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Staked: Chapter Eleven

Pietra had given us very specific directions, ones that I was pretty sure I remembered hearing before, maybe a few months ago.

The Lady of the Sword seemed to have a lot of hideouts, scattered around the Lowers––waypoints and safehouses, places that people could hide when the only alternative was to walk around looking vulnerable enough to be an easy target.

I’d never known much about the Lady of Swords myself––only the locations I was given to pass on to people who needed help. I knew that Pietra knew more about them, but I’d never asked much about it. I’d figured it was her business.

Now Pietra seemed to be guiding me and Kieran to one of them.

In the past few hours, I’d been kidnapped, drugged, and left out on the streets. I had Kieran and Pietra looking out for me, but I couldn’t trust Kieran, not really.

He said he was working for the good guys––the Empire, which wanted back the frontier stations they’d allowed to break free decades before. He’d only gotten involved with me again because I’d become a pawn in the game he was playing.

Somehow, I was important to the crime syndicates that had control over much of the Lowers and probably more of the Uppers than anyone else wanted to admit.

I was going with Kieran because I knew it was too dangerous to travel on my own, and because he was taking me to Pietra and her people. I wasn’t going to let him any closer to me than that.

He said he was doing a good thing, and I was pretty sure I believed it.

I wanted to.

But all he’d done since we’d met was hide important things from me and take advantage almost any way he could.

I was determined not to trust him any more than I had to.

We were on one of the decks closer to the Uppers, but still firmly in Lowers territory, far enough away from the border between the two that it wasn’t watched too closely.

The main roads here were clear, clean, and in decent repair, but many of the structures were old, with façades built on top of one another in places and cheap aluminum and steel sheeting covering the walls in back alleys where appearance was less important.

Back ways abounded, here––places that didn’t warrant signs and weren’t visible even on the street-level maps accessible from the average commtab.

Kieran had to keep pulling up the instructions Pietra had sent us, looking every which way briefly before grumbling and heading off in a new direction.

I hoped he wasn’t getting us lost.

The artificial lighting would last a bit longer in the open streets, but between the buildings it was already past dusk. Just because it was quiet didn’t mean it was safe.

The instructions for how to reach one of the Lady’s safehouses had always been complicated, though.

I remembered the girl who had shown up in the Sapphire Star the night that Jahal made her first threats in person.

Normally, directions to the Lady would never be written down––they had to be spread by word of mouth, so that it would be harder for them to fall into the wrong hands. The girl had been a quick study, but it still had taken a while to make sure she knew them by heart.

Something twinged in the back of my head as I thought about the girl. I paused, slowing down behind Kieran in an attempt to trace it.

I felt as though I was missing something, but I had no idea what it might be.

Something about the safehouses, maybe?

Something Pietra said?

“Hey,” Kieran said. I looked up. He was several steps ahead of me, almost to the next intersection of two small, winding alleys between the buildings that rose well above our heads. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, fine,” I said, hurrying to catch up with him. “You know where we’re headed?”

“We’re close,” he said, turning and continuing, turning left and starting down the crossroads. “Keep up––don’t want to lose you.”

The words were gruff.

Since I’d told him to back off at the hotel, everything about him had been on-edge but carefully restrained.

He seemed angry, barely in control of some strong emotion that he was refusing to let come to the surface.

When he’d delivered me to Pietra, what then? I wondered.

Would he leave? Or was I too important of a pawn in the game he was playing to leave me alone?

We reached a wall built of metal panels, patchy and starting to rust in places. The alley we’d been following turned right and continued along the building’s side. To the left, a dead end. Instead of following the path to the right, Kieran stepped to the left and knocked on the wall––four taps. A pause. Then a fifth.

I stood on the path, waiting. Was this a signal that we had to send before we walked down to the door? Or…

There was a faint click and the sound of shifting metal––quiet and rasping––and one of the panels moved out of line with the others, rotating upwards to make an opening.

That noise..

“Come on,” said a voice from inside. Kieran turned to me.

I was frozen, hearing the sound again in my mind.

Not from here, but…

“There’s a secret passage in the Star,” I blurted. I reached out to the wall beside the secret door and leaned against it, feeling suddenly dizzy.

Kieran immediately grabbed me, one hand on my shoulder and one on my waist to keep me upright. “What?” he said urgently.

“There was––right before they got me, there was a noise. I’d been looking right at the doorway, I didn’t hear anything until then. They got, they got behind me––and the wall was stable, not broken, there was nowhere they could have hidden that would have made a sound like that.” I swallowed hard, looking up at Kieran.

It was possible, right? He knew these people. Maybe he would know how they found a way into my bar that I’d never known about, never even imagined.

“Okay, Ani,” he said. “We’ll talk about it inside, okay? I don’t know how safe it is to talk about things out here. Inside, and we’ll talk to these people, see what they know. Then you can tell me what you remember, from the beginning.”

“Once Pietra’s there,” I agreed.

He nodded, and his hands dropped away as I straightened and gave him a pointed look.

I could almost forgive him for touching me since he’d been trying to help.

Almost.

The person who opened the door gave me a long look, her dark eyes assessing. She beckoned us through without a word.

The opening in the wall led to a narrow passageway between struts of reinforcement that quickly brought us to a staircase built out of old metal that had clearly been repaired multiple times. Reddish lights at ankle level illuminated the steps, but not much else. I kept one hand carefully on the wall as I climbed down.

Kieran threw a few glances at me over his shoulder, but I ignored him and kept going. I was hunting down the memories that were starting to seep in, now that the first block had been broken. They’d gotten me while I was in a place that, deep down, I’d still seen as safe.

