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Staked: Chapter Fifteen

The waiting stretched my shredded nerves to the breaking point.

On the one hand, I had plenty of time to talk with the women who wanted to talk and to convince all of them to come with me. They weren’t as empty-headed as I’d worried they were at first.

They knew what was happening, and I managed to convince most of them to come with me.

The ones who were reluctant would be dragged out by the ones who were more willing. I felt a little bad about forcing them, but didn’t really have time to worry about it. 

Over the commlink, Pietra and Sadra were only able to help me so much. They helped me work out a simple plan, wished me luck, and signed off, saying that I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

So I listened to the murmuring behind me as I listened, just out of range of where the door would swing, waiting for a sign of someone coming.

Eventually, I heard loud, measured footsteps and the click of a lock disengaging. I took a deep breath and raised the loop of thick string held between my hands…

And saw Kieran’s face peer carefully into the room. I moved into his line of sight, and he grimaced.

“Darkness, Ani, did Pietra give you that?” he hissed. “Put it away. I’m alone.”

“We need to get them out of here,” I said quickly. “Do you know if there are any more women?”

“No, I think they kept it to a small group. This is just to show anyone who’s interested a good time.” He looked disgusted.

“Pietra said that a ship of this size should have escape pods that can reach the station,” I said.

“You’re right,” he said. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay. Then we don’t have any time to waste.” He raised an arm, beckoning, and led us out of the room and down into the lowest bowels of the ship, where the escape pods waited.

“How’d you get away from the creep?” I asked as we walked, keeping an ear out for anyone else in the room.

“By promising him more than I could afford,” he said, frustrated. “I think I managed to convince him that I wanted to come back for…let’s say, selfish reasons. I promised him a deal on part of his shipment that’s a steal on his end––or would be, if the credits actually existed. Hopefully the credit transfer take a little while to go through.”

“Sounds like a pretty good plan,” I said.

“It’s a time bomb,” he said. “But it’s got a longer fuse than our current project one does. As soon as anyone goes to check on those women, they’ll be coming after us. There’s only so many places we could hide.”

When we arrived at the row of escape pods at the bottom center of the ship, Kieran took a look at them and groaned. “They aren’t even all here,” he said. “Either they’re negligent on their safety measures or they had other plans for these.”

He got them open quickly enough, though, switching on his commlink as he did. “Pietra––oh, sorry, Sardra. You know the plan, right? Good, I want you to give me landing coordinates for these docks.”

While he spoke with Sardra, I helped women into the escape pods. They weren’t meant for more than three people normally, but judging by Kieran’s gestures, four would be fine for the short ride back to the station.

He leaned in and set the coordinates for the first one, giving basic instructions to the women inside and left me to lock it as he moved on to the second and the third. Inside, I saw one of the women push something on the touchscreen, and then the pod was being pulled away, door to the airlock shutting behind it.

He snapped his commlink shut and looked over at me. “Hurry,” he said. “Now that we’ve ejected the first pod, it’s going to be obvious what we’re doing.”

I shut the second and third pod doors in a blur, and was running over to join Kieran in the fourth when I heard heavy footfalls coming towards us.

Kieran swore and gestured to the door of the escape pod. “Get in there. Whatever happens, stay behind me.”

I climbed in up to my waist, then stood on the ladder of the pod, head poking out just far enough to see Jahal rush into the room, gun drawn.

Kieran’s gun was out already, both arms holding it straight out in front of him.

“Never figured you for a bleeding heart, Matthias,” she said, stepping slowly into the room.

“Your mistake,” Kieran said. His back was turned to me, but I could hear the grin in his voice, through the strain. “I’ve always been a sucker for the ladies.”

“So I see.” She looked over his shoulder at me, and suddenly she looked livid. “Is that Chang with you?”

So much for my disguise, I thought.

Or maybe Jahal really did just hate me that much.

“She was curious,” Kieran said simply. “Wanted to know more about the business you blew up her bar to get. And I owed her, so I brought her along. You of all people should know she’s harmless.”

“Except for the other whores she convinced you to steal along with her,” Jahal growled.

“She made a compelling argument.”

“What is she to you?” Jahal snapped. “All this back-and-forth…you’ve done decent for yourself so far, kid, but ever since little miss Chang came into the picture you’ve become a liability.”

“Just trying to play to my strengths,” Kieran said. His smile had a sharp edge. “Playing both sides is how I get by. I’ve always been a charmer.”

“And you’re twice the fool if you think that charm will work on me.” She pulled the safety off the gun in a deliberately slow motion. “I don’t keep weasels as my associates.”

“All right, so I’ve always had a soft spot for her,” Kieran said, tilting his head in a shrug. “And I wanted to keep her close. So what? I’ve kept her out of your hair, haven’t I? Even went and collected her before she could become evidence of what you’ve been up to. I think I’ve been a pretty conscientious partner here. What’s a few kidnapped girls between friends? I’ll pay you back later.”

Jahal snarled, hand clenched into fists. “If I’d wanted her looked after, you think I’d be playing this like I am? She should be dead in a gutter by now, maybe hidden so that her little friends can stay busy looking for what’s left of her. These kinds of profits, this kind of ploy…subtlety isn’t exactly something we can afford.”

“Oh, that explains it,” Kieran said. “And here I thought you were just stupid.”

“Yeah, okay, we’re done here,” Jahal growled. Her gun arm rose…but it wasn’t pointed at Kieran anymore.

Before I realized what was happening, Kieran darted for the escape pod, pushing my head down. A blast rang out, the sound loud and echoing in the enclosed metal space.

I dove for the inside of the pod, pulling Kieran in after me, Pietra’s advice echoed in my ears along with the blasts––If guns get drawn, get out of the way!––but if Jahal got close enough for shoot into the escape pod, there would be nowhere to run.

“Pad,” Kieran said. “Launch us!” That was all he had time for. Shots rang out over my head as I worked the controls for an emergency launch, right now.

Above my head, I heard the sounds of a scuffle starting. Shots rang out uncomfortably close, and I cowered away into the furthest corner on instinct.

Then Kieran was pulling the pod door shut, swearing as Jahal’s fingers appeared in the closing gap.

“I’ve got this,” Kieran yelled as I stared. “Launch!”

Debris detected, the screen told me when I punched it. Door seal compromised. Continue launch?

I realized what Kieran was trying to do, and hit Yes.

Kieran was still wrestling Jahal over the door. I hurried over to help as the pod was pulled into the airlock.

Jahal looked beyond reason. “You get back out here,” she shrieked as the warning chime sounded for the airlock door. “Get back out here and let me kill you, and I might even let the little bitch go, you bastard––”

“Just die already,” Kieran gritted out, and then none of us could breathe.

I reached over, half-blind from the shock of depressurization, and reached out with the tiny spry can––but the air pressure must have done something, because it practically exploded in Jahal’s face.

All of us flinched away from the explosion, but while our flinching pulled us into the pod, Jahal’s pulled her away…

And Kieran was able to wrench the pod door shut before falling to the escape pod floor.

It was all I could do to avoid landing on top of him. I ended up sprawled across the seats instead. “Tell me there’s more air,” I rasped.

“Coming in now,” he answered. Then he swore. “I need you to enter some coordinates.”

I pulled over the screen and entered the coordinates he gave me.

The destination was unfamiliar – not the dock we’d sent the other pods to, not even on the station. “Where is this?” I asked, shaking a bit. This was not the time for more surprises.

“Dock for my ship, low orbit on the station,” Kieran gasped. “There’ll be people there that can help.” He coughed––a long, painful sound––and then groaned. “Okay, get over here and help me apply pressure.”

“W––” I heard him wrong. I had to have heard wrong. “Kieran, what…?”

“She got me, is what,” he said. “Side. Shut up and help, I can’t push down on this on my own.”

Wordlessly, I knelt beside him, pulled off one of my skirt’s under-layers, bundled it up, and pushed it against the spot where he pointed.

He let out a sharp grunt, but didn’t move, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Are we going to get there?” I asked.

“Should be enough air in the pod’s supply to get us to my ship,” he said. “There’s a skeleton crew on hand, they’ll take care of things, get us home.”

“Okay,” I whispered. I didn’t dare take a hand away to take out my own commlink, so I decided to take his word for it.

My ears were ringing in the silence after the launch––the faint hiss of the pod pressurizing and the hum of the tiny engine were nothing compared to the sound of plasma blasts.

“It’ll be okay, Ani,” he whispered. “I promise.”

Then his eyes slid shut, and I was alone in the escape pod hurtling through the dark.


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Staked: Chapter Fourteen

The look on his face didn’t turn out to be quite as satisfying as I’d hoped.

We had arranged to meet several streets away from the docks in an area that Kieran thought would be out of range of any surveillance around the ship. The deck where the ship was docking was only a few levels lower than where the Star and Pietra’s house were––not exactly reputable, but not downright risky, either.

I felt conspicuous wandering around in my dress and heels, let alone the makeup, so I stayed half a step behind Pietra and Sardra as they led me to the rendezvous point. 

Kieran stood by himself waiting for us. He blinked at me as I rounded the corner, and then his face went still.

“Well,” he said briskly to Sardra. “Your people are good. I can hardly recognize her.”

Entirely professional, with a hint of backhanded compliment.

I bit back a sigh.

Sardra just nodded. “I’m glad it meets your expectations. Now, anything else you want us to know before you head in there?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve set up a channel that I can use to get in touch with you, if things go wrong. I’ll send you the key for that now, and a key for contacting my employers directly in case something goes wrong.” He grimaced. “They’re not happy about it, but I insisted. Keep that in mind if you do end up deciding to use it.”

