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Aurora Blazing

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Aurora Blazing

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Author: Jessie Mihalik
Publisher: HarperCollins/Voyager, 2019
Series: The Consortium Rebellion: Book 2

1. Polaris Rising
2. Aurora Blazing
3. Chaos Reigning

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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As the dutiful daughter of High House von Hasenberg, Bianca set aside her personal feelings and agreed to a political match arranged by her family, only to end up trapped in a loveless, miserable marriage. When her husband unexpectedly dies, Bianca vows never to wed again. Newly independent, she secretly uses her wealth and influence to save other women stuck in dire circumstances. Information is power and Bianca has a network of allies and spies that would be the envy of the 'verse--if anyone knew about it.

When her family's House is mysteriously attacked, Bianca's oldest brother, the heir to House von Hasenberg, disappears. Fearful for her brother's life, the headstrong Bianca defies her father and leaves Earth to save him. Ian Bishop, the director of House von Hasenberg security--and Bianca's first love--is ordered to find and retrieve the rebellious woman.

Ian is the last man Bianca wants to see. To evade capture, she leads him on a merry chase across the universe. But when their paths finally collide, she knows she must persuade him to help her. Bianca will do anything to save her sibling, even if it means spending time alone on a small ship with the handsome, infuriating man who once broke her heart.

As the search takes them deep into rival House Rockhurst territory, Bianca must decide if she can trust Ian with the one piece of information that could destroy her completely...


Chapter One

Lady Taylor had bugs in her walls and not the kind with jointed legs and crunchy bodies. The tortured piano in the corner whined out something that vaguely resembled music as I fought the urge to pull out my com and track the signals to their sources. Three different broadcast frequencies meant at least three different agencies were interested in what happened at a Consortium ladies' afternoon tea.

Or perhaps they were just interested in Lady Taylor.

My mind spun down that avenue, looking for motive, before I forcefully reined it in. I had to focus, dammit. If only these events weren't so dreadfully dull.

A nearby conversation caught my attention. I smiled into my teacup as the two girls behind me debated in fierce, heated whispers whether or not I'd killed my husband. They didn't realize the terrible piano music wouldn't hide their discussion.

My youngest sister stiffened at my side as she overheard a particularly exuberant theory. I put a restraining hand on her arm. Catarina's eyes flashed with fury, but I minutely shook my head and she settled down. She glanced behind us, no doubt cataloging the girls' faces for future retribution.

Neither the words nor the speculation bothered me, and indeed, they gave me something to focus on. But my youngest sister had always chafed at the daily viciousness of Consortium life.

A quick glance confirmed the girls were from one of the lower houses. A brunette with straight hair, tan skin, and a face just a touch too narrow for true beauty sat beside a stunning young woman with ebony skin and black curls. We had been introduced at some point, but memory was fluid and mine more than most. I couldn't recall either of their names.

This was likely their first social season--they hadn't yet learned how to subtly skewer an opponent with a smile and a few well-chosen words. Even Catarina could probably send them from the room in tears with little more than a sentence.

Besides, the girls' speculation as to how I could've killed Gregory provided some much-needed distraction. The formal sitting room was almost claustrophobically small, with no windows and heavy, ornate furniture. You'd never know we were in the penthouse of a thirty-story building.

The two dozen impeccably dressed, sharp-eyed women seated in little cliques facing the piano only added to the oppressive atmosphere.

"Bianca, why do you let them continue?" Cat asked in an exasperated whisper. I'd been on the receiving end of many exasperated whispers lately.

"What, you don't think I paid Gregory's mistress to get him drunk and push him down the stairs?" I asked, quoting the latest ridiculous suggestion.

Uncertainty flashed across her face as her mask slipped the tiniest bit. "Of course not," she said stoutly. She shot me a sly smile and continued, "You're a von Hasenberg--you'd do it yourself."

That was as close as any of my sisters ever got to asking me what had really happened. And every time it caused a riot of emotions--fear, anger, relief, love--as I waited to see if this time would be the time they would ask.

I set my teacup on its saucer with precise, iron-willed control. The two pieces met without the telltale rattle that would indicate my internal turmoil. The interminable piano piece finally came to an end, saving me from having to respond.

