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Bought: Chapter Four

Serra

As I led the way out of the gallery and to the Gold Room, my thoughts whirled.

Who was this visitor?

He certainly wasn’t the scruffy freelance operative I’d taken him for.

Well, at least not just that.

He knew far too many things.

Andrea worked with any number of operatives to gather her collection.

Specialists who trawled through archives, archaeologists more than ready to place the treasures they found into good hands.

Occasionally treasure hunters, scoundrels and rogues who against all the odds had found some hidden hoard and now were looking for a way to offload it, quickly and quietly.

I glanced at one of the mirrors that backed the small niches along the corridor, glancing at our visitor’s reflection.

I definitely would have put him on the rogue and scoundrel list.

But the reverent tone in his voice when he’d recognized the Lewis Queen had been something far different than base greed.

Almost the sound of a scholar.

But no scholar I had ever met could have moved as quickly as he had.

My heart still pounded in my ears, imagining what would’ve happened if the coronation axe had fallen on me.

Why had the force shield on that shelf failed so easily?

I’d start a list of maintenance tasks to go over with Annie first thing tomorrow.

“Maybe castle wasn’t the right word,” the visitor commented as we wound deeper into the building. “How do you feel about palace?”

“That might be closer,” I admitted as I waved open the door leading to the Gold Room.

And there was another interesting item to consider.

How many people in this day and age knew the difference between those two words?

Who was this mysterious Jenke?

After the collection hall, this was one of my favorite chambers.

It could easily have been called the Green Room, I supposed.

The domed ceiling and circular walls were painted in shades of celadon and jade, the arches framing the niches all around traced in gold that curved away into lush arabesques, covering the background in a tracery of vines and exuberant blooms.

At the far side, framed in one of the niches as if a piece of art herself, sat Andrea.

Well, at least her avatar.

“If we were going to be doing this by holo, couldn’t we have had this meeting earlier?” Jenke asked.

Andrea’s projection rippled slightly as she shrugged.

“If you’re looking for information, then you’ll have to put up with an old lady’s whims.”

“Won’t be the first time,” he grumbled.

“Your message said you were looking into contracts for some of my employees,” Andrea continued as if she hadn’t heard him.

It was a skill she had, to disregard what she didn’t feel was important, but I knew she’d missed nothing.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific. I have any number of employees,” she clarified.

“That might be a little difficult,” Jenke said. “All I know is that three years ago Chairman Denau of Exatek commented on some mercs you had hired. Tried to acquire them, but you wouldn’t sell the contracts. Ring any bells?”

Andrea’s hand fluttered.

“I must tell you that anything to do with that terrible man, I did my best to forget as quickly as possible.” She raised one eyebrow. “I did hear there had been a change in leadership at Exatek. Perhaps I should reach out again.”

“Please do that,” Jenke answered, only the faintest trace of frustration in his voice. “The kid’s not bad. However, that doesn’t get me any closer to what I’m here for.”

“I’m not sure how I can help you unless you can be more specific,” Andrea explained patiently. “Names, perhaps? Dates of contracts?”

His hands twitched at his sides.

“I don’t know what name they would’ve used,” Jenke admitted. “A lot of us well,” he trailed off, and I caught myself as I started to step towards him.

Whatever he was asking about, whoever these men were, that had been a genuine note of pain in his voice.

I glanced at Andrea’s avatar, and she nodded slightly.

“Why don’t you give me names they might’ve used, and I’ll start searching my records,” she said, the flippancy gone, at least for now.

“Thank you,” he nodded. “I appreciate it.” He took a deep breath, the names rolling out like a litany. “Sten. Ulf. Dimir. Yenik. Bjorn. Kane.”

He frowned. “Might’ve used something to do with Daedalus, or Wolf,” he admitted.

His shoulders slumped. “It’s not much to go on, is it?”

“I can certainly begin searching,” Andrea reassured him.

He nodded. “I appreciate it. If it helps, they’d look like me. Well, sort of.”

She shook her head. “You’re not really a wealth of information, are you?”

“I can assist with the search,” I suggested quickly.

Anything that got this disturbing guest away from here as quickly as possible, I decided.

That was the only reason.

Really.

He didn’t belong here, not in this quiet refuge I had found.

“That will be quite all right,” Andrea shook her head. “I’ve already set up subroutines tracking the information.” Her silver eyes flashed against the dark skin of the avatar. “You wouldn’t be able to get out anything any faster.”