“Understood.” Sardra said. She patted me on the back, and Pietra gave me a quick hug.

Then it was time to go. “Ready?” Kieran asked. I could hear the unspoken question: Do you really want to do this?

“Yes,” I said, keeping my voice firm. Even this late in the game, I knew Kieran would try to talk me out of it if I gave him half a chance.

He shook his head. “If you say so. Give me your arm.”

We walked several blocks to the edge of the docks. I leaned into him, resting my head on his shoulder and forced myself not to look back. I looked up at him instead. I saw his eyes dart down to me then away.  His shoulders and back felt unnaturally tight under my touch.

This was going to be awkward.

Lovely.

The docks were wide open compared to the rest of the ship with resting areas for the smaller ships and large airlock doors lining the station wall. There were only a handful of ships in port. Ahead of us I could see clumps of people in fancy dress, moving slowly to one of the smaller ships. I looked it over as we walked.

“Stay close to me,” Kieran muttered. “The story is that you’re my most recent paramour and the one who got me interested in Blue. Nobody will question it if you follow me everywhere and pretend to ignore what everyone else is saying.”

“Got it.” I said matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry, I’m ready to play the part.”

Kieran looked down long enough to raise an eyebrow at me before a guard stopped us in front of the ship. He was wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo and a disgruntled look. “I need to verify your invitation, sir,” he said.

Kieran pulled his commtab from the inside pocket of his coat, tapped it twice, and held it up for inspection.

The guard looked it over, checked something off on his own device, and gave me a look. “And she’s…”

“My plus-one,” Kieran said smoothly. “I mentioned her in my reply. Surely there’s no problem?”

The guard gave me a narrow-eyed look. “I was told to ask for identification on all our guests.”

“It’s all right,” I said. I let my voice go sultry and slid out of Kieran’s arms, tracing a finger up the guard’s chest. He wasn’t very attractive, but I’d been practicing for just such a situation. “I promise I’m not anybody interesting. I’m just here for a good time.”

Behind me, I could feel Kieran bristle. “It just so happens that if her identity became known, it could get…inconvenient,” he said tightly. “I’m sure that’s the case for some others who will be on the ship this evening.”

He grabbed my wrist and pulled me out of the guard’s range, and I wrapped around him again.

The guard looked a little dazed, but coughed and shook it off. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I understand, sir. I’ll add her as your special guest, not a business partner.”

Which I technically wasn’t anymore, I reflected as Kieran dragged me past the guard and onto the ramp leading into the ship.

I could be considered a partner in crime, though…but did it count as crime if you were doing it to the bad guys?

The interior of the ship had a plush blue carpet leading to the reception area with velvet ropes cordoning off the ship on either side. As soon as we were out of sight, Kieran ducked to the other side of the ropes and pulled me down a shadowy hall and around a corner to a small storage area lined with wooden crates.

He pushed me against the wall and growled at me through gritted teeth. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Playing my part,” I said steadily.

“You’re asking for trouble,” he said.

“What, mad because I flirted with someone who wasn’t you?” I raised an eyebrow at him. “I think you’ve lost the right to be upset about––”

“I’m upset because you’re asking for the wrong sort of attention!” he snapped. “What would you do if that guard had decided to take you up on that flirting?”

“And what if he’d found out who I really am?” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “Wouldn’t that be worse?”

“You know what I think?” Kieran demanded, leaning forward without breaking eye contact. “I think you just wanted some action––it didn’t even matter who. Maybe the Blue hasn’t worn off as much as you might think.”

I choked a bit on that. He thought I hadn’t been acting? “You––”

“You want some right now, don’t you?” Kieran leaned over me, arms braced just above my shoulders, staring deep down into my eyes.

He wasn’t close enough that I felt stifled, but his proximity was sending sparks of want through me.

It was distracting.

“I could find a nice quiet corner if you want. Anyone who saw us probably wouldn’t even find it strange. Or we could make it even more public, keep the disguise believable––“

“Don’t even,” I hissed at him. I had to drag my eyes away from his lips once or twice. He was close and he felt…nicer than I wanted to admit to myself.

Still, he was going too far.

“Sounds like I’ve already changed your mind, though, if you’re threatening me with that. And here I thought you didn’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention…”

“Who’s threatening?” he asked. He traced a thumb along the bottom edge of my lip, and I forced myself to hold absolutely still. “This isn’t like before. You didn’t know what you were doing––you’d have taken anyone who’d offered to give you what you wanted back then. But now…you know who I am and why you want what you want. And you want it anyway, don’t you? You can say no if you want to…but I bet you don’t.”

His tone was quiet, teasing, but intense, sparking a deep quivering in my core. He pressed his thumb, just slightly, inside my parted lips.

My traitorous tongue flicked it, and I groaned deep in my throat as he slid it in a fraction deeper.  Our earlier encounter flared within me, and unbidden, I closed my lips around the demanding intruder and gently sucked. 

His eyes darkened with desire, and he slid his other hand down the front of my bodice, fingers grasping, kneading. He found my nipple and gave it a light pinch before rubbing it between his fingertips.

I gasped at the sweet sensation, and he took advantage of my open lips to slide his hand behind the nape of my neck and pull me to him.  Kieran’s mouth devoured mine, his tongue thrusting and twining. My back pressed into the wall of the storage closet as he claimed me, grinding into my hips. I gripped the front of his coat, desperate for balance, for him, for something.

“Ani,” he murmured into my ear, “you don’t know what you’re doing.” 

He was right, I didn’t. But I didn’t care. His hand left my breast, and I could have cried with the lack of him, but his driven focus on my mouth had me nearly out of my mind. 

Kieran’s hands left me, and I sagged against the wall. But this was no respite. He had slid his hands down my dress, pulling the fabric up, away from my legs, until the rough skin of his palms caressed my bare thighs.

A shiver at his touch ran through me, and he answered with a grunt as he pulled me away from the wall, closer to him. One of his arms wrapped around my waist with a grip of iron while the other slid between my legs. Sparks ran through me, and I jerked in his hold. “Kieran…” I stuttered, but his rough breathing was his only response. His fingers rubbed against the rapidly dampening fabric of my panties, rubbing faster, as I squirmed against him.

“You’re not going anywhere, Ani,” he breathed. He ground the heel of his hand into my throbbing mound. His questing fingers grew more insistent; the pressure of his arm holding me tight, the raw need in his voice – it was all too much.

At the next press of his hand, I flew apart, shattering under his control.

He held me until I stilled then brought me close to him. “And now, you’re going to walk out of here, and wait for me. Because if you give me half a reason, I’m going to bend you over those boxes and fuck you until you scream. And we have other things to do tonight, correct?”

The cold fury in his voice cut through any lingering haze. A glance at his eyes, and I saw him struggling for control.

I swallowed.

What would happen if he lost that last little shred?

I shook my head, and he straightened my ridiculous hat with the wig, carefully avoiding contact. He was right.

We had things to do tonight, but whatever was between us, this wasn’t over.

“Go into the main room, and wait for me.” His voice had settled, just a bit towards normal. “Try not to start any trouble for a change.” 

I flashed a smile at him, then with a quick pat down of my dress to make sure I was more or less in order, gathered my wits about me and went ahead.

The decorations in the room were opulent. Cut glass, bright as diamond, hung from chandeliers installed in the ceiling. The chandelier lights were electric, but lamps with real flame burned near the edges of the room.

Refracted bits of light sparkled off of silver platters and crystal decanters, filled with foods that ranged from the ordinary to things I’d never seen before in my life. The Uppers had been more luxurious than anything I’d seen outside of video feeds, but the deck here was a different kind of luxury.

Fortunately, the role I was playing allowed me to gawk a little bit. Part of me hoped that Kieran would come back for me soon. I tried to ignore that feeling.

Sardra had been right––I wasn’t too gaudy for this crowd. In fact, I was a bit on the plain side––my dress didn’t sparkle, and my makeup was downright tame compared to what the women (and a few of the men) were wearing.

Several people sparkled with jewels at their throats, cuffs, or ears, or in their hair––anywhere they could be stuck. Many of them were probably fake, though.

I was no expert, but this seemed like the kind of gathering where appearances were more important than reality.

Good, I thought, trying to breathe deep. I fit right in.

The people around the tables seemed just as artificial as much of the décor. In knots of two or three or five, they ate and drank and chatted. Some of the women were feeding the men who stood beside them.

I tried not to look too hard for blue irises, and wondered how many women here had tried Blue already––and how many of them here were potential subjects rather than potential customers.

Kieran joined me a few minutes later, looking considerably calmer than he had before, but still not happy. “Enjoying yourself?”

“It’s lovely,” I said, smiling at him. He was right, we had roles to play. “I think you should get me something to eat.”

“If you want,” he said. “But you come with me. I don’t want you wandering around.”

It was a compromise I could live with. I followed him to a table near one of the windows and loaded up a small fake-crystal plate with some food I wasn’t too sure of. Kieran murmured recommendations in my ear, and I tried to look appreciative.

We were left to ourselves for maybe half an hour, at which point someone came over to talk to us––a middle-aged man with gray hair at the temples. He looked comfortable enough in his finery, but I there was a strange air about him that put me ill at ease.

He started talking shop with Kieran, and I pretended that I didn’t care what they were saying so that I could ignore it, staring out the window instead.

The ship hadn’t travelled too far, so the station itself blocked most of the blackness and pinpricks of stars behind it. It still looked smaller somehow than I could have imagined.

