Taken: Chapter one

Cintha

 

“You’re not my mother!”

The door slammed hard enough to make the shelves rattle.

I flinched and prayed nothing would fall. Thankfully, nothing did.

This time.

With a sigh, I focused on carefully pouring the molten liquid into the mold, glad I hadn’t dropped it when I’d flinched. The metal was stupid expensive and spilling even a drop would set me back.

Unfortunately, I had only a limited time to work with the metal before it cooled, which meant I couldn’t go running after Talley, no matter how badly I wanted to.

But then, it was probably good to give her a bit of space. She was at that age where, no matter what I did or said, it was the wrong thing.

Had I been like that when I was her age?

Yeah, probably.

But to be honest, when I was her age, I was busy sneaking out of an imperial orphanage, determined not to spend the rest of my life rotting there with the hundreds of other kids.

Back then, I’d thought I knew everything.

No doubt Talley thought the same thing.

Once I finished this piece and she had time to cool down, I’d go find her. We’d sit and talk and work it out, just like we always did.

The pendant seemed to take even longer than normal, though I know it didn’t.

I’d done this work a thousand times now.

While the pendant would be beautiful once it was finished, it was no more ornate or time consuming than any of the others I’d made over the years since I’d set up shop here in the wild belly of Orem station.

It was delicate work, which is why I couldn’t let Talley help with it.

“I’m not a child!” she’d yelled at me, starting off this afternoon’s rant.

If looks could kill, I’d have been dead right then and there.

I let out a huff as I laid the last gem in place.

Like I was keeping her away from this because of her age.

She’d been helping out in the shop for a couple years now and could do more than some jewelers I’d met. But still, working with therorium required patience and a steady hand, something one day she’d have.

One day.

Another year, maybe two, and I could start having her do simple pieces for me in the demanding stuff.

Until then, until her temper stopped flaring at the slightest encouragement, I’d have her stick to more forgiving materials.

Once I had everything safely locked back up, I flipped the closed sign on the door, then headed out to find where Talley had run off to.

I started with her normal hangouts, but no one had seen her today.

Of course not.

She couldn’t make it easy for me to find her.

My shop was right at the fringe of the area known as the Under. It was one of the seedier places in the Empire, but it had been my home since escaping from the orphanage.

My best friend Loree had prided herself on working her way out of the Under, but I’d stayed here. Being here made it easier to keep an eye on Daix, my brother, and Talley, his daughter.

And, even if I hated to admit it, life outside seemed just a little boring.

Safe.

I ventured further and further into the depths of Under. It had a kind of unplanned beauty to it, something you couldn’t replicate on purpose, no matter how hard you tried.

Though, as I stepped around a puddle of unidentifiable sludge, wrinkling my nose, the place could use a little bit more cleanliness.

Things had been straightening up on the station. The worst of the crime had been pushed further away since a group of mercenaries had made Orem Station their home base. Rumors flew about them.

Spies for the Emperor.

Pirates.

Inhuman.

But the ones I’d seen on patrol had been human looking enough, even if they were big.

One even came into my shop pretty regularly, lips in a half-smile, golden eyes missing nothing.

There was a deep, dangerous attraction to him.

I’d hate to have him as an enemy, but he’d been nothing but quiet and kind to me.

And, he wasn’t anywhere around right now, so all this daydreaming wasn’t a bit of help.

Where in the Void had that girl gotten off to?

It’d been too long. I tried to stamp down the panic welling up inside me.

She was just being stubborn. Trying to get a rise out of me.

Well, it’s working, I thought with a frown.

A group of boys hung out on one of the street corners.

I recognized a few of them, one of the street gangs filled with kids and young teens. In the Upper and Lower, those gangs were mostly harmless. Just bored kids out getting into mischief.

Down here though, they were feeders for real trouble.

I’d done everything I could to keep Talley away. She hung around with some of them though.

Most of the boys weren’t bad people. They just didn’t have many options in life and did what they needed to to survive.

Just like Daix.

And me.

And Loree.

We’d gotten lucky, though. Loree and I had found ways to survive that got us out of the streets, kept us from throwing our lives away.

If only Daix could’ve found something he was good at other than stealing, maybe we’d all be out of the Under right now.

“Hey, Zeek,” I shouted to one of the boys I recognized.

He was the leader of the crew that controlled the territory around my shop. Though he had to be nearly seventeen now and would probably move into one of the adult gangs soon enough. He and I had an understanding.

My shop was off limits and in exchange, I always kept some extra food on hand for him and the others.

Even in the crews, most of them just barely scraped by, barely surviving. And I remembered all too well what it was like to go hungry at night.

“What’s up, Cintha?” he shouted back, grinning at me.

His clothes were fairly new, still in good condition.  If that hadn’t been enough, the handle of a permasteel knife peaked out of his right boot, shouting his status.

The other boys looked at me warily when I walked up, but with a flick of his head, Zeek sent them away, off on some business I didn’t want to think too much about.

“You seen Talley around?” I asked, keeping my voice low and even.

