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Staked: Chapter Five

We got to Zelta 10 deck in record time. I finished dressing in the flitter, grateful again for the covering swaths of Oleg’s cloak, as I pulled on the plain black pants and a drab olive tunic Kieran’s staff had found for me.

The flitter landed in the street outside my building, pushing aside the crowd that had gathered to gawk.

I rushed towards the door, but Kieran caught me, held me back.

“It’s not safe, you know that. A shatter bomb could have loosened every joint in the place. For all you know, one footstep inside would bring it crashing down on you.”

I kicked at him. “Who the hell makes something like that, anyway? And why my place?” Fear spread icy fingers from my stomach, wrapped around my heart. “And where are my people?” I whispered.

I turned back from the Star to search the crowd. Maybe there had been a witness, maybe someone saw something, maybe… Oleg!

I pushed away from Kieran and rushed towards the tall blond.

He wrapped me in a hug. Pressed around him, I saw the rest of my friends. Pietra looked as immovable as ever; Shaymarie and Cambrie held hands, packages at their feet. I blinked. A bright pink short nighty was all that covered Dalla.

“What happened? Is everyone alright? Where is—”

Oleg interrupted me. “We’re not sure what happened, but everyone is fine. Since we’d closed, Shaymari and Cambrie decided to go out and get some shopping done.

Dalla and I pestered Pietra to teach us that card game that got you into so much trouble.” He attempted a grin, but I watched it fade. “The bomb…”

His eyes lost focus, and I hugged him hard. “It started as a tremor, the ground shaking under our feet. We had no idea what was going on. Dalla thought the station had been hit with an asteroid. Dalla and I, well, we were pretty useless.” He swallowed, his face grim.

Dalla cut in. “Pietra recognized it immediately. Cleared us out, yelled at me for wanting to go change before heading outside. She even shouted at the folks on the street to keep back.”

Pietra shrugged. “There’s a sound they make as they’re ramping up. You don’t forget it.”

“It’s a fine thing we were closed.” Oleg winked at me, and my cheeks heated. “Where is your mystery man, anyhow? He sure got you here quick.”

I turned, scanning the crowd. Where had Kieran gotten to? There, at the far edge of the crowd, I saw him, his back turned towards me. I bit my lip.

After the last few hours, I’d recognize those shoulders anywhere. Despite the bomb, despite everything, I caught myself smiling.

Everyone was all right. The Star could be fixed.

And that sexy man over there was…

Talking intently to Jahal.

Touching her arm as she leaned into him.

A wave of dizziness swept over me. The cold vice around my chest returned with a vengeance.

Why would…?

Oh. Of course.

Kieran and Jahal. Working together. The timing had been too perfect. This would be the end of the Star. There wasn’t enough credit on the chip to pay off Jahal and rebuild. I’d have to close anyway.

I’d have to sell—maybe not to Jahal and her syndicate, but to someone.

Through the tangled web of syndicate alliances, Jahal would probably get the Star anyway.

My people would be out in the cold, or worse, forced to work for a brutal syndicate.

And he … he had bought me.

As if he felt my eyes on him, Kieran turned to me, a grin on his face.

I couldn’t stand to watch them together.

“Pietra, can we get out of here?”

***

We didn’t leave fast enough.

Pietra was still leading me away from the ruin of the Sapphire Star, out of the circle of observers, when Kieran turned my way.

I heard Pietra stop and turn back behind me, too.

Kieran walked over, face grim. “I’ve asked around. No one claims to have seen anything.” He reached for me, trying to pull me under one arm, but I stepped back, closer to Pietra. He frowned.

“I’m going to stay with Pietra tonight, okay?” I said, playing up the worry in my voice. “I need to make sure everyone is all right.”

He started to talk, and I interrupted––the words coming out in a rush of embarrassment and suppressed suspicion.

“I know we’re not done with the…contract, but I’ll have to make it up to you.”

His forehead wrinkled. “Are you sure? I’d thought most of your people lived at the Star. Where are you going to stay?”

Oleg stepped forward from where he must have been lurking among the onlookers, a light smile on his lips.

I could see the worry in his eyes––he knew something was up, and would play it my way. “Don’t worry about us. We have plenty of friends who can put us up.”

Pietra wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Anisha can stay with me. We’ll have plenty to do to figure out what we’ll do next with the Star––might as well start planning now.”

He turned back to look at me, biting his lips for a moment before he spoke. “Ani, I…”

I shook my head. “Please. My mind won’t be on anything else tonight.”

He nodded slowly. “If you’re sure. I’ll come down in the morning and check on you, see what the engineers have to say about reconstruction.”

“Sure,” I said more brightly than I felt.

I didn’t care what I said anymore. I just wanted him to go away and leave me with my family.

He reached for me again, and I flinched. It was a small movement, but big enough for him to see, and he stepped away with something like hurt in his eyes.

That couldn’t be, though: to be hurt, he’d have to care.

And I’d never trust Kieran again.

