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elinwyn

Alien’s Treasure: Chapter One

Gir

Tightening my muscles, I sprang through the jungle from branch to branch. My occupation as a treasure hunter had brought me to many different worlds, but this was definitely not one of my favorites.

Not that in general I had a problem with a planet full of outlaws, rogues and criminals, but at the moment my plans didn’t involve dealing with anyone else.

Call me greedy.

Part of that whole ‘treasure hunter’ deal, I’m sure.

This uninhabited section of the continent was hot and humid, and it seemed as though bugs wanted to burrow under my fur, straight into my flesh.y

I landed on a thick branch and flicked my ears to dislodge a particularly annoying stinging insect.

Reaching for my belt, I toggled a small personal force field. This particular force field was one I’d picked up in a marketplace two hunts ago. It was small and had a low yield – not strong enough to stop a fast-moving object like a ballistic weapon that some of the primitive planets wielded, and it might’ve only turned away a glancing blow of a blade.

No, this force field’s most important and valuable function was the ability to repel insects.

I pressed it and a low hum filled my ears. Slightly annoying, but something I’d learn to dismiss after a few minutes. The batteries didn’t last long and I’d have to turn it off and allow the device to recharge once night came.

However, the days here were long. If luck was with me, I wouldn’t be on this planet come nightfall.

A low-key ding rang between my ears, then through my implant came the professionally concerned voice of my AI.

“Is everything okay, Gir?”

“Yes, of course it is.”

My AI was relentless. “I’ve detected the activation of your personal force field. Are you in any danger?”

“You’re my AI, not my mother.”

I rolled my eyes.

I once had a partner who’d called my AI the equivalent of a nanny bot. It wasn’t a direct translation from his species, but close enough.

I’d always reduce the settings so the AI wouldn’t be as annoyingly worried about me. That way, it wouldn’t have the ability to check in on me at random times. But it was nice to pretend somebody else cared, even if it was annoying and was actually a computer function only following its programming.

I’d been lonely for a long time. I’d learned to deal with it.

 “I’m fine,” I repeated, annoyed but secretly pleased, then aggravated at myself all over again. I shouldn’t have to rely on an AI computer system to check in on me.

Wasn’t that the duty of one’s mate?

Ah, but in order to acquire a mate, I’d first have to slow down enough to court one. I was busy and although I’d had some relationships, nothing had been serious. My constant travel wasn’t appealing to a potential mate from my species.

I glanced up at the sky. The thick jungle had an overabundance of chlorophyll, which seemed to permeate the air. As a result, the sky held a greenish cast to it, interacting oddly with the blueish sun.

I squinted, looking up in vain for the slight glimmer that’d indicate my ship. It was parked in a stationary orbit and should’ve been directly overhead, but try as I might, I couldn’t see it.

Perhaps it was something to do with the many moons.

“What’s going on up there?” I asked, knowing the force field wasn’t the sole reason why the AI had reached out to me.

“The designated orbital shift will occur in ten galactic minutes,” the AI said. Was it my imagination, or had it actually sounded a bit frustrated I’d forgotten about that?

No, it had to be my imagination.

I cursed under my breath.

In ten minutes, my ship would break out of its geosynchronous orbit and fly off under the AI’s direction. Then it’d pass behind the sun, seemingly on a path that’d take it out of the solar system altogether.

The reason why it would do so was threefold: First and most importantly, it’d throw any competing treasure hunters off my trail. It’d give the appearance I’d searched the planet, found nothing, and moved on. Anyone following me would be led away.

I’d grown quite a reputation for myself over my last few scores. I knew for a fact there were less successful hunters watching my moves closely.

The second reason was because having your ship stay stationary in space was like waving a giant flag for any scavenger looking to add your ship to their collection.

A moving ship was much harder to locate and capture. They wouldn’t realize it was completely empty and they’d assume I was on board, ready to fight for my ship and my freedom. Most of the time, it just wasn’t worth the effort.

And third, I really, really didn’t want anyone else on the planet getting curious as to what I was doing down here.

“Of course, I hadn’t forgotten,” I lied irritably to the AI.

The AI paused for a few galactic seconds. I didn’t think I’d read into it too much. It’d definitely displayed its disbelief. “Then are you close to finding the obelisk?”

I growled under my breath and reached into my pocket to pull out a round pendant. It wasn’t large – the size of a timepiece my father, who loved old-fashioned things, used to carry in his pocket.

The pendant was a dark jet-black stone and etched on it was a representation of the obelisk I was searching for.

“I’ll locate it soon enough.”

The AI’s reply was crisp. “Do you need assistance?”

“It depends. Have you verified the that latest scans show the starting point?”

“Affirmative.”

I shrugged. “Then there’s nothing more you need to do. Searching for this obelisk is just a matter of following the dots, easy as falling off a Prolixian log.”

Again, the AI paused for an extended period of time. I was just about to check the connection before it spoke again.

“Your ship is due to break orbit in T minus 2.56 galactic minutes.”

“Well, don’t wait around on my account.”

“Once the ship leaves orbit, you’ll be out of communication range or assistance, should you need it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Keep my ship safe. I’ll do my part here on the surface. When you return, I’ll have the treasure in hand.”

“Then tradition dictates I wish you good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Seriously, I knew perfectly well that the AI had only responded as programmed.

Its actual conversations were formed from a tree of programmed responses.

But still, I couldn’t help but feel good about it.

I really needed to get out more.

“Good luck to you and keep my ship safe for my return.”

“Affirmative,” the AI responded.

I cut off the communication, ignoring the pang of regret.

After all was said and done, I had to seriously look into making some new friends.

The only real conversation I’d had in weeks was with my own AI system. That was sad.

Shaking my head, I ran along the length of the branch and jumped into the air.

My species were natural climbers and jumpers. I’d be able to cross more of a distance in one leap than most could sprint in the same number of seconds.

I hit the trunk of the next massive tree, digging my claws in, and scaled up to the next large branch. When I got there, I ran along its length, using it as a sturdy pathway.

I wasn’t afraid of heights, knowing that when my people fell, we always landed on our feet.

Thanks to the force field, the bugs had finally left me alone. But there wasn’t anything I could do about the heat and humidity, that made my fur itch.

After an hour of hard running, pausing only to check the dots on the map, I found what I was looking for.

There it was: the obelisk, rising from the jungle floor.

I’d traversed this section of the jungle for some time, and it was the first created artifact I’d seen.

It was as jet-black as my pendant, rising straight and true nearly twenty meters from the jungle floor. Vegetation had been cleared around it in a large circle, and some aspect of the obelisk kept it from growing back.

Interesting.

From this vantage point, looking down at the obelisk, I identified several markings on it. I stared for a moment, cocking my head in consideration. From that angle, I couldn’t read the markings, not even enough to tell what language they were in.

There were plenty to choose. I wasn’t fluent in all of them – you’d have to be an AI. But after a lifetime of hunting, I could recognize most.

The jungle was silent, with no hint that I’d been followed, so far.

I took a step, intending to drop off the side of the branch and fall all the way down to the forest floor. A ping from a sixth sense made me stop in place.

I whipped around, my ears swiveling back and forth trying to identify sounds, the hair along my spine rising as my instincts screamed at me that something wasn’t right.

Finally, my mind caught what my senses had been trying to tell me. There was a high-pitched whistling noise in the air, and it’d only grown louder.

Once I became aware of it, I was able to pinpoint it. I looked up to see a burning streak — a meteor?

No. As the object drew closer, I realized it wasn’t a meteor, not even ship debris. It was too regular, and oval shaped.

An escape pod?

I barely had time to come to that conclusion before I realized the pod had dropped from the sky and was headed straight toward me.

Of all the bad luck!

Immediately, I jumped to the next branch, then the next, trying to get out of the trajectory of the descending pod.

But it fell shockingly fast. And I realized with horror it wouldn’t land on me at all.

No, in fact, it was aimed straight for the obelisk.

“No!” I yelled, but completely powerless to do anything about it.

The sound of the descending out-of-control pod grew into a scream of air as a plume of fire lit from behind it.

It crashed straight into the obelisk, sending it toppling over into pieces on the ground.

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.”

Bought: Chapter Three

Jenke

Even the air here smelled like it was made out of credits.

How much water did it take to keep this vast park growing? And for what purpose?

With an almost disjointed gracefulness, a bot came over the hill towards us.

I stiffened, watching its movements, but the woman in front of me didn’t give it a second glance.

She was worth looking at, though.

Tiny little thing. Afraid of something, that was clear.

But with enough steel in her spine to not back down,

Curly black hair swung past her shoulders, the last rays of the sun casting red highlights through the thick waves.

The rich brown of her skin was warmed by the unembellished yellow top tucked into full black pants, with thin flat slippers on her feet.

Her only jewelry was a thin rectangular pendant of silver, hanging from a fine chain.

Plain. Functional. But somehow, I didn’t think the woman herself was quite so uninteresting.

“How long have you worked for this Transaman lady?” I asked.

She didn’t pause, simply kept up her stiff march back across the endless lawn.

“Chairman Transaman will see you as soon as she is able.”

“That’s not exactly an answer to my question.”

Her hand flicked out to the side as if my words were nothing more than an annoying insect.

“I don’t see how the information is any of your business or pertinent to your errand here.”

I couldn’t help grinning. “Just making conversation, being polite.”

“Please don’t bother.”

We rounded a grove of silver and purple trees and for a moment, I froze.

I’d seen the building from the air, but somehow hadn’t recognized it for what it was.

“Your boss lives in a castle?”

My guide kept walking. “My boss lives in her home,” the woman answered as we reached a door set into the massive wall of glass that stretched the length of this wing.

I lingered for a moment, studying the façade.

From up close, you could tell that the stonework was replicated. The mortar was too even, too perfect.

Colored plexi instead of old-style glass filled the narrow, pointed windows.

And the faint iridescent shimmer across the cone-shaped roof of the central tower indicated solar panels rather than slate shingles.

But still.

“Would you prefer to wait on the grounds?” The woman had finally turned back, her arched eyebrows raised as she stood in the open doorway. “I can request that one of the gardeners finds you when Chairman Transaman is ready.”

“Not at all,” I said, passing by her to enter the room beyond. “Just appreciating the building.”

And then whatever else I had planned to say was lost within the far reaches of the room.

Fan vaulted ceilings covered an immense space, all filled with row after row of shelves and pedestals, each filled to bursting.

“What is this place?”

The woman closed the door and walked past me.

“Please don’t touch anything,” she answered, again not bothering to answer. “This way, please.”

Another bot, this one small and running on treads, with a screen taking up most of its chest, rolled forward to greet her.

“Curator Serra, I have located those documents. Should I put them in the queue for closer examination?”

“Yes, please, Annie,”

Serra.

I followed as she led the way through the labyrinth of artifacts.

Odd.

She was still nervous, that was clear.

But here, back in what was clearly her own domain, some of the rigidity had left her.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small, carved figure, the ivory yellowed and stained, of something barely recognizable as a seated woman, one hand pressed to her cheek, draped in heavy robes, a lumpy hat on her head.

“Not in all the zones of the Void,” I muttered, stepping closer to it.

In an instant, Serra was at my side.

“Did you not hear me? Please do not touch anything. The artifacts here are extremely delicate.”

She gave a tiny sniff. “Besides, you don’t even know what that is.”