Just because we had an understanding didn’t mean I wanted Zeek to hear the panic in my voice. Fear was a weakness in their eyes and he wouldn’t hesitate to exploit that if he thought it would benefit him.

“Why? You and her have a fight again?” Zeek grinned at me, showing off perfectly white and straight teeth. A rarity in these parts, more credits, more status.

I shrugged, fighting to keep my face neutral. “You know how girls her age are. If it’s not one thing, it’s something else.”

Zeek laughed and nodded. “Yeah, I get you. I saw her heading down toward the warehouses. She looked pissed about something.”

I let out a sigh, shaking my head. This girl really was going to be the death of me one of these days.

“When you gonna let her join up with us, huh? You know we can use a girly with her talents.” Zeek smirked while I just rolled my eyes.

It was a familiar conversation between us, one he knew damn well he was never going to win. He wanted a girl who knew jewelry, could tell them what stuff was worth. I didn’t want her getting mixed up in any of that.

“At least with us you wouldn’t have to worry about her. We’d keep her safe.”

“Yeah, until the new guards come pay you guys a visit. You think they’re gonna let her off easy just ’cause she didn’t actually steal any of it?” I raised an eyebrow, meeting his gaze.

“We haven’t gotten busted yet,” he said with the easy cockiness of youth.

He’d survived everything life had thrown at him thus far, so he thought he was invincible.

Even for these boys, who’ve lived by the skin of their teeth their entire lives, they still thought they knew it all, could handle anything.

Until something they couldn’t handle came along.

“It’ll happen one day,” I warned him, but he just shrugged it off. I didn’t have time to worry about him though.

One stubborn kid was all I could handle.

“You stay safe, okay?”

“Always,” he replied. The way his cheeks colored slightly told me he didn’t often have people to to say such things.

But then, most of the boys out here didn’t have anyone to care for them. It’s why they’d joined the gangs, to watch out for each other. “You, too.”

As I walked toward the warehouses, the fight with Talley looped over and over again in my ears.

No matter how much I tried to take care of her, I never would be her mother.

And it was the truth.

She’d never get to know her real mother, who’d overdosed when she was just a little one.

And I might love my brother, but he was a terrible father.

He’d been absent more than not her entire life.

And lately, he’d just been gone. Missing, not even a check in.

No wonder she was in free fall.

One day she’d understand. I’d do anything to keep her safe, give her a talent, a future.

Assuming she didn’t do something stupid before then.

Deeper into the docks I worked, stepping around crashed out junkies, piles of scrap that no one wanted, and folks just looking for a place to doss.

Then I froze.

“Come on girlie, don’t make this hard on us,” a thickly accented voice said, not even trying to keep his voice down.

I searched wildly for the speaker, but he was out of sight. The tone made my heart run cold for some reason.

Part of me wanted to turn around, to head back down where I’d come from.

But Talley was out there.

And that wasn’t an option.

Maybe I should’ve asked Zeek to come with me to find Talley. Even most of the adults down here wouldn’t go through the effort of hassling me if I was with him and his crew,

But I’d come out here alone.

Zeek wasn’t the only overconfident one, I kicked myself.

A shriek made me jump, my heart pounding faster and faster.

“Let me go!” a girl yelled.

Talley yelled.

Damn.

I cursed under my breath, really wishing I had a crew with me now.

Keeping as quiet as possible, I stepped up to the corner of the berth and peered around.

Talley was there, about halfway down, with four men blocking the only way out.

My heart beat even faster, the sound drumming in my ears, as I tried to figure some way to get her out of there.

A quick look around told me no one else was nearby, no one I could get help from.

I was on my own.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Their focus fixed on Talley, none of them noticed me slip up behind them until I kicked what I assumed to be leader straight between the legs. He dropped to his knees with a howl of pain as the other three spun to face me.

“Run,” I shouted at Talley. “Go back toward the shop. Zeek’s out there. He’ll get you back there safely.”

As much as Zeek wanted her as part of his crew, I knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to her, even if she wasn’t one of his.

He’d want a favor later, but I’d be willing to trade.

Trades and favors, that’s what the Under ran on.

“But–” Talley whimpered.

“Go!” I yelled. “I’ll be right behind you!”

Eyes wide, she sprinted past the men and away from the docks.

One of the guys tried to grab her but I rammed into him, using all of my weight to make him stumble backwards a few steps.

It didn’t knock him down, but it gave Talley enough time to disappear out of sight at least.

The downside was tackling him put me right in the middle of them, just like Talley had been.

And no one was coming to help me.

Void.

I should’ve been thinking, should’ve been smarter.

Just because I wasn’t a street kid anymore, just because I’d gotten myself set up with a shop, didn’t mean I could stop looking over my shoulder.

One of the guys grabbed my arms and held me.

I struggled, trying to break his grip, but it was useless.

The one I’d kicked in the balls stepped up in front of me, grinning. “Well, it’s not the girlie, but she’ll have to do. Different market, but she’ll still fetch a good price.”

Breath tight in my chest, I tensed for a fight.

Then the man’s fist flashed forward, and everything went black.

 

*************

Taken is a work in progress. I’d love to know what you think!

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