Staked: Chapter Twelve

Kieran flushed, but met her eye, glaring. “Normally, I would say that it was none of your business, but I kissed her until she went to sleep. I had to restrain her, or she would have taken it further.”

“You would have let her take it further, you mean,” Sardra said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, but you had a responsibility to her, and you came awfully close to crossing the line. There are plenty of women who wouldn’t forgive you even for that much.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said.

Sardra turned to me and raised an eyebrow; I could see Pietra looking me over as well, concerned.

“We’ve got a bit of a history, but all things considered, I think it was the kindest thing he could’ve done. That drug felt nice enough at first, but after a while…” I remembered the aching emptiness inside me, the way Kieran’s kisses had helped to soothe the ache, take the worst of the edge off.

Now I was flushing, too.

“That’s true enough,” Pietra said. “We don’t know much about Blue, either––only a handful of the girls who’ve been on it have shown up in the Lowers. But we know it’s addictive, or it can be, and we know it hollows you out from the inside if you take it long enough.”

“Most of them are nothing more than shells,” Sardra agreed. “Their irises are bleached blue. It isn’t pretty. If you’ve only had it the once, you should be fine, but watch out for symptoms.”

I nodded. “But if…” I swallowed. “I know what sort of place I run”––ran––“but if there’s something out there, why haven’t I heard of it? I know there’s plenty of people in the Lowers who would want to use something like that if they could.”

“It’s an Uppers luxury, so far,” Kieran said. “It’s expensive to get hold of––the suppliers aren’t too reliable yet. Plus, the stuff’s too easy to administer––I think people are worried about it being used against them. But the Uppers clients are willing to pay top credits for the best of the best, especially if it’s rare…so the cartels are keeping it constrained to there for the moment. I think there are a few groups that haven’t managed to get in with the suppliers yet, either.”

“So it’s good for business to keep it restricted,” I said, my stomach clenching.

“Exactly,” he said. “And it would be good for us  if it stays that right way until the people selling it are removed from the equation.”

“And you think you can do that?” Pietra asked.

Kieran grinned at her, and I could see a hint of the child who’d been my partner in crime, but less cocky, steadier.

“It’s what I’m aiming for,” he said. “I’m not sure how important it is to my employers that I succeed, but I’m going to give it a shot.”

“So…why Anisha, then?” she said, slowly. “It has something to do with the smuggling, doesn’t it?”

“It would make the most sense,” Kieran said. “There’s been some ship seizures the last few months. Nothing too big, and I doubt you’ve heard much about it––the cartels don’t want to admit it’s been happening, and the Empire’s been cautious about it. I’ve been telling them to slow down, be more careful about what they take and when, because I was worried they’d start looking for alternative smuggling routes…”

“Like the spindle,” Sardra said, sighing.

“Exactly.” Kieran shook his head. “And I don’t know anything about traveling through there––all my experience is with ships. I couldn’t even figure out why they wanted the Star. I thought they were going to use it as a cover, but…”

“But it looks like it’s a cover for a bigger operation than you’d expected,” Pietra said. “I have to admit, I’m surprised, too.”

“So…” Kieran paused. “Does that mean you never used the passage behind the Star yourself?”

“No,” she said. “I didn’t know it existed until just now. But…Ani, I think your dad might’ve kept it on purpose. As a precaution. He was…” She sighed. “No point in hiding from you any longer. Your father helped me out a couple of times.”

“What, really?” I said. “Did he…do things like you did?” I asked her. He’d been military––at this point, it wouldn’t be all that surprising.

“Not directly,” she said. “Not as far as I know. He kept a lot of things to himself after your mother died. I think he tried to keep you out of harm’s way. But he was insistent about remodeling the Star as little as possible…maybe he thought the hatch might end up being useful someday.”

“Instead, it became a liability,” Kieran said. “I’m sorry, Ani––I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about it now. The Star’s been empty for long enough.  For all we know, they’re already using it.”

I felt my throat tighten. “Aren’t there authorities we can call, or something?” I asked, desperate.

“It’s not even clear whose the property is at this point,” Kieran pointed out. “And even if it were…with something as important as this, the cartels would pay off any authorities who came anywhere close. All the official ones, anyway.”

“And the less official ones?” I checked.

“My contacts don’t have the numbers to face off against the cartels on the decks. Not yet, anyway.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Ani, but we can’t afford to focus on the Star right now.”

“Oh.” I sat back, forcing myself to breathe.

Kieran had decided to show up in my life in the first place because I’d been at risk.

But did it really matter that he’d done it, if he wasn’t able to help me after all?

“I really am sorry, Ani,” he said. “I thought they’d at least pretend to deal fair. By the time I started to grasp what they were really after…it was too late to do anything but try to keep you out of harm’s way.” He snorted without humor. “Even that hasn’t worked.”

