacked out.”

“Or one of these bastards got me.”

“That too.” I glance up through my windshield, trying to pinpoint the academy on Rana’s vast surface. I don’t know if they’re responding to my distress call. It’ll take time for missiles to claw their way out of the planet’s gravity. I don’t know if I can keep us clear of the boltfire for that long. “Gal,” I warn as another violent twist of the gyros steals my sight.

“Remember that time we got leave and went to Ikar?”

I grin. “Not particularly.”

“You got so hammered, you started singing the Umber Anthem at the top of your lungs in an open market. In a former Archon territory,” Gal chokes out as we level off onto a new vector.

“I remember the bruises. I won the fight, right?”

“If you call being left facedown in a garbage can ‘winning,’ I’ll eject now.”

My flying’s working. With twenty of them and one of us, it’s child’s play to tease their formation into chaos—especially with our chatter covering up the orders Seely’s screaming into the comm. “At least I actually fight my battles,” I snap. It’s harsh, given our current situation, but Gal knows what’s in my head better than anyone, and he gives me exactly what I expect.

“And I talk my way out of them like a rational human being.”

“Couldn’t talk your way out of this?”

“That’s what I have you for.”

I appreciate the confidence, but I don’t know how long I can keep this up. Feinting around boltfire and messing with their formations is only going to keep us alive for so long. Getting to safety is another matter entirely. Vipers can’t trip past superluminal speeds, and our fastest isn’t going to be enough to outrun them with this many on our tail. I don’t see any way out.

And then I realize our escape has been looming over us the entire time. My eyes shift up to Rana—to my big, glorious, green homeworld. Nine specks of flame mark where the remainder of the squad is hitting the atmosphere, and those nine little flares set off one big one in my head.

Seely sees what I’m about to do the second before I do it. “Wraith One, close the net,” he shrieks, and the formation shifts around us as I twist our Vipers through the mess. No time for feinting, no time for dodging the bolts—my vector is direct, and speed is my only concern. We plunge for the planet, my engine whining as I urge it past its limits. The metal of the Viper’s hull creaks around me.

“Ettian, you maniac,” Gal mutters.

“Keep talking,” I tell him. Not because I need to make sure he’s conscious—our acceleration isn’t heavy enough for that to be a concern—but because I need his voice to keep me steady.

“What about?”

“You can start by explaining why there are twenty Vipers on our ass.” At the edge of my wing, I catch the first wisps of the planet’s outer atmosphere starting to drag at us. I kill the engines. No need for acceleration when Rana’s mass is beginning to yank us in.

“I—I can’t explain.”

A vicious edge slips into my voice as the last of my patience dissolves. “No, that’s a lie. Why the rut is this happening?”

On the instrumentation, I see the defectors locking onto our tail, some of them already oriented for reentry.

“Ettian—”

“Tell me, Gal, or so help me I’ll keep you latched and burn us both.”

As is, we’re cutting it close. The Viper’s heat shields are on the underbelly. If we hit the hard part of the atmosphere with our ships strapped together, we both go down in flames.

There’s a sharp inhale on Gal’s end of the line. A decision being made in the span of a breath. “I never wanted you to find out—not like this,” Gal says.

We’ve got seconds. “Spit it out!” I yell.

“I’m the Umber heir.”

I jam the button, releasing the electromagnets, and fire my attitude thrusters to break away from Gal’s underbelly. He can’t have said what I think he said. I have to put my ship right. I won’t let my brain get stuck on what Gal’s confessed and what it means. Another twist of my controls reorients my Viper, my heat shield braced to hit the atmosphere the second it hits back.

I didn’t hear it right—that must be it. I glance out the windshield to my left, where Gal’s wrestling his own ship into reentry position. Through the plastics separating us, I spot the tense line of his jaw. His eyes are shaded by his helmet and goggles, but somehow I know they’re closed. I know Gal. I know him inside and out.

Or I thought I did.

Heat flares around me, my flight suit’s coolant struggling to combat it as we plunge into the atmosphere. I extend every drag fin on my ship, gritting my teeth as the deceleration yanks at the flesh on my face, pressing me so deep into my seat’s gel that I feel the bracing board beneath it.

Gal is the Umber heir. The thought consumes me more than any worry I might have about the reentry, about the twenty Vipers plunging after us, about what might await us back at the academy base.

The Umber Empire has stood for thousands of years. It was seeded from the first settlements made on stable worlds as wandering generation ships roved down the galactic arm, founded on planets that took to crops with so little effort that the people who made a home there managed to twist it into some sort of divine right. Mankind delved deeper into the galaxy, discovering the metal-rich Archon worlds and the fringe planets of Corinth, but none took root and expanded so boldly and decisively as Umber. Nowadays, the empire spans at least a hundred systems. Their imperial bloodline has conquest in its veins, and Empress Iva and Emperor Yltrast are its pinnacle. Seven years ago, they shredded the Archon Empire and took it for their own. They’re the most fearsome force the galaxy has ever seen.

And Gal—

No, it’s impossible. There has to be some kind of mistake. It’s another of Gal’s jokes, like the time he pretended to be the youngest general ever promoted to impress a girl in a bar. A laugh builds in the back of my throat. He had me going there for a moment. Thinking he was the son of—

The cold shock of truth catches up to me. None of Gal’s jokes have put twenty Vipers on our rear. None of Gal’s jokes have left him turning tail and running like the gates of every hell have opened.

And he’s never left me out of one.

“Rut me sideways, you’re not kidding,” I groan.