I tried to imagine everyone I knew inside––Pietra, Oleg, and the others, all probably wondering what was happening to me.

“––has she tried it?” I heard, and looked back around to see the man jerking his thumb in my direction, asking Kieran a question.

“Several times,” Kieran said, “or so I’ve heard. I only acquired her recently. Before then, I hadn’t heard much about Blue except for rumors. Which is why I’m here, actually. I wanted to learn more about getting in the business myself. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I hadn’t either,” the man said, smirking as he looked me over. I tried to keep my face blank, empty. Something about his voice put a twist in my stomach. “Nobody seems too sure yet what it does in the long term, but with the profits we’ve been getting, even a high turnover would still turn a profit.”

He looked at me with a critical eye then leaned in, putting a hand under my chin as he stared into my face.

“Her eyes are already going, I see,” he said. “You’re going to want to keep a watch on her. After a while, they start behaving irrationally even between doses…”

His voice faded out as I was hit the sudden certainty that I’d met this man before. It was the smell that did it––musty sourness and a hint of unwashed skin.

The darkness from back then seemed to close in on me: the sensation of being tied down, drugs in my blood and in my lungs, the feeling of burning emptiness inside me and what it had almost made me do…

My heart thudded painfully in my chest as I realized I was way too close to someone who could recognize me any second. Since he’d already been involved in kidnapping and questioning me once, I was sure nothing good would happen if he became aware of my identity.

My mouth opened on its own, and I let my eyes slide to half-mast as I leaned forward, trying to keep the terror I was feeling out of my face. I had to play this well.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t touch,” Kieran said coldly, taking the man’s hand and removing it from my chin. “I’m very pleased with her, and not much in the mood for sharing.”

Taking the small opening he’d provided, I latched on to him, a hand running through his hair as my lips played with his ear.

“I love it when you get all possessive,” I murmured, loud enough for the other man to hear. I wanted to say, Get me out of here, but he was too close. I could feel myself shaking against Kieran and hoped that nobody else could see.

He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, even as he pushed me down and away. “Shh,” he said, putting a finger over my lips. “Not in front of our hosts, darling. Wouldn’t want to be rude, now, would we?”

I pouted at him, my thoughts consumed by a need to get away. Behind Kieran’s back, I took a handful of his suit and gripped it, hard. What had he meant, hosts? Was this someone important? It wasn’t as though I could ask––

I froze as something else occurred to me. If he’d been there when I was kidnapped, he’d heard my voice before, both when I was drugged and when I wasn’t. He might not have seen my face before, but heard me?

I shut up, clinging more tightly to Kieran instead. I tried not to glance out at the crowd as I started kissing his neck––small, flighty kisses that were spoiled by how hard I was breathing. I tried to keep the feeling of mortification at bay as I started to slide one of my legs around him, praying he would get the hint that I couldn’t convey with words.

Kieran swore lightly, eyes twinkling like this was a joke. “Oh dear,” he said, “I think she’s about reached her limit. I’d ask for a private room with her, but I’m rather hoping to discuss business.” His hand squeezed my shoulder slightly on the last word, as if for emphasis. A signal? “So if I can ask where you’re keeping the…” He stumbled a bit, trying to find the right word.

The man gave him a brief smile and overrode him. “Your lady friend will find others like her resting down the hall. If you’ll allow me?”

His formality sounded strange in the drawling accent he barely bothered to hide. I saw that his hands were battered with split, flattened nails and scrapes barely closed on the knuckles. It matched the laid-back tone I’d heard before, when he’d only barely bothered cautioning Jahal against going too far with me.

He led us down several hallways then through a door that looked like a service hatch. We were in a much less finished part of the ship, and we ended up in a nondescript storeroom. He unlocked the door and pulled it open on hinges that creaked.

The women inside weren’t in chains or otherwise restrained. There were maybe a dozen of them, sitting in various positions, some on chairs and others on the ground, a few draped on tables. Most of them were at least partially undressed, and they didn’t look like it bothered them.

They didn’t look like anything bothered them; they barely looked up as I was herded inside.

“I’ll be back for you soon,” Kieran said. “Try to calm down in the meantime.” And then he was gone, the man with him. The door shut behind them on the start of our guide’s laugh.

My fists clenched as I stared after them for a moment. Then I took a deep breath and looked around. Only a few of them were watching me, but I scanned the room carefully before doing anything.

“Hey, everyone,” I said, voice low.

A few more looked up.

I saw a girl who couldn’t have been out of her teens raise her head from where it had been pillowed on her knees. Her face was streaked with tears.

“Okay,” I said, firmly, fishing out my commlink. “I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, but I know some people. Who wants to get out of here?”


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Staked: Chapter Thirteen

After arguing back and forth, Pietra and Sardra decided that it was more dangerous for me to have an obvious weapon on me than it was for me to go relatively unarmed. “Kieran will be expected to be carrying a weapon,” Pietra told me, “so if you can’t get away from danger, stay close to him. Hopefully nothing will happen at all.”

I was, however, given two lengths of cord. One with oblong knobs at either side. My stomach turned when I recognized it. A garrote. “Try to stand on something to get a little height on them, before you use it,” Sarda said matter-of-factly.

I decided I didn’t want to ask for more tips and focused on the other cord. A short loop with a decorative bauble that turned out to be a small but potent can of an eye-blinding spray.

“Don’t worry, there’ll be pockets,” Sardra promised. “We’re used to carrying quite a lot in these outfits when we need to.”

“What do you usually do with these things?” I asked.

“Normally, I’d be happy to tell you,” Sardra said, winking, “but for this you’re supposed to know as little as possible, remember?”

Sardra, I learned, knew more about disguises than I would have expected.

At this point I probably should have known better than to put anything past her––or Pietra, for that matter––but I was still surprised.

She took me to a room I hadn’t seen before, one that was small but lined with more outfits than looked like they could possibly fit. A small vanity table had been shoved into a gap between the closet rods on the far end of the room, with two chairs shoved as close to it as they could manage. She pulled these out, pushed one of the chairs out of the way, and sat on the other, looking politely away as she waited for me to dress down. She handed me different undergarments––we’d taken my measurements the previous night––and chuckled when I’d stared wide-eyed at the corset.

“Really,” she said. “You’re going to a cartel party, and that’s what bothers you about all this?”

“It looks like a torture device,” I pointed out. It seemed like a pretty reasonable thing to get upset about, to be honest.

“A lot depends on how you lace it,” she said. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”

It seemed she did, for while it was still a bit uncomfortably tight and my entire torso felt a bit stiff, I found I could still move around just fine.

The dress was in a similar vein––fancier than anything I’d worn in my life, but not as impossible to move around in as I would have feared. Sardra discussed the considerations when picking up outfits as she straightened hems and made sure there wasn’t any loose fabric I could trip over.

If the dress didn’t fit me, she added, it was fine––it might even add to the disguise, since it implied Kieran had just shoved me into the thing without bothering to get it adjusted––but ill-fitting was one thing, and awkward was another.

“Tell me you know how to run in heels,” she pleaded.

“I can pull it off,” I said uneasily. “Probably. Do you have any that aren’t too high?”

Eventually, we compromised with the understanding that if all else failed, I could pull them off and try using the heel as an improvised weapon.

Sardra might have been joking about that, but it was honestly a little difficult to tell.

Once the dress was on, it was time to move to the finer details. Sardra caked makeup onto my face, blending it partway down my neck and putting highlights around my face.

I thought about how much I missed the others. Oleg hadn’t been much for application, but he would have had plenty of advice to offer and light-hearted observations that might have done a bit to settle my spirits.

Dalla and Shaymarie were probably the closest to experts on this sort of thing that I knew, and I suspected they would have had a great deal of fun dolling me up, like they all had the last time, when I’d had my night with Kieran.

Cambrie might’ve been pretty quiet about it, but at least I was already comfortable with her.

Sardra just muttered to herself as she worked, quiet enough that I could hardly hear her. It wasn’t until she was finished––and I could hardly feel my face under all that makeup––that she sat back, looking me over.

“It won’t be what you’re used to, but you definitely look different,” she said. “I’m getting you a hat with a wig underneath; put it all together, and you’ll look like you’re a blonde woman who’s insecure about how her face looks and is trying to hide it. Different enough that I doubt anyone will put together who you are, no matter who you’re with.”

“Thanks,” I said, turning to the mirror to look myself over. I looked like an entirely different person. The makeup wasn’t subtle at all, and a bit out of fashion; my skin looked just a bit too light, and the contouring at the edges was on the conspicuous side. The overall effect was pretty, but a bit overbearing.

Paired with the dress…yeah, I didn’t think anyone was going to recognize me any time soon. This was less revealing than what I’d worn under my cloak when I’d visited Kieran in the Uppers, but it was still far more exposure than I was used to.

While I examined myself in the mirror, Sardra retrieved a hat with a wig attached and started pulling at my hair, using any number of pins and bottles of hair product to keep it out of the way as she settled the monstrosity on top of my head.

“Do people actually wear things like this?” I wondered aloud as she fiddled with the hairs on the back of my neck.

She met my eyes in the mirror and shrugged. “It might be a bit overdone, but I don’t think it’ll be the most ridiculous thing you see out there. Just try to play up to it, and you’ll be fine.”

Great.

I really wasn’t too sure about this, but I doubted it would be too hard a role for me to play up to.

I wasn’t sure whether it was my imagination or not, but it didn’t feel as though the influence of the Blue had completely gone away.