“That’s the Queen from the Lewis Chess Set,” I answered, unable to rip my eyes away from it. “Do you have any of the others? How did you even get this one?”

Silence answered me.

I turned back, to see Serra’s golden brown eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open in shock.

“How would you recognize that?” She shook her head. “How do you know what it is? It’s not exactly the largest or flashiest of our artifacts.”

“You’ve got your boss, I’ve got…”

My voice failed.

Doc wasn’t exactly our boss. I knew the others thought of her as something closer to a mother.

“I have a trainer who’s particularly interested in games of strategy. And history. And, well, a lot of other things. You’d be surprised what I know.”

Somehow, she didn’t look convinced.

But she didn’t say anything, rather turned and led me further into the warehouse.

That wasn’t quite right.

A warehouse implied items in boxes, stacked away, out of sight.

This room had obviously been carefully designed to show off the items gathered within.

As the last light of day faded from the high windows, pinpricks of the lights set into the fan vaulting above began to glow, creating a map of unknown constellations above us.

The underside of each shelf held its own set of lights, spotlighting the artifacts that rested below.

“Who has all of this?” I murmured. “Who would even want it all?”

This was just crazy.

At first glance, it looked like things were stored higgledy-piggledy, without any rhyme or reason.

Expensive looking items that I guessed were pieces of art next to weapons.

Roughly carved, half broken pieces of pottery next to priceless antique books.

A twisted ring of metal, one section standing upright to display the intricately worked surface, the blazing lights of jewels embedded throughout, rested on a red velvet cushion.

“Is that…” I trailed off.

A crown of some sort. That was obvious.

I needed more information, a reference book or two.

But I wondered if Emperor Vandalar knew what was here.

“None of your business,” my guide answered.

“Are you always so informative when giving people a tour of this place?”

She turned, her head tilted slightly to the side.

“I’m not giving you a tour,” she explained patiently. “You’re here to meet with Chairman Transaman. I’m simply babysitting you until she’s ready to see you.”

It was hard not to laugh. “It’s been a long time since I’ve needed a babysitter.”

“I’m surprised,” she called back over her shoulder. “It looks as if you could use one.”

I scratched at the heavy beard I’d allowed to grow. Maybe she had a point.

We finally reached a wide wooden table, with silver cubed boxes arrayed down the center.

“I have work to do,” Serra announced. “Chairman Transaman will let you know when she’s available.”

She stepped towards the closest of the boxes, the eager expression on her face certainly more friendly than anything she’d shown me.

“Can I help?”

“I very much doubt it,” she answered dismissively.

I moved off to examine the contents of a nearby shelf. “Please don’t touch anything,” she sighed.

“Hands are behind my back, I promise,” I answered.

She got back to work, and surreptitiously, I rounded the corner to where I could watch her.

Don’t get me wrong. The collection of weavings was unusual and all that.

But somehow the spitfire of a curator was the most interesting thing in the room.

As the top of the packing crate retracted before her, each of the cube’s four sides folded down to form four pyramids.

Serra tapped the top of one, then winced. The tangy scent of her blood filled the air, pulling a growl from deep in my chest.

With two quick steps, I was at her side. “I told you I would help. And now you’ve hurt yourself.”

She looked up at me from the corner of her eye. “No, the packaging has taken a sample of my blood, and matched my DNA to open the lock.”

She held up her index finger, slightly reddened, but not the open gash I had somehow expected. “My job doesn’t require getting hurt on a regular basis, believe me.”

The corner of her lip twisted up, the flicker of a smile. “But thank you for your concern, all the same.”

I glared at the long line of crates down the table, waiting for her attention.

“Is every one of those boxes going to require the same thing?”

“Identification that the correct person is opening the statis fields?” She shrugged. “I would certainly hope so.”

She detached what had been the base of the pyramid from the shipping cube, examining what it held, then glanced up at me, a glint of mischief in her eyes.

“You’ve been full of surprises. What do you think this one is?”

I studied the thing.

A small dark gray box, with silver specks along the rough surface catching the light.

It could be a weapon.

It could be anything.

“No idea,” I admitted. “Obviously my trainer left some gaps.”

“How are we in section Granite 48?” Serra asked the bot, whose silent presence I’d nearly forgotten about.

“It’s clear,” the tinny voice answered. “At least that decision makes sense.”

“Beginnings and endings, Annie.” Serra lifted the panel from the table, shifted its weight slightly in her arms.

“Why don’t you let me carry it?”

“Because it’s my job,” she answered crisply. “And if it’s beyond my capacity, Annie here’s always happy to help out.”

I was pretty sure that the AI controlling the bot wasn’t advanced enough to actually give a little sniff of disapproval as it rolled past me.

Mostly sure.

Still, I followed the two of them as they made their way through the labyrinth of shelves.

“Beginnings and ends?” I asked, trying to make sense of the items before me.

“Something like that,” Serra said.

“Annie, move the Borjillian blaster down to the middle of the third shelf, would you?”

I tensed, uneasily watching the bot lift the panel that held the antique blaster.

Surely it wasn’t functional.

No one would be reckless enough to keep such a thing around, would they?

Serra stretched up on her toes to slide the panel into the vacated space.

“Do you require assistance, Curator Serra?” The bot rolled closer.

“No, thank you, I think I have it.”

She probably would have.

Except, as she stretched towards the higher shelf, the bot rolled even closer and its curved treads bumped into the base of the shelves.

The smallest tremor ran through the shelves, and as Serra reached to steady them, the panel in her hand slipped away.

Annie’s arms shot upwards, telescoping out to grab the strange item, but missed, instead knocking against the head of the antique axe that stretched across the entire shelf above.

“But…” the bot said.

Serra’s attention was split between balancing the shelf and the new item.

“Curator Serra.”

“Just a moment,” Serra said, trying to slide the new item back onto the shelf.

But whatever retaining field had been holding the axe in suspension flickered, then finally fell.

“Void take it,” I snarled, leaping forward.

Wrapping one arm around Serra’s waist, I pulled her tightly against me, curving my shoulders over her.

“What are you doing?” she gasped

Then she saw that axe in my other hand.

“Oh.”

For a moment, the fight deserted her and she sagged against my arm, just for the span of a breath, then she straightened herself, pushing away.

“Thank you,” she said warily. “That would have been unpleasant.”

I hefted the pole weapon in my grip.

Whoever had designed it was either having a bad day or really enjoyed dicing up their enemies.

Maybe both.

The head came to a sharp point, one side flaring to a massive curved blade, tapering down to a series of jutting hooks.

I didn’t feel the need to test them.

I was certain, just from the way they glinted in the light, they would be wickedly sharp.

“What’s this thing, anyway?” I asked, placing it back on its shelf.

“Coronation axe of the first Rothian kingdom,” Serra answered, her voice trembling just a bit. “One of the first systems to break away from the early Empire.”

“And that’s connected to that box, how?” I pointed to the small gray cube she still clutched.

“These are the memorial ashes of their last king.” She took a deep breath, and pushed the panel with the remains back onto its dedicated shelf, the trembling in her hands barely noticeable. “The Empire was not pleased about dissenters.”

“Never have been,” I grumbled. “But now I’m curious. Let’s go see what else is in that crate.”

“I’m afraid that will have to wait,” the AI interrupted. “Chairman Transaman has requested that you bring Mr. Jenke to the Gold Room.”

Serra blinked rapidly, as if surprised, then nodded.

“Please let her know that we are on our way.”

Finally.

I’d get some answers out of this place.

I glanced down at Serra.

Well. At least some of them.

Now I had a new list of questions, none of which had anything to do with my missing brothers.

Bought: Chapter Two

Serra

“What lovely things do we have here?” I murmured as I entered the code into the square shipping box before me.

I could have checked the manifest. But that would ruin half the fun of this job. Like peeking at a present before it’s time for the grand opening.

The silver top retracted, the sides unfolding down to form the bases of four perfectly even pyramids.

“Let’s start with you,” I picked one at random, tapped the peak of one of the pyramids, winced slightly at the sharp prick at my fingertip.

Not one of my favorite parts of the job, but necessary.

As the tiny droplet of blood was processed and accepted as a match, the four sides of the pyramid shimmered, dissolving to reveal the artifact contained within.

“Look at this,” I breathed. “Where should we put this beautiful thing?”

“Accessing gallery files.”

I didn’t pay attention.

Annie, the collections assistant, while useful, never had and never would feel the same way I did about these treasures.

Before me was a tiny sculpture, no bigger than my fist, silver and grey metals twisting around bright colored jewels, the fine filigree at its core making the entire sculpture appear as if it could float.

“The first recorded sculpture by the artist Son Ronsut,” the collection assistant’s voice burbled out. “Primary metal is palladium. Would you prefer it to be housed with other sculptures by artists of contemporaneous eras, artists by location, or by material?”

“None of those,” I murmured as I detached the shipping panel from its base, carrying it before me to the other side of the massive hall that housed my employer’s collection.

“Is there an opening on shelf Magna 36?”

The assistant trundled beside me, the parallel tracks that propelled her clicking almost silently over the creamy stone floor.

“There should be sufficient space to house this item,” she answered. “However, I do not understand your reasons for placing it there.”

“I know, Annie.” I tried to explain. “But see how this twists, how the jewels are red and orange, burning against the silver?”

“Nothing is currently on fire, Curator Serra.”

I sighed.

“I know, but it reminds me of fire. And all of these,” I nodded to the massive shelf in front of us. “They make me think of fire too. So this is where this piece belongs.”

I let my eyes wander across the shelves, holographic paintings of other worlds, handwoven textiles, even the recording of a long forgotten song.

Well, forgotten by everyone but my employer.

“Here,” I said as I slid the panel into place, tapping the code that would lock it onto the shelf.

Annie extended a telescoping limb from the top of her domed head, handing me a small tablet.

I tapped it twice to activate the display, then set it at the base of the panel.

The sculpture’s tag flickered to life, then displayed its name, cycling through information about its creator, its history, and then back again.

“None of those things are on fire,” she repeated. “Atmospheric systems would have been activated long before now.”

If Annie had been a person, and not an artificial intelligence assistant, I would’ve thought she was miffed at the nonsense of it all.

“Which is a good thing,” I agreed with her. “But that’s just as much of my job as unpacking whatever treasures our employer finds out there. Making them make sense for humans. Which unfortunately, isn’t always the logical choice.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent the same way.

Just as the majority of my days were spent.

Unpacking, sorting, arranging and rearranging the collection.

Each item was a thing of beauty.

Perhaps not all in the most traditional sense.

Some were crude, some ancient and clumsy.

But every one had a story, a significance.

And that gave them value all of their own.

The late afternoon sun stretched across the high arched windows lining the gallery.

“Time for a break, Annie,” I told her. “We’ve done good work for the day.”

I made myself a cup of tea, my fingers gently tracing the delicate porcelain, the painted and gilded flowers dancing just below the rim, colors still as vibrant as they had been centuries ago when this was created.

Every time I touched it, my heart leapt into my throat.

My employer was insistent. Things that were made to be used, should be used, no matter how fragile.

And honestly, despite my terror that one of these days I would drop it, this small thing of beauty in my hands made my soul soar every time I touched it.

“Serra,” a different voice emerged from Annie’s chest.

“How are you doing today?” I asked.

