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Staked: Chapter Ten

When I woke up, I was lying where I remembered, still wrapped in Kieran’s arms.

What I couldn’t remember, I realized as I stared up at the ceiling, was how I had ended up there.

“Kieran,” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. “What are you––why are we…?”

I pushed away, grasping for strands of memory. The room around us was plush, with more furniture than I kept at home, but it didn’t match my memory of his place, either.

Kieran eyed me warily. “What do you remember?”

I thought back. “Not much…it’s a fog.”

“That’s okay,” he said softly, carefully. He brushed some stray strands of my hair back, away from my face. I realized my hair was still braided, even though I usually took it down when I was sleeping. The braid felt loose and lopsided and wasn’t too comfortable to lie on.

Why hadn’t I taken it out?

A niggling fear worked through my brain, telling me that things were very wrong. I backtracked mentally until I found something I was sure about, a doubt that needed to be resolved. “There’s one thing I remember,” I said.

He nodded. “What is it?”

My throat tried to shut around the words, so I forced them out before I could think too much about it. “I need to know if you’re working with Jahal.” 

He hesitated before answering, looking pained. “I am,” he told me.

I jerked away from him on instinct, and he stood and started to pace back and forth across the room. He was shirtless, but his pants were wrinkled like he’d been lying down in them for hours.

I struggled to weigh the possibilities of what exactly had happened in this room and to follow what Kieran was saying at the same time. 

“You know how bad things are here,” he began. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. An outpost, sure, but the Cilurnum stations were meant to be a part of Imperial space.”

I had the feeling I was missing something important.

“But the Empire left more than fifty years ago,” I said. “They don’t care what we do out here, not really.”

“That’s just it, Ani,” he told me. “They’re trying come back.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand. What does that have to do with––”

“Ani, I made a deal.” He rubbed at the space between his eyebrows, sighing. “One of the Empire’s agents contacted me a few years ago, asked whether I’d be willing to do some infiltration work––establish myself as a guy who wouldn’t get his own hands dirty, but keep an eye out for people who did, make a few friends if I could.” He shrugged. “The pay wasn’t great, and they couldn’t promise me much, but I was pretty close to established on my own and I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a few respectable friends in high places for once.” 

“So…” I paused, trying to think through what he was saying. “So you’re saying you were on orders from this agent to work with Jahal?”

“More or less,” he said. “At the moment, I’m actually trying to dig up a human trafficking ring.” 

I swallowed. That wasn’t what I’d expected to hear. “Human trafficking?”

“Their agent wants information on where some of the girls are being taken. He’s got an increase in guards at the upper decks, but although the openings between upper and lower are carefully scanned, and the docks at the Uppers are as well, there just not enough people to also cover the docks at the Lowers. They shouldn’t be able to get them up there, but they do.”

I snorted. “Right. Because all of a sudden the Empire cares about everyday people suffering.”

He shrugged. “Probably not. But they care about finding the heads of the syndicates. And if they can crack this, they’ll be closer to that.”

“Kieran…”

I sat back, pulling out what remained of my braid and combing through it with my fingers. It gave me an excuse not to look at him.

“What have you been doing to get mixed up in all this? For the Imperial agent to care enough to find you, or for the syndicates to fall for it?”

“Nothing immoral,” he said immediately. “I promise.”

I paused to look at up at him, raising an eyebrow. 

“…But a lot of illegal,” he admitted. “That’s not exactly recent, either. I’ve been doing it for a while.”

“Pietra said she thought you’d been smuggling,” I said. 

“Yes, often enough. Nothing really awful,” he added quickly. “No drugs or weapons, or anything like that. But there’s a lot of different interests who try to regulate the markets around the station, in or out, and just as many groups that want to get around it. It wasn’t too hard to find clients, once I’d proven I knew how not to get caught.”

“How’d you get started?” I asked.

He smiled crookedly. “Turns out it’s hard to run ships around here without breaking at least one or two of someone’s regulations, stepping on some toes or other. I learned that working my way up, and I figured out that I didn’t mind taking some of the bigger risks. Some pretty big opportunities came my way, and I was lucky on the gamble.” 

“You always were that,” I muttered, thinking of the hands of Tunk we’d played.

Which made me think of what I’d seen that handful of nights ago, in the Uppers for the first time in my life: Kieran had had a crew’s worth or even more of people beholden to him, to say nothing of the rooms he’d been able to afford.

“Lucky enough to move into the Uppers?” I asked aloud. 

“Not quite,” he said, looking uncomfortable at the reminder. “I might have been able to if I’d wanted, but there wasn’t really any reason to take that step until this job came up. I’d been back before, but only on short stop-offs, and I was busy trying to stay off the radar as much as possible. This is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere that’s not my ship in years.”

I crossed my arms. “When did that start?”

“I’ve been back, working with Jahal and a couple of the other syndicates, for about two months.”