"--was poison--" the curly-haired gossip said into the sudden silence. She choked off the words on a strangled gasp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her freeze as every person in the room turned her way. Her black curls trembled as she swallowed nervously. The sharks paused, smelling blood.

"What was that, dear?" Lady Taylor asked with false sweetness. She had a daughter--one who could not play the piano for love or money. If these two were shunned, her daughter would have a better shot at making a good match.

The silence stretched as the girl floundered. The second girl, the brunette, sat stone-still, doing her best to blend in to the furniture.

"She was asking if poison was the best option to remove a particularly stubborn weed," I said smoothly. Lady Taylor's laser gaze swiveled to me, but as the daughter of a High House, I outranked her, and she knew it.

"Is that so?" she asked.

I tipped up my chin a fraction. Ice frosted my tone. "You doubt my word?" When she took a second too long to answer, I stood. Catarina rose with me.

Lady Taylor paled beneath her flawless makeup as all eyes now focused on her. "Of course I didn't mean--"

I would feel sympathetic, except she had meant to cause offense. She was conniving, and I'd let her get away with too much for too long because I just didn't care. I'd already done my duty to my House, my position was secure, and I had no one I needed to impress.

But the moment she'd doubted my word, she'd taken it too far, a fact that was just now dawning on her.

"I realized I have somewhere else to be," I said. I turned to the curly-haired gossip. She was as young as I expected, perhaps seventeen or eighteen. "Walk with me," I said.

The girl rose but she kept her head bowed. When the brunette started to rise, too, I shot her a quelling glare. She wilted back into her seat. She hadn't attempted to bail her friend out, so she would have to fend off the sharks on her own.

I linked arms with the girl and swept from the room over the protests of Lady Taylor. Catarina kept pace beside me. We didn't speak until we'd cleared the front door.

"My lady, I'm so sorry," the girl said miserably as I pulled her along toward the transport platform.

"You should be," Catarina said.

I rolled my eyes. "What is your name?" I asked.

"Lynn Segura, second daughter of House Segura," she said.

House Segura was a small house with modest assets, one of the many lower houses that made up the bulk of the Royal Consortium. "How did you manage an invite to Lady Taylor's tea?" I asked. House Taylor was one of the more powerful lower houses.

"Chloe received an invite and brought me along," she said. At my blank look, she blushed and elaborated, "Chloe Patel, first daughter of House Patel. She is the woman I was with."

That made more sense. House Patel was also a lower house, but they had three eligible sons around the same age as Lady Taylor's daughter. And their interests dovetailed nicely with House Taylor's.

"Are you going to tell my father?" Lynn asked.

We emerged outside into the sun. The transport platform had tall glass panels to block the worst of the wind, but a breeze swirled gently, teasing the hem of my gray dress. Serenity sparkled under the cloudless sky. The only city on Earth and the heart of the Royal Consortium, Serenity was a hive of activity. Transports and ships crisscrossed the sky, glittering like jewels.

For all its flaws, I loved this city.

I let the girl fret in silence while the three of us climbed into the waiting House von Hasenberg transport. Catarina sat facing backward while I sat next to Lynn. I waved the embedded chip in my left arm over the reader. "Take us to Macall's Coffee House," I said. The transport chimed its acceptance, then slid off the thirtieth-floor platform and headed northwest.

The glass panel in the floor showed another transport in House von Hasenberg colors--black and gold--shadowing us from below. Our security detail was a new and unwelcome change, but three weeks ago we'd gone to war with House Rockhurst, so it was deemed a necessary evil.

If the ladies of the House hadn't presented a united front, we would have had armed guards escorting us to tea. As it was, they escorted us to evening events, but only followed us via transport during the day. Serenity was officially neutral ground, but both Father and our director of security were paranoid.

Lynn practically vibrated in her seat, desperate to know if I'd tell her father but smart enough not to ask again. She had potential.

"I am not going to tell anyone," I said. "We are going to enjoy a cup of coffee in public and have a nice chat, then we will part on agreeable terms. The next time I see you, I will make a point of saying hello."

Lynn's eyes narrowed. "Why?" she asked.

"Because your behavior made a boring tea interesting. And because if I do not, Lady Taylor will destroy you."

Lynn flinched as the full implication of her actions hit her. She squared her shoulders and met my eyes. "What can I do to repay you?"