“When do you think you might have anything?” Jenke asked, his voice still sounding strained.

“It’s hard to say,” Andrea answered. “In the morning, perhaps?”

He nodded. “I can wait in my ship. No reason to put you out any more.”

“Don’t be silly,” she retorted. “Just because we do not have guests often does not mean we are unprepared, or inhospitable.” She smiled, and for just a moment I could see her. The real her. “Serra can show you to the guest quarters. I’m sure she’d like some company. It’ll be a nice change in her routine.”

What?

No, it wouldn’t!

“Actually, I was planning to finish cataloging the rest of this week’s shipment tonight,” I argued.

“Nonsense. Most of those things have waited decades, if not centuries, to find their way here. Another night or two before they’re shelved won’t do them any harm.”

I stepped back, my throat tight.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll let you know when I have anything to tell you,” Andrea told Jenke, then flicked off, her avatar’s frame now blank, empty.

“Don’t mind me,” Jenke said gruffly. “Got plenty of supplies on my ship and a comfortable enough berth. I’m not going to take any more of your time.”

“Nonsense,” I echoed Andrea’s words. “If she’d like you to stay here, you should stay here.”

“But what would you like?” he asked softly, those dark eyes boring into mine.

“For you to stay here, of course,” I lied through my teeth.

Well, not entirely.

I had to admit, Jenke was interesting.

And while his very presence unsettled me, I still remembered the feeling of his strong arm pulling me close, the strange spicy scent of him.

“Let’s find a chamber for you.”

I took a sharp right out of the Gold Room towards the lifts that ran through the center of the building.

“The guest wing is this way,” I said.

But for once, Jenke didn’t follow me.

“Why do you even have a guest wing? I haven’t seen any other people here, unless you want to count the bots.”

My fingers found the edge of my belt, pleating the fabric into a fan, then releasing it.

“Once upon a time, Andrea was famous for her house parties. Chairman Transaman, I mean.”

He smiled, moved to my side as we wound deeper into the complex.

“What kind of house parties?” he asked as we reached the lift. “Sounds like something from a historical vid.”

“People from all over the sector,” I answered. “Heads of corps, celebrities, entertainers, scholars, and musicians.”

The lift door slid open and I stepped inside. “A little bit of everything, a living collection I suppose, a pretty close mirror to that in the gallery.”

He followed me in, and even though he made an effort to press himself into the far corner, the lift seemed very cramped.

“It must have been something to see.”

I shook my head. “I’d think so, but I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here then. I’ve just heard the stories.”

A moment later, the lift opened to the guest wing.

“Since the house parties are a thing of the past, you have your choice of any of the suites.”

I waved open the door to the first chamber.

“Would this suit you?”

Jenke stood in the entrance way, blinking.

“I can sleep anywhere,” he said flatly. “Even here.”

I tried to fight down my giggle, but failed.

This room had always struck me as a little ostentatious, even for Andrea.

Floor to ceiling, every furnishing, every textile, dripped gold.

The effect was almost blinding.

“I’m sure we have something else,” I reassured him.

A quick whoosh of relief slid out of his massive frame. “That would be great. Really. I don’t mean to put you to any trouble, but that was…”

“Yeah,” I agreed. It was a little much.

I had a particular suite in mind that I thought would suit him. But I couldn’t resist teasing him a little more.

“Perhaps this would be more to your taste?”

Bright blue and pink neon pulsated from the wall hangings, and acid green pillows covered an oversized bed.

This time, he actually covered his eyes.

“I’ll take the first one,” he said, “if these are my choices. Or I’ll just sleep in the hall. You’ll never even notice.”

“Can’t happen,” I shook my head. “The housekeeping bots will run over you during their routines,” I argued as I led him towards the next room.

“Besides, even if they avoided you, I’m none too awake in the mornings. I couldn’t be held accountable if I tripped on you.”

He frowned. “Your quarters are here as well?”

“It was easiest,” I explained.

Well, not exactly an explanation. But as much as he needed to know.

“All right, what about this one?”

Quiet, muted shades of gray and tan, plain and functional.

It would have been my choice if I hadn’t found my own little wood-paneled room with the cozy reading corner.

He stepped forward, surveying the suite. “Still a little plusher than I’m used to, but this will do just fine. And it doesn’t feel like somebody’s sticking a knife into my eyeballs. “

“Added bonus.” I watched him as he paced around the room. “Do you want me to have one of the bots retrieve your luggage from your ship?”