At the very least, I could remember what I’d felt before, that desperate emptiness with the edge of burning desire, so strongly I could taste it on my tongue whenever I thought about it.

Something twisted in the pit of my stomach as I remembered it, whispering to me that playing with Kieran wasn’t so bad.

I tried to ignore the feeling; it was easiest to put thoughts like that one down to the Blue, and try to ignore them the best that I could.

“Emergency commlink,” she said, as I was examining myself in the mirror. I turned, and she’d put it in my hand. “Best place to hide it’s in your cleavage––hopefully no one will go looking there, and it’d be suspicious for you to have your own if you’re Kieren’s doll.Message us if things get rough.”

“Okay,” I said. The piece seemed to be made mostly out of plastic, rather than metal––probably a precaution against detectors. I pushed it in between the prominent tops of my breasts, which the corset was doing wonders for.

“Oh, and last touch,” she said. “These won’t be perfect, but they were the best pattern we could get on short notice. They should last for at least six hours, but be sure to take them out after that––I’m not sure how well the sealant on the edges of the paint will hold up.”

She’d handed me a small case––two little cylinders with screw-on tops, connected by a thin strip of plastic.

“Contacts?”

“Colored,” she said. “I modeled them on what I’ve seen in a few of the Blue patients, the ones who weren’t too far gone.”

I hadn’t had contacts since I was a teenager––I’d had the standard surgery to correct my vision as soon as the shape of my corneas had settled. I winced a bit as I put the contacts in.

“Need any eye drops?” Sardra asked.

I shook my head.

“Good. Wouldn’t want to smear your makeup too much, after all––though I suppose it might only add to the look.” She shook her head. “Anyway, what do you think? This should get you in without too much trouble.”

I turned my head from side to side, looking myself over. Sure enough, I didn’t look much like me anymore. When I leaned in, I saw a jagged-looking edge to my iris, with little tendrils of blue snaking in towards my pupil from the bright-blue ring around the edge.

“Is this really what it looks like?” I asked, morbidly fascinated.

I saw the reflection of Sardra’s shrug in the mirror. “You might get a chance to find out tonight,” she said.

I bit my lip. I wasn’t looking forward to that. “Do you think I’ll be able to help them?”

Sardra shrugged. “You know the plan. But whether it works out or not will depend a lot on chance. But as much as I hate to say it, a lot of those women aren’t going anywhere. And if we can wipe everything out at once, if we just wait a little longer…”

She sighed. “Take the opportunities you can safely take. Trust your instincts, and make sure you can get yourself out in one piece. The rest of it will figure itself out, one way or another.”

I nodded. It was the same advice Pietra and the others had been giving me ever since I’d said I would go with Kieran. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was because they knew exactly how inexperienced I was.

“Sorry,” I said suddenly. “If I’d known more, if I’d prepared better…”

“No,” she said firmly. “Pietra had her reasons for keeping you out of things, and I certainly never would have expected something like this to happen. Right now, you’re perfectly placed to get aboard that ship when none of the rest of us can do anything. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t know half the things we do.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “I promise––you’re plenty good enough for this. Just keep track of your luck, and don’t waste it on risks.”

“I’ll try,” I said, and stood, examining myself and pulling a few careful faces in the mirror. “You’re amazing, you know that? This should work great.” I smirked a little. “I can’t wait to see the look on Kieran’s face.” 


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Staked: Chapter Twelve

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

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

“No, it’s okay,” I said.

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

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

Now I was flushing, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like the spindle,” Sardra said, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the less official ones?” I checked.

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t wrong.

I folded my arms and looked away.

There was a long, awkward pause.

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

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

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

“Maybe we would be,” she said.

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

Sardra slanted a glance my way but fell silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither was having no idea what the plan was.

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

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

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

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

“How so?” Sardra prompted.

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

I felt my stomach turn over.

“Can we get them out?” Pietra asked.

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

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

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

“We’re pretty good at what we do––“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I waited.

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

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

Aloud, I said, “Yes, I do.”

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

“No, I’m not,” Pietra said simply.

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

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

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

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

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


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Staked: Chapter Eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wanted to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hoped he wasn’t getting us lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something about the safehouses, maybe?

Something Pietra said?

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

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

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

The words were gruff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That noise..

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

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

Not from here, but…

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

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

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

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

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

“Once Pietra’s there,” I agreed.

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

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pietra stiffened. “What makes you think that?”

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s good,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Staked: Chapter Ten

When I woke up, I was lying where I remembered, still wrapped in Kieran’s arms.

What I couldn’t remember, I realized as I stared up at the ceiling, was how I had ended up there.

“Kieran,” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. “What are you––why are we…?”

I pushed away, grasping for strands of memory. The room around us was plush, with more furniture than I kept at home, but it didn’t match my memory of his place, either.

Kieran eyed me warily. “What do you remember?”

I thought back. “Not much…it’s a fog.”

“That’s okay,” he said softly, carefully. He brushed some stray strands of my hair back, away from my face. I realized my hair was still braided, even though I usually took it down when I was sleeping. The braid felt loose and lopsided and wasn’t too comfortable to lie on.

Why hadn’t I taken it out?

A niggling fear worked through my brain, telling me that things were very wrong. I backtracked mentally until I found something I was sure about, a doubt that needed to be resolved. “There’s one thing I remember,” I said.

He nodded. “What is it?”

My throat tried to shut around the words, so I forced them out before I could think too much about it. “I need to know if you’re working with Jahal.” 

He hesitated before answering, looking pained. “I am,” he told me.

I jerked away from him on instinct, and he stood and started to pace back and forth across the room. He was shirtless, but his pants were wrinkled like he’d been lying down in them for hours.

I struggled to weigh the possibilities of what exactly had happened in this room and to follow what Kieran was saying at the same time. 

“You know how bad things are here,” he began. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. An outpost, sure, but the Cilurnum stations were meant to be a part of Imperial space.”

I had the feeling I was missing something important.

“But the Empire left more than fifty years ago,” I said. “They don’t care what we do out here, not really.”

“That’s just it, Ani,” he told me. “They’re trying come back.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand. What does that have to do with––”

“Ani, I made a deal.” He rubbed at the space between his eyebrows, sighing. “One of the Empire’s agents contacted me a few years ago, asked whether I’d be willing to do some infiltration work––establish myself as a guy who wouldn’t get his own hands dirty, but keep an eye out for people who did, make a few friends if I could.” He shrugged. “The pay wasn’t great, and they couldn’t promise me much, but I was pretty close to established on my own and I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a few respectable friends in high places for once.” 

“So…” I paused, trying to think through what he was saying. “So you’re saying you were on orders from this agent to work with Jahal?”

“More or less,” he said. “At the moment, I’m actually trying to dig up a human trafficking ring.” 

I swallowed. That wasn’t what I’d expected to hear. “Human trafficking?”

“Their agent wants information on where some of the girls are being taken. He’s got an increase in guards at the upper decks, but although the openings between upper and lower are carefully scanned, and the docks at the Uppers are as well, there just not enough people to also cover the docks at the Lowers. They shouldn’t be able to get them up there, but they do.”

I snorted. “Right. Because all of a sudden the Empire cares about everyday people suffering.”

He shrugged. “Probably not. But they care about finding the heads of the syndicates. And if they can crack this, they’ll be closer to that.”

“Kieran…”

I sat back, pulling out what remained of my braid and combing through it with my fingers. It gave me an excuse not to look at him.

“What have you been doing to get mixed up in all this? For the Imperial agent to care enough to find you, or for the syndicates to fall for it?”

“Nothing immoral,” he said immediately. “I promise.”

I paused to look at up at him, raising an eyebrow. 

“…But a lot of illegal,” he admitted. “That’s not exactly recent, either. I’ve been doing it for a while.”

“Pietra said she thought you’d been smuggling,” I said. 

“Yes, often enough. Nothing really awful,” he added quickly. “No drugs or weapons, or anything like that. But there’s a lot of different interests who try to regulate the markets around the station, in or out, and just as many groups that want to get around it. It wasn’t too hard to find clients, once I’d proven I knew how not to get caught.”

“How’d you get started?” I asked.

He smiled crookedly. “Turns out it’s hard to run ships around here without breaking at least one or two of someone’s regulations, stepping on some toes or other. I learned that working my way up, and I figured out that I didn’t mind taking some of the bigger risks. Some pretty big opportunities came my way, and I was lucky on the gamble.” 

“You always were that,” I muttered, thinking of the hands of Tunk we’d played.

Which made me think of what I’d seen that handful of nights ago, in the Uppers for the first time in my life: Kieran had had a crew’s worth or even more of people beholden to him, to say nothing of the rooms he’d been able to afford.

“Lucky enough to move into the Uppers?” I asked aloud. 

“Not quite,” he said, looking uncomfortable at the reminder. “I might have been able to if I’d wanted, but there wasn’t really any reason to take that step until this job came up. I’d been back before, but only on short stop-offs, and I was busy trying to stay off the radar as much as possible. This is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere that’s not my ship in years.”

I crossed my arms. “When did that start?”

“I’ve been back, working with Jahal and a couple of the other syndicates, for about two months.”

This was the important bit, I realized, my stomach dropping.

“And you just now came by to visit?” I said, struggling to keep my voice casual. 

“Ani, I wanted to, but it was too dangerous. I thought I might come see you someday, once it was safer…but then I heard they had plans with the Star.”

“What sort of plans?” I asked, voice tight.