I tilted my head as I regarded her. I'd saved her because I could and because I remembered my own disastrous first season. I hadn't expected anything in return, but I wasn't so hasty as to turn down a debt freely offered, either. She wasn't the first girl I'd saved, and thanks to that, I had eyes in many places.

"You do not have to do anything," I said seriously, "but if you ever overhear anything you think I might find interesting, I would be grateful if you would let me know."

She nodded, her eyes bright. "Consider it done."

Macall's Coffee House occupied a ground-floor corner of a tall office building in Sector Three of the von Hasenberg quarter. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrapped around two sides of the shop, giving those inside a sense of airy lightness.

The cafe was decorated in cream and brown, with real wood and leather furniture--no plastech dared to breach these walls. The tables and chairs were beautifully mismatched with charming, understated elegance. Someone had put a lot of time and effort into making the design look effortless.

House von Hasenberg retained a table with an ideal location: next to the window and slightly separate from the surrounding tables. All three High Houses retained tables, aware that as much business happened here as on the floor of the Royal Consortium. But because we were in the von Hasenberg quarter, our House had received the best location.

After the waiter left with our orders, I activated the silencer built into the table--another perk. By default, silencers only blocked sound in one direction, so we could still hear the people murmuring around us, but no one could eavesdrop on our conversation.

The silencer prevented any sounds or wireless signals in a two-meter radius from transmitting outside that radius, including voices, coms, or bugs. If someone wanted to know what we were gossiping about, they'd have to read our lips.

Once Lynn realized I really wasn't going to bite, her wit and humor returned. She wasn't quite brave enough to ask me outright if I'd killed my husband, but the same cleverness that made her spout wild theories made chatting with her entertaining. Saving her had been the right move.

We chatted for forty-five minutes before Lynn took her leave. The door had barely closed behind her when Catarina pinned me with a stare. "This is how you know everything about everyone," she said. "You have a legion of spies masquerading as young women."

I sipped my lemonade and said nothing. She was wrong, but she drew the exact conclusion I had intended. Shame slid through my system, soft and sour. I didn't like lying to family, even by omission, but it was the only way to ensure they--and I--stayed safe.

"How many have you saved?" Cat asked.

"I don't keep track. A dozen, maybe. I started when I returned home after Gregory's death." The true number was twenty-seven, and that only counted the people I'd truly helped, not those like Lynn who had just needed a momentary rescue. If I included everyone, the number would be closer to sixty. And I'd started well before Gregory's death.

Our prenup had protected House von Hasenberg's interests, not mine. When my husband died, I inherited nothing. His family wasted no time hustling me out of their lives. Money was far less of an issue than stability and familiarity, so I ran home like the wounded animal I was.

"I can't believe you're running your own spy ring," Catarina said with a laugh. "I bet it drives Ian insane."

I smiled. Ian Bishop was the director of House von Hasenberg security--an inconspicuous title for a far-reaching power. He had his fingers in House intelligence gathering, security forces, and even military maneuvers. He was the most arrogant man I'd ever met, and that was saying something considering I grew up in a High House.

He was also one of the most handsome, but a trained interrogator couldn't force the admission from my lips.

One of my few true pleasures these days was beating Ian to a piece of intelligence. It had turned into something of a competition, and I was currently ahead by two. Or, at least, my shadowy, anonymous online persona was. Ian had no idea I was feeding him information from multiple directions.

"Ian doesn't think the daughter of a High House is capable of anything other than being a trophy wife," I said. "I enjoy proving him wrong."

"I thought Ada would've disabused him of that notion," Catarina said. "He tried to catch her for two years and failed."

My younger sister Ada was exceptional, but even she wasn't thatgood--as head of security for a High House, Ian had nearly infinite resources at his disposal. He'd failed because I'd fed him a constant stream of false information, while giving Ada all the info she needed to stay ahead of him.

I wanted to tell Cat, to let her in on the secret, but one secret led to twenty others, each more dangerous than the last. I held my tongue.

"Oh, I'm supposed to meet Lady Ying in twenty minutes to go shopping. You want to join?" Catarina asked.

I repressed a shudder. Shopping with Catarina was a masochistic endeavor if ever there was one. The girl could spend seven hours in a single store. Seven. Hours.