He turned around, and I nearly gasped.

The smile that broke through the heavy beard wasn’t nearly as bright as the glint of humor in his eyes.

“I’d almost like to see them try. Don’t worry about it, I can get it myself before I hit the rack.”

Well, that was interesting.

His response, I reminded myself.

Nothing to do with how he looked, or the sudden flare of heat that coiled in my chest.

Of course not.

My stomach rumbled, reminding me of the time.

“Are you hungry?” I asked hurriedly, my cheeks heating in embarrassment.

“Usually, I just take a tray in my room, but Mrs. B would be happy to see the dining room used, I continued.

“I can pretty much always stand to eat,” Jenke answered as we stepped back into the hall. “Are you sure it’s not going to aggravate your Mrs. B to have an extra guest?”

I laughed as we headed back down to the dining room. “She seldom gets upset. I rather expect she’ll be thrilled.”

As we stepped into the dining room, I smiled, letting the beauty wash over me.

Really, I should take more meals down here.

Like so much of the complex, it seemed a waste to have no one enjoy this beauty.

White-barked trees sprouted throughout the hall, their branches spreading above us, shimmering lights strewn across the ceiling giving the illusion of dining under the stars.

Tiny, heart-shaped leaves rustled against each other as we passed.

The windows looked over a turquoise pool of water, jets of water playing up and down, catching the light from tiny lanterns set around it in a circle, each drop glittering like a jewel.

Except for one table set against the glass, with the expansive view of the parklands beyond, the dining room was empty.

“How many people did she have at those house parties of hers?”

“Hundreds,” I said, then froze as Jenke quickly stepped around me, pulling out the chair I’d been heading towards.

He stood there, waiting as if that was a perfectly normal thing to do.

A very strange unexpected guest indeed.

I seated myself and waited for him to join me.

“Is there anything you’re allergic to?” I asked as one of Mrs. B’s auxiliaries rolled towards us.

“I’d be very surprised,” he said.

“Good. Because it’s really just for the best to let her bring us whatever she has in mind.”

“So lovely to see you!” the bot exclaimed as it reached our table. “And a guest! I was so excited when I heard the news from the gardeners that I began rereading all of my recipe books, coming up with ideas.”

I raised my hand quickly. “Nothing too complicated, we don’t need a dozen courses, I promise.”

I looked over at Jenke again, and considered his size.

“Or if you make a dozen courses, just make them for him, alright?”

“Of course, Curator Serra,” the bot chirped. “Have no worries. You can trust me.”

As it rolled away, the smile broke through Jenke’s beard again. “Mrs. B is a bot, too?”

I shook my head. “No, she’s the housekeeping AI. The bots are her hands and eyes.”

“So, it’s just you and the old lady?”

I stiffened in my chair. “It is Chairman Transaman’s home. She is not ‘the old lady’.”

He held his hands up as if to ward off my words. “Where I’m from, old ladies don’t have any limitations on them, trust me. There’s two in my orbit, and they’re the fiercest, toughest people I’d ever want to mix it up with.”

I settled down. Slightly. “Most people don’t feel that way. They think old ladies aren’t worth much anymore.”

Jenke snorted. “Then they haven’t met Doc or Granny Z.”

Before I could ask for details, another of the bots rolled up with two delicately fluted glasses balanced on a mid-second-Empire palladium tray.

“Cocktails?” it chirped.

After a moment’s hesitation, I took one.

Jenke followed suit, and the bot trundled away.

“Now I really want to know what those parties were like,” he said as he sniffed his glass.

“There are vids around somewhere,” I answered as the ice-cold liquid bubbled over my tongue, exploding in sharp notes of citrus. “I can find them for you later, if you’d like.”

I bit my lip.

What was I saying?

He was here for a single purpose.

Find those people he was looking for.

Andrea would have his information in the morning.

And he would be gone.

The first course was a light salad, reddish leaves shredded thin, some fruit or vegetable I didn’t recognize chopped and mixed throughout

“The gardeners handle all of this, as well?” Jenke asked.

“Andrea doesn’t just collect art and artifacts,” I said. “Plants from all over the sector are in the gardens. Further, if she can get them.”

His eyebrows rose but he didn’t say anything.

The Atretis Sector was supposed to be closed off.

But Andrea had never particularly liked playing by the rules.

