You’re quitting the Blackbirds?” The shock in Anthony’s voice was at odds with the finger he was languidly sliding over my naked back. “Why? You just made squad leader last year.”
“That’s why,” I said, swatting his finger away as I pulled on my shirt. “Nowhere left to go. Squad leader’s the last promotion before they stick you in a desk job.”
I stood up, grabbing my pants from the chair. Still naked, Anthony rolled over to watch me dress with growing displeasure. “I don’t get you, Devi,” he grumbled. “The Blackbirds are the top private armored company on Paradox. It takes most mercs ten years in a lesser outfit before they can even apply. The fact they let you in straight out of the army should be the miracle of your career. Why the hell are you leaving?”
“Some of us have ambition, Anthony,” I said, sitting back down to put on my shoes. “I had five good years with the Blackbirds, made a lot of money, got my name out there. But you don’t get noticed if you sit around on your laurels, do you?”
“If you got any more noticed, I think they’d have you arrested,” Anthony said. “They were talking about that stunt you pulled on Tizas in the office just yesterday. The duke of Maraday’s apparently thinking of offering you a fat contract with his Home Guard.”
I rolled my eyes and combed my fingers through my hair, wrestling the dark brown mess into a ponytail as best I could. My hair never could take mornings. “I am not joining the Home Guard. I don’t care how good the money is. Can you imagine me sitting around on some noble’s pleasure yacht playing bouncer for his cocktail parties? No thanks.”
“Home Guard is dull,” Anthony agreed, his boyish face suddenly serious. “But it’s safe.” He reached out, catching my hand as it dropped from my hair. “I worry about you, Devi. You’ve done eight full fire tours in five years. I know you want to make a name for yourself, but that kind of work will kill you, and I’m not talking about taking a bullet. If you got a job with the Home Guard, you could take it easier. Hell, if the Maraday thing actually came through, the duke never leaves the capital. You could live here, with me. I’d even let you redecorate, and we could be together every night.”
I didn’t like the way this conversation was going, but I knew better than to let that show on my face. Instead, I smiled and gently pried his fingers off mine. “It’s a sweet offer, Anthony, but I’m not looking to settle down. Here or anywhere else.”
Anthony heaved a huge sigh and collapsed on the bed. He lay there facedown for a moment, then rolled onto the floor and started pulling on his boxers. “Can’t blame me for trying.”
When he was dressed, we took the plush elevator down to the building café. I didn’t regret turning down his offer, but I had to admit Anthony had a nice setup. His apartment was in one of the new sky towers that dominated Kingston’s shoreline. Through the enormous windows, the royal capital lay spread out as far as I could see. Enormous skyscrapers rose like silver and glass trees from the dense underbrush of the older, smaller buildings. The sky was hazy with the usual smog and the clouds of commuter aircraft darting between the official sky lanes. The café was on one of the sky tower’s middle floors, but we were still high enough to see the starport and the towering shadow of the Castle behind it from our booth.
I might just be sentimental, but seeing the Castle’s shielded battlements and the shadows of the building-sized batteries of plasma guns behind it always filled me with pride. It wasn’t the tallest building in the city anymore, but the Castle was still the largest, dwarfing even the deep-space trawlers that were waiting their turn to dock in the starport below. It was a good, strong fortress, feared by all on planet and off, and a worthy guard for the Sainted Kings of Paradox.
As always, I bowed my head before my king’s sacred fortress. Anthony followed suit a second later. He’d never been as much of a believer in the power of the king as I was, but then, he hadn’t taken as many bullets as I had.
Once we’d paid our respects, Anthony called the waiter over. He ordered large and well, and the spread of food that arrived at our table was a mini-heaven all in itself. Thanking my king again, I fell to with a mercenary’s efficiency. Anthony watched me eat with amusement, drinking something red out of a tall, frosted glass that looked like a cocktail. I really hoped it wasn’t. Even I didn’t drink this early in the morning.
“So,” he said, spinning his now nearly empty glass between his fingers. “Why are you really here, Devi?”
“Last night wasn’t enough?” I said, popping a tiny coffee cake into my mouth.
“Last night was marvelous,” Anthony admitted. “But since we’ve established you aren’t exactly pining for my company, I thought we might as well get to the point before you crush my ego again.”
He was still smarting from the rejection, so I let the comment slide. I’d known Anthony a long time; we’d been in the army together before he got his captaincy and his cushy desk job with the Home Guard. We had good chemistry, and he was always the first person I called when I came home. We’d been friends with benefits for nearly seven years now, and I’d thought we had a good understanding. Obviously, things had changed. Still, this was Anthony. An apology would only make him feel worse, so I honored his request and got to the point. “I need you to tell me the qualifiers to become a Devastator.”
I had his full attention now.
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” he cried. “That’s why you quit your job?” He flopped back against the booth’s deep cushions. “Devi, you can’t be serious. The Devastators are the king’s own armored unit. They’re above the best.”