I still had no clue how they’d done it. I was tempted to dwell on that, but what had happened after was important as well, and as I focused, I could feel the details begin to trickle back.

The more I remembered, the more I knew I needed to talk to Pietra as soon as possible.

The structure we entered at the end of the staircase wasn’t exactly a building so much as a series of rooms that had been built wherever there was space in between the beams shoring up the deck above us.

Scraps of metal and other materials––spray foam and plaster, mainly––created the walls, and the floor was tiled with linoleum that looked older than I was. Rugs covered large sections of the floor, muting our footsteps to dim thuds.

None of it looked particularly new, and all of it looked used––probably older-looking than it actually was, with different parts worn and torn and stained and mended. The furnishings were piecemeal, but the place had a lived-in feel that tied everything together. It reminded me a little bit of Pietra’s place in that way.

The room we were taken to was through one of the many doors off the hallway. It had a low ceiling, and warm lamps lit up the room. A few scarves hung from the walls as well as old amateur paintings, mainly images of the various decks and still lifes.

It had a homey feel, and I was relieved when the woman who’d opened the door gestured to an old armchair. A few of the springs felt broken, but I was grateful for the chance to sit down.

“Pietra’s in the other room,” she said. “Wait here––I’ll go tell her that you’ve arrived.”

“Thanks,” I said. I waited until she left the room then closed my eyes, taking a few deep breaths.

When I looked up again, Kieran was eyeing me. I shut my eyes again, willing him not to ask questions. It could wait until Pietra arrived, couldn’t it?

Pietra was there a few seconds later, and I stood up again just to hug her.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” she murmured into my ear. “You had me worried.”

“Yeah,” I said, squeezing her tightly. “Sorry.”

She let me go after a long moment, and I sank back into my chair. “Are the others all right?” I asked.

Pietra took a place in a wooden rocking chair with an old, threadbare cushion. “They’re fine,” she said. “I contacted them as soon as I heard from Kieran that he’d found you. They’re worried, but they’re staying away until I say so.”

She shook her head. “I have to admit, I hoped I’d never have to bring you to one of these places. But now I guess it’s safer than the alternative, given who’s after you.”

She gestured to the person who’d led us in and took a seat beside her. A loose-wrapped shawl covered her curly dark hair, and her equally dark eyes were calm and serious. “This is Sardra, a friend of mine. She’s in charge of this location…among other things.”

“I’m very sorry to hear what happened,” Sardra said, inclining her head briefly. “If it’s alright with you, can I stay to hear what you have to say? It could be important.”

“Yes, that’s fine.” I took a deep breath, then turned to Pietra. “They’ve got some kind of secret passage that leads to the Star. That’s how they got me.”

Pietra stiffened. “What makes you think that?”

“I was in my office, and there wasn’t anyone there or any way they could have gotten in, but they did. My back was to the wall, and I heard something––metal shifting, like the entrance to this place. The next thing I knew, they’d knocked me out.”

I shook my head.

“Hearing the door made me remember. Everything’s still coming in bits and pieces, but there’s only one door to the office, and they couldn’t have come from it. I would have seen.”

Pietra frowned, working it out. “But your office is one of the most secure buildings in the Star. There’s nothing behind it, it’s…” Her eyes widened. “By the dark, of course. There’s a passage to the spindle in there.”

Kieran blinked. “That would do it,” he said. “I wondered why Jahal was playing her need for the Star so close to her chest.”

“The spindle?” I said. I’d only just realized where they must have come from, but that made sense.

I could hear the spindle, the long column that spun the entire station, turning behind me when I worked in my office, even if the sound of it was faint.

It was close enough to send faint reverberations through the wall. It could be close enough to be hiding a secret door.

“We’ll talk about the implications of that in a moment,” Pietra said firmly. “I want to hear more about what happened, first.”

I nodded. “They knocked me out right away––some sort of drug, from a needle in my neck. When I woke up, I was blindfolded. I had no clue where I was.”

“That’s fine,” Pietra said. “Just tell us everything you remember.”

I did. There were some long pauses as I tried to wrangle the handful of memories I had into something that made sense. Eventually it came together. Working through the parts where I’d been drugged were harder.

I froze up for a long moment when I realized just what it was I’d given away to Jahal and whoever her companions had been. I didn’t keep talking until Pietra came over and took one of my hands.

“It’s okay,” she said, when I stopped for breath. “We switch out the safehouses so often for exactly this reason. It’s already changed, like they said. You didn’t tell them anything dangerous.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“So they questioned you. Did you hear anything interesting in what they asked?”

“They thought I was involved with the Lady more than I am, I think,” I said. “They were worried about the consequences of coming after me.”

“As well they should have been,” Pietra said, her eyes hard. She squeezed my hand briefly, and I smiled a little at the mama-bear ferocity in her face.

“But Jahal didn’t seem to care,” I said. “And then…”

The next part was hard to tell, too, but for a different reason. “They gave me something else,” I said slowly. “I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it made me feel…really strange.”

Kieran had been silent throughout my recollection of what had happened. “It was Blue,” he growled. “She was half out of her mind with it when I found her.”

Pietra’s jaw tightened. “Ani, is that true?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t heard of Blue, but they gave me something, and yeah, I wasn’t myself after.” I shook my head. “I don’t remember what happened after that very well.”

“I managed to find her before she got into too much trouble,” Kieran replied. “I took her to a hotel and waited for it to wear off.”

Sardra spoke, her question dangerously quiet. “And what did you do in the meantime?”


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