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Staked: Chapter One

I flicked through the bills in my tablet’s incoming folder. At least the ones I’d bothered to organize. At some point in the last few months, something in the back of my brain decided to ignore them.

Since I wasn’t able to keep up with things anyway, why file them?

“Because now it’s twice as hard to find things, Anisha,” I muttered.

On a separate screen, I started a running total of how much I’d need to get out from under this debt. The amount so far made me gulp.

It was possible, just possible, I could get another loan. I’d have to mortgage the Star, and the interest would be exorbitant.

I looked around my cramped office.

Any sane person would walk away from the Sapphire Star. Cracked ceilings and sputtering lights were the norm in the rooms we didn’t let guests into.

A hydro-gen needed percussive maintenance way too often.

Apparently, I wasn’t sane.

I leaned my head against the back wall, letting the reassuring hum of the spindle run through my body.

I’d grown up here, watched my father run the bar, gather in hosts who became more than staff.

And I’d be damned if I’d leave without a fight.

I snapped the bills folder closed and pulled up the camera feeds from the floor downstairs.

Pietra was on bar, scanning the room as usual, but her shoulders were down. Her face, well, not exactly relaxed, but not ready for a fight either.

On the next screen, Dalla smiled up at a potential client. The room may not have been as full as we’d have liked—as we needed—but Dalla could still find a client.

Hell, with her open smile and tumble of curls, she could probably find an interested customer outside the station hull in the inky black.

She might not be a bred and groomed looker like the up-tower hospitality houses featured, but she was pretty and fresh, and honestly enjoyed the work.

Oleg worked the table next to her, the barest excuse for a vest covering his chest. His long legs were poured into synth pants that showed off every inch of his ass as he leaned over a little farther than necessary to pick up his customer’s drink.

Flirt.

It was the same small crowd more or less every night, mostly crews of ships docked here at Cilurnum 8 to switch cargo to move between other platforms.

Maybe even on their way to planetfall.

Captains and pilots would stay in the gardens of the Uppers, but crews didn’t get paid that much. They’d spend their money in the dark streets on the bottom side of the spindle.

And tonight, I hoped they’d spend extra.

We could use it.

I kept scanning the room. Sometimes residents of the Uppers would come down, slumming, bringing a nice bonus credit flow with them. I didn’t pick any out tonight.

My eye paused at one man sitting at a corner table. I couldn’t get a good look—the camera facing him had been on the blink for the last cycle—but something about the line of his jaw caught my attention.

The hands cupping his drink were tanned and broad. Sandy, shaggy hair obscured the side of his face turned towards the working camera.

Not a denizen of the Uppers, certainly.

I shook my head. Probably just a crew member who’d been in often enough to look vaguely familiar.

I flicked the camera back to Pietra in time to see her look directly at the camera.

Well, then. Time to check on things in person.

With relief I closed the tablet. Bills and problems I had no answers for would have to wait.

I paused to check myself before going downstairs. As the owner of the Sapphire Star, no one expected me to look as good as the ladies and gentlemen on the floor, but I still had to be somewhat presentable.

While fighting paperwork, I’d managed to pull my hair out of the braid. I looked for a brush, gave up and ran my fingers through the strands. Better.

My dark grey slacks were wrinkled, but not much I could do about that. I frowned at the small spot of lunch at the wrist of my white shirt. Maybe the jacket would cover it? I shrugged.

My bar.

Not like anyone was going to mistake me for a fashion plate. A jacket would cover too much of the crazy purple paisley design of my favorite vest, anyway.

Dalla passed me on the stairs, pressing into her client a little more than necessary to make room. She gave a little extra wiggle and winked at me. At least one person in this place would be making rent.

And… that wasn’t fair of me.

Everyone did their part, hustled the best they could.

If there was a problem with the finances, that was my fault.

I’d set up the contracts so that the hosts kept all of their fees and paid the house rent.

It seemed fairer than the usual arrangement, where the entire fees went to the house and hosts got a tiny percentage out of any profits.

More fair, but to be honest, my idealism might put us all on the street.

At the landing, I paused to survey the room and see what had disturbed Pietra.

There—at a small table on the far side of the U-shaped bar.