“I’m almost 200 years old now,” the thin voice made the strangled coughing sound that I knew was her laugh. “I’m feeling as well as I’m going to feel. What did you think of the last batch? Show me where you put them.”

Annie and I walked around the room, the screen set in her chest now filled with the thin dark face of the one person in the entire universe I cared for as much as this collection.

Andrea Transaman.

My employer, and the official owner of the collection.

I’ve never been entirely certain if she loved the items more, or the hunt for them.

“Oh good choice, good choice,” the thin voice crooned when she saw where I’d placed the pair of ceremonial daggers acquired from the ruins of the failed colony at Radomski Seven.

They framed a light tapestry woven by the descendents of one of the exiles who’d escaped from that doomed anthropological experiment.

The bright shimmering colors shone like a flag of defiance against the man-made apocalypse that had claimed half the weaver’s ancestors.

One by one I showed her the new acquisitions, discussing possible alternate arrangements, speculating about dream items that would fill out the shelves, let us tell new, different stories.

“Now darling,” Andrea started as we made our way back to the broad tables that dotted the length of the collection room after reviewing the day’s placements.

“We’re going to have a visitor. Possibly an important one.”

“I’ll set up the conference room. Do you know what their holo requirements are?” I answered.

Preparing for Andrea’s meetings wasn’t an uncommon task on my list. Usually she ‘met’ with investors and clients every month or so.

I mentally ran over her calendar. Nothing had been scheduled for today.

Something must have come up. Not a huge surprise. Andrea had her fingers in corps spread throughout the sector.

“No need for that,” she answered. “He’s coming in person. He’ll be at the landing pad shortly, actually.”

I froze.

“A visitor? In person?”I repeated dumbly. “We don’t have visitors.”

“But today we do,” she insisted.

I brought the cup to my lips, the tea inside cold and bitter now, then placed it down quickly on the table, my hand shaking.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend to him for some time, so you’ll have to be my representative for a bit,” Andrea continued.

“Why isn’t he doing his business over the screens, like a normal person?” I protested, my voice sounding whiny, even to my own ears.

She made the laughing cough again, then it quickly turned into a real cough, dry and hacking. “Because I suspect he’s not a normal person.”

Well. That didn’t sound encouraging.

But I knew better than to keep arguing.

Andrea was sweet. Indulgent even.

But she was still my employer, and her word was law.

“I’ll let you know when I’m ready to see him.” The screen flicked back to black, and now only Annie was in the room with me.

“Would you like me to accompany you, Curator Serra?”

Yes. I would like that more than anything.

And that was completely ridiculous.

“No. Keep searching the corporate archives for any traces of those Imperial letters Chairman Transaman has been after.” I brushed on my clothes, wondering if I should go change.

No. Whoever this guest was, he wasn’t here to see me. Wouldn’t care in the slightest what I was wearing.

Besides, I straightened my shoulders. I didn’t care either.

All I had to do was go, retrieve the visitor, and wait for Andrea to be ready to see him.

Easy.

At the door leading out of the immense collections room, my hand stopped.

Come on Serra, I chided myself.

I looked through the tall plexi window at the rolling blue and green lawn beyond.

Bright flowers from all over the sector formed winding beds, making patterns that only made sense in Andrea’s mind.

It was pretty enough to watch from my favorite chair. Inside.

I didn’t go out much. Too many lovely things inside to keep my attention. But the gardens were lovely too, and as much of a collection as what was on the shelves.

Step one, I murmured. Open the door.

Step two: start walking.

The warm air was a shock after the coolness of the collections room.

Quickly I shut the door behind me, mindful of the careful atmospheric balance I’d always maintained for the artifacts sake.

Now I was out.

Step three: get to the landing pad.

The bands around my chest only tightened as I crossed the lush estate, spoiling my usual pleasure at the wonderland.

A gardener descended from a grove of thick silver barked staria trees,

“Greetings, Curator Serra,” it chirped. “Do you require additional blooms?”

I shook my head. “No thank you. This morning’s arrangements are still sufficient.”

All of the gardeners were built to the same design, cylindrical bodies with long expandable arms, ending in three long multi-jointed fingers and a thumb.

Telescopic legs to bring them low to the ground for weeding or high into the trees, smoothly rounded chest and head units, cameras clicking as they rotated between lenses.

They all looked the same, and as far as I knew, all shared the same memory banks.

Every morning Annie and I collected bowls of fresh cut flowers that ornamented the gallery and Andrea’s personal chambers.

Occasionally I varied the orders, but in general let the gardeners bring me what they thought was best, based on whatever their programming decreed.

“Very well then.” The gardener’s legs lengthened until he was lost again in the branches above, pruning the canopy.

More gardeners worked through the estate, weeding, pruning, planting. All the hundreds of little tasks required to keep this paradise in bloom.

In only a few more minutes I stood at the top of the hill, staring down into the basin which held the landing pad.

Pausing, I studied the awkward, blocky ship that sat there.

Some kind of shuttle, maybe?

It didn’t look like anything special. Certainly nothing worthy of Andrea’s personal attention.

Motion caught my eye and I froze, watching as a man strolled from behind the ship.

This was her important guest?

A dark blue jumpsuit covered his form, as much as the shaggy black hair and thick beard covered half his face.

He looked wild, feral.

I tightened my lips together.

Probably yet another freelance explorer, come to sell Andrea on the dream of some long lost artifact.

They messaged from time to time, with wild tales of a treasure she couldn’t miss, a sure thing.

Just as soon as she invested some vast fortune in their expedition.

It seldom took more than the most casual of questions to expose their scams.

I took a deep breath.

He wouldn’t be here for long.

As I marched down the hill, I realized I’d misjudged something.

Two somethings, actually.

The ship was much larger than I’d realized.

Not a personal shuttle after all.

And the man that leaned against the hall, arms crossed over his chest, watching me approach was far bigger than I’d imagined as well.

I glanced around, reassured by the glints of metal at the top of the hill.

He might be big, but the gardeners were everywhere.

Swallowing hard, I took another deep breath, tried to convince myself all was well.

I was safe.

Before I was ready, I was at the edge of the landing pad, looking up at the giant.

“Would you follow me?”

“You this Andrea Transaman?” His voice was a low rumble, almost rough as if he didn’t bother to speak often.

“No. But if you’d like to speak with her, you should come with me.”

I turned back towards the house without waiting for an answer.

Whoever this person was, whatever he wanted, the sooner Andrea saw him and got him out of our lives, the better.

Bought: Chapter One

Jenke

“Hey Mister.”

I turned around, searching for the source of the voice.

This particular back alleyway of the Under was dimly lit.

Void. They were all dimly lit, apparently it added to the mystique of the place.

But the more trafficked areas of the Under held shops, food stalls, red flickering curtains separating off theaters of the absurd.

Crowds of people laughing, on their way to whatever indulgence they had in mind.

But this section was fairly empty.

Little more than a maintenance path, winding behind the makeshift stalls and stands that were the beating heart of this chaotic body.

There. 

That patch of darkness moved.

“Hey Mister!”

I snapped my arm out, hauling forward a small wriggling bundle of clothes.

My nose wrinkled.

Girl, boy, whatever it was needed a bath.

“Whispering at people in the dark isn’t best manners,” I growled.

The child’s eyes widened until I could see an entire circle of white.

“I didn’t mean any harm. Never mind. Let me go.”

Dammit.

“You wanted to find me for a reason. What was it?

I wasn’t any good at this. Probably should have partnered with one of the other members of the Pack that had been here longer.

Knew this space station called Orem that seemed to be our home now.

Knew these people that lived here. 

With us.

Like it was normal or something.

But I wasn’t going to be out on patrol with anyone. 

Not anymore.

“I’m sorry, I thought you were one of the others. Are you? I thought you were. You moved like it. But…”

“But the others are nicer,” I finished with a sigh and then dropped down to a crouch.

“Even if I am not nice, I am not going to eat you. What did you want to tell me?”

“There’s something going on, down at Dock 45.” He swallowed hard. “Something bad I think. There’s a bunch of women. Some of them are crying, some of them just look well, not really awake.”

Dock 45. 

I didn’t know this place well, didn’t know its people.

But a map. That was something I could study.

Had learned, refusing to be trapped by my ignorance.

I slipped a credit chip from my pouch, handed it to the child.

“Good job telling me,” I said as its grimy paw grasped the chip. “You should go, get something to eat.”

I released the child and rose to my feet.

“And for the next little while you should stay far away from Dock 45.”

The child’s serious nod had only half finished when I began to run.

My path winding between the revelers, the working people of the Under. Through the flickering lights and the darker corners.

My hand reached towards the comm unit.

I should call for backup.

I knew that.

This was probably some sort of trap. It usually was.

An old man, trundling past me with a cart of limp looking green vegetables yelped as I leapt over him,

I didn’t bother glancing back.

My brothers had been in control of the space station for long enough that all of the denizens, whether in the rarefied heights of the Uppers, the bazaar of the Lowers or the flickering world of the Under were all aware of who, and what patrolled the streets.

All except for a reckless few who insisted on not understanding that Orem wasn’t their hunting ground anymore.

Once upon a time docks were wooden structures, jutting out into the ocean, granting the mariners of old, long forgotten earth, access to their fragile ships.

Here wood was too precious to be used for flooring. Water, a valuable commodity to be recycled over and over again.

Here in the Under of Orem the docks were sections of a vast circle, stacked above and below each other at the periphery of the station.

Despite the vast differences in their operations, I can only assume that the docks of the ancient days were just as busy as ours were.

People coming and going, hauling goods from one land to the next.

At least as busy as ours should be.

Except this section was far quieter, far emptier than expected.

I glanced at the berth number.

40.

Slipping into the shadows I realized it was time to make a decision.

With a sigh I triggered my column.

“I’ve been told something’s going down at Dock 45,” I murmured. “I’m going to go check it out.”

“The hell you are,” Ronan snapped at the other end of the comm. “You’ll wait for backup.”

“There’s no time to wait,” I said flatly as I flitted to the next dock.

“Then maybe you should have considered patrolling with a partner,” Ronan snapped back.

Maybe. I admitted, if only to myself. But it still wasn’t going to happen.

“Get eyes on the situation, but do not, I repeat do not engage until Quinn and Xander are there. Five minutes ETA.”

It doesn’t count as lying if I don’t actually agree to the plan, right?

I didn’t say anything.

“I mean it, Jenke,” Ronan growled.

I snapped my comm off.

Because here was Dock 45. And the kid had been right.

There was something going on. And nothing good.

A battered shuttle filled the dock, laser scorched sides giving interesting hints to its history.

Approximately thirty women and girls were huddled together, forced into a tight knot by the gang of men who kept their blasters pointed at them.

“Getting ready to board!” A man checking a tablet in his hands called out. With a slow hiss the side of the shuttle retracted and a boarding ramp unfolded.

The women who were awake enough tried to back away, but were prodded forward by the barrels of the lasers pointed against them.

“We’ve got a quota to meet,” the man with the tablet said flatly. “Which is why we grabbed a few extras. It’s not gonna mess with my numbers if we leave a few of you bleeding out on the deck.”

The women fell silent.

I counted the men. 

Thirty five. Maybe closer to forty.

Two more appeared at the top of the gangway.

Workable. Probably.

I rolled my shoulders, preparing to spring when a ripple of the movement from the center of the women began to spiral out.

