Aria was not expecting a cadre of imperial soldiers barging into her coffee shop. It had been a long week, and—frankly—being abducted without explanation to be sent into space was the last thing the barista needed.
It’s not that she wasn’t scared, but being indignant about the inconvenience worked well as an emotional shield, at least for a while. Unfortunately, the trip wasn’t particularly short. She couldn’t imagine where they could be taking her, and worry began to creep in.
The shuttle carried her up the planet’s gravity well, where they transferred her to an intrasystem ferry. Hours later, she was silently ushered to yet another vessel—a corvette, distinctly military.
Nobody would tell her what she’d done, where they were taking her, or why.
The sense of dread slowly tightened its grip. This wasn’t the first time she’d caught the attention of someone in power, and her life never had quite recovered from that incident.
Another transfer, this time to the largest dreadnought she’d ever seen.
She was just fucked, wasn’t she?
Her eyes caught a name emblazoned on the ship, her legs stumbling as shock momentarily overwhelmed her ability to coordinate her limbs. This was the Queen of the Night. The Empress’s flagship.
No. They couldn’t be taking her to see—
There’s no way—
Why would she—?
Aria still had come up with no answer by the time they led her to the most ornately decorated chamber in the ship, closing the door behind her and leaving Aria all alone with the terrifying warlord who ruled the cluster, Empress Galatea.
With a dramatic swoosh of her glossy black cape, the Empress turned and fixed her eyes on the humble barista, and there was something in her gaze that oh god it’s her ex.
“Hey there, Aria. So nice of you to drop by.”
“You had me kidnapped from my job, you psycho bitch!”
“Pretty romantic, huh?”
“I was scared out of my goddamn mind!”
Lee gave her customary crooked, apologetic smile and half-shrug that she always did when Aria got frustrated with her bullshit.
Aria scrubbed her eyes in frustration. Maybe she should have been intimidated by her ex being the Empress, but somehow she didn’t have it in her.
After taking the time to compose her thoughts, Aria spoke again. “Can you at least tell me why you had your henchmen drag me way out here without even telling me first?”
“Would you have come if I sent a letter: ‘hey babe, I figured out how to win you back?’”
Aria gave her best Exhausted Food Service Employee Withering Glare.
Lee nodded in response. “Exactly. And that’s why I went, hey, I’m the Empress, I can just have you delivered!”
“Ugh! You haven’t changed a bit, have you? Anyone’s ‘no’ is just an obstacle to be worked around, isn’t it?” Aria clenched her fists. “Take me home. Empress or no, you’re not gonna ‘win me over.’”
At this, Lee looked genuinely wounded. Empress Ex made a placating gesture. “C’mon, babe, please hear me out,” she said, giving her best puppy-dog eyes. “I have changed, really!”
“I’ve accomplished so much, done so many things, I’ve conquered whole star systems at a time, and now I rule basically everything that matters,” Lee said, turning those deep, soulful eyes toward her.
Cranking up the charm, she grabbed one of Aria’s hands in hers, holding it tenderly. She dropped to one knee for maximum dramatic effect. “But you know what my biggest regret is, all these years later? That I broke your trust and your heart. I still love you.”
Aria, who was never good at pretending that she wasn’t vulnerable to theatrics, did her best to keep that hard edge in her voice. “You could have anyone you wanted, Lee. Why do you keep bothering the one person who told you she never wanted to see you again?”
“My darling. My dearest. My shining star. I still love you. You’re the one I became Empress for in the first place,” Lee said, probably lying. “A Galaxy means nothing to me without you in my world. That’s why I gotta find a way to show you that it’ll be different this time.”
“How did you become Empress anyway?” Aria asked, still in disbelief. It was utterly baffling how her chronically unemployed ex ascended to such a lofty title.
Lee leapt to her feet, clearly excited for the opportunity to talk about her favorite topic of all, herself.
“Well, it turns out that aside from murder, I’m pretty good at other political maneuvers, like blackmail, sneaking around, getting people’s trust, spying on them…”
Aria snorted. “Yeah, I can personally vouch for some of that.”
“Look, I’m sorry I went through your phone that one time! How many times do I need to apologize for my mistakes? Just tell me what to do to make you forgive me!”
“Try groveling,” Aria replied dismissively. “I’ll let you know if it works.”
To her surprise, Empress Galatea discarded pride and threw herself down at the barista’s feet.
“Please, babe,” she begged. “I never stopped loving you. I’ve changed. I’ll never do any of those things again. I’ll promise you anything if you’ll give me one more chance.”
At seeing the Empress begging at her feet, some strange, forgotten emotion stirred inside Aria. “More.”