He wasn’t wrong.

I folded my arms and looked away.

There was a long, awkward pause.

“It helps to know what they’re after, though,” Kieran muttered then looked up at the others. “You sure you’re not tapped? I’d like to get in touch with my boss.”

“Not by anyone else, maybe,” Sardra said, raising an eyebrow at him. “Can’t promise we won’t see anything you try to send, though.”

“If you think the Empire officials won’t catch you trying to get in on secret government intel, you can go right ahead and try,” he said casually. “It’s no skin off my back if they catch you and decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“Maybe we would be,” she said.

“Knock it off,” I grumbled, in no mood for their rivalry.

Sardra slanted a glance my way but fell silent.

Kieran shut his eyes for a moment with a quick, sharp sigh then pulled his tablet from a coat pocket and began fiddling with it.

There was a long, awkward silence. I ached; the hours I’d spent sleeping seemed like they’d happened years ago. I wanted to curl up for a rotation or two in my own bed, but it was looking more and more like I wouldn’t get to go back there ever again.

Meanwhile, Pietra sat still and silent, and Sardra was looking between the three of us, seemingly lost in thought.

I’d never thought I would be one of the people they were helping. My case wasn’t exactly the usual thing the Lady of Swords was known for. Was it?

“We could have something,” Kieran said after a while. “There’s hints about some sort of event coming up soon, in just a few rotations. It sounds like…shit.” He shook his head.

“It sounds like they’re going to be trying to expand the market for Blue, draw in potential customers. It’s soon, but I think there should be enough time for me to express my interest, get invited. Some of the other cartels know I’ve been dealing with Jahal, and if they think I’m considering competing with her in the market, they won’t think it’s strange if I go behind her back.”

“A meeting for prospective buyers?” Pietra asked. “What sort of scale are we talking here?”

“Big,” Kieran said after hesitating for a moment. “Maybe. This could be exaggeration, though.” Abruptly, he stood up, folding his commtab under his arm. “I don’t know much now, but if I hurry I can get some more intel, let you know what I can. I’ll contact you through secure channels––don’t try to get in touch with me.”

“Wait,” I said as he was turning to leave. My mind was churning. “You’re going to just…go to this party, pretend you want to buy Blue so you can learn more about their shipment?”

“That’s the plan,” Kieran said. He sounded impatient. “Theoretically, anyway.”

“Take me with you,” I said. “Make it a plus-one.”

He looked confused for a moment, but then his eyes widened. “Ani, you can’t––“

“It’ll be more believable if there was a reason you suddenly wanted in on the business,” I argued. “And if you’re with someone…”

He clearly didn’t like where my reasoning was going. “Ani, you’re too conspicuous. There’s no way they’ll let you on board, not with how Jahal thinks you––“

“She could go in disguise…” Pietra said. “Yes. We could make it work. And it’d show that you have a personal investment in getting involved in the trade.”

“No!” he snapped. “Ani, you of all people should know why that’s too dangerous. You’ve already––”

“Which is why I can do it,” I argued. “It’s still a pretty rare drug––how many people do you think can fake its effects?”

“You don’t know what they might do to you.”

“If you haven’t already noticed,” I said, seething, “I’ve been drugged and kidnapped, my home’s been bombed, my friends are all in hiding, and I’ve lost my livelihood. I’d like to get to actually choose to put myself in danger for once. And…” I sighed. I probably wasn’t going to convince him mad. “This is important. I can help, and I want to try, if I can.”

Kieran sighed. “Okay. You know what? Fine. I’ll say I want to bring a ‘plus-one.’ But you let me know right away if you change your mind.”

“Sure,” I said. It wasn’t a hard promise to make when I already knew my mind wasn’t changing.

“Then I’m leaving,” he said, standing up. “Are you staying here for now?”

I looked over at Pietra, unsure. I’d been staying with her before, but––

“Yes,” she said firmly. “I’m not losing track of Ani again. I want her safe.”

If you wanted her safe, you wouldn’t let her come with me. The thought was written all over Kieran’s face, but it seemed he was done arguing. He stood and nodded at the others. “I’ll get in touch with you as soon as we know more.”

Then he was gone, with Pietra and Sardra following him out. I stayed sitting in the room, taking it in again and taking deep breaths, trying to absorb everything that I’d heard.

Pietra, walked back into the room after a minute and leaned over me, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Want to talk about it?”

“I’ve had enough of talking for a little while,” I admitted.

I looked up in time to catch her smile. “I understand completely,” she assured me. “Here––let me show you around.”


For two rotations, Pietra and I stayed at the safe house. Sometimes, Pietra would introduce me to the people passing through, and we’d talk for a little while.