And really, why should she?

There were far too many interesting periods of history for us to explore to bother being stuck here.

The salad was followed by a frittata and what looked like a delectable pasta of some sort, but I waved my plate away.

“If I eat that, I’ll never have room for dessert,” I told the bot. “And I refuse to miss that.”

Jenke’s eyes narrowed. “It smells good,” he said. “Sure you don’t want any?”

“Just because I’m saying no, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat.” I pushed my hands out in front of me. “It seems a safe bet that you require considerably more fuel than I do. But I would love a kaf,” I said, turning to the bot.

Jenke waited until a steaming cup of rich brown goodness had been placed in front of me before touching his fork.

“Don’t let it get cold, you’ll hurt Mrs. B’s feelings.”

“Void knows I wouldn’t want to upset the AI,” he muttered, and took a bite of the pasta.

“This really is good,” he said, his eyes wide. Lifting a coiled noodle from his plate with his spoon, he offered it to me. “Try one bite.”

It did smell good, really, really good.

Apparently, Mrs. B was going all out for the sheer joy of finally having someone who could appreciate her cooking, and vast quantities of it.

“Oh, all right.”

And somehow, something in my brain must’ve short circuited because, instead of reaching for his spoon like a normal, sane person, I opened my mouth.

Something flashed in his eyes and he slowly brought the morsel to my lips.

Oh.

That was good.

The sauce had some smoky, almost bitter undernotes running through it, but with a creamy texture that mellowed the flavor, finishing with just a hint of sweetness.

A soft moan of appreciation escaped my lips, and Jenke’s eyes narrowed, his nostrils flaring just a bit.

Embarrassed again, I slid back in my chair, warming my hands on my kaf.

“Thank you,” I managed to say, my tongue clumsy. “I think one bite will be enough for me.”

He nodded jerkily, and thankfully didn’t offer anything else.

As the fountain played on past the windows, the bot brought more food until finally, one arrived with two small covered dishes.

“Would you care for more kaf with your dessert, Curator Serra?”

“Yes, please.” I nodded towards Jenke. “And for you?”

“Can I just have the kaf without the dessert?”

“You can’t miss dessert,” I replied, dumbfounded. “Dessert is the entire reason for eating. Because afterwards you get to have dessert.”

He eyed the covered dishes warily.

“How about I take a bite, like you had a bite of the pasta, and I’ll decide from there?”

“One bite will be enough to convince you,” I announced as a second bot appeared with two fresh cups of kaf.

After the bot placed the cups by our hands, the first leaned forward and dramatically pulled both covers off the bowls at the same time.

A cloud of frozen smoke rolled into the air, revealing a bright blue globe beneath.

“What is it?” Jenke glared at dessert as if it were a bomb, about to go off at any moment.

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “But I’m dying to find out.”

With the back of my spoon, I dealt a swift blow to the top of the globe, thrilled to watch it crackle and shatter into tiny pieces, revealing the soft center.

“You look like you enjoyed that,” Jenke commented. “Here, why don’t you do mine, too.”

“You are missing all the fun things,” I argued, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to do that again.

Reaching across the table, I whacked at his dessert, laughing in delight as it shattered.

“All right, take your bite and tell me how fantastic it is.”

My own spoon hovering over my bowl, I watched as he took the tiniest sample from the edge of the filling.

“That doesn’t really count as a bite,” I fussed.

“Sure, it does,” he answered, then quickly popped the spoon into his mouth, shoulders braced as if for something terrible.

His eyes widened, and his forehead wrinkled in confusion. “It’s good.”

“I told you it would be”

I laughed, and dug into my own portion.

A froth of bitter chocolate, layered over denser tort and the fragments of the blue shell cutting through any cloying sweetness with an almost puckering tartness, blessed my tongue.

“You really should trust me, at least about dessert,” I said as I took my second bite.

His lips twitched, but he didn’t answer.

Just took his own second and then third bites.

We finished at the same time, laying our spoons down with satisfaction.

“I will trust you about dessert,” he said. “But now, I should get my bag and let you retire for the night.”

He stood, waiting by his chair for me to rise. “Unless you’d care to come with me?”

I looked past the fountain, across the shadowed estate.

Normally at this time of night, I would have long finished my own solitary meal and be flicking through my tablet, wondering what treasures tomorrow would hold, dreaming of new ways to arrange the collection.

But tonight…

“Yes, I’d like that.”

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