This was the important bit, I realized, my stomach dropping.

“And you just now came by to visit?” I said, struggling to keep my voice casual. 

“Ani, I wanted to, but it was too dangerous. I thought I might come see you someday, once it was safer…but then I heard they had plans with the Star.”

“What sort of plans?” I asked, voice tight.

“They’ve been talking about the Star, needing it for something. As soon as I heard about it, I tried to steer them away, but they’re fixed on it. Won’t tell me why, just that it’s ‘uniquely situated’ for their purpose.” He made little air quotes with his hands, sounding frustrated. 

“What does that even––” I began, but he jumped suddenly, one hand going up to his ear. 

“Hang on a second,” he said, and reached up to switch on his commlink. He didn’t seem any happier about the interruption than I felt. “Hello?”

He flinched a bit, grimacing at whatever he heard on the other end of the line. “I found her. She’s fine.” A pause. “No, I didn’t forget, I waited because I was still trying to evaluate her status. There was…a bit of a situation. I was just starting to explain things to––” 

His jaw worked as he was apparently interrupted. “How am I supposed to know if I trust you?” he snapped.

He sounded truly angry, and I was taken aback again by the threatening edge in his voice.

“Your house was the last place we knew she was before she was taken. I only found her because they’d decided to let her go. You have no way of knowing whether you’re being followed or not.”

There was a longer pause this time. The flash of rage in Kieran seemed to dissipate as he listened, nodding slowly once or twice. 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s safe here. We won’t be overheard.”

He sighed, then switched his commlink to speaker. 

“Anisha, can you hear me?” 

I’d already suspected it was Pietra on the other end of the line, but hearing her voice still made my breath catch in my throat. She sounded confident as always, but also on-edge, annoyed––her way of sounding worried. 

“Yes,” I said immediately. “Are you okay? Are the others?”

“I’m fine. I told everyone to be careful––they’re set up with friends that they trust, or I do. None of them are to go anywhere near the Star or go anywhere by themselves until I say so.”

“Good,” I said, relieved. 

“But we need to talk,” she said. “I shouldn’t have had you go anywhere by yourself. I’m sorry.”

“No, it was my fault for leaving in the first place,” I admitted. “And I should never have gone near the Star.” I dimly remembered that much, at least––the image of the trashed hallways, the fears that I could never rebuild after all that damage… 

Pietra’s voice on the other end of the line sounded grim. “Ani, I want to hear about everything that happened later. Kieran, I need to meet with you both face-to-face. But you’re right––my place isn’t safe. If I give you directions to a meeting place, can you promise me that you won’t be followed?”

“I haven’t been found out yet,” Kieran said. “I’ll get us there without Jahal or any of the syndicates tracing us.”

“Good,” Pietra said. “I’m sending you encrypted directions. Open them up and get moving. I’ll let my friend know they’ll be having company.” 

She cut the connection, and Kieran glared down at the ground, not looking at me. I saw his jaw clench, and then he looked up. “Ani, are you feeling okay?” he asked. 

“I…I’m better than I was before, I’m pretty sure,” I said. I was scared and confused and upset, but those feelings were the least of my worries, given that I couldn’t remember exactly what had brought me here.

“How did we end up here?”

“Jahal’s people drugged you,” Kieran said. He sounded furious. “I’ve seen it before. Its primary effects don’t usually last more than a few hours, but I can’t be sure they didn’t mix anything else in. Are you feeling groggy at all? Hurting anywhere?”

My wrists and ankles were a bit sore, but a glance at my wrists told me there were chafe marks that looked like they’d come from restraints.

I thought I remembered being tied to a chair at some point, but that was all…

“No,” I said eventually, “I’m pretty sure I’m fine. For now, anyway.” 

“Right,” he said. “We should get going, then. You probably have time for a shower before we leave, if you want. I don’t have a change of clothes for you, so you’ll have to make do with what you––” 

“Hold on.” I closed my eyes and sat back on the bed, filled with too many thoughts, too many feelings.

I was tired. A shower sounded wonderful, but I had a few more questions for Kieran first…and a couple of things to make clear. 

“Let’s break this down to basics,” I said. “You’re trying to find evidence that can be used against the syndicate.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not exactly working for Jahal, but you coming into the Star when you did, our bet”––I spat the word––“was all part of that plot.”

“Ani, that’s not…”

I kept my face impassive and raised my eyebrows, daring him to continue.

“…That’s not all it was,” he finished weakly.

I took a deep breath and then made my decision.

My heart felt like it was wrapped in lead.

“I’ll work with you,” I told him. “I’ve seen some of those girls when they escape. I’ve heard about what happens to them.”

He reached for me with a pleading look, but I jerked away, getting up off the bed and retrieving my shirt before heading to the bathroom to tidy up a bit. 

“But don’t touch me,” I said over my shoulder, fighting to keep my voice steady.

“Never again.”


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