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Staked: Chapter Seventeen

By the time the escape pod reached Kieran’s ship, he’d passed out again and I was stiff all over. Docking was an automated process, so I stayed put and waited as the compression chamber opened and we were pulled into the dock.

The dock was big––large enough to fit freight loaders running to and from Kieran’s ship in low orbit, let alone for the tiny pod.

There were a couple of loaders off to the side, but the main part of the dock was open, waiting for us. I was surprised to see that there were people there, too.

They opened the hatch from the outside and were on top of us within seconds.

“Any injuries?” someone asked.

“Yes, he was hit in the side,” I said automatically, backing up and almost tripping over the hem of my dress.

I flattened myself against the seat, trying to get out of their way in the cramped space. 

I saw a couple of eyes flicker over me as two people lifted Kieran carefully between them. They stepped out of the pod and moved Kieran onto a stretcher that had appeared from somewhere, rolling him out of the dock.

I had started to climb out myself when a gloved hand appeared in front of me. I stopped, surprised.

The hand belonged to a man who looked to be only an inch or two taller than I was, dressed in new but otherwise unobtrusive business attire that didn’t match his gloves very well.

“Miss Chang, isn’t it?” the man said. “I hope you aren’t injured.”

“No, I’m fine,” I said, taking his hand. “Are you…?” I let the question trail off; I wasn’t sure who he was, and my guesses would sound ridiculous if they were wrong.

“Agent Sam Browles,” he said. “And you’re Anisha Chang. I believe I had the opportunity to work with your father once, during my training, but it’s been a long time.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what else to say to that. “Are you here to check in with Kieran?”

“More or less,” he said. He began walking towards the dock bay doors, glancing at me over his shoulder until I caught up with him.

“I heard that there had been some unexpected developments in his mission, and I was in the area and decided to come see him in person. There isn’t often enough time after a report for me to come and see the aftermath for myself, but I want a report directly from Matthias as soon as I can get one––after he’s stable, of course.”

“How long do you think that will take?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even.

“I’ve arranged for a certified Imperial medical officer to meet us at Matthias’ home,” he reassured me. “Between him and the ship’s medic, he should be out of danger in no time.”

I smiled, relieved. “That’s good to hear.”

Having an Imperial agent around simplified travel, put plans in motion at a dizzying speed.Before I realized it, we’d moved to a shuttle transfer back to Cilumnum 8. No trace connected us with the syndicate’s party.

The shuttle trip from the ship to the station, and then to Kieran’s home passed in a blur. I couldn’t stop shaking.

“Delayed shock, I’d suppose,” Agent Browles said as he wrapped his coat around my shoulders. By the time we landed at Kieran’s house, I almost had control of myself again.

“Where’s Kieran?” He hadn’t been on the shuttle with us, and I couldn’t get the image of his still body from my mind.

“He was transferred before we even left the ship. He’s been in good hands,” Browles answered, his voice matter-of-fact.

I tried to quiet the frantic thoughts beating around my mind like trapped birds. Surely they wouldn’t let anything happen to Kieran. Everything would be all right. Surely…

I’d seen the garden outside Kieran’s house before and quite a bit of the bedroom, but the rest of the complex was still pretty unfamiliar. Agent Browles led me into the sitting room and disappeared, coming back a second later with two delicate-looking teacups and saucers.

“I hope you don’t mind that I made coffee,” he said.

“That’s fine,” I said. I added some sugar to mine and tested it. It was earthy and not as bitter as I’d been expecting. I breathed in the scent then looked up at Browles, ready with questions.

He beat me to it. “So, you’ve lived out here on Cilurnum 8 all your life?”

“Yes.”

“And your father owned the Sapphire Star before you, correct?”

“Yes,” I said again.

What was he getting at?

But he nodded to himself, apparently satisfied by my answer. “And what do you think of life out here?” he said.

“Well…” How was I supposed to answer that? “It’s my home,” I answered honestly. “There’s a lot of things that I wish I could change, but I’m sure that’s the same everywhere. I live comfortably enough, and me and mine have managed to get by.”

“I see,” he said. “And I suppose you didn’t have any plans to leave the station in your lifetime?”

I thought about it. “Maybe someday,” I said. “On a vacation, or something. After retirement––though I can’t say I’ve ever thought that far ahead. But…no. My family is here, and my friends.”

“And did you have any interest in trade with the Empire?” he asked carefully. “Business agreements, trade, possibly tourism?”