Other than that, Pietra and I had each other and messages and conversations with the others via commlink for company.

I hadn’t really spent much time feeling claustrophobic before. I’d grown up on a space station; even the decks weren’t really the same thing as being outside. If I’d been to the Uppers more often, with their foliage and their wide-open spaces, maybe I would have thought about it more often.

But as it was, I’d never minded small spaces. Spending so much time in extremely narrow rooms was starting to get to me by the end of the second day, though.

The hardest thing to accept was that the Star was gone. The period during which the debt could be repaid was over, and there was no way I was going to get it back. I talked it over with Pietra every now and then, but the suspicion kept growing in me that there was only so much talking could do.

Not knowing where I would go after leaving here wasn’t helping.

Neither was having no idea what the plan was.

Fortunately, near the end of the second rotation and the start of the third, Kieran finally called in.

“There’s a big shipment coming in,” he said, without preamble, as soon as the video call started. “Really big. I’ve heard rumors that it might be twenty times what’s made it here so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s an exaggeration, but given the circus they’re throwing to get the word out there, it’s probably something close to that amount.”

“What sort of circus?” Pietra asked. “The event you mentioned?”

“Yes, it sounds like,” he said. “That party––getting in touch with potential buyers, that sort of thing. I’ve managed to get my hands on an invitation…but it doesn’t look pretty.” He paused.

“How so?” Sardra prompted.

“We might find…well.” Kieran coughed. “It sounds like there might be some…examples of the way that Blue works on the ship. Some women who’ve already been dosed, to give a taste of what it’s like to the people who are interested.”

I felt my stomach turn over.

“Can we get them out?” Pietra asked.

“I don’t know yet. But I’ll see what we can do.” Kieran sighed. “Finding them on top of everything else is going to be a struggle.”

“We’ll see who we can get aboard,” Sardra said. “There’s usually a way, in cases like these. It might be better if we act independently––if one of our plans falls through, the other can stay intact.”

“Were you even listening?” Kieran growled. “It’s on a ship. That will be in orbit around the station, for at least an hour or two. It won’t be safe to have a group on board.”

“We’re pretty good at what we do––“

“It won’t be worth it,” Kieran insisted. “If only one or two people went, you’d be overpowered too easily. And if more of you went, they won’t even try to capture you––it’ll be kill first, don’t bother with any questions later.”

Sardra grimaced. “Oh, and you’re so different?”

“Yes,” he said flatly. “For one thing, they think I’m actually with them––maybe on the fence, but not too much of a threat as I am right now. For another, I’m not much of a threat by myself. And if they do find out what I’m up to, I’m going to be valuable enough to keep alive at least until the ship docks. And if not…let’s just say I have some connections that might be able to pull through for me.”

“And you couldn’t get them to help us if we needed it?” Pietra asked.

“Honestly?” he said. “I wouldn’t want to put it to the test. I’ve proven to them that I’m a valuable asset who can help them get what they need. And they’re barely keeping up with the syndicates as it is––if you can call what they’ve been up to so far ‘keeping up.’ Seriously…I trust these guys because I don’t have much of a choice. I don’t want you stuck in the same position I already am.” He paused. “What I could use is some backup…if you’re interested.”

Sardra did look interested. “On the deck where the ship will dock?”

“The general vicinity would be good––but ideally not so close they wonder if you’re on to them. That might make them change their plans for delivering the shipment, and at this point that’s the last thing we need.” He paused for a moment, then sighed. “Ani.”

I waited.

“This is going to be really dangerous,” he said. “I’ve done dangerous things before, but this is pretty high up there. That ship is going to be full of bad people, and they’re going to be jumpy. That means they’re probably going to be trigger-happy, too. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

Do you even have anyone else to watch your back? I wondered.

Aloud, I said, “Yes, I do.”

He shook his head. “Pietra, I don’t suppose you’re going to put your foot down and drag her out of this?”

“No, I’m not,” Pietra said simply.

He sighed. “All right, then. I’ll send you the coordinates. It’ll be important to be on time, because I don’t think the party will wait on anyone. Make sure Ani’s disguise is a good––there’s a chance there’ll be familiar faces on board.”

And with that, he’d logged off, leaving us staring at a dark screen.

“I’d hoped to be able to send backup with him,” Pietra admitted, sighing. “Ani, did your father ever train you with any weapons?”

“Dad taught me how to hold a plasma rifle and a pistol,” I said awkwardly. “We went to the range a few time in my teens, but I haven’t really kept up with it.”

“Hmm.” Pietra looked displeased, but not really surprised. “Well, I’ll think about it, see if we can’t set you up with some discreet precautions. In situations like this, ‘better safe than sorry’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

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