Suddenly my suspicions about Seely’s teeth seem downright petty. I’d always figured there would be shadow heirs installed at the academy. The Archon territories are notorious hotbeds of opportunity for up-and-coming bloodlines. Governors on every tier of power—continental, planetary, and even system—would jump at the chance to place their kids in the heart of the former empire to train them for command. But this is another thing entirely. Gal’s a rutting prince. The Umber heir is destined by blood to own these systems someday. And twenty of our classmates, including Seely, still hear the Archon drums in their hearts. No wonder they’re raining boltfire on his rear.

“Someone must have found out,” Gal chokes over the rumble of reentry. “Sleepers didn’t stop them.”

Of course he has sleeper agents. Of course he wouldn’t be here without protection in a seven-year-old territory. And whoever organized this hit knew it—they waited until he was isolated. Surrounded him with more enemies than he could evade on his own. If it hadn’t been for me—

The ground’s coming up too fast. My hands are numb against my Viper’s controls. I steal another glance out the windshield, through the flames wrapped around our hulls. Gal’s focus is on his instruments, but his mind must be miles away. I try to picture him beneath his helmet and visor, try to see his parents in him. Iva’s dark, hooded eyes. Yltrast’s golden skin. The proud brow distinct to the Umber line. No, I just see Gal as I’ve always seen him. Gal, who’s always been a bad liar and a good friend—except something in my darker spaces is urging me to say it’s the other way around.

And from those dark spaces, an intrusive thought hits hard and heavy. Fall back, it demands. This is the heir to the bloodline that rained hell on your homeworld. That stole your life out from underneath you, broke you, and remade you in its image. You belong with Seely. You can redeem yourself.

The fire dies around us as we slow into the atmosphere’s cradle. My fingers tighten on the controls. Thirty seconds, tops, until the Vipers on our tail start chugging boltfire into our asses again.

Fall back.

It’s where you belong.

Fall back.

Redemption.

I let out a long breath.

And a missile shrieks past my cockpit. Two seconds later, a thunderclap booms at our rear. On my dash, the command channel goes live. “Base to Gold One, watch for shrapnel,” Hanji’s voice announces, flat with raw horror. It’s the most serious I’ve ever heard her. “Runway Three’s been cleared for your approach.”

Fourteen of the defector Vipers are gone. Reduced to nothing but shredded, heated metal that spatters across our backs like rain. A hollow, terrible feeling rips through me. They were assassins. Classmates. Archon kids like me.

Obliterated.

The clatter of debris on my hull shocks me back into reality. This is what happens to everyone who goes up against the Umber Empire. To suited knights and generals and even the imperials themselves. You don’t become a hero.

You just get killed.

The six remaining Vipers scatter, pursued by a volley of heat-seekers that scream up from beneath us. We don’t have time to see what happens to them. The ground’s rolling up fast, and the spires of the academy’s buildings are rising to meet us. I punch my thrusters and adjust my drag flaps, and Gal falls in at my wing. Our approach cuts wide across the plains and finally—finally—there’s the tarmac of Runway Three.

I extend my Viper’s landing gear. Pull my nose up. Yards. Feet. Inches. The Viper hits the pavement hard, and I feel something snap. Hear the shriek of rending metal. Know without seeing that I’ve ripped my wheels off.

“Base to Gold One, you’re dragging fire,” Hanji chirps helpfully in my ear.

My flight suit’s coolant isn’t enough—the cockpit’s cooking as my Viper skins its belly on the tarmac. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. My fingers fumble on the controls, scrabbling for the release.

There. Grab. Pull. The cockpit pops open, my seat ejects, and I catapult into the mercifully cool air. A whoop escapes my lips as I watch my flaming ship skitter away beneath me, outstripped by Gal’s Viper. He streaks down the runway unhindered, leaving me in the dust and ashes. My parachutes deploy, yanking me out of my fall. I try to twist, to direct my descent, but I have no control—I’m at the mercy of the cold winds blowing in off the prairie.

By the time I touch down, Gal’s already out of his Viper. I land fifty yards away from him and immediately start tearing at my restraints. Farther down the tarmac, people are swarming Gal. First a doctor, for whom everyone clears the way, then a security team flanked by high-level academy officials.

I stagger to my feet. My legs shake beneath me. I have to get to Gal, have to talk, have to wrap my head around what’s happening. Hanji chatters in my ear, but I rip my helmet off and tear out my earpiece before I can register what she’s saying.

I stumble down the tarmac. A fire crew screams past me, bound for the wreckage of my Viper. As the siren fades, I start to make sense of the hubbub surrounding Gal. They’re talking about putting him in isolation. Summoning the governor Berr sys-Tosa from his winter estate on Imre, an inner world of the system. Arranging for transport to the Imperial Seat in the distant Umber interior.

Gal stands in the middle of the storm, his uncertain gaze flicking from face to face. His eyes find mine, and he lunges toward me. One of the security officers clamps a hand down on his shoulder. “Your Majesty,” she says urgently.
I try to push through the people, but someone grabs me. “Gal,” I wheeze, still trying to recover from the shock of the ejection and landing. None of this makes sense. I need him to make this make sense.

“Ettian, something’s—” Gal breaks off abruptly. “I… I’m so sorry.”

I’m so used to brushing those words off. So used to forgiving him instantly. But now, for once, as the security officers bundle my best friend away to whatever fate awaits him, I stand in the hollow silence left over and let him mean it.

 

Excerpted from Bonds of Brass, copyright © 2020 by Emily Skrutskie.

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