Shoulders hunched, eyes flicking through the room, the girl couldn’t have been old enough to get past the automated bouncer.

My mouth tightened. A forged ident card, no doubt.

There had to be a way to program the ‘bot to do a better job picking those up. I added it to my mental list for later.

If there was a later.

I headed over to the girl, picking up the glass Pietra handed me on the way over.

Nice to have someone know what I want before I asked.

I sat down across from the girl; the sudden movement made her jerk back.

“Hey,” I said softly. “Want to tell me what you’re doing here?”

She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin, defiant. Her hair fell back to show the growing bruise across her cheek. “I’m looking for a job.”

“Not a chance, kiddo.”

Her lips tightened. “I can lie on my back as well as anyone else.”

Even if she didn’t mean it, the insult rankled.

“You think that’s what my people do? They like people; they enjoy spending time with them. And yes, they go upstairs, but that’s not all they’re getting paid for.”

She rocked back in her chair. “I can be good with people.”

From her tone of voice, I’d lay money she was still in the surly stage, but bringing that up never helped.

“Also, I don’t take on kids.”

Pink rose through her cheeks. “I’m old enough. It’s not like I’m a virgin.”

“I’m sure you’re old enough to do whatever you want to do, but not here. Look, it’s clear you haven’t thought this through. Why are you really here?”

The girl looked down. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. Word ‘round the spindle is that you keep a clean house, nobody gets beat up.”

I chewed my lip.

There was no way I’d let the girl work here, even if I kept her downstairs on the floor serving drinks. Someone was bound to get the wrong idea, she’d get scared, Pietra would get protective, and I’d have another bill for repairs on my hands.

But that didn’t mean she was out of options.

We’d gotten the updated directions through the whispers just the other day, they should still be good.

“How good are you at remembering directions?”

The girl’s brow wrinkled.

“I won’t write this down, so you’ll need to remember it.”

The girl was a quick learner, and it only took a couple of rounds for her to memorize each of the steps.

“And at the end I ask for a lady with a sword?”

“No. The Lady of Swords.” I rubbed my eyes.

How it could be the 156th year of the empire, and there still be a need for shelters, I’d never understand.

Tech might change, maybe people never did.

The girl gave me a shy smile as she headed back out through the floor. Maybe she’d be all right.

Maybe not, but I’d done everything I could.

I went to the bar to check with Pietra. “Everything smooth?”

She kept polishing glasses. “Like landing on silk.”

“You’d know better than me.”

Behind the bar, no one could see the artificial legs supporting Pietra. Years ago, I’d given up the argument that no one cared about her augmented legs, but although Pietra was reluctant to leave her fortifications, the former pilot kept a keen watch on her domain.

Over the years, a few rambunctious patrons had been surprised at how fast she could appear, weapon drawn.

When Pietra stiffened, looking at the front door behind my back, I knew there was trouble. “You’re not going to like this, boss.”

I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t turn.

“Jahal just walked in with two of her muscle boys.”

The knot in my gut that had festered all night turned as heavy as a collapsed neutron.

Jahal might be the last person I wanted to see right now, but I forced myself to turn around and paint a bright smile on my face.

Station rumor said Jahal worked her way out of the worst of the Lowers, and though she might not have broken through to the Uppers, you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

I would have appreciated that sort of initiative if she didn’t have her eye on taking over my place.

Almost as tall as Oleg, her cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut ice. She’d had the latest enhancements, deeply toned skin with a dusting of metallics over the planes of her face, her collarbone, and her hip bones.

The sheer panels of her dress gave me a far too clear view of the decorations. On either side lounged a pair of young men. Their matching faces would make anyone suspect Jahal of recruiting twins, but I’d bet it was easier to pay for facial sculpting.

They didn’t look particularly dangerous, but it was safe to assume they’d been enhanced for strength and speed while they were on the operating table.

“Jahal, I’m surprised to see you here.” My voice sounded strained, even to my own ears. “I thought we had a meeting in three days up at your place?”

Her light tone set my teeth further on edge. “Oh, I just wanted to check out my investment, get to know the building and the staff a little better.”

“Not yours, yet,” I forced the words out from a locked jaw.

