The swish of a wingjet, close overhead, sent Aris Haan to the shadows. She crept along the rough stone wall of her parents’ home, her ears picking up a rush and then silence as the jet landed nearby. No doubt it was someone visiting the neighbors, or her mother returning early from work. But Aris needed to see for herself. It didn’t matter that she was in the lazy seaside village of Lux; war had taught her that danger could find her anywhere.
Aris reached the arch that led to the landing pad and froze. A second wingjet perched next to hers. But unlike her mother’s, this jet was needle nosed and a pale shimmering blue.
A Military wingjet.
She was caught between the desire to run away—away from the memories of her time as a soldier and the injustice that had sent her home—and the urge to fling herself toward the man she hoped would emerge.
With a hiss, the shield opened.
Short golden hair shone in the glare of the sun. Pale skin, with that knife-thin scar along his cheek. Two clear blue eyes locked onto hers.
“Milek.” Her heart lurched. She’d almost resigned herself to never seeing him again, and for a short moment, her life as Aristos wasn’t so far away.
It had been almost a year since Aris had been recruited to be a flyer in Atalanta’s all-male Military, which was close to buckling under the Safaran invasion. Almost a year since she’d first met Dianthe, the terrifying, snake-tattooed woman who’d trained her and programmed the holographic diatous veil that had transformed Aris into Aristos, a “male” soldier.
And it had been two months since Aris had woken in the blank, white room of a mender clinic to find Milek Vadim, her commanding officer, gone, with no message or goodbye, and her place within her unit revoked. Worse, her part in the rescue of Ruslana’s Ward Vadim, Milek’s mother, had been erased. Because she’d done it as a woman, not as Aristos. Her diatous veil had broken, and her life along with it.
Even though it was her actions that spurred the new policy allowing women into Military, a confidentiality agreement and the threat of imprisonment kept her silent. She’d spent her time at home watching news vids discussing the change, but her name was never mentioned. She’d been determined to volunteer anyway, when she was ready. Aris was a soldier in every way that mattered, politics be damned.
But ready was proving elusive.
She could barely bring herself to fly, haunted by her final mission—by the dead faces of her fellow soldiers, the blank, dead eyes of the Safarans she’d killed. By the Safaran operative, Elom, who had kidnapped and tortured Ward Vadim.
Aris had spent less than ten minutes in that tiny cell with Elom, and yet he still stalked her nightmares. Every time she caught a glimpse of her own face in the mirror, she saw the red slash of scar he’d given her, and she could feel his fingers trying to rip out her throat. Every time she climbed into a wingjet, her stomach would cramp, and panic would close her throat.
Now Aris watched Milek close the distance between them. He wore his proper Ruslanan uniform, the sky blue complimenting his pale skin. Like Aris, he’d been in disguise, a Ruslanan soldier secretly embedded in Atalanta to aid the war effort.
Aris fought the urge to turn away from him, to hide the scar that swept from one side of her face to the other. Instead, she forced herself to meet his eyes squarely. With him, she shouldn’t have to wear her old life like an ill-fitting jacket.
His gaze was filled with an intensity nearly matching the glare of the sun. “Hello, Aris. It’s been too long.”
She bit back the who’s fault is that that rose in her throat. For the last two months, she’d felt like a dirty secret being kept hidden. “I’m surprised to see you here at all, sir.”