“Fuck you and your quota!”

A dark-haired woman dashed to the edge of the crowd, and from the tiniest blaster I had ever seen began picking off the guards.

With a shout of panic the remaining women began to scatter, some stumbling, still under the effects of whatever drugs they’d been given, the others helping them to their feet, searching desperately for cover.

The woman dove and rolled, then popped up behind a pillar to pick off another one of the abductors.

I tapped my comm once.

“Going in.”

Then cut it off before I could hear Ronan’s bellow.

I rose from my hiding place, picking off the men.

Three, four, five.

The woman took down another one.

The guards at the top of the landing ramp boarding ramp withdrew, to the safety of their ship, triggering the retraction of the ramp.

Good.

Two less to worry about.

Eight, nine, 10.

“Shit!”

It was the woman’s voice, and if anything, she sounded angrier.

I glanced over and snarled.

One of the bastards had gotten the drop on her, the muzzle of his blaster pressed against her head.

“Bring her to me please,” the man with the tablet called out. “She’s just earned some extra payments to work off.”

Her captor knocked the blaster from her hands, marched her forwards.

“You should come out too,” the ringleader shouted in my direction. “Unless you want to watch your partner die.”

Void.

I’ve never seen this stupid woman before.

Not stupid, I corrected myself. Just human.

Slow.

Careless.

With a sigh I rose from behind the pillar, hands over my head.

“Hand your blaster to my man,” the leader of the kidnappers instructed me.

I did so.

“Thought you’d be so clever,” the idiot who took the blaster from me smirked. “Thought you could take us on by yourself and one woman?”

It wasn’t worth answering.

I walked over to stand next to the woman.

“You’ve made a mistake,” I told the man with the tablet. “Actually, a couple of them.”

“Oh?” Half the remaining guards were regathering the escaping women, while the others circled us.

“She’s not my partner. Never met her before in my life.”

The man’s lips flickered up in something almost like a smile. “So you just happened to be here, and she just happened to be armed?”

“Crazy universe,” I shrugged. “Weird shit happens all the time.”

“Do you have anything to say about this?” he turned to the woman.

She stayed silent, her chin high, but if her eyes were weapons, he would have been sliced into a thousand pieces.

“Nevermind, she’ll be screaming soon enough. I don’t usually deal in fighters,” the man said as he tapped his screen. “But there’s always a market for gladiatorial pits. Never goes out of style.”

“Never going to happen,” I said. “You forgot about your other mistake.”

He looked up, almost bored. “Like what?” His gaze swept over the circle of guards surrounding us. “You have no weapons. You’re surrounded. What do you think you’re going to do about it?”

I grinned.

“This.”

And I reached out, my claws ripping his throat out.

By the time his body hit the deck I’d spun to the closest guard, snapping his neck and taking his blaster.

After a fraction of a second of hesitation I tossed it to the woman, dispatching the next guard and taking his weapon for myself.

We’d almost finished by the time Xander and Quinn caught up.

In seconds it was over.

Quinn looked at the blood streaked room, shaking his head slowly.

“Is there a reason that you constantly want to keep Ronan pissed off?” 

I shrugged. “Seems to come natural.” 

I turned to check on the woman, but she’d already returned to the group of women, talking to them softly.

“You need anything?” I called over to her.

The annoyance in her eyes was slightly less lethal than what she turned onto the slaver. But only slightly.

“It would be nice if you did a better job keeping our people from being abducted,” she snapped. “If you can’t manage that, leave us alone.”

She turned her back.

“You’re just not very good with people, are you?” Xander sighed, then went over to try to get some more information from her.

I wiped my bloodied hands on my pants, handed the acquired blaster to Quinn.

“You may as well take care of the rest of this. I suspect Ronan’s gonna want to have a few words with me.”

He raised one eyebrow, surveying the chaos surrounding us.

“Thanks. I’ll return the favor someday.”

As I headed to the control room, the same questions that plagued me every day bounced through my skull.

What was I doing here? Was the wall between me and my brothers ever going to fall?

Could I let it? 

Did I even want to?

Entering the control room I should have been paying more attention to Ronan’s glower, but someone else demanded my attention first.

“What on earth happened to you?” Yasmin blurted, springing up from the low grey chair to rush over towards me.

“Are you injured? I mean I know not for long, but still, should somebody see to this?” 

Okay. I didn’t dislike Yasmin.

Maybe I should have at least washed my hands before coming in, so she wasn’t worried.

I’m fine,” I told her brusquely. “Everybody’s fine. Well, everyone who should be fine is fine. Everyone else is dead.”

She put a hand over her eyes. “It would make sense if Torik was feral. He was stuck in an ice cave, slaughtering those snow beasts for three years.” She lowered her hands, shaking her head. “You are just getting worse every day.”

I shrugged. “Remember, I spent those years dealing with the corps and their games.” I flashed a grin at her. “Tell me again how they’re different from wild beasts?”

“If I did not have more pressing business, we would have this out,” Ronan growled. “I can’t have you disobeying orders.  I can’t have anyone doing that.”

I should shut up. 

Arguing with Ronan when he was like this never ended well.

But somehow, ever since I’d been back in the welcoming arms of the Pack, my better sense had been on vacation.

Instead I shrugged. “Take it up with Doc. She’s the one who made us like this.”

Ronan twitched, visibly fighting to control the lunge that would take him over the desk.

Yasmin stood her ground next to me.

Smart lady.

Even if Ronan and I had it out one day, it would never be where she could potentially be injured.

She knew that. And I knew that too.

“So what’s more important?” I asked, heading towards one of the chairs.

“Don’t you dare sit down in that right now?” Yasmin snapped. “Lean against something that’s easier to clean.”

She walked over to Ronan’s desk while I took up a station by the wall.

“May I?”

“Maybe you should,” Ronan growled, then took his own chair, arms crossed over his chest.

“I’ve asked my brother to do some digging. Every corp he has contact with, everyone he talks to. The rest of your squad has to be out there somewhere.”

Her words fell like blows on my chest.

“Did he…” I swallowed hard. “What did he find?”

She shrugged, then threw a projection upon the wall, looked like personal notes, in a hand I didn’t recognize.

“I’m not sure. But I think it’s something. He’s been going back through Uncle’s,” she stopped herself, her face turning to a mask of ice. “Ran Denau’s records.”

I didn’t blame her for catching herself, for deciding not to claim family ties with that mad asshole. Her uncle had raised her and her twin, but only after killing her father to take control of the corporation. 

And then had nearly killed her.

He was a manipulative, overbearing, egocentric bastard.

I should know. I had a contract with him for two years.

Yasmin regained control of her voice.

There was a corp. that Denau did business with occasionally, very occasionally,” she clarified. 

“The main reason he logged anything in his personal notes was that the woman who ran it had a group of guards under contract.” She met my eyes. “He wanted them badly, but she wouldn’t sell the contract. Not for any price.

“And you think it’s the rest of them?” I asked.

She threw her hands up, walked away and back again.

“I don’t know! I don’t know what else would make sense.” 

She narrowed her eyes, tapping the screen.

“But whatever else he was, Denau wasn’t stupid. If you were already working with him, he would’ve recognized your brothers. I’m sure of it. And he would’ve wanted them.”

I pushed away from the wall.

“Where is this corp? Who do I talk to?”

“Hold up,” Ronan said. “You know the most about the Atretis system than any of us. But I don’t know if I can trust you.”

The words stung, more than they should have.

“Since you’ve been back you’ve changed,” Ronan said, eyes narrowed. “We’re a pack. You are insisting on being a lone wolf.

His jaw tensed. “Trust me. We’re not built for it.”

“I need to go and see if it is them.” I argued.

And,” I took a deep breath. “When I come back, I’ll see Doc. See if there’s something wrong with me.”

Ronan’s eyes didn’t leave mine for long minutes.

“Go. Get information.” His face softened and he stood. “The last few years have taken a toll. We can’t afford to lose any more of us. And we can’t afford to fracture from within.”

I nodded sharply. He was right. I just wasn’t sure what I could do about it.

Yasmin came to my side.

“Since you’re going to be heading out, I was wondering if you’d like to take on another errand on the way?” 

I smiled at her. “Need something picked up from back home?”

She shook her head, eyes bright.

“No, but Hakon and I have been working on a little project.”

***

 We took the lift down to the hanger level where The Queen was berthed.

“Don’t tell me you’ve made any modifications to Granny Z’s ship?” I wondered.

Yasmin’s eyes widened. “Do I look stupid? Because messing with the favorite toy of a legendary pirate queen would be pretty stupid.”

She glanced up at me from the corner of her eye. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been taking some notes.”

We passed that hanger, moved to the next.

Yasmin placed her hand against the panel, leaned closer for an iris scan. With a soft beep the door slid open.

“This looks like more than taking notes,” I said quietly as I followed her into the room.

Not as sleek as The Queen. Not as curved and slender, a silver needle ready to dart through the stars.

Which honestly was a fine thing.

I’ve been out on her for a single mission in that thing and had to hold my breath the entire way.

Too small for someone my size.

The craft in front of me was blocky, nothing in particular to write home about, I would’ve guessed.

That is, only if you ignored Yasmin bouncing up and down on her toes, her grin getting only broader as we approached it.

“I think, I really think we’ve figured out The Queen’s engines,” she breathed. “Possibly made a few other modifications, using that fuel from Alcyon.”

I snorted. “Since when have you started working with Desyk?”

She shrugged. “As soon as I realized they weren’t really the enemy it got a lot easier. Besides, I really wanted to play with that fuel.”

“Honey, we’re home!”

After a moment Haakon leaned out of the hatch. “Good. You found a victim. Volunteer. Whatever.”

I could feel my face freeze into a mask and cursed myself.

I liked Hakon. At least, as much as I liked anyone these days.

And yet…

“That sounds exciting,” I answered. “Do I get more details or should I just randomly push buttons and tell you what happens?”

The Vixen isn’t going to blow up,” Yasmin protested as Hakon swung her up into the hatch. “At least, she hasn’t blown up yet.”

I jumped inside the ship. “This fills me with confidence. Please, tell me more.”

The Queen is all well and good for stealth missions,” Haakon said. “But really, what we need is that engine in more ships.”

“Or at least, something that can fold almost as fast, without attracting as much attention when you arrive.” Yasmin explained. “Let me show you the engines.”

“You can,” I shrugged. “But it’s not gonna do any of us any good,” I said. “Unlike your mate, fixing things isn’t one of my skills. Flying them however…”

“Which is why you’re perfect for this,” Hakon slapped my shoulder. “Fly her, tell us how it goes when you get back. Don’t try to mess with the engines.”

Before long I had as much of the tour I needed.

Supplies were on board, coordinates laid in.

Yasmin looked over her shoulder as she jumped out the hatch back into the dock.

“Either my new engine will get you back to the Areitis Sector almost as fast as The Queen would, or you’ll go the long way, under conventional power.”

Haakon wrapped an arm around her.

“There’s a third  option, but I don’t think it’s very likely,” he said.

I hit the switch to close the hatch. “Option three is that it goes boom, isn’t it?”

His teeth flashed as he grinned. “So many things in our lives do, don’t they?”

I couldn’t argue with that.

I made my way back to the cockpit, made sure they were well past the fire line before I powered up and headed out past the force screen, into the Black.