Luckily for the rest of us, Ying Yamado was always game for a shopping trip. She and Catarina were close friends--as close as the daughters of two High Houses could be, at least.

"I'll pass, thanks. I'd like to make it home before tomorrow," I said.

Catarina rolled her eyes at me. "I'm not that bad."

I just raised my eyebrows until she cracked and broke down into giggles.

"Okay, maybe I am. But you're missing out," she said as she stood. She kissed the air next to my cheek and then she was gone. I disabled the silencer, and the communication signals around me rushed in, overwhelming and nauseating.

After all of this time, I should be used to it, but Gregory's gift just kept on giving. He'd been a brilliant scientist and a horrible husband, wrapped together with a morally bankrupt bow. I don't think it ever occurred to him to not experiment on me.

Now I could mentally intercept and decrypt wireless signals, whether I wanted to or not, and I had no idea how. Gregory's lab had been destroyed, taking most of his secrets to the grave.

He had tampered with both my brain and my nanobots, the infinitesimal robots in my blood that were supposed to aid healing. Father would dearly love the tech, so much so that he would absolutely approve more experiments on me if he found out about my abilities.

I'd been a test subject for long enough.

So I kept my secrets to myself and became a grieving widow in public. It kept Father from pushing me to remarry--which I would never do--and covered some of my new eccentricities.

I attended teas and lunches and balls when I would've preferred staying home. But staying home would not let me find other young women who could use my help, so I sucked it up and played the idle aristocrat.

At home, I earned my keep by using my network to track down information for House von Hasenberg. Father didn't know exactly where my information came from, but he knew that if he needed something found, I could find it.

I finished my lemonade and pretended my head didn't feel like it was being stabbed with stilettos. The headaches were worse when I was in an open public space, as my piddly human brain couldn't keep up with all of the information flowing to the implant from my modified nanos.

My com lit up in my mind's eye a second before it vibrated in my handbag. Because I was attuned to it, I knew I'd received a message and what it said without looking at the device itself. Decoding transmissions, even the secure transmissions my com received, was almost comically easy. Whatever else Gregory had been, he truly had been a gifted scientist.

I'd taught myself to tune out most transmissions so they became ignorable background noise. It didn't help with the headaches, but at least I didn't have to constantly hear strangers' messages in my head all day. Now they burbled along like a distant stream in the back of my mind. I could hear individual messages if I focused, but mostly they were white noise.

I was Gregory's fantasy of an ideal wife, forced to listen to everything without being able to respond. I didn't know if he'd planned to add transmission abilities later or if he'd designed it this way as a cosmic joke. If it was the latter, the joke was very much on him. I smiled in grim satisfaction.

I pulled out my com to read and respond the old-fashioned way. The message was from Ian. It was short and to the point. You were scheduled to return home, not split from your sister. The security detail followed her. Remain where you are until the replacement detail arrives. I have eyes on you until then.

My smile morphed into a grin as I typed my reply. I was just leaving. I'll be home before they arrive.

STAY PUT. The reply was so fast, I wondered if he had pretyped it. I'd hate to think I was so predictable.

I didn't bother with a reply. If he was actually monitoring the cameras, he'd see me leave. Otherwise, he'd certainly notice when my tracker started moving. Either way, I wasn't going to sit around for who knew how long waiting for his security team. My head ached at just the thought.

The coffee shop was close enough that I could walk home, but that was sure to make Ian apoplectic. And while I didn't really think Serenity was unsafe, we were at war and some basic safety precautions were prudent.

I ordered a House transport and waited until it arrived before leaving the building. I didn't see Ian's second security detail, so he was sure to be livid. I resisted the urge to tap into our House security cameras to see for myself.

The transport dropped me at the private family entrance without incident. I cleared the new security checkpoint then waved my embedded identity chip over the reader at the door. The reader beeped as it verified that my chip and biometrics matched. The door opened, and I let myself into the ornately carved stone building I'd called home for twenty-one of my twenty-five years.

The heavy stone blocked some of the wireless signals, and I sighed in relief. I stepped out of the entryway and a shadow detached itself from the draperies.

I had a blaster in hand before my brain recognized that I wasn't being attacked by a stranger. No, I was being stalked by Ian Bishop.

I wasn't sure that was an improvement.

Copyright © 2019 by Jessie Mihalik


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