“They’ve been talking about the Star, needing it for something. As soon as I heard about it, I tried to steer them away, but they’re fixed on it. Won’t tell me why, just that it’s ‘uniquely situated’ for their purpose.” He made little air quotes with his hands, sounding frustrated. 

“What does that even––” I began, but he jumped suddenly, one hand going up to his ear. 

“Hang on a second,” he said, and reached up to switch on his commlink. He didn’t seem any happier about the interruption than I felt. “Hello?”

He flinched a bit, grimacing at whatever he heard on the other end of the line. “I found her. She’s fine.” A pause. “No, I didn’t forget, I waited because I was still trying to evaluate her status. There was…a bit of a situation. I was just starting to explain things to––” 

His jaw worked as he was apparently interrupted. “How am I supposed to know if I trust you?” he snapped.

He sounded truly angry, and I was taken aback again by the threatening edge in his voice.

“Your house was the last place we knew she was before she was taken. I only found her because they’d decided to let her go. You have no way of knowing whether you’re being followed or not.”

There was a longer pause this time. The flash of rage in Kieran seemed to dissipate as he listened, nodding slowly once or twice. 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s safe here. We won’t be overheard.”

He sighed, then switched his commlink to speaker. 

“Anisha, can you hear me?” 

I’d already suspected it was Pietra on the other end of the line, but hearing her voice still made my breath catch in my throat. She sounded confident as always, but also on-edge, annoyed––her way of sounding worried. 

“Yes,” I said immediately. “Are you okay? Are the others?”

“I’m fine. I told everyone to be careful––they’re set up with friends that they trust, or I do. None of them are to go anywhere near the Star or go anywhere by themselves until I say so.”

“Good,” I said, relieved. 

“But we need to talk,” she said. “I shouldn’t have had you go anywhere by yourself. I’m sorry.”

“No, it was my fault for leaving in the first place,” I admitted. “And I should never have gone near the Star.” I dimly remembered that much, at least––the image of the trashed hallways, the fears that I could never rebuild after all that damage… 

Pietra’s voice on the other end of the line sounded grim. “Ani, I want to hear about everything that happened later. Kieran, I need to meet with you both face-to-face. But you’re right––my place isn’t safe. If I give you directions to a meeting place, can you promise me that you won’t be followed?”

“I haven’t been found out yet,” Kieran said. “I’ll get us there without Jahal or any of the syndicates tracing us.”

“Good,” Pietra said. “I’m sending you encrypted directions. Open them up and get moving. I’ll let my friend know they’ll be having company.” 

She cut the connection, and Kieran glared down at the ground, not looking at me. I saw his jaw clench, and then he looked up. “Ani, are you feeling okay?” he asked. 

“I…I’m better than I was before, I’m pretty sure,” I said. I was scared and confused and upset, but those feelings were the least of my worries, given that I couldn’t remember exactly what had brought me here.

“How did we end up here?”

“Jahal’s people drugged you,” Kieran said. He sounded furious. “I’ve seen it before. Its primary effects don’t usually last more than a few hours, but I can’t be sure they didn’t mix anything else in. Are you feeling groggy at all? Hurting anywhere?”

My wrists and ankles were a bit sore, but a glance at my wrists told me there were chafe marks that looked like they’d come from restraints.

I thought I remembered being tied to a chair at some point, but that was all…

“No,” I said eventually, “I’m pretty sure I’m fine. For now, anyway.” 

“Right,” he said. “We should get going, then. You probably have time for a shower before we leave, if you want. I don’t have a change of clothes for you, so you’ll have to make do with what you––” 

“Hold on.” I closed my eyes and sat back on the bed, filled with too many thoughts, too many feelings.

I was tired. A shower sounded wonderful, but I had a few more questions for Kieran first…and a couple of things to make clear. 

“Let’s break this down to basics,” I said. “You’re trying to find evidence that can be used against the syndicate.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not exactly working for Jahal, but you coming into the Star when you did, our bet”––I spat the word––“was all part of that plot.”

“Ani, that’s not…”

I kept my face impassive and raised my eyebrows, daring him to continue.

“…That’s not all it was,” he finished weakly.

I took a deep breath and then made my decision.

My heart felt like it was wrapped in lead.

“I’ll work with you,” I told him. “I’ve seen some of those girls when they escape. I’ve heard about what happens to them.”

He reached for me with a pleading look, but I jerked away, getting up off the bed and retrieving my shirt before heading to the bathroom to tidy up a bit. 

“But don’t touch me,” I said over my shoulder, fighting to keep my voice steady.

“Never again.”


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Staked: Chapter Nine

I wandered down the streets, watching people go by. I found myself heading towards voices, desperately looking for something. I wasn’t sure what until someone bumped into me.

He glared and pushed his way past me, but I froze, gasping.

The touch had been electric.

I needed more.

I started walking again, looking around for what I needed. I noticed now that people were avoiding me––stepping quickly out of my way and refusing to meet my eye.

 They didn’t seem too interested in helping me, but I kept looking. There had to be someone out here that would let me follow them home.

Eventually I paused, leaning against a wall to catch my breath. I wasn’t giving up, but for some reason I was having trouble focusing on any one thing for very long. If only––

I was distracted from my train of thought when a shadow loomed over me. I looked up and saw a man looking me over. My breath caught with excitement.

“Haven’t seen you down here,” he murmured, leaning down to murmur in my ear. “New?”

The last thing I wanted right then was conversation––what mattered was that he wasn’t backing away. I knew the look in his eye, and that was all I needed.

He ran his hand down the side of my face, and I arched into it, the touch sending waves of pleasure through my entire body and making my toes curl with anticipation.

“Oh yeah,” he breathed, “you’re good and ready…”

And then, the next thing I knew, he was gone.

Instead, Kieran’s face was inches from my own, and he looked furious.

I shut my eyes.

Of course Kieran wasn’t really there.

He left. He always left.

I opened my eyes, and he was still there, rage clear on his face. “What. Do. You. Think. You’re. Doing?” he pushed out through gritted teeth.

The frustrated heat in my belly flared, and I screamed at him. “What am I doing? What are you doing? You have no right to interfere with––”

He grabbed me by the arms and pulled me into a hot, desperate kiss, and I suddenly I wasn’t angry with him at all.

He broke away, gasping. “I’ve been searching half the decks of the Lowers for you,” He said. “Pietra called, she thought––”

I really didn’t care about whatever it was he thought was important enough to interrupt what we’d been doing. I ran my tongue against the edge of his lower lip. “You’re tasty. Gimme more.”

He frowned and took my head in both hands, pushing me back and peering into my eyes. He hissed––a sharp intake of breath––and a mask of steel slid over his expression. “Void take it. You’ve been dosed with Blue.”

His words tried to push through the fog in my brain, but faded. “Whatever. Do that again.” I leaned in for another kiss, but he pushed me away.

“Ani, listen to me. Honey, you have to pay attention.”

I watched his lips move, fascinated.

“Someone gave you a drug. Do you remember?”

I wrinkled my nose. “There was a woman…and two men. They asked a lot of questions, and I really can’t remember much, and I don’t want to think about this right now.”

I straightened, pulling out of his grip. “And if you don’t want to spend time with me, I’ll find someone who does.”

I pouted over at the strange man who was just now stirring on the alley floor. “He wanted to spend time with me, before you got all pushy.”

Kieran’s mouth set into a thin line for a moment, then curved into an odd-looking smile.

“But I do want to spend time with you,” he said, taking me by the hand. “Let’s go.”

I followed, pressing up against him from behind. “Where are we going?”

“Somewhere nicer than this.” He gestured vaguely to the buildings around us. “Just a few blocks over there’s a lovely hotel. Let’s go there.”

I supposed I could wait that long.

As long as he made it worth my while in the end.

The automated logbook at the hotel’s front desk was old, and Kieran had to pass his spike over it three times.

It might not have helped that he kept an arm around my waist, pressing me close to him…or that it was incredibly fun to try to distract him as much as possible while he was doing it. I wrapped both arms around his neck, playing with his ear.

Finally, he managed it and pulled me wordlessly upstairs.

The room was nothing special, but I didn’t care. I started on his jacket before the door had fully closed behind us, struggling with the fastenings and cursing my clumsy fingers. He fussed with the door as I pulled it off his shoulders and let it fall to the floor, and I was pushing up his shirt by the time he turned to look at me.

He looked…sad, I thought vaguely, but I could think of no reason why that might be.

I got his shirt off, threw it aside, and pulled him to the bed. He followed. When we got there, I let go of him long enough to pull off my shirt, and then pushed him down on top of the covers and began kissing him everywhere I could reach, savoring the sensation of his skin under my hands. He stayed still, just holding me.

I wiggled against him. “Another game?”

His voice was tight. “Something like that.”

I reached down to his belt buckle, and he moaned. “Honey, you have to stop.”

“What are you going to do––use that device again to hold me down?” A forbidden thrill ran through me at the thought.

He shook his head. “Somehow, I didn’t think that far enough ahead.”

I ground down against him, and his grip on me tightened. I put my mouth against his ear. “I liked that, you know,” I whispered. “I liked you doing whatever you wanted to me. You possessing me.”

He moaned again, but didn’t move.

I pulled back as far as I could against his hold, so I could look at him. “Why aren’t you doing anything?” I asked, confused. “Don’t you want to?”

One of his hands moved up far enough to stroke the nape of my neck, playing with a few strands of hair that had fallen out of my braid. “Ani, sweetheart,” he said. “You’ve been drugged. And while the idea of you happy and willing under me is a dream come true…”

He took a deep breath.