I bit back laughter at the idea of Imperial tourists in the Lowers. “No,” I said. “Not until Kieran got in touch with me. Some of the imports he mentioned look promising, and I’d been considering trying them, but…”

But then the Star had been destroyed, and the thought had been driven completely out of my mind. Kieran had said that he’d paid off the debt to the Star, sure, but I hadn’t really absorbed that yet, let alone started thinking seriously about what it might mean.

“But then you were overtaken by circumstance,” Browles said. “I’d like to offer my condolences. I’d hoped to do as much as I could to avoid hard working people’s livelihoods being damaged in the recovery effort.”

“Recovery effort?” I latched onto this. “Is the Empire really trying to regain control over the stations, the entire frontier?”

“Cautiously, yes,” he said. “We’re still developing the resources to make a sustained effort to reestablish Imperial control, so right now it’s mostly individual agents, doing what we can with very limited resources. I’ve got fewer agents than I’d like, and fewer yet that I can trust to act beyond their own self-interest.” He shook his head. “Matthias is one of those––he’s proven himself trustworthy so far. I’d hate to lose him as a player at this stage.”

“So that means he’s going to recover?”

The smile he sent in my direction was kind, if preoccupied and a little condescending. “It’s very likely,” he said. “The question is whether he’ll be able to keep working safely during his recovery. I’d have taken him to a hospital if circumstances were different, but there aren’t very many hospitals here worth the name––especially compared to treatments we have in Imperial facilities now. There’s been a significant advance in standards of care in the past decade or so.”

I hummed, noncommittal.

News of the Empire didn’t make it out to the frontier stations, especially to the Lowers, and I wouldn’t have been too interested if it had. “Kieran’s pretty sturdy,” I offered. “If he can be up and about without killing himself, he’ll want to go back to work.”

Which felt like a pretty callous way to put it, but I’d known him as a child. Nothing short of a broken leg could keep him down for long.

“I hope you’re right,” he said. “But that’s only half the question. Do you know if his cover was blown? Did anyone on that ship find out who he’s working for?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I was gone for a big part of it. He definitely proved he was on my side, but I don’t know if anyone knows about yours.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “I’ll have to wait a bit longer for those answers.” He took a long sip of his coffee before speaking again. “I’d like to hear a bit about your experiences with the cartels so far, if you’re willing to tell me.”

I wasn’t too sure about that. “What do you want to know?”

“Start at the beginning,” he suggested. “Don’t worry, I won’t push––people make all sorts of compromises out here, and I understand that. I’ve made deals with devils much worse than you, Ms. Chang.”

That wasn’t too reassuring, all things considered, but I didn’t want say no outright.

I launched into a quick sketch of what had happened to me and the Star––how I’d gotten into a deal with Jahal, her threats, and then the bombing, though I left out where I’d been at the time, leaning on the description I’d heard from the others instead.

Then I went over the kidnapping, though I didn’t say what exactly they’d drugged me with.

“I’d been meaning to ask about that,” he said delicately when I’ve finished. “I hate to pry, and feel free to tell me if I’m going too far by asking. But your eyes…?”

It took me a second to realize what he was talking about, and then I felt myself flush under the heavy makeup I was still wearing. “Colored contacts,” I said. “It was to make things more believable.”

“I see.” He looked relieved. “So, you passed yourself off as Kieran’s flame. I won’t ask how you got the costume. What about on the ship?”

That probably meant he had some idea of how I might have gotten my outfit, and knew I wouldn’t want to talk about it.

That did little to lower my guard.

“I wasn’t around for most of the action,” I repeated. “But there was a man aboard the ship I recognized…”

I sketched out my quick escape, the women I’d found, and how Kieran and I had launched the escape pods. I also mentioned the fight with Jahal and its consequences.

When I finished, he looked me over carefully.

I’d already said as much as I thought I needed to, so I bit my lip and waited to hear what he had to say.

“That’s quite the story,” he said finally. “I’m glad you both got out alive. I hope the people you freed make it to safety, too. That man, though…could you describe him to me?”

“Pretty average-looking,” I said. “I think he was supposed to be some kind of server, but he looked a little old for it. He was dressed in a suit, but it was a pretty understated one. Dark hair, graying around the edges…I couldn’t tell you what color his eyes were.” I’d always been bad at that. “He was talking to Kieran about why we’d come here, and asking if I’d had Blue before…” I shrugged. “Except for the fact that he was there when I was kidnapped, he really didn’t leave much of an impression.”