Oleg brought me a fresh drink. He didn’t offer Jahal one.

To hell with politeness.

Jahal ran her eyes over Oleg’s form, then turned to spot the rest of the staff working the room. “Yet. It’ll be mine soon enough. My sources are confident you won’t be able to repay that note. And then… what a lovely little place you’ve built up for me. And such very fresh looking… hosts for the clients.”

I felt Pietra stiffen behind her and shook my head slightly. This wasn’t the time to get into it. “Like I said, it’s not yours. I still have three days to make sure it never will be.”

Jahal’s face hardened and the pretty boys with her tensed. “Not only will it be, I’m looking forward to revising the contracts around here.” She smirked, her thin lips curving up at the corners.

I stepped forward. “But since you’re not the owner now, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

She sniffed. “I’ve certainly spent enough time here.” She sauntered off, leaving my emotions raging behind her.

And the worst thing was the bitch was right.

There was no way I could think of to get the money in time.

I turned back to meet Pietra’s worried face.

“Did you really take out that large of a loan from her?”

I rubbed my eyes and took a drink. “Remember a few months ago when Monty was sick and couldn’t work? And Siovan left with her captain? And then the hydro-gen needed all that maintenance?”

She nodded, eyes wary.

“There wasn’t enough coming in to cover the bills. I thought I could get a little loan, something to tide us over until business picked back up, until we were fully staffed again.”

Pietra put down the glass she’d been holding. “You should have told us sooner. We could have helped.”

“I know. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t want anyone else to worry.”

“And of all people, Jahal?”

I sighed, looking away from the disappointment in her eyes.

“I tried my dad’s contacts first. Black Company was away on a job and I couldn’t get through. Hit up the Skulls and the Outlanders, but they wanted partial ownership.”

I looked back at her, hoping she’d understand. “I couldn’t do it. Finally went to Jahal. I guess I thought from one business woman to another, there might be a little flex.”

“You know better than that. No one gives anyone flex around here.”

“I know. I got desperate. The terms seemed fair enough. I was sure I’d be able to pay it off before the interest really ramped. Once it started to kick in, there was no way I could keep up.”

“How much is it up to?”

I took another sip, delaying the confession. “Thirty thousand.” I shrunk in my seat, ashamed of letting everyone down. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t know that you’re not contracted employees.”

Pietra scowled at me. “We don’t have to work for her, sure, but we all like it here. Where else is Dalla going to work where she gets to choose her clients? Or any of us?” She took my glass away. “Kicking her out may make you feel better, except it doesn’t do anything in the long run. How are we going to get the money in three days?”

I ran my hand through my hair. “I’m sorry. I’ve failed everyone.”

Pietra snorted. “You should have told us what was going on earlier. Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help. We need a plan.”

A chair scraped against the floor as the man in the corner, the blond who’d caught my attention earlier, stood up and headed over to us.

“Maybe I can help.”

My eyes widened at an all too familiar voice. “Kieran Matthias. What the hell are you doing here?”

Kieran raised his hands shoulder high in mock surrender. “Not quite the welcome I’d hoped for, Ani.”

“That’s because you’re not welcome,” I snapped.

Pietra moved from behind the bar. “We’ve had enough nonsense for the night. Get a move on, sailor.”

Kieran didn’t move his eyes from mine. “Even if I know a way to get out of debt with Jahal?”

I laughed. “You’ve never seen that kind of money.”

“Here.” He moved his hand towards a hip pocket.

“Slowly,” growled Pietra.

He froze. “Ani, you’ve got to know, I’m not going to come in here and blast you.”

I thought a minute.

Con me.

Sweet talk me.

Bring up all sorts of old memories.

Distract me when I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Sure. Any of those.

But shoot me? No, I couldn’t imagine. I nodded. “Pietra, he’s all right.” He grinned roguishly, and I immediately regretted my words. “Well, mostly.”

Kieran brought out a credit spike and slid it down the bar. “Check that.”

I handed it to Pietra to run. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I’ve been off the platform for a while.” Kieran reached towards a chair. “Mind if we sit? This is feeling a bit formal.”

I nodded and dropped into the chair facing him. “Yes, you left. I remember that.”