It was good to be alone. By myself. No one but me to fall back on, no pesky issues of trust to have to endlessly sort out.

Whatever Ronan had said about whether or not we were built to be alone, I knew differently.

Apparently some things could change beyond our original manufacturing specs.

Change irrevocably.

Carefully I guided The Vixen well past Orem’s space, getting used to the feel of the controls, how she responded under my fingers.

For the third time I checked the coordinates.

A small moon deep in the Aretis Sector, the home of Transaman Corp.

I didn’t remember ever hearing of it before.

My hand hovered over the button that would trigger the new experimental engine.

Be there in the blink of an eye or take days of travel.

Or, the ever present option three.

Boom.

I hit the button.

Time to find out.

Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Four

Nettie

“I think we need to go have our own council,” Matilde announced as the Rakian warriors stood around the table, still discussing strategy long after Tirus and Vokal had left the room.

She rose slowly, the swell of her belly obviously causing a shift to her center of gravity that she hadn’t quite gotten used to yet.

For a moment, Nettie let the familiar twinge of sorrow sweep through her, then carefully wrapped it and packed it away.

“I’ve prepared your sitting room, milady,” the gray-scaled Kuseonian woman said as she unobtrusively slid a hand under Matilde’s elbow.

“Of course you have,” Matilde answered. “You should be a part of this discussion, I think.”

Nettie looked around at the gathering of women, all talented in their own ways, all foraged by Crucible in ways that the founders had never expected.

Yes.

 A council of war would be most appropriate.

“I’m sorry to cause so much trouble,” she said softly as the group moved toward one of the tower’s elevators.

“Nonsense,” snapped Zuri. “I don’t think the Empire and Alliance even know what they’re fighting about anymore. They must’ve realized that fact to just start this sort of experiment, letting people from both sides try to live together.”

“Nyseth certainly knows what she’s doing,” Sasha said, rubbing at her neck. “She and whoever she’s planning with have every intention of making as much chaos as they can, and exploiting every crack they can find. I’ve got no doubt about that.”

She looked at Nettie, her face tight with worry. “Whatever you do, if you’re going, you need to not underestimate her. She looks human, and might be for all I know. But there’s a vicious mind running the show.”

The elevator opened and Edris herded the women, Coracle trailing, to a brightly decorated sitting room.

A group of plushly upholstered chairs was drawn into a circle, with small tables set between them.

Nettie sat, easing into the softness. Sasha and Esme took up the positions beside her, and some of the ice around her heart cracked just a little, her eyes prickling.

Matilde shot a look at Edris. “You, too,” she ordered.

With something that might have been mistaken for a smile, the Kuseonian woman tapped at a panel on the door, and within a moment, another chair had been brought in, the circle expanded, and all the women sat as an uneasy silence fell across the room.

“Are you sure you need to do this?” Rhela broke the silence, much to Nettie’s surprise.

She’d seldom interacted with the shy, soft-spoken gardener.

But the woman’s forehead was creased, her lips pressed together in sincere worry. “You don’t know anyone there and, if your Gift is gone, I don’t know what you think you can do?”

Matilde raised her eyebrows. “A Gift isn’t always necessary in order to kick the universe in the pants.”

Rhela’s hands fluttered in front of her. “Of course not, I didn’t mean that. Just, it sounds like it’s going to be dangerous. And you’re just now getting better.”

Nettie smothered a giggle that even to her own mind would have sounded slightly hysterical.

Adena’s healing Gift and repeated treatments in the garrison’s regeneration pods had healed the scars on her body and had given her some measure of sight back into her damaged left eye.

But better?

She was never going to be better.

“If a war does break out, we’re all going to be involved,” she said. “Especially all of us. Crucible has resources both sides are going to want, even need if the fighting picks up. And do you think the commanders on either side are going to let us all live here in peace?”

Sasha scowled. “I’d be willing to bet the assholes in Central Command are going to yank our guys back into the middle of wherever the heaviest action is.” She grabbed a small sandwich from the side table and bit into it savagely. “And I wouldn’t put it past them to try to order our mates to leave us behind.”

Adena’s eyebrows rose as she sipped her tea, then her nose wrinkled and she pushed it away.

“They can try.”

Edris rose swiftly, disappeared for a moment, and returned with a fresh cup that she pushed into the healer’s hands.

Adena didn’t seem to notice the substitution, but she took a second sip without complaint. “After the events of the last few months, none of our guys are feeling particularly eager to accept orders without questions.” She took another sip.

“Lots of questions.” Zuri tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I know Kennet has been working with Ship, tracing through every possible weakness in its,” she trailed off, then threw her hands in the air. “Something like its mind. Honestly, even now, sometimes he starts talking and I just smile and nod. It’s easier than him trying to explain.”

Coracle sprang into Nettie’s lap, then turned himself around three times and settled down.

“Ship and I share what could be termed an artificial brain,” the cat explained. “While we function as independent entities, it is true that our original programming was executed at the orders of Central Command.”

He licked a paw and smoothed back the fur behind his ears. “I dislike anyone tinkering with my higher functions, but I agree, Kennet’s inspection needs to be done.”

Silence descended again on the circle. Nettie wondered what each woman was thinking about the possible upcoming war, what it would mean to them.

Would they be separated from their mates?

Would Adena and Matilde be on opposite sides?

“If you’re going to go, we need to get started packing,” Esme finally announced. “First off, you’re going to need weapons. Lots of them.”

Edris shook her head. “From what I understand from my mother’s letters, weapons are expressly forbidden to the colonists. So we will have to be very cunning, won’t we?”

Sasha leaned forward. “Are you sure your mother will be alright with this?” she asked, her voice slightly strained. “It seems like we’ll be putting her into danger just by Vokal and Nettie being there. It doesn’t seem fair, not without her agreement.”

Edris’s eyebrows raised slightly. “I am fairly certain that if one of her charges were sent into danger and she was not allowed to help, my mother would take it as a grave offense.” She smiled suddenly. “And my mother is far less easy-going than I am.”

Matilde sputtered into her tea. “Well, that’s settled then.”

Warmth spread through Nettie’s chest as the seven women arrayed around her began to plan her invasion of the colony world, weighing and discarding options with all the seriousness of generals at a campaign.

Esme leaned across the small table separating their chairs to take her hand. “You’re certain about this?” she asked in a whisper.

“I always have been. The stars themselves are calling,” Nettie answered. “And this time, nothing will stop me.”

***

Dressed in a comfortable pair of pants, a knee-length shirt, and a form-fitting tank top beneath, Nettie hoisted the backpack to her shoulders, her head still aching from her session in what Sasha and Matilde had called the ‘learning pod of doom’.

“Remember,” Adena said. “When Nic starts arguing, let me handle him.”

“You sound pretty certain that he’s going to object,” Nettie said, shifting the weight on her back until it felt comfortable, trying not to think too much about her next steps.

This was right, she knew it was right.

But she’d thought that once before.

Her stomach clenched.

“That man has it in his head that it is his job to protect everyone and everything from everything else,” Adena laughed. “You’re part of the family now, so I suspect he’s going to be especially growly.”

The smile flickered on Nettie’s face before she pasted it back into place.

Part of the family.

That was… different.

Sasha and Esme moved to either side of her. “But if this is what you want,” Sasha began. “Then we’ll make sure it’s what happens,” Esme finished.

Edris took both of Nettie’s hands in her own. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Nettie protested.

“Still, I feel better knowing that someone is there to check on my mother.” The Kuseonian woman squeezed her fingers. “Much better when that someone isn’t me to be scolded.”

Together, the women took the elevator to the top of the tower.

No one was surprised to find the men assembled in the hangar bay.

“What are you doing?” Vokal said, moving away from the small teardrop-shaped craft he’d been inspecting.

It was him, his voice, his form. But still, it took her a moment to understand the change to his coloring. It was almost like a ghost had stepped out from his shadow.

She reached her hand to stroke down his cheek.

“You’re still you,” she said, and his eyes widened as he froze into stillness at her touch. “Do you think your friend will still recognize you?”

Tirus laughed. “We could be dressed up as Xandorians, and Getta would see right through our disguises.”

“What are you planning?” Vokal asked her in an undertone.

“You promised,” she answered him. “And I’m ready.”

“What exactly did you promise?” Nic began, his arms crossed stiffly across his chest.

Adena stepped to stand before her mate. “Sweetheart,” she said, resting her hands on his forearms. “You’re not going to like this, but it’s not actually any of your business, is it?”

To Nettie’s amusement, Nic’s nostrils flared as his head reared back. “How is it not my business? You are saying that sending a civilian off to a potential battlezone is a good idea? After everything that you’ve –”

He broke off quickly.

“After everything that I’ve done?” Adena finished for him sweetly. “My job is to heal people that need it. They are under no obligation to keep themselves locked away as some sort of payment.” She raised an eyebrow. “Unless you and your brothers are all planning to take up gardening as a hobby?”

Tirus coughed. “I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s much harder than it looks.”

He broke off as Matilde kicked him lightly in the shin. “It was a metaphor,” she hissed.

“How was I supposed to know?” he whispered back.

“Yes, but,” Nic tried to continue, frowning.

“It’s going to be dangerous,” Gavin rumbled.

“For all we know, it’s going to be very dangerous. And that’s just the problem, we don’t have enough information,” Jormoi added.

“More dangerous than what’s already been done to me?” Nettie responded.

She stepped toward the sleek curves of the small ship and imagined it racing through the sky. Then she let her mind fill with image of the stars waiting and hoped it would be enough to drown out the terror pooling in the pit of her stomach.

“I’ve spent far too many years in a cage. No one’s going to put me back in one.”

Vokal stood by her side, carefully not touching her, but close enough she could feel him, feel his warmth.

The terror subsided just a bit.

Tirus held his arm out and, after a surprised pause, Vokal reached toward him, clasping forearms. “Good hunting.”

Matilde sniffed, her eyes shining.

“You both better come back without a scratch. I mean it. I’ve got you down for babysitting duty and I’m not going to let you skip out on it. And–”

She turned to bury her head against Adena’s shoulder. “Sorry. Hormones.”

“We’ve tried to allow for twice the number of surveillance satellites than we’re aware of, out of a preponderance of caution,” Tirus told Vokal. “The optimal flight path has been programmed into the navigation system, but depending on what you find when you get there, you may have to make adjustments.”

Vokal snorted. “Believe it or not, making things up as I go along will finally serve me well.”

Nettie looked around the hangar at the mix of worry and nerves running from face to face.

Not anger.

And if it was fear, it was only for their safety.

Coracle twined between her ankles. “I don’t like this,” he growled. “I don’t like this one bit.”

He turned to sit directly in front of Vokal, glaring up with golden eyes. “If you do not bring her back, happy and healthy and safe, I will find a way to infiltrate every computer system you will ever use in your lifetime and make your life a living hell.”

“Coracle!” Nettie and Adena admonished simultaneously.

Vokal squatted down, resting on his heels to face the black and white furry pile of fury.

“If I don’t bring her back safely, you won’t have to worry about doing anything to me,” he promised.

“Humph.” Coracle simply thrashed his tail.

“Shall we?” Vokal asked her.

It was funny.

Once you got past the scales, or the strange coloration, or the wire-like hair, or the difference in the number of fingers on the hand…

Well, that was rather a lot to ignore, wasn’t it? But once you could see past all that, it was hard not to notice the kindness in those dark eyes.