“Why do you think I want to be one?” I said. “I’m sick of wasting my time on the edge of civilized space crashing pirate camps for corporate money. Devastators serve the Sacred King directly. They get the best armor, the best guns, they go on the most dangerous and important missions. They have power you can’t buy; even the nobility listens to them. I was the best in the Blackbirds—”
“This isn’t like the Blackbirds,” Anthony snapped. “I can’t even tell you the qualifiers, because there are none. You can’t apply to become a Devastator. They ask you, not the other way around, and they don’t ask anyone who hasn’t spent a minimum of twenty years in active field service.”
“Twenty years?” I cried. “That’s ridiculous!”
“They want experience—,” Anthony started.
“What do you think I spent the last nine years getting?” My shouting was attracting weird looks from the other diners, but I didn’t care. “I got twelve commendations in four years when I was in the army. You know, you were there. And I’ve gotten five promotions in five years in the Blackbirds. I’m not exactly fresh meat.”
“Devi, you’re not even thirty.” Anthony’s voice was calm and reasonable, the sort of voice you’d use with a child who was throwing a tantrum. It made me want to punch him. “You’ve already proven that you’re exactly the sort of suicidally brave, workaholic lifetime soldier the Devastators look for. They’ll come calling, I’d bet money on it, but not yet. Not until you’ve got at least ten more years on your record.”
“In ten more years, I’ll be dead.” I said it plainly because it was a goddamn fact. The average life span of an armored mercenary was just shy of twenty-five. I was two years past that. After thirty, survival rates fell to almost nothing. Shooting for cash was a game for the young. You either got a desk job, applied to the Home Guard, or went back to your parents in a body bag. A desk wouldn’t impress the Devastators any more than it impressed me, but I couldn’t do crash jobs and pirate clearing forever.
“I’m good enough to serve the king right now,” I said, lowering my voice. “I’ve seen Devastators in their thirties, so I know they make exceptions to the experience requirement. I want to know what and how, and I’m not letting you out of here until you tell me.” And just in case he didn’t believe me, I kicked out my leg and slammed my boot onto the booth beside him, blocking him in.
Anthony glanced at my foot with a deep sigh. “You’re impossible. You know that, right?”
I didn’t answer, just leaned back, crossed my arms, and waited for him to cave.
It didn’t take long. Less than a minute later, Anthony shook his head and pulled out his ledger. “It just so happens you picked a good time to have your crazy idea,” he said, tapping the screen with his thumb. “Here.”
I took the ledger he offered, squinting to read the glowing screen in the bright sunlight. It took me a few moments to recognize the short paragraph for what it was, a job listing from the general employment boards. A tiny one, too, barely three sentences long, but what I saw was enough to make me think Anthony was seriously trying to jerk me around.
“This is for a security position on a trade freighter.”
“Not just any trade freighter,” Anthony said, smiling for the first time since we’d gotten out of bed. “That’s Brian Caldswell’s ship.”
“I don’t care whose ship it is,” I said. “I am not doing guard work.” Guard work was just above deep-space mine clearing for crap armor jobs. No Blackbird would be caught dead on a freighter, even an ex-Blackbird like me.
“I wouldn’t have shown it to you if it wasn’t something you’d be interested in,” Anthony said. “Have a little faith, darling.”
When I finally relaxed my scowl, Anthony went on. “Caldswell’s a bit of a legend in trading circles. They say his ship is cursed. He gets into more trouble on one route than an entire fleet could find in ten years, and he goes through security teams like tissue paper. That’s where you come in.” He leaned closer. “Don’t spread this around, but the Royal Army considers one year with Caldswell to be worth five anywhere else. If you can survive a full tour on that ship, I’m pretty sure even the Devastators would sit up and take notice.”
I glanced down at the ad again. It looked perfectly normal, the sort of short-notice grunt job that kept army dropouts in beer money, nothing like the deadly golden ticket Anthony was painting it to be. “You’re not putting me on, are you?”
“I wish I was,” Anthony said. “Maybe you missed the part about how quickly Caldswell uses up his people? I like you as you are, all in one piece.”
It was mean to laugh at his concern, but I couldn’t help it. “And maybe you’ve forgotten who you’re talking to.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Anthony said, his voice deadly serious. “I’ve seen you fight, remember? That’s not something you forget. But this is the fast and dangerous route, Devi. I know you’re ambitious enough for any five normal mercs, but there’s nothing wrong with a life of being safe, prosperous, and happy.”
“I am happy,” I said, pulling out a pen and writing the dock number from the ad on the back of my hand. “And the faster I get to be a Devastator, the happier I’ll be.” I handed his ledger back. “You’ll tell them, right?” The Devastators did whatever the king told them to, but they were technically part of the Home Guard. Anthony worked for them sometimes, which was why we were having this conversation.
“If Caldswell takes you, yes,” he said. “Don’t know if they’ll listen, they mostly don’t, but I’ll be sure to tell everyone what a reckless glory hog you are.”
I grinned and dropped the leg that had been fencing him in. “You’re a prince as always, Anthony,” I said, sliding out of the booth. “Thanks for the breakfast, and the job tip.”