Given

TWO: Davien

Really, everything would be so much easier if I just snapped the fat fool’s neck. Only the endless lessons on control back on the ship kept my hands still at my sides, fingers barely flexing. The tips of my claws ran across my palms, bringing me back to focus.

“Davien, are you even listening to me?” Xavis rumbled.

And he wasn’t a fool, even if I despised him. Xavis had clawed his way to the top of the dirtiest pile to run Ghelfi. The trip to the top had been over the broken bodies of plenty of enemies. He’d stayed on his perch for over twenty Imperial years. I didn’t have to do much research to know his methods hadn’t changed.

Prime example: he’d hired me.

I focused on Xavis, only too aware I’d started to slip away into the Hunt. Every moment here, stuck on this rock, was a delay I couldn’t afford. Xavis, bastard he might be, was my fastest way out of here.  Well, the fastest way without an unacceptably high casualty count.

Xavis lounged in his hover chair, fingers tapping in annoyance well away from the control pad.

“She’s late,” he growled. “She’s never late.”

I didn’t need to ask who he meant. He’d been on a tear about his precious Kara for hours, first calling her his brightest find, then cursing her ingratitude.

The large room I’d come to think of as the receiving hall was mostly empty now, just the regular workers at their terminals around the edges, cleaning credits, shifting funds until they could be transferred into the most secure banks in the Empire. Repetitive, mind numbing, but crucial to any modern criminal enterprise. The low drone as they worked filled the otherwise quiet room.

The last traces of the dark festivities of the last day had almost been erased. All day and night long, denizens of Ghelfi’s underworld had streamed in, bringing their tribute to the acknowledged boss of the city, doing their best, or worst, to please a capricious overlord.  The whole affair had been boring, and stupidly inefficient.

But the archaic ritual soothed his ego, and had been an opening to a job. At the last tithing, some idiot with more guts than brains had tried to take Xavis out. He’d failed to account for the force shield over the hover chair, but his explosives did thin out Xavis’s bodyguards considerably.  

Bad luck for them, perfect timing for me.  When Doc had commanded we all enter the escape pods, she’d made it clear we were to jump as randomly as possible.  It should have worked, should have drawn the attackers away from the research ship, but it had been three standard weeks since I’d crashed here, and I hadn’t had a signal from her or any of my brothers.

If I was on my own, I needed credits. And I needed a lot of them.

Three weeks had been enough to battle my way up the ranks of Xavis’s enforcers. Not that they were slouches, but they didn’t have my, shall we say, advantages.

A commotion at the entrance to the room drew my attention, and I angled for a better position at the front of Xavis’s chair. The dais we stood on served as an excellent vantage point for the room, allowing me to take in any suspicious movements at a glance.

The scuffle at the doorway turned out to be two enforcers dragging a third man between them. Beneath the new scrapes and swelling around his eye, I recognized him. Marcus, Martin, something like that. Low-level hustler who worked the dive bars near the station. Rigged games of chance, targeting travelers who wouldn’t be around long enough to make a fuss.

Xavis waved me back into place, and I relaxed, just a tad. This wasn’t a threat to his authority, just another loser trapped here.

The enforcers tossed the poor sap onto the lowest level of the dias and stepped back, waiting for orders.

“Malik,” Xavis coaxed the hover chair to the edge of the dias, watching the human wreck below take shuddering breaths. “You didn’t appear for the tithing last night.”  He floated down, a pale mass of malevolence, eyes narrowed.

I stepped behind him. I didn’t expect trouble from Malik, but there’d be hell to pay if I wasn’t where Xavis expected me, especially when he was in this mood.

“Well?” Xavis’s low voice was almost pleasant, but a thread of malice wound through it, unmistakable. “We’ve known each other for so long, I’m surprised that you’ve disappointed me.”

“I’m sorry, Lord Xavis” the man mumbled. Probably had lost a few teeth. “My youngest has been down with the Batdu pox, the medicine was so much…” He gulped. “I thought I could make it up before the tithing.

“Oh?” Xavis’s eyes glittered. “How is the poor thing doing now?”

“Better now, Lord Xavis. Thank you.”

“You should have told me, I would have lent you the money.”

Sure he would have. At rates that would mean he’d own the service of the entire family.

“But as it is, we have a problem that needs to be sorted out.”  Xavis made a show of tapping his fingers, as if considering, but that sharp brain had already decided on the punishment, I was sure. This was just to terrorize the hustler, and send a message to everyone else in the room.

“I’d forgotten about your lovely family,” he purred. “The oldest is twelve now, as I recall?”

The man shifted uneasily. “Yes, my lord. But she’s not very strong…”

“I’m sure a more active life will be good for her. She’ll have her own tithe to pay, starting next cycle.”

“What?” The man pushed himself to his feet, protesting.  

Idiot.

Xavis flicked a finger, and I sprang to the front of the chair to grab the beaten hustler by the front of his jacket. I lifted him off the floor, and shook him until his head snapped back.

He pushed against my grip feebly.

“I wouldn’t try it,” I growled, and he froze.

I’m not sure what it is about my voice. On the ship, with my brothers, no one had a problem with it. In all the training vids we watched I never thought I sounded that different. But here, on this worthless rock at the fringe of the Empire, all I had to do was speak and the humans cowered.

Weak.

Prey.

I snarled, and the acrid scent of urine assaulted me. The fucker had wet himself. Apparently he hadn’t liked the points of my teeth, either.

“I suggest you comply, little man. What choice do you have?”

He stared at me, face pale beneath the marks of the beating, but finally nodded. It wasn’t much of a motivational speech, but it was the truth. No one on New Rhea had a lot of choices.

“I think you can release him now, Davien.” The smug tone of Xavis’s voice told me he’d gotten what he wanted. He hadn’t had to send a usually reliable worker to the Wastes, and picked up extra leverage at the same time.

I lowered the man back to his feet. His legs buckled, but he scrambled away from me on hands and knees. Idiot. I wasn’t the worst monster in the room.

The rest of the negotiations were predictably short and one-sided. The hustler left, and the business in the room resumed its quiet drone.

“I’ve decided.” Xavis’s voice cracked like a whip as he floated back to the top of the dias. “An example must be made.”

I waited below for orders.

“Find Kara Shimshi. Bring her to me.”

Despite my better instincts I grinned.

The hunt was on.

**

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