“I’ve been ready longer than you’ll ever know,” she said.

With a tap on the side of the hull, a door irised open and he helped her inside.

She turned to wave at the silent group behind them.

“Stop worrying,” she said, “this was always meant to be.”

Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Three

Vokal

 “Are you out of your mind?” Tirus spat at Vokal.

The brothers had drifted into a corner of the room, away from both the Enforcers and their mates.

“Probably,” Vokal answered. His eyes drifted back to where Nettie sat, calmly stroking an agitated looking black and white cat.

For all the smoothing of its fluffy fur, it didn’t seem to be enjoying it.

“It’s not like I stole the lady away,” Vokal added, only mildly amused to see Tirus’s flinch as the bolt struck home. “Instead, she came and fetched me. What was I supposed to do? Leave her in the forest? Let her pilot herself back?”

“We are grateful that you have returned Nettie unharmed,” Nic said.

The massive black hulk of the commander of the Enforcers moved far more quietly than any being of that size should be able to.

Vokal fought to keep his face still, to keep his lip from curling.

He missed his mask.

It had seemed stupid at the time to keep his face covered whenever around outsiders, but now he was beginning to see his grandfather’s wisdom.

“She seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself,” was his only remark.

This was getting ridiculous.

The rest of the Enforcers joined what had been a family discussion, even if not a particularly pleasant one.

Vokal leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“So, you have no information other than a possible attack, at some point in the unknown future, on a world that is defenseless. And would provide a flashpoint for the outbreak of hostilities.”

He shaped his lips into the lazy smile he knew irritated his brother the most.

“And besides that, someone I like lives there.”

He glanced around the semicircle of faces arrayed against him.

“Does that sum it up?”

“We’ll crack that file,” Tirus insisted. “Even if we do have to work together, we will find out Nyseth’s plans and stop them.”

“But what are you going to do in the meantime?” Vokal pressed. “You may not like it, but the lady is correct. We need to get eyes on the ground, see the situation.”

The tallest of the Enforcers, dark gold hair forming a mane around his face, snorted. “She doesn’t know anything about it,” he argued. “There’s no way any of us could get there without attracting just the sort of attention we don’t want.”

“I could take one of the smaller craft, find an inconspicuous place to land and see what I can find,” another one of them offered.

Jormoi, that was his name, Vokal remembered from overheard conversations the last time he’d been at the tower.

He didn’t seem like a bad sort.

He glanced at the giant, Gavin, again. Unlike some.

“And who’s going to tell you what’s normal and what’s not once you’re on the ground?” Vokal said. “Should I send a note with you, ask Getta to fill you in on everything? Or were you planning to pose as one of her kin?”

The scout stuck his chin out stubbornly. “You might not believe it, but I am actually fairly good at my job. Even without a letter of introduction.”

“Maybe I’ll go with you  keep you company,” Vokal said, the sudden resolution surprising no one in the group more than himself.

Dammit, he’d sworn to stay out of Imperial affairs. Let the whole damn Empire burn for all he cared.

A thin edge of guilt wormed its way through the pit of his stomach.

If something did happen, did set the war alight again in all its fury and left an opening for this shadowy third-party to exploit, could he forgive himself for standing by?

And more importantly, if the colonists, if Getta were injured or even killed in the process, could he live with himself?

“Don’t look so surprised,” he snapped at Tirus’s slack-jawed expression.

“I’m only doing it because I’m concerned about Getta. War, or peace, doesn’t mean a thing to me, not anymore.”

His brother’s eyebrows rose even as the Enforcers’ brows settled into a uniform scowl.

“It’s not like you’re going to pass unnoticed, either,” said the one who Vokal mostly recognized from lying twitching in his stasis pod.

“Your soldiers have been seen often enough by the Alliance, but every Kuseonian there will know that one of the princes has come for a visit if you show your black-scaled face anywhere.”

Oh. That was a problem.

However, not an insoluble one.

“There is a solution,”

He shot a bitter smile at the group. “Not a particularly pleasant one, so some of you should be happy, at least.”

***

Vokal stood at the edge of the medical pod.

There was still time to say the hell with this. To go back to his clearing, his pile of stripped logs.

There were months before fall came again. He’d be able to build a house. Probably.

Even if he didn’t, there was no reason in the entire universe for him to climb into that pod.

But even though she was no longer near, he could still feel the touch of Nettie’s small hand on the scales of his arm, the pull of her gaze that drew him like iron to a magnet.

Vokal sighed. After a lifetime of doing whatever the hell he wanted, trying to do the right thing was a pain in the ass.

“We don’t know if it’s reversible,” Tirus argued, hands held carefully over the controls. Vokal looked at his brother, wondering.

That couldn’t be concern, could it?

“Matilde is going to be angry if something goes wrong,”

Ah. That made more sense.

“Tell my sister I’ll be fine,” Vokal said as he pulled off his vest, stripped out of his boots and pants, and climbed into the pod.

“Honestly, this is a much nicer regeneration chamber than the one you stuck me in before.”

“I think I liked you better when you were an asshole all the time,” Tirus said as his hands flew over the controls.

The lid slid over him, sealing him inside. “Sometimes I think I did too,” Vokal admitted.

With a hiss, gas seeped into the chamber, the freezing cold something he’d never gotten used to.

And now the pain. Somehow, he hadn’t expected this to hurt quite so much. He lay there, his eyes closed, imagining five more ways he could try to build his little house.

Maybe build the walls flat on the ground, then raise them? No, he’d need someone else to hold it still.

Perhaps…

His mind kept slipping to her face. The tiny smile that had broken through the mask as she glanced over her shoulder at him, waiting for him to catch up, to join her on the airsled.

Finally, the gas ebbed away, and the lid opened to show Tirus looming over him, eyebrows raised.

“It worked,” he said flatly. “I have no idea if I’ll be able to undo it, though.”

Vokal sat up, reached for the edge of the chamber, and froze.

No reason to be surprised.

He should’ve been expecting it, this was exactly what he’d asked for.

But his scales were now charcoal gray instead of midnight black.

He rotated his arm, wondering at the change.

Such a small thing, something he’d never stopped to think about.

The color of his scales and skin.

Such a simple thing to have marked him as part of the royal blood, set apart, different.

And with one simple procedure, he’d cut himself off from all of that and changed into a faceless warrior, like millions of others.

“Good. I’m not sure if I’d want to change back anyway,” he answered, shoving the small doubts into the back of his mind, then climbed out and redressed.

When they exited the medical bay, only the slight widening of Lorrik’s eyes betrayed his shock.

“We’ve readied the craft, Your Highness.”

“Not anymore,” Vokal said, waving his newly grayed skin before the lieutenant.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I was not speaking to you.”

Apparently Vokal’s previous disastrous visit to Tirus’s tower hadn’t been forgiven or forgotten by everyone.

Fair enough.

He had nearly killed the man.

“Somehow, no one ever is,” he shrugged, then headed toward the elevator.

The long dining table had been set up as something of a war room, every map and scrap of information that either the Enforcers or Tirus had on Cigni gathered together.

“Cigni III was a mining colony of partithium originally,” Kennet began, flicking overlays across the globe that slowly spun before them. “Its resources had been exhausted a century ago, leaving it of comparatively little value to either side.”

“It’s not like anyone was going to pick a useful planet for this experiment, was it,” Vokal added.

With another flick of his fingers, the planet enlarged and zoomed in to show just one continent.

“From what I have been able to determine, the majority of the colonists are all in this region.” Kennet tapped the air, the image resolving to display broad swaths of green and tan, wiggles of blue marking the rivers that crossed the continent. Mountains curved around one side of a vast plain, thick forests cutting through the land in thick swathes.

“I am not familiar with any details of where your friend is residing, however,” he finished.

Vokal thought back and tried to remember the details Getta had mentioned in her letters.

“She must be near the main center of the colony,” he decided. “She’s mentioned going to a small town for midday meetings, but back again by evening. If the powers that be are having the colony work from the basics up, it’s unlikely that everyone would have their own air transport. Safer to assume she’s on foot, or possibly with the basic flitter.”

Tirus nodded and moved the area to a smaller region. “That narrows it down. What else?”

“Her nearest neighbor raises something, some sort of creature that he shaves for wool.”

“Something like our chatha?” one of the garrison women asked as she moved next to Kennet.

The analyst nodded. “It seems likely, Zuri.” He gestured to the map. “If you could choose anywhere, where would you put a small chatha farm?” She laughed and, to Vokal’s shock, reached up to tap the stonefaced warrior’s nose lightly.

“It’s not a farm. Unless this is some sort of creature the likes of which I’ve never heard of, chances are good they’re not growing them out of the ground.”

She turned her attention back to the map.

“Either of these areas looks good,” she said thoughtfully. “Easy access to water, not too dry, and the trees aren’t too thick around them. Of course,” she shrugged. “That’s assuming they need the same sort of terrain as our chatha.”

Nic nodded. “We can only go with the information we have, and attempt to draw reasonable conclusions.” He glanced at Vokal. “Anything else? Anything useful?”

Vokal decided that he really did not like that man.

But considering from what he understood, that the Rakian commander’s mate had been the one leading the efforts to heal Nettie’s eye, he would try to make an effort.

“She likes to watch the sunrise from her porch, she can see it coming up over the mountains, watch it spread over the town,” Vokal realized with a jolt.

“And you’d have to be far enough away from the mountains to appreciate it,” Nettie said softly from his side. She tapped the second of the areas that Zuri had indicated. “There. I think she’s there.”

“There’s supposed to be a communications blackout,” Nic grumbled. “Apparently it’s not as secure as we’d been told, if you’re getting regular correspondence from one of the colonists.”

Vokal shrugged. “When we were growing up, it was pretty hard to get anything past Getta. I can imagine that whoever was trying to keep her from sending a letter whenever she wanted to would have an equally difficult time.”

“Once you’re there, keep those letters flowing,” Tirus directed. “I’ll keep working on that encryption.”

“Good,” Vokal said. “We’re going to need every weapon we  can get.”

Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Two

Nettie

“Tell me there’s a good reason you have weapons pointed anywhere in the direction of this woman,” Vokal snarled, hand swept back to keep Nettie behind him.

Dammit.

She’d figured there would be some fuss about her slipping off, but this was overkill.

Vokal hadn’t been too terrible about letting her have the controls while they swooped back to Tirus’s tower, and she’d carefully watched as he guided the airsled to the high-perched landing bay, noting the step she’d skipped before.

Good to know.

It had been a fantastic outing, but now a wall of muscle and weaponry stood before her.

Vokal sprang between her and the Enforcers, shoulders rolling back as if ready to launch himself at them with only the knife he held in his hand.

Only Matilde seemed to view Vokal’s arrival with anything less than hostility.

Interesting.

Especially since other than Tirus, Matilde was the only one who’d spent time with him.

She lightly touched the black scales that covered Vokal’s upper arm, muscles bulging from the opening of the vest.

“I’m not entirely certain it’s me they’re pointing at,” she said softly. “But it’s alright, all the same.”

It would have to be alright. After everything, she would have to make it be.

She swallowed hard, forcing her chin up as she stepped out from behind Vokal’s broad shoulders.

Silly man.