“There are some lines even I’m not going to cross. Taking advantage of you when you’re not in control of your senses is one of them. I may be a bastard, but I’m not that much of one.”

Tears pushed their way out of my eyes as his words sank in and frustration clawed through me. “Then let me out! If you’re not going to do anything about this, let me go find someone else that will.” I struggled to push away, but his grip hardened.

“Like hell. No one else is coming near you right now.” He tucked my head under his chin, but I heard him add in a whisper, “Or ever.”

I sobbed with frustration and need in his arms until he kissed me. “Oh, god, yes,” I breathed against his lips, ecstatic. Was he coming around?

His arms loosened, enough to stroke my hair. “Just kisses, Ani, all right?”

The heat inside me made me desperate for anything. I fell against him, hungry for any touch. He kissed me back gently, only feeding my hunger.

No matter how I provoked him, he refused to give me more, until I pulled away and sobbed while he stroked my hair.

It took far too long for the darkness to claim me again.


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Staked: Chapter Eight

I woke up stiff, every joint aching. My ears rushed as if I were held underwater, my mouth felt full of dust, and my head hurt. I looked around blearily, but couldn’t see anything. I could smell a strange combination of body odor and something musty and sour.

I wrinkled my nose.

“Who gave you the authority to bring her in?” a voice snapped above me. I stayed still, trying to figure out what was going on.

The words hadn’t been directed at me, as I’d feared, but when the answer came I realized I recognized the person speaking: Jahal.

“Just because we’re working together on the other project, doesn’t mean you have any authority, as you say, over me or our organization.”

“Unless your action endangers us all.” A third voice came from across the room––low-pitched and masculine, further away from me than Jahal was, I thought. Two men and a woman?

“I pinged you when my people told me she’d been collected,” Jahal said. She sounded defensive, but mostly angry. “Besides, you saw the report from last night, didn’t you? It makes sense now, why she wouldn’t sell that dump. If she’s one of them, she was probably suspicious.”

“Are you sure?” said the first voice. It was low and masculine, and too close for comfort. Worse, it was getting closer––it sounded as though he was bending over me. “I didn’t get that read from her profile.”

“I’m sure,” Jahal growled. “If anything, it’s safest to question her now. We need to find out where––”

She was interrupted by the first man, his voice coming from somewhere directly above my right ear. “She’s awake.”

I turned my head to the voice, trying to see the face that went with it, but realized in horror that it wasn’t dark: a blindfold covered my eyes. I went to pull it off, but my hands were bound behind my back. The stiffness in my muscles was due to having my arms tied behind me.

I tried to make sense of my position. I sat in a chair––my ankles seemed tied to the legs––and my arms were bound behind me. But why?

“Fine,” Jahal snapped. “Shoot her up and let’s find out what she knows.”

A cold pinch on my arm startled me the rest of the way awake. Panicked, I struggled against my bonds. I shouted, but a gag muffled my screams.

“Give it a few minutes,” the third voice cautioned.

I could hear the smirk in Jahal’s voice. “Oh, I think we can start sooner.”

The gag came off, large dirty fingers pulling it none too gently out of my mouth, but the blindfold stayed. I had no way of knowing where I was or how I had gotten there. I took a deep breath, trying to come up with options. My cuff had a tracer––surely Pietra would notice I was missing and come after me? My heart sank as I realized it still lay in the bag that I’d been using to collect my things, which might still be in my office but probably wasn’t on me anymore..

Jahal had apparently gotten tired of waiting. She leaned close enough that I could feel her breath on my face. “A girl came to you for help around the last time we spoke. You sent her somewhere, do you remember?”

Shoot her up, Jahal had said. A fog was stealing over my brain, but I knew that I didn’t want to give her or any of her friends the time of day.

“Fuck you,” I said as calmly as I could. I expected her to hit me, but instead I heard an annoyed grunt and a chuckle from the man closer to me, and then silence. My head hurt and I was tired to a chair and blindfolded, and I didn’t feel like giving the lunatics any satisfaction, much less try to remember something for them.

What were they even talking about?

A numbness crept over me like a lead blanket, slowly erasing my body, until I just drifted free.

“It’s been long enough,” a deep, faraway voice said. “Try again.”

“There was a girl, who came to see you in the Star, last night.” Jahal spoke slowly, sounding smug, but it was a struggle to follow what exactly her words meant.

“My bar,” I managed. ”Someone blew up the Star.”

“Yes, before that,” she prompted.

“My beautiful bar…”

She cut me off. “Do you remember the girl?”

“A girl…?” Oh. “Yeah, she wanted to come work. That wasn’t going to happen.”

“Do you remember where you sent her?”

“To the Lady,” I said. “Seemed like the best place.”

“And what do you know about the Lady?”

I tried to shrug, but for some reason I couldn’t make my shoulders work. “Nobody knows anything about the Lady.”

A sigh of exasperation. “Where did you send the girl?”

“To the Lady.” Hadn’t I just said that?

A different voice spoke. “What were the directions?”

I told him.

“But the lady isn’t there anymore,” Jahal said.

I tried to shrug again. This was annoying. Why can’t I move my shoulders? “Then someone will tell me later. Maybe they’ll tell you, too.”

I heard hints of furious whispers while I tried to find my fingers. I think they’d melted away somewhere, and I wanted them back.

“This is useless. She knows nothing.”

“If you have a private feud with her, fine. But you’re risking everything. Keep us out of it.”

The woman laughed, the sound thin and sharp. “I’m fine with risks. Risks are what got me where I am. She may not know anything, but she’s been a thorn in my side. I’m looking forward to pulling her out and throwing her on the street.”

I heard footsteps, and then a door closed somewhere in the distance.

“Little miss goody two-shoes,” Jahal’s voice hissed in my ear. “Fucked up your work, couldn’t keep your place together, and you still looked at me like something you found on the bottom of your shoe.”

That wasn’t very nice, I thought dimly. She was crude and angry, but it didn’t bother me much for some reason.

“I could kill you now,” she continued. “But really, I’d rather you and your prissy morals have the chance to find out what the real world is like.”

I didn’t bother trying to shrug this time.

“Do it,” I said.

A hand clamped over my mouth, and fingers pinched my nose closed. I bucked against them in rising panic, desperate to breathe. The fingers released and I frantically inhaled, only to snort in a cloud of something with the air. I coughed, but the hand over my mouth stayed put, forcing the substance deep into my lungs.

There were more footsteps, and a lot of movements and sounds that I didn’t understand happening all at once. Another, rougher hand was clasped over my mouth. I thought that I was moving, and realized that I knew where my hands and feet were now.

Probably.

I could just hear Jahal’s voice behind me, fading into the distance. “Dump her somewhere interesting.”

Someone moved me around for a while, but I was distracted by the sensation of warmth spreading through my limbs, replacing the numbness.

After a while––I wasn’t sure how long––the hand moved away from my mouth. My feet were back on the ground, and then I was being spun, around and around and around.

I giggled at the playfulness of it all as my blindfold was pulled off and I was shoved away, stumbling until I collided with a wall and slid to my knees.

Silly people.

Silly game.

It took a long time for my vision to settle, and when it did, I was in a place I didn’t recognize. That was fine, though––what I wanted more than anything else right now was an adventure.

I stood up, stretched, and smiled, unfamiliar sensations running through my veins.

This was going to be delicious.


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Staked: Chapter Seven

After that, we spent a while gathering information to send Pietra to prove to her that Cambrie was perfectly safe where she was and didn’t need to be forced to move in with Oleg and Shaymarie––or play third wheel by tagging along with Dalla, for that matter.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t actually be that bad,” Cambrie had admitted with a slightly rueful smile, “but I like a bit of space sometimes. Besides, I like the people here. I might even be able to pick up some new clients. We’ll see.”

I wished her luck, and left shortly after she sent Pietra the report we’d put together. It was edging into mid-afternoon station time, and the decks were busier than they’d been earlier. I tried to stay out of notice and immersed myself in the crowd, people-watching without really knowing what I was looking for.

I stopped for a moment in the opening of an alley to watch a woman across the street rearrange the wares at the front of her shop. They were just trinkets, nothing special, but she smiled as she did set them out in neat rows. Her shop was small, buried down here, but she was content. Two kids barreled off the deck and into her, and she laughed and pulled them in for a hug. I moved on.

What did I really want?

Kieran’s face rose before me, unbidden, and the thought of his touch made my skin ache. I pushed it away, savagely. Not him.

I wanted the Star back. But that was just a place. Sure, it was filled with memories, but what I really wanted, was for my people to be safe. And for us to stay together.

I thought back to the woman by the shop. She was happy. What would it take to be happy like that?

Maybe I’d been focusing on the wrong thing for too long. We didn’t need the Star to stay open, not as much as we needed to find a way to keep together as a family.

A weight lifted from me briefly, only to resettle as I wandered on.

We still had a mortgage to pay…unless I sold.

The thought stung, but not as much as it had previously. Just admitting to myself that there might be life outside the Star cut me, but the place wasn’t as important as the people. There were more options than I’d let myself see––there had to be.

My path had taken me spindle-wards, and I found myself home without realizing it. I stared across the walkway at the Star.

She really wasn’t much to look at, really.

She’d gone up not long after the station was first constructed, as lodgings for the construction crew.

Then she’d been a hotel for a while until Dad had bought her from the mother of one of his buddies. Unlike the rest of the buildings on the deck, she hadn’t been modded much––just to clean up the downstairs, and the bare minimum for safety upgrades.