“Hm,” he said. “That could be telling. Maybe he’s more important than he lets on.” He gave me a businesslike smile. “That’s everything I needed to hear, I think. Unless there’s anything you’d like to add?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Very well. Thank you very much for your help. But what are you going to do from here? Will you go back to where you’ve been staying? I could have someone accompany you.”

I remembered some of the faces Sardra had made talking about the Empire and its agents, and decided not to take his offer.

It might be better for everyone involved if I didn’t bring any of Browles’s agents to where I was currently living. Besides…

“I’d like to stay for a little while,” I said. “I want to know that Kieran will be alright…and I’m a little curious about what he’ll be planning next.”

“Well, I’m sure he won’t mind you sticking around for a little while,” Browles said. “Or getting yourself a change of clothes, for that matter. Kieran won’t even be awake for several more hours, and I’m going to be briefing him after that, so you might have a while to wait. If that’s acceptable?”

“Yes, fine.”

“Very well. There’s a bathroom down the hall if you want to freshen up. Get those contacts out before they stick,” he added, jokingly.

“Good point,” I said. I could feel my eyes drying out now that he mentioned it.

With a final wave, he disappeared behind the door leading to the kitchen, and I went to hunt for something I could wear.

I ran into a couple of Kieran’s crew members before I found a closet, and they pointed me in the right direction.

They were friendly enough but didn’t seem like they wanted to talk. I didn’t take it personally; it was getting pretty late for chatting, and we all had other, more important things to think about.

I left a few minutes later with trousers and shirt draped over one arm. I saw them with their heads bent together over a commtab, arguing quietly. I wondered what they might have been looking for as I picked out the contacts and stepped into the shower, scrubbing at my face repeatedly to make sure I got off the majority of the makeup.

It was the second time in the past several days that I’d be leaving Kieran’s house wearing something of his instead of what I’d arrived in. But this time I had the time to bundle up what I’d originally brought with me, and I might actually get the chance to get some sleep before I left. It had been a very long evening.

After I had cleaned myself off and dressed, I went back to the sitting room and curled up in the chair closest to the door. I tapped out a quick message to send to Pietra to let her know I was okay and still figuring out what would happen next, and let myself drift off to sleep.

It turned out it was a good thing I’d insisted on staying nearby, because Kieran almost managed to sneak away several hours later. I was woken by a muttered curse and a muffled thump and immediately jumped awake, to see him halfway out the door, jacket draped awkwardly over his arm and still wearing slippers.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I demanded.

He sighed, looking put out. “Why are you still here?”

“Why do you think? You were shot!” I wanted to tackle him and maybe cry a little bit, because I was glad to see him awake and well enough to glare at me…but I could tell he was also running low on patience. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m fine,” he said shortly. “I need to get back into the field.”

“Why?” I asked.

“There’s no time,” he told me. “I already let the agents know, but from what I’ve been able to dig up, that shipment’s coming in soon. The logs I was able to access say it should arrive sometime tomorrow or the next day, but from what we know right now, there’s no way it can be so close.”

“Then maybe there were delays,” I said. “Really, Kieran––”

“I don’t have time for this.” He yanked the door open and winced as it aggravated the newly repaired wound in his side. “Believe what you want to. Go home.”

“And where’s that supposed to be?” I asked.

He flinched, but I kept going. “Look, fine, something’s wrong, the shipment’s coming. But if you’re going out there, I’m coming with you––if only to make sure you don’t collapse in an alley.”

He stared at me for a long moment then sighed. “You’re really determined to do this? You don’t owe me, you know. And Jahal’s gone. You don’t have to worry about her anymore––”

“That’s not why,” I insisted. “I’m doing this because it’s important.”

Jahal had been the worst kind of person, but that didn’t make me feel much better about how convenient it was that she was gone.

Besides, her being dead didn’t mean the threat to the Star or my people had gone away. “Maybe it’s not important to me for the same reasons it is to you, but deal with it. You’re stuck with me.”

He shouldered the door the rest of the way open and stomped through, not looking back to see if I followed. “No,” he said. “I don’t have the energy to spare saving your neck, and you’re not useful as a prop anymore. Go back and get some sleep, Ani. I’ll let you know when it’s over.”

And then he was gone. I was left standing in his front room, seething.

“I don’t know what I expected,” I said to the empty room. “He always does this…”

Well, fine, I thought. I had friends who didn’t need help from Kieran or his mysterious Imperial agents. I got the feeling the Lady of Swords knew perfectly well how to move on her own.

I stalked out of Kieran’s house and went to look for a flitter, ignoring the fact that I felt like a kid playing dress up in his clothes.


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