“I went to find him, because he needs to be a part of this discussion,” Nettie explained, ignoring the furious glares of the men arrayed against her.

Instead she focused on the people who understood her past, at least as well as anyone could.

The women that would be able to understand her future.

She hoped.

Nic took a deep breath. “Why do you think he needs to be involved?” he managed to only barely not growl.

Vokal ignored him, turned to Tirus. “What’s going on with Cygni III? Have you checked in on Getta?”

Tirus blinked. “How in all of the ancestors do you know about that?”

From the side where she stood, Nettie could feel Vokal’s shoulders brace as if for a blow.

“I’m not completely worthless,” he said softly. “I’ve always kept in touch with Getta. She wrote to let me know when she was moving, was excited about starting a new life, new possibilities.”

“So much for your confidential project,” Gavin said, arms crossed as he scowled. “Does your entire Empire know about it?”

Despite herself, Nettie stepped slightly closer to Vokal.

Gavin could be kind and funny.

But you didn’t need a Gift to sense the rage that simmered underneath his skin.

She cursed at herself. Flinching back from a friend, or the very least, an ally, wasn’t going to help anything, especially since Vokal now seemed even angrier.

But whatever the men were going to yell at each other was interrupted by the appearance of one angry cat.

Coracle came stalking out from between Adena and Rhela, tail poofed out and thrashing angrily as he made a beeline for her. “You left. You left and didn’t have a tracker on. You left and…”

The cat seemed to notice the slightly battered air sled for the first time.

“You stole one of the air sleds?”

Nettie shrugged slightly, spreading her hands. “Borrowed it for a little bit? The controls didn’t seem that complicated.”

Sasha bit back a snort of laughter, then released it, and the tension around the room eased, just a bit.

“While we’re deciding what’s going on,” Tirus announced, arm wrapping protectively around his mate’s shoulders. “Why don’t we all go inside where we are more comfortable? At least, that’s where my lady and I will be.”

And with that he turned his back to the assembled company and headed towards the lift.

And still, everyone’s eyes were on Nettie. The men, hard and questioning.

The woman, even those she trusted, uncertain, concerned about her new outburst of independence.

Vokal must have noticed her hesitation. He bent his arm out towards her, making a shallow bow and flourish with his other hand.

“Shall we join them?”

With something that was close to amusement burbling through her chest, she slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow.

“That does seem to be the best answer.”

As they walked past the men of the garrison and their mates, she could sense the worry rolling off of Adena. The woman was born to worry, especially for a patient.

Of much more immediate concern was the speculation in both Diahnne — no, Esme now — and Sasha’s eyes.

Adena might have healed her body, but those two knew her soul, as much as anyone did.

They weren’t going to like this.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when they flanked her, joining herself and Vokal in the lift.

As the doors slid closed Sasha grabbed her free hand, ignoring Vokal completely.

“Just between us, are you all right?” she demanded.

Nettie squeezed Sasha’s strong fingers and did her best to smile reassuringly. “I am. There’s just something I need to do.”

Esme and Sasha exchanged worried glances as the lift came to a stop and the doors opened.

None of them moved.

“Something you need to do, like your Gift coming back?”

Nettie shook her head. “Not exactly. Better.”

***

The room filled with soft chairs and low tables that had been arranged for Sasha’s return was disturbed, almost lonely.

Nettie regretted causing the change of atmosphere.

It had been warm, friendly as Sasha passed around the presents from her unexpected journey, telling them all about life out in the stars.

The mood now was grimmer, the brightly colored scarves tossed across chair backs.

Nettie bent to pick hers up, stroking the soft fabric, tracing her fingers over the blue and green pattern.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to make such a fuss. But soon the discussion would turn to Cygni, and not everyone was here.”

Nic and the rest of the men from the garrison filed into the room from the lift, moving to stand by their mates.

Merren slid an arm around Sasha’s waist, bending slightly to kiss the curve of her neck where it met her shoulder.

Then he straightened, eyes slightly narrowed.

“What do you know about Cygni, and why did you think someone else should be involved?”

She didn’t need to look around to feel Vokal step behind her.

“You heard him just a moment ago,” she answered. “He’s in contact with one of the settlers there. As for how I knew,” she raised her hands, let them fall to her sides limply. “That’s not particularly easy to answer.”

“I’m at least glad to see Vokal here,” Matilde announced. A wicked grin lit her face. “I think he’ll make a fabulous babysitter when it’s time.”

A slight twitch passed over Tirus’s face, but he made no comment other than to waive his brother towards the chair.

Instead of sitting, Vokal moved to stand behind it, waiting.

With a roll of her eyes, Nettie sat down.

“What do you know about Cygni?” Merren said.

“Not much about the colony itself,” Vokal began, his low voice soothing to the frayed edges of Nettie’s nerves.

She glanced at Esme, wondered how the conflicting wash of emotions felt to her friend.

A Gift wasn’t needed to decipher the tension and anger running through this room.

“Getta’s been in touch with me for years, ever since she retired,” Vokal added, and Tirus grinned. “Haven’t you been writing to her too?”

Matilde leaned back in her chair, looked up at her mate with raised eyebrows. “Who is this Getta? Should I be worried?”

Tirus laughed. “Getta was one of our caretakers when our batch was young. If you have anything you’re wondering about, feel free to ask Edris. She’s Edris’s mother.”

“Oh!” Matilde’s eyes widened as her hands flew to her mouth.

“She’s been in Imperial service for decades,” Vokal said. “She retired, but didn’t seem to enjoy it. Apparently life was a little too quiet after dealing with all of us.”

“So she volunteered for the colony program?” Nic asked. “From my understanding, there weren’t many comforts to be found on the planet they chose for the experiment. The settlers would have been starting almost from scratch.”

“It didn’t seem to bother her,” Vokal said.

Nettie tried to imagine this woman, who’d been a sort of surrogate mother for a rowdy family of princelings.

She deserved her retirement, no matter what form she chose to take it in.

“And now, I need an explanation.” Vokal’s voice hardened. “What is going on with Cygni?”

Tirus ran his fingers through his short wiry hair. “We don’t know. Those two,” he pointed to Merren and Sasha, “just got back from some sort of mission, and along the way ran into a particularly nasty individual.”

“Someone from the Rakian Alliance?” Vokal asked.

“No.” Merren answered. “Someone who’s decided playing the Alliance and the Empire against each other provides too many opportunities to miss.”

“And it sounds as if she thinks the colony on Cygni is either a threat, or an opportunity,” Sasha said. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to get much in the way of details. We were kind of busy trying not to get killed. Tirus has all the data we were able to pull.”

“The encryption is disturbingly good,” Tirus scowled. “It may be days or weeks even before I can crack it.” He nodded to Kennet. “Even with your assistance.”

“What are you planning to do about it?” Vokal said. “I can send a comm to Getta, but her responses are often delayed. By the time she got back to us with any information, the threat could already be too close to defend against.”

“We’re going to have to go there,” Nettie announced. “It’s the only way.”

Silence filled the room.

“The colony is off-limits to any one other than the volunteers that have been vetted by the cooperative council,” Nic explained slowly. “There’s a network of satellites monitoring it for any interference. We can’t just pop in for a visit.”

“And until we know who Nyseth has brought over to her camp, neither of us can go up our respective chains of command,” Tirus finished.

Nettie shrugged. “Surely Getta would be permitted to have a visit from her son and his new wife?”

Vokal’s hand brushed her shoulder lightly. “She could, but other than Edris, she doesn’t have any children. Her sons were killed fighting.”

None of the Enforcers look the least bit guilty at the words, and Nettie didn’t expect them to.

This war that had dragged on for generations between the Rakian Alliance and the Empire had killed far more than just one woman’s children.

“I didn’t mean her actual son, silly.”

Nettie wondered if she should have tried talking more often in the last few months.

She hadn’t felt like it, her mind and body far too wrapped up in healing, and processing the horrors of the years that she had been held captive by Brayden.

But maybe if she had talked more often, the room wouldn’t fall silent and shocked every time she said what seemed perfectly obvious.

Or maybe it was something else.

Because the only person, or even cat, who responded to her reasonable, logical suggestion was Vokal.

And he was wheezing with laughter.

Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter One

A massive crash resounded through the forest.

Vokal cursed, the sharp edged blade he’d forced into service as an axe slipping from the end of the pole he was attempting to fashion into some sort of roof strut.

Or wall post.

Or something.

He glared around at the newly budding trees surrounding his clearing, the gentle splashing of the nearby stream, wishing to find the beast that had made the noise.

Just to kick it.

Kicking something sounded like a fine idea.

He’d declined to hunt the larger beasts of the forest, content enough with fishing, but they’d still avoided the site where he’d made his new home.

Or at least, where he was trying to.

“Probably too thin anyway,” he grumbled, stooping to pick up the pole and re-examining it.

This was attempt number twenty-seven to construct something better than the crude lean-to he’d used to wait out the last of the winter.

Some attempts had seemed like they were going to work, only to fall down on him in the middle of the night.

He much preferred the ones that collapsed before he tried to go inside.

“How can making a basic shelter be this complicated?” he muttered, casting his eye over the assortment of stripped poles laying next to each other.

They were pretty straight. He’d gotten better at it in the weeks since he’d left Tirus’s tower.

Maybe not much better, if he didn’t have to be honest with anyone else. But there was some improvement.

For a moment he remembered his own tower, the comforts and pleasures available at his fingertips.

But all of that had been lost when he was decreed to be a traitor, tossed into prison by dear brother Druval.

The loss of his tower, the stripping away of his battalion had hurt. But perhaps not as much as it should have.

For all the years he’d been addicted to Venom, it had never done him any good.

He had never shifted, never felt his wings spread, the air beneath him as he soared.

It only left him with rage and emptiness, made him unfit for anything.

Here in these woods by his stream, there was nothing but quiet.

No demands of court.

Nothing and no one but him.

He picked up the pole again, set his jaw, and resumed working.

No more than he deserved.

The lean-to was cramped, but would be fine for summer.

But he’d seen how heavily the snow still lay upon this mountain valley when he arrived.

He’d been lucky to get here at the end of winter.

He would need something considerably sturdier, and hopefully better insulated before the next winter fell.

And at the rate he was learning how to build a house, he’d need every hour he had.

Despite the slight chill still in the air he stripped down to his vest as he propped poles against each other, ramming their ends into the ground.

Then the sound of a broken branch cut through his concentration.

“Hello?”

He spun and there she was.

Nettie’s face was less thin than when he had seen her at Matilde’s strange party.

The golden haze of her healing eye had almost cleared, a bright blue to match the uninjured one shining through.

The short copper cap of her hair gleamed against her bronze skin, and she stared at him with the same even gaze that had caught him at the past winter, the gaze that still haunted his dreams.

“Are you lost?” he asked, slowly stepping towards her.

He knew something had happened to her.

Something to both her and the curly-haired woman that lived with the Enforcers.

Matilde and the other human women treated her as carefully as if they were afraid she would break with just a hard glance.

But the woman who stood before him seemed as if she was carved of stone, not crystal.

“No, but I think you are,” she said.

He froze. “No, I’m right where I woke up this morning. Where I expect to go to sleep tonight, and where I expect to spend the next day and the day after that,” he said lightly, his thoughts racing.

“But what about Cygni III?” she asked.