It was hard to remember that just behind the curve of her rooms the Spindle ran, turning us endlessly in the black.

She wasn’t too pretty, either, but she’d been my home for my entire life.

I looked over the structure. The sweepers hadn’t put up any signs that the structure was considered unstable, but they might not have come around yet. The loose rubble that had been thrown into the street had been moved to the side.

I reached for my tablet, and then remembered again that I hadn’t taken anything with me last night to Kieran’s.

If I needed to, I could access all my records from Pietra’s equipment, but it wasn’t just the tablets. If I was really considering abandoning the Star, there were some things from home I wanted to take with me.

I picked my way through the rubble and ducked under the slanted door. I stared at the open room in disbelief. Tables and chairs had been tossed around like toys in the aftermath of a child’s tantrum, lying flat or standing lopsided on what remained of broken or splintering legs.

The smell of alcohol from the broken bottles staggered me and brought tears to my eyes. There was another bill to add to the tally.

I edged around the room on the lookout for anything that might fall, but it seemed as if the building and its contents had come to rest.

Debris blocked the right-hand staircase; I gingerly tested the left-hand flight of stairs but other than the fourth step from the top squeaking, as it had for a year, they seemed fine.

I reached the landing and picked my way down the hall, checking the rooms. Each resident had a play room and a separate, private room of their own. Most of them were unlocked, the doors left ajar when everyone had left. I peeked inside and saw items in disarray, but other than that, nothing seemed terribly wrong.

The hallway was a different matter, though. There were some deep fissures in the ceiling and a few places where great chunks of the walls had slid to the floor.

I wondered how much an engineer’s estimate would be to assess the structural soundness of the building. Our clientele probably wouldn’t notice as long as the building looked to be in good repair, but there was no way I would let everyone live in an unsafe building.

Still, the costs of cosmetic repairs alone seemed daunting enough.

I shook my head and went to my own quarters, promising to worry about that later when I had more facts on hand. I’d do what I needed to when the time came.

In the meantime, trying to obsess over everything at once was only going to slow me down.

My quarters was one of the smallest upstairs rooms; I’d spent most of my time in my office. I grabbed a handful of clothes and stuffed them into my largest bag. I didn’t really need any of my other things from my room at the moment. Not from here, anyway.

I braced myself as I headed for my office. The hallway outside it hadn’t looked great, but the office was against the column of the spindle itself.

Surely that should make it stronger?

Maybe?

So far, though, the evidence wasn’t too promising: the damage was worse down this hall, and some of the “guest rooms” had a couple of collapsed walls. The imagined bills in my head ticked up that much further, and I tried to ignore the added weight in the pit of my stomach.

My office door was ajar, one of its hinges hanging loose from the wall. The latch hung free, too, with the strike plate lying warped on the floor just outside the frame. I eased the door out of the way just far enough to slip inside, and looked around.

It was a mess, but I’d been expecting that.

Fortunately, the walls all looked to be intact, so it seemed safe enough to move around. I started out by clearing floor space––hanging up the wall screens to check for damage. Most of them were spiderwebbed with cracks, but even if they were functional, I was wary of trying to turn anything on without knowing if there had been damage to the wiring.

 All construction on space stations was meant to be extremely resistant to fires, electrical or otherwise, but there was no point in taking that chance. The Star was far from the newest construction on the station, after all.

Once I had the screens hung up again, most of the floor was clear. Only the contents of my desk scattered the room, so I wandered around, picking things up, checking them for damage, and replacing them on any surfaces that seemed stable.

My desk was a bit lopsided––it looked like one of the legs that had been loose for a while had finally given up the ghost. Most of the belongings I’d wanted had been on it, or in the drawers, so it didn’t matter that it wasn’t up for holding much.

I retrieved my datapad and looked it over; fortunately, it didn’t appear to be damaged. Then I spotted my holocube beside my foot and paused before picking it up.

A corner was cracked, but when I switched it on, it still worked. The default image was the one I remembered setting a few weeks ago––my parents, at a party with some friends I’d never known, arms around each other, laughing.

I cycled through the photos. Dad’s hair had been starting to go gray around the edges before I was born, but it was looking distinctly silvery in the shots where I was around as a baby.

Mom, on the other hand, looked young right up until she disappeared from the photos. They didn’t stop there, though––Dad had been pretty good about taking photos, and his friends had shared ones they’d taken.

There were plenty of photos of me and Dad with people that I could barely remember now, people who had been his friends but I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years, or even since he’d passed on.

One of the photos made me pause. I wasn’t in this one––instead it was Dad and a handful of his close friends, arms thrown over each others’ shoulders––but I recognized the building behind them. It was the Star, and it was from its opening night.

The building wasn’t new then, either, but it still shone in the background of the picture, the welcoming glint from the windows catching in my father’s hair.

I swallowed hard. The Star had been my home for pretty much as long as I could remember. Could I really ever give it up? Did I have any other option, at this point?

I sighed to myself and stepped back, leaning against the wall and taking the wreck of my office in. It didn’t look as bad, now that I’d tidied up a bit, but there were some problems that would take a lot more work to fix.

If I kept trying to figure everything out, would my chances of keeping the Star look any brighter? Or would I only find out that my hopes had been doomed from the start?

The spindle of the station hummed at my back. It was the backbone of the entire station, and having it nearby had always made me feel as grounded as anyone could get out here in the deep of space.

I closed my eyes to listen to it now, trying to get lost in the calming monotony of the noise, but instead I heard something out of place––some kind of scraping sound, not faint enough to be my imagination.

I opened my eyes, thinking to look around for the source of the noise, but before I could something heavy and warm pulled tight against my chest.

I felt a faint cold prick against the side of my neck.

And then nothing.


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Staked: Chapter Six

“More of a problem than someone bombing the Star?”

“Well…” I reluctantly looked up at her. ”Maybe it’s all tied in.”

She nodded as though she already had her suspicions. “Want to tell me why you were so reluctant to go back with your lover boy? When you came out of the flitter, you looked like you didn’t mind him, not a bit.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did he do anything?”

I blushed. “No––I mean yes, but no, that’s not it.” I ran my hand through my hair, working through the tangles as I thought things through. “You still know people, right?”

Pietra shook her head. “Of course I know people. If you’d think about it, you know people too. Your dad’s company wouldn’t let you hang dry.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk to them. Not yet.”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do about the Star. The inspections to get recertified alone are out of our budget, even if we don’t have to do any rebuilding.”

Pietra stood and went to a small cabinet in the corner, pulled out a bottle and two tumblers, and poured us both drinks. “You don’t think the new silent partner will pick up the bill?” she asked, handing one to me.

I sipped it, and the rough taste helped clear some of the fog from my brain. “I don’t think we should trust him to do any more than he has.”

I didn’t want to give voice to my fears, but Pietra should know. “I saw him with Jahal.”

“What? When?” She put her drink down. “Not when…”

“No, at the Star, when we came back. He was talking with her at the edge of the crowd. What if he’s in partnership with her cabal, and this is all a way to get the Star?”

Pietra took a long sip of her drink, considering it. “Maybe. Seems a complicated way to go about it, and expensive for them, too. Would have been easier to let the note come due.”

“But it’s still a maybe?” I was tired and frightened and unsure of my own judgment, but Pietra was one of the most careful people I knew.

If she thought it was possible that I was right, then I really knew we had a problem.

She nodded. “Could be.”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “Can you check into it? Do you know anyone who could check into him? What’s he been doing since he left?”

“What did he tell you?”

“A story,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

She shrugged. “I’ll put some feelers out, see what we can find about Mr. Kieran Matthias. But for the time being, you need to sleep.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I could––too many things going on.”

“Sure you can,” she said. “I slipped a mild soother into your drink. We should get you to the guest room before it hits.”

Any outrage I might have felt was swallowed up by laughter at her deadpan expression. “Really?”

She smirked. “You’ll never know. Why take the chance of sleeping in your clothes?”

I followed her down the hall, still laughing, with only a tinge of hysteria.

The guestroom was more of a closet for sleeping in, with just enough room for small bed that folded out from one wall, a chair that folded out from another, a light panel, and space for my things under the bed.

Of course, I didn’t have any things that weren’t at the Star, so the lack of storage space wasn’t really a problem.

Pietra folded my clothes and put them away as I changed into the soft green pajama set she’d lent me.

I was out the moment I crawled under the covers, either my exhaustion or whatever Pietra put in my drink causing a dreamless sleep.

***

I woke up the next morning to the brightening of the light panel. The room was as calm and silent as it had been the night before, and I took a long moment to stretch and stare up at the ceiling, considering the events of the previous day. They made a little bit more sense in retrospect, but it was still a lot to take in.

Jahal’s ultimatum had been a long time coming, but her arrival in the Star to deliver it had made the threat of losing the Star into an obvious crisis.

I’d been trying to talk it over to with everyone else when Kieran had re-appeared in my life, as suddenly as he’d left all those years ago.

His offer to become a silent partner in running the Star had come out of the blue. And then there was our bet, and the outing that resulted from it––and the shatterbombing of the Star, which, conveniently enough, had happened while I was with Kieran.

He’d wanted a night together as a condition in our deal at first, but I’d convinced him to make it a gamble.

Had he been confident that he could win against me, or had he had a back-up plan to get me out of the Star if he lost?

In this quiet, it was hard to believe that any of it was real, but even after a good night’s sleep I was managing to wind myself up about it again.

Being in debt to Jahal was bad enough, but being at the center of a conspiracy that involved Kieran, of all people, was worse. But worse or not, it was better to know for sure than to try to put it off. I sighed and pushed myself up.