“I know I was the worst. A total fuck-up. You are a goddess, and it’s my fault I ruined everything, and you were right to say all those things and kick me out, and—”
“That’s, uh. Enough. Get up, Lee.” It’s not that she wasn’t enjoying this, but those feelings were rising a little more strongly than Aria expected or wanted. She felt the heat rising in her cheeks, and she needed to end this before making a really impulsive mistake.
Lee stood. “I grovel to nobody, Ria,” she said, voice unusually soft and quiet, with a genuine humility she rarely showed anyone. “Nobody but you is worth it, and for you I’ll gladly debase myself for the privilege of enjoying even a moment of your attention.”
Despite herself, Aria was afraid Lee’s plot was working. She was already beginning to imagine how nice a life it would be if she were the woman who had the Empress at her feet. She cleared her throat and changed the subject.
“So. Galatea, huh?”
Lee laughed. “Yeah, taking a fancy Empress Name from old Earth myths makes you sound more impressive. That’s what my advisors said, anyway, and I pay them a lot to tell me these things. So I just picked one.”
“You identify a lot with Galatea’s story?”
Lee waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “No idea. Just liked the sound of it. It was between this and Vriska, and Galatea sounds kinda like ‘galactic,’ like I’m saying ‘watch out,’ you’re next’ to the rest of the galaxy.”
Aria couldn’t suppress a laugh. Yeah, that’s Lee.
“It’s nice to hear you laugh again, babe,” Lee said, brushing a strand of hair out of Aria’s face. “I really missed you.”
“Lee, no, we’re still not there yet…”
Aria wished she could take back the “yet” that made her ex’s eyes light up with hope.
“Okay, okay, fine,” Lee said, withdrawing her hand and stepping back. “Can I at least show you the gift I prepared for you?”
Aria took a deep breath, in and out. “Alright, Lee. What’s the gift.”
“You remember that shitty bureaucrat back then who decided he didn’t like you and made sure the paperwork for your submission got lost in the system?”
Aria eyes brightened. “Are you gonna pull some strings and get Greg fired or something?”
“C’mon, Ria. That’s the least of what he deserves for fucking up your life and saddling you with, like, infinity debt.”
“And forcing me out of my whole discipline into working shitty jobs where I get yelled at by the world’s most entitled jackasses every day forever.”
“Yeah, see? Getting fired would be nothing compared to all that. No, I’ve got him imprisoned aboard the ship.” Lee chuckled maliciously, and there was something awfully pleasing about imagining a guy Aria hated suffering the brunt of her ex’s creepy, manipulative horseshit.
“He doesn’t even know why he’s here yet,” Lee added with satisfaction. “But he’s got a nice window with a view, and he soon will.”
Lee beckoned and led her across the room to where—with the touch of a button on a remote—the wall vanished.
The panoramic scene was breathtaking, revealing a sweeping view of a beautiful planet from orbit. It was a lovely, well maintained world, full of lush green and blue, glowing like a jewel.
“Kalos,” Lee said, inclining her head toward the planet. “You’ll never guess who lives here.”
Aria put no effort into guessing. “I got nothing. Everyone’s heard how you executed that mining mogul, and don’t know anyone else rich enough to live in a place like this.”
Lee’s grin sharpened with a cruelty that made Aria shiver. “Greg does. And his family. And his good country club buddies. And probably other jerks, I don’t know, who cares.”
Aria chewed her lip, unsure where Lee was going with this.
With a grand, sweeping gesture that maximized the dramatic effect of her (very cool, Aria could admit) cape, the Empress pushed a button on the nearby comm. “Let’s do it, people,” she said. “Make sure the prisoner is watching.”
Releasing the button, she turned back to Aria. “For you, my love.”
Aria watched as countless more ships dropped out of stealth, all holding steady orbit around Kalos.
In unison, they fired.
White-hot beams struck the planet’s surface everywhere at once.
Aria had never seen what the Empress did to planets that earned such retribution, but everyone had heard of it.
Now, Lee was turning the vast destructive power of her fleet to the complete obliteration of all life on this planet just because someone who lived here hurt Aria.
It was the most romantic thing Lee had ever done for her. Aria felt an arm snake around her waist, and she let her head lean to the side and rest on Lee’s shoulder. Together, they enjoyed the fireworks.
“So does this mean you forgive me?”
“Mmm. Not yet. But this is a pretty good start. Do I get to be the one who tells him why you did it?”
“You know I would never deprive you of the pleasure,” the Empress said.
Aria smiled. This did seem much better than her life as a barista. “You get one more chance.”