Hearing the name was like an unexpected slap. “What about it? How do you even know about that?”

“While you have been gone, things have changed. Things were already changing. And now,” she raised her hand to her head, stumbled.

He hurried to her side, wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her to the stump he’d taken to using as a chair, wishing for the first time since he’d taken up his exile for the luxurious furnishings of his tower.

“Here, sit,” he said as he guided her down, found the wooden cup he’d carved for himself and filled it with fresh water from the stream.

“I don’t have anything stronger here,” he apologized.

Nettie took a careful sip, then another. “I don’t think I’d want anything stronger.” She closed her eyes. “Did you ever have your life stretch out in front of you, so clearly that you could see every moment, every day as each faded into the next?”

She couldn’t see him but he nodded.

He had known that. At least, once he thought he had.

“And then you realize it’s all lies. And nothing you thought was true actually is.” She opened her eyes and he nearly flinched against the weight of her gaze. “When you go, take me with you. Promise.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said gravely.

Her eyes, blue and gold, bore into him, and he knew there was only one answer.

“I promise.” But he bowed, mocking himself, shaking off the seriousness of her words. “But I suspect the only place I’m going will be to take you back to Enforcer’s Ship.”

He frowned as the thought struck him.

He should have been several days of travel on foot away from the Rakians. Unless they had moved their garrison?

She shook her head. “Back to Tirus and Matilde’s tower would be fine, thank you.”

He blinked. That was certainly doable, although it would still be a long day’s walk. Longer, for a small human.

Who didn’t look at all like she’d been walking through the mountains for hours.

“How did you get here?”

“I flew,” she smiled again, and for just a moment he thought he could see laughter behind the mask.

“What aren’t you telling me?” he asked, a small sliver of worry working its way through his mind.

“All sorts of things, I assure you,” she answered, then rose to her feet. “But this isn’t much of a secret.”

Slipping his knife back into its sheath, he followed her as she retraced her steps, out of the clearing and through the trees.

Even as she moved before him, slipping between the branches like a vision, he wondered.

Maybe this was another effect of the Venom leaving his system?

There was no way this fragile human woman could be here, leading him to some mystery.

She’d caught his attention before, she’d been in his mind.

That was all there was to it.

None of this was real.

And still, he followed her.

“Here we are,” she stopped and he caught up, staring in disbelief over her shoulder. “The landing wasn’t exactly smooth.”

Landed wasn’t the right word.

An aircraft leaned into the ground, tilted nose-down into the soft turf of a hill, broken branches all around it.

Not just any aircraft.

An Enforcer airsled.

“You took one of their vehicles?” he managed to sputter, walking towards the craft, part of his mind checking for damage, the rest of him still reeling in shock.

“It was the most fun I’ve had in I don’t know how long,” she admitted. “Even if coming back down was a little bumpier than I’d planned.”

She stepped towards the lip of the side, began to tug. “I don’t know what I did wrong,” she muttered.

He moved to her side, and with a steady pull freed the airsled from its unfortunate resting place.

Glancing at the controls he nodded. Fairly straightforward. As long as nothing had been damaged.

That would be more than his knife would be able to handle.

Before he could stop her, Nettie had scrambled over the side, slim fingers deftly flicking through the power up routine.

She glanced at him over her shoulder, that startling particolored gaze striking him again. “Aren’t you coming?”

 With a grin he vaulted in behind her. Whatever was happening, whatever she wanted, it would surely be more interesting than a hut falling on his head again.

“Only if you let me pilot,” he cautioned.

“Maybe.”

Staked: Epilogue

The others were already gathered at Pietra’s apartment when I arrived, and demanded the details of what had happened since I’d seen them last. I made it sound like I’d taken the extra time at Kieran’s place to recover, almost snapping at Oleg when he asked what else had happened. Even with his treatment after the fact, I didn’t quite regret my time with Kieran, but the snub was still too fresh to want to talk about it.

Pietra’s house had nowhere near enough spare beds for all of us, so after spending the day together talking about our plans for the future and just enjoying each other’s company, everyone else left and I spent another night in Pietra’s guest bedroom. I awoke early the next morning and left for the Star, determined not to sulk when I had so much work ahead of me.

I relished the feeling of security I had walking through the Lowers, now that I knew that most of the cartels would be lying low. I enjoyed the sounds of early morning, the businesspeople setting up shop or closing down for the day.

Soon enough I’d be one of them again, and I could hardly wait. I heard a few strange sounds as we approached the intersection near the Sapphire Star, but I didn’t pay them any mind until I turned the corner and realized where they was coming from.

Immediately, I pulled up Kieran on the commlink.

“What is this?” I asked as soon as I heard the click that meant he’d connected. “What did you do?”

“Hm?” I heard on the other end of the line. He sounded amused. “Ani, you’re going to have to be more specific.”

“What did you do with the Star?” I half-shouted at him. “Why are there––”

“Oh, good––they took the ‘rush job’ thing seriously.” He sounded unbearably smug. “I’m glad I made that part clear. They’re doing repair work, Ani. I thought that would be pretty obvious.”

“But…” I took a deep breath. “I thought you said––”

“I said I’d get rid of the contract. That means I don’t need a stake in the Star if you don’t want to give me one, but I’d still like it if you let me do this. I’d feel like I ripped you off, otherwise.”

“But you already…” I began.

“Ani, seriously, don’t worry about it. You should’ve seen the bonus I got for completing this mission.” Kieran chuckled. “And you helped. My boss can’t know about it on the record, but I think he’d be happy to hear that I’m passing some of the reimbursement on to you.

“I’d hoped to get everything repaired before you got back, but there was no way that could happen in a single day,” he continued, sounding rueful. “Besides, it’s better this way. If you want any renovations, you can let the contractors know. Just don’t ask for diamond chandeliers or anything––I trust your discretion.”

“Kieran, I can’t let you––“

“You can, and you will.” His iron-clad tone was different from how it had been in the heat of the moment two nights ago––now it was seasoned with humor, and sounded deceptively mild. “Ani, I knew there was trouble coming to your doorstep, and instead of warning you, or doing anything about it, I just decided to invite myself in along with it. This is the least I can do for you, believe me.”

“If you say so.” There was being cautious, and then there was ungratefulness. Why not quit while I was ahead? “Kieran…thank you.”

“You’re welcome, love.” And the link was dropped before I could reply. Love? It was just like him, I thought, to push just that little bit extra right up till the end.

And that was it. He’d held me to my end of the bargain, and had more than kept his own, even if there had been some unexpected twists along the way––and now that it had all been settled, he was breezing his way back out of my life. Our deal at first had implied a longer-term involvement, but that had been before everything had went wrong.

Kieran was surviving the way he always had: controlling what he could, cutting ties when things spun out, and drifting until he could orient himself again. I needed some time and reflection myself, so even while I was frustrated, I could understand.

This time, though, it was different from how it had been when we were teenagers. This time, I was comforted in the knowledge that if I wanted to find him, I knew where to start looking.

***

The renovations were fast and top-notch. It took me several sleepless nights with Pietra and the others, but repairing the Star was over before I knew it. Then it was just a matter of restocking the bar, and we were open for business.

And it was very good business, too, pretty much from the start. There had been a shortages of what we had to offer recently, caused primarily by the actions of the cartels, and rumors of odd happenings in the industry were just starting to surface. A lot of our clients wanted people they could trust to be above reproach, and luckily enough, my tenants had very good relationships with their customers. The new, welcoming look of the place didn’t hurt either. We had almost more business than we could keep up with the first nights.

Balancing our budget had been my first order of business, and it hadn’t been easy. We’d needed to rely on credit for just a little while. I hadn’t had any savings to speak of before all this had happened, and there was no way I was going to impose on Kieran for incidental expenses when he was already covering all of the renovation.

Fortunately, some of Dad’s old contacts had reached out to me early in the renovation process. A lot of them had been underground––some of them had even been working with Kieran’s associates––and with some of the pressure off them, at least for the moment, they’d offered me lines of credit it was actually safe to rely on. Within a month of the Star’s reopening, I was well on my way to paying them back.

The Star was back in business, sturdier and shinier than ever before, and my family was back where it belonged. The financial difficulties I’d struggled under since inheriting her were finally starting to ease.

But I couldn’t find it in myself to be completely at peace with what had happened. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.

My family was wonderful about it, as usual. Oleg and Shaymarie would sympathize endlessly if I went to either of them separately, or tease me mercilessly if I said anything about it when they were together; Cambrie would listen and look long-suffering whenever I hinted that I wanted her advice; and Dalla asked about Kieran enough without my prompting that I tried to avoid talking about him in her hearing.

As for Pietra, she would listen to my darker fears––my difficulties getting some of the memories to leave me alone, or my fears about the lingering effects of Blue or Kieran’s injury.

I loved my family, and they were there for me. They supported me however they could, and they were patient about it. They understood people, and probably knew what I was going to end up doing before I’d done it, but they were kind enough to let me come to my conclusions on my own.

It took about a month and a half, in-between the renovation and the recovery and the planning, for me to really get around to sitting down with myself and being honest––about everything that had happened, what I thought about it now that it was over, and about what I wanted to do now.

In a lot of ways, the most surprising part was how little had changed. But there were a few things that I found that surprised me.

The biggest of those things had me trying to figure out a way to get back to the Uppers. It wasn’t easy, without asking for outside help, but I managed––mainly by making it into a business trip.

Kieran had opened my eyes to some interesting new products, after all, and we were doing well for ourselves, so I could afford it.

Everyone had insisted on increasing the percentage of the profits they gave to the Star, and since things were going so well I wanted to give them extra-special somethings for their trouble.

I found some new toys for the others to try out––some the ones that Kieran had tried on me, and others that I’d picked up because they looked fun or intriguing.

I wasn’t sure all of them would make it back, though, especially the ones I wasn’t familiar with yet.

If I had the chance––well, it was better to be sure.

And they would make fine stakes, if I had the opportunity to bring them to the table.

Getting to the last destination on my list took longer than I’d hoped; it was just edging into evening when I arrived where I’d intended to go, after cursing my sense of direction a couple of times, as well as the dense foliage and the parks in the Uppers. I was used to navigating buildings and networks of pipes rather than foliage, but I got there in the end.

I found the door I wanted, knocked, and argued briefly with the doorman. He looked a bit rough to be a doorman, honestly, but he was perfectly polite, even if I caught him grinning at me out of the corner of my eye a couple of times. He led me into a sitting room and let me wait, trying not to let my anticipation get out of hand.

Kieran took his sweet time showing up, and I was squirming––a little from anticipation, mostly from nerves––when he finally appeared.

He stared from the doorway for a moment then moved to take a seat across from me, all in silence. I waited for him to speak first.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” he admitted finally.

“Well, I did.” I reached into my purse and pulled out a pack of cards, holding it out to him. “Want to play?”

“Oh, Ani…” he looked me over with smoldering eyes. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“You say that like you think you’re not going to lose,” I said, smirking. “I’ve been practicing.”

He took the deck, just brushing the tips of my fingers. “Keep this up too long, and I might start to get the impression you’re playing for keeps,” he warned.

“What, aren’t you?” I grinned at him. “A few practice hands, and then we get down to stakes?”

“Sure,” he said easily. His eyes traveled up and down my body like it was already his prize.

And…well.

If he played his cards right, I just might be.

The End


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