“What time is it?” I asked the room, hoping the comm system would understand a different voice than Pietra’s.

“It is now 1100,” a flat voice replied. I scrambled up––I’d slept half the rotation away. I slid out of the bed, wedging myself between the edge of the sleeping platform and the opposite wall so I could flip the platform back into the wall and clear some space. I pulled my clothing back on and switched the wall display to mirror to rebraid my hair before hurrying out of the room, keying off the light panel behind me.

The short hallway led me back to the main room where Pietra was already up, bent over her commtab.

“There you are.” She nodded towards the small kitchen. “There’s a bit of breakfast left. I was going to get you up if you weren’t awake for lunch.”

I grabbed a slice of toast and perched on a stool. “I can’t believe you did that.”

She shrugged. “You needed it. I didn’t want you to spend the entire rotation staring into the dark, wondering about your guy and worrying about the Star.”

I swallowed the dry toast, my throat just as barren. “Did you find out anything about him?”

She flicked the contents of her tablet to the room’s wall screen: lines of text, a few photos. “Not much.”

I skimmed over the entries. “I don’t understand this.”

“These are recorded ports of call for his ship, or the ship registered to his name. As you can see, there aren’t many. There’s a lot of holes here.”

“All right,” I answered, thinking. “Could he be using another name?”

Pietra threw another screen up. “I’ve been asking about that, and things are coming in unclear. Whatever your boy has been doing, he’s been very careful about hiding his activities.”

The knot in my stomach tightened. “What do you think he’s been doing?” I asked.

“The best guess my sources have given me is some sort of smuggling.” She shrugged. Which would be anything from food, to medicine––to humans.”

I felt the blood drain from my face and grabbed the edge of the counter for balance. Human trafficking. Kieran couldn’t be…

Pietra looked at me. “Nothing says that’s what he’s doing. If we had a better record of his ports of call, I could give you a better analysis.”

“But…” I swallowed hard. “Do you think he’s working with Jahal?”

She nodded, face grim. “If he’s actually a smuggler, and I’d say the probability of that is over eighty percent from this data. It would be surprising if he didn’t have contacts with at least one of the cabals on station. Since you’ve seen him with Jahal, it could well be hers.”

The knot turned to lead in my belly, but I shook myself. “So, nothing has changed, other than confirming what I already suspected.”

“Statistically likely––not confirmed,” she repeated.

“Confirmed enough for me.” My thoughts raced. “So what do we do now?”

 Pietra didn’t answer right away, but when I looked up, she was smiling at me––a tight smile, but warm nonetheless.

“Now, we deal with things one at a time and see what we can find out,” she said. “I’ve got a few places I can keep digging, but it’ll take time. For now, my first priority is keeping in touch with the others––they all checked in this morning, but I’m not too sure about Cambrie’s setup. Do you think you could go look in on her and let me know who she has to look after her?”

“Sure,” I said, surprised. “What about the others? Should I check on them as well?”

“They should be fine,” Pietra said. She’d pulled the images from earlier back onto her commtab and was fiddling with something on it, frowning absently. “Shaymarie and Oleg are sticking together for the moment, and I trust them more together than I’d trust either by themselves. Dalla’s friend has been generous enough to take her in for at least the next few days; I already checked up on him, and he seems honorable enough.”

“And Cambrie?” I’d never seen where she lived and wasn’t entirely sure she had her own place. Pietra was the exception, not the rule––most of the others had lived part or full time in the Star with me.

“That’s what I want you to find out,” she said. “I’ll forward you the location she sent me; I want you to ask her about what precautions she’s taken, and more importantly, who knows her in the area and whether they know that she could be in danger.”

“Sure,” I said, then paused. “Ah, actually, could you write it down? I don’t have any of my tech on me.”

“Right,” Pietra said. “We’ll have to see about getting you a replacement.”

***

Outside of Pietra’s apartment, the rotation was going on, people living their lives like nothing had happened, as if everything hadn’t been turned upside down.

And I guess for them, it hadn’t. I shook off my sense of melancholy at the thought and set about trying to decipher the directions Pietra had given me.

Fortunately, she knew how to write directions that worked even if they couldn’t update you if you took a wrong turn, and better still, Cambrie wasn’t far away.

The door I was led to was unlocked and led into a common lobby. It looked to be a flat of either hotels or apartments––I wasn’t sure which. I took the stairs up to the fourth floor and went to door number 408, knocking seven times as the instructions stated. I waited a moment, and then heard a sequence of locks being opened, followed by Cambrie opening the door.

“Ani,” she said, sounding casual, unworried. “Come inside.”

The inside, like the outside, was decorated to look like the midway point between hotel and longer-term living space. There was a small kitchenette that didn’t look very capable of feeding one and a sitting room set up with a couple of older holo-screens.

Right now, they were displaying an overcast, gray-sanded beach, with steel-gray waves pounding silently against the shore and the green ridges of trees in the distance. It was an odd little old-fashioned space, but cozy. Cambrie seemed perfectly at home as she curled up on the couch, pushing her feet under a cushion.

“This is beautiful,” I told her honestly, looking around. “I’m glad you were able to find a place to stay. It’s not costing you too much, I hope––”

“It’s fine,” Cambrie interrupted me. “I know the people who run this place. They’re friends of mine––they offered me a pretty steep discount as long as I agreed to help them out. When I asked them about it, they said one of their employees quit recently without warning, or at least they haven’t seen her for several weeks.”

“It sounds like something could have happened to her,” I said, shuddering.

“Bad things do happen sometimes,” Cambrie said, not ungently. “Which is why I can understand why Pietra’s worried, but can you tell her that I’m fine, please? I know the people that run this place and several of the regulars as well. They don’t want to lose any more employees, or me, for that matter. And I’m perfectly capable of being careful.”

“I believe that,” I said, relieved.

Cambrie had a level head and enough quiet confidence to get her through anything that might get thrown her way. If she said she would be all right, I believed her. “Just remember that it’s fine to contact me or Pietra if you need anything.”

“I will.” She rested one elbow on the arm of the couch and set her chin on it, looking me over pensively. “I’m more worried about you, honestly. How is everything holding up?”

“No real changes, for the moment,” I said ruefully.

“Any leads?”

“Well…yes and no,” I started. I didn’t know how much I wanted to try to explain, but somehow her understanding, patient expression had me explaining everything over to her almost before I could think twice.

“I see,” she said when I was finished. Then she shook her head. “I knew that guy was bad news,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “Everyone was so eager about getting me to go out with him before…”

“I hoped he might be the good kind of bad news.” Cambrie was smiling––a teasing smile, but somehow sad. “You should’ve seen yourself. You were sparkling, just being around him. Anyone could tell the two of you had history.”

“Well…yeah,” I admitted. “We were friends when we were younger.”

“Do you mind if I ask what happened?” The question was gentle. “You don’t have to share if you don’t want to.”

“No, maybe it would help.” I paused, trying to think of where to begin, find the point in the times we’d shared when we were kids that was bothering me now. “Kieran’s father was the only family he had, at least that he knew about, and he was horrible. He never liked to talk about it much, but I know he was a drunk, and that he beat Kieran. That much was difficult to hide.”

Cambrie made a soft sound of sympathy. “That can’t have been easy for either of you.”

“It wasn’t. And I think it only got worse as he got older.” I remembered how worried I’d been about him back then, how it had twisted up in the games we’d played and the odd childhood flirting that had turned up regularly, even then.

“There were days when he was so angry he would hardly even talk to me, but he still came to visit. We got together for a little while, but before we could go much of anywhere with it, he just disappeared. No warning, no note, not even a single clue of where he went. I thought his father had…” I swallowed. “I was never sure what happened, so I tried not to think about it much. That’s what it means to live out here, right? That everyone knows someone who’s had that happen to them. Or worse.”

“You’re not wrong,” Cambrie said.

We sat in silence for a while as I thought about what I’d said, trying to figure out where it all fit with what I was feeling now. “He…when I went with him for that night, he was…different,” I said eventually.

If Cambrie had been waiting for the conversation to get around to the gritty details of my and Kieran’s night together, she didn’t show it. “Different how?” she asked.

“I never quite knew what to expect. There were times when he seemed…really angry, and then he would suddenly be…something else.” Amazing, if I was being honest, but it was all a little bit frightening, too. “I just get the feeling that there’s so much about him that I don’t understand yet. I’m worried about what I’ll find when I do.”

“That’s understandable,” she assured me. “But…if you had to guess, go off your gut, what would you say? Did you feel safe with him?”

I thought about it. “When I was with him…yes,” I admitted. “I was definitely nervous at first, but by the end––or I guess until we were interrupted––I felt almost like I was starting to understand something important.” I laughed bitterly. “Of course, that was before I suspected him of conspiring to blow up my bar.”

“I imagine that would change your perspective a bit,” she said.

“Just a little,” I deadpanned. She chuckled lightly.

“Do you think there’s still a chance that he’s good?” I asked. “It…really doesn’t look good for him, at the moment.”

“He might be, and he might not.” Cambrie didn’t sound too worried about either possibility. “Nobody’s completely good or completely bad. The real question is what you’re expecting as an answer…and how much of the bad you’re willing to live with.”

That was true enough, I supposed. “I wasn’t expecting for him to show up in my life again at all, to be honest,” I grumbled.

“That’s understandable, too,” she said, smiling at me. “But most things in life are unexpected. You’ll figure out how you want to come to terms with it sooner or later.”


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