“Let’s go,” Pietra said, and we turned into the semi-darkness of a side street, surrounded by my friends from the bar. I couldn’t help myself.

I looked over my shoulder and saw Kieran still standing where I’d left him, alone, apart from the crowds that were finally beginning to wander away from the accident.

I felt a twinge, just a little one, at how lost he looked.

“Let’s get you off the street and into warmer clothing,” Pietra said. I flushed hot, thinking about how I’d lost that first set of clothing.

Pietra kept us all in the shadows and out of notice as we walked, but I still worried that someone might see under my cloak and know that my clothes weren’t mine; they might somehow guess what I’d been doing while my friends were in danger and my livelihood burned.

If Kieran had known, had been in on it, then how could he have kept it from me? I never would have guessed that he was that good a liar, but it was getting harder and harder to believe anything else.

The world of riches and surprises I’d seen in the Uppers––what might he have done to make it there?

***

Pietra lived on a quiet, clean street––not too new, with fairly dim lighting. All of the buildings had been kept up well, and there was warm light coming out of a few of the windows.

“I should go,” Dalla said, pulling away as we arrived at the front door of Pietra’s building. “I’ve already gotten in touch with a friend, and he’s offered to have me over.”

“Ask him to come get you, then,” Pietra said. She calmly scanned the street behind us before she turned to unlock the door.

Dalla shifted uncomfortably, frowning. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m already putting him to a lot of trouble, so––”

“If he really cares about your safety, he’ll understand that it’s dangerous for you to go alone,” Pietra said matter-of-factly.

“And if he can’t make it out, then you can stay here and save him the trouble.”

Dalla didn’t look entirely convinced. “But I––”

Pietra ducked behind us to close the door, making sure it was shut tight and locked. “Just this once, let’s pretend I’m not overly cautious, all right?” she asked softly.

No one answered––it was hard to argue with her tonight.

Dalla reached up to her ear and began speaking softly with her friend as Pietra led us down a warmly lit hallway.

I looked around. If you’d asked me a rotation ago to describe Pietra’s quarters, I’d have guessed they would be sparse, almost military, but they were nothing of the sort: thick tapestries woven in lush colors hung from the walls, and eclectic bits of furniture scattered across the room.

None of the pieces matched, and the designs on the tapestries were hardly coordinated. It was a mess of color, but all the colors were warm, and somehow the appearance of the room was soothing.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Oleg made a lustful noise in the back of his throat and went to fondle a tapestry, dragging Shaymarie behind him. He began flitting around the room, praising various details while Shaymarie watched and injected the occasional comment of her own.

Pietra followed behind them, looking fond and answering questions whenever Oleg paused for breath. Cambrie, meanwhile, found a small stool and folded herself quietly onto it, looking around the room with sedate interest.

I unfastened the cloak and folded it, laying it over the corner of the couch. Dalla glanced over at me. The corners of her lips quirked up. “That’s not what we sent you off in,” she noted.

I felt myself flush again. “Well…we headed back in a hurry,” I hedged.

Dalla grinned and was about to say something else when a gentle chiming noise filled the room. “That’s the bell,” Pietra said, and Dalla grinned and scampered to the door.

I caught her eye before she could leave. “Ping me in the morning,” I asked.

Dalla rolled her eyes, but grinned. “Yes, Mom.”

“You can ping us, or we can do check-in calls every hour, on the hour,” Pietra growled.

“Fine,” Dalla laughed and darted out the door before I could make her promise anything else.

I lowered myself carefully onto the edge of the couch and fought a losing battle with a long, shaky sigh.

Oleg, who’d been examining the detailing on a side table in the corner of the room, glanced over. He gave me one quick look, and then bent his head down to Shaymarie’s and muttered something.

He turned to Pietra. “I’m thinking what Shay and I need is a good night out,” he said. “That is, as long as you have no objections?”

Pietra frowned and glanced at me, but though I was a little worried by the idea, I had been wondering how I could begin explain my suspicions to everyone.

“All right, if you really want,” she said finally. “But you need to be smart about this. Stick with each other. And I expect a call in the morning, or I will track the both of you down myself and make you regret it.”

Oleg grinned and began to answer but was interrupted by Cambrie. “Do you mind if I come along?” she asked. “I’ll be sure not to drag down the party.”

“Good idea,” Shaymarie said approvingly, pulling her up and hooking their arms at the elbow. “Safety in numbers, right? And it’s been too long since the three of us went out together.”

“Fine, then.” Pietra didn’t sound too displeased, though. “Same goes for all of you, then. Watch each other’s backs, don’t stay out too late, and I expect to hear from you first thing tomorrow morning. Got it?”

Oleg snapped off a rather sloppy salute and herded the other two out the door, Pietra following to double check that it locked behind them.

From where I sat, I could hear their cheerful farewells fading into the night outside.

I took a deep breath in the silence they left in their wake then slid down further into the couch and put my head in my hands.

I heard the door close, steeled myself.

“Pietra, I think we have a problem.”


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