And I did. My father had sworn like the ex-marine he’d been, about the no-good son of a trader, probably signing up with some syndicate, disappearing, turning out to be a rat like the rest of his family.

I’d agreed with my father, but kept my own hurt well-hidden.

“Ani, I couldn’t stay here. There was no way out, and nothing for me.”

I felt my face harden.

“Dammit, that’s not what I meant.”

“You said what you meant pretty clearly.”

Pietra slid to the side of the table. “The spike has thirty-six thousand credits on it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “How the hell did you end up with that sort of credit?”

Kieran shrugged. “No matter what I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Would you?”

I shook my head. “Probably not.”

“You’ll trust me as far as a few things I wouldn’t do, right?”

“Maybe.”

“It’s pretty clean,” he promised. “Clean enough.”

“Why should I care? And why are you here?”

“I’ve been back for a little while, long enough to ask around. It didn’t take much time to hear about your issue with Jahal.”

I stood. “That’s my problem. Not yours.”

Kieran shrugged. “I think this place could be a money maker, but it needs a little work.” He nodded at the spike Pietra still held. “That would be my investment.”

“Oh no.” I stepped away from the table. “I’ve already heard from all sorts of people on ways to make the place more profitable. My people aren’t meat.”

Kieran held his hands out. “I’m not going to tell you how to run anything. I have some suggestions, but that investment would include me as a silent partner.”

“Silent?” I scoffed, but felt a trickle of hope. “As in you’re going to give me the money and walk away?”

“Nope. An investment, as in we’d work out a percentage that would come back to me, but yes, silent as in I’d make suggestions and you’d have the power of veto.”

I slid back down in the chair, legs weak.

It could be an answer to the problem. But what if I only made things worse? “Who draws the contract?”

“Clerk of your choosing.” Kieran shrugged. “I have a draft pulled together, but you should go through it.”

I tilted my head, trying to think of his angle. “What’s in this for you?”

Kieran leaned back in the chair. “This place, your dad’s place… this was the one safe spot for me, you know that?”

I looked away, nodding.

Everyone had it rough down here, but Kieran’s family was on the streets more often than not. His mom disappeared when he was little, leaving Kieran to the mercy of an abusive bastard.

My dad always found small jobs around the bar for Kieran, and usually a bit of extra food.

Kieran cleared his throat. “Anyway, the idea of it falling into the hands of Jahal and her crowd turns my stomach.”

I studied him, really looking at him for the first time since he’d shown up.

Blond hair, shaggy, darker than before. Skin weathered, a new scar at the edge of one cheek.

Tall and long and lean, he’d grown to have more muscle than his father. And the same clear blue eyes I’d cried over late at night all those years ago.

I thought about the bills I’d run through earlier in the night. He was right. This was the only way.

But he kept talking. “There’s one other thing I want.”

I nodded. We’d have to hash out the contract, down to the last detail.

“I want you.”

I shot away from the table. “What?”

“You heard me, Ani. One rotation, you’re all mine.”

“Oh, hell no.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “What makes you so much better than the men and women who work here?”

I sputtered angrily. “That’s not the same at all, and you know it!”

He rolled his eyes. “They’re entertaining clients to make ends meet. Sure, they can pick and choose the client, but that’s the life. This is one night.”

My blood beat in my ears. He was right.

I wasn’t better than anyone else. Not Dalla or Oleg or Shaymarie, none of them.

But… my face paled. Not with him.

With anyone but Kieran Matthias. Unless…

“Fine.”

His eyebrows shot up at my sudden capitulation.

“But how about we play a little Tunk for it?”

It was his turn to look angry. “Tunk? For …”

“If I win, you’re a silent partner with no extra benefits. If you win…” I swallowed “I’m yours for one rotation. Anything you want. Either way, you’re investing in the Star.”

He scratched his head. “I should have known you’d pull something crazy. How many hands?”

I thought. It’d been awhile since I’d played, but I’d regularly beaten the pants off him when we were kids.

“Five.” That should give me a buffer, get up to speed.

“One.” His face was grim.

“Three,” I countered.

He nodded.

I turned to Pietra. “Get a clerk. Get a good one.”


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