Page 17

Author: Rachel Bach

But despite the relatively innocent question, Rupert didn’t speak. He just lay there, flicking the cards with his long fingers. The silence was so sudden and dour after our happy conversation I was about to tell him to forget about it when he answered.

“I requested to be on this ship,” he said, keeping his eyes on his cards. “Caldswell is very respected. It is an honor to serve under him.”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain that one to me,” I said. “All I’ve seen him do is play mean tricks on his employees and manage to get himself attacked by xith’cal in the king’s own space. Not that that isn’t a feat, but it’s hardly what I’d call respectable.”

He still wasn’t looking at me, but I saw Rupert’s lips quirk in a smile before he hid them behind his cards. “I’m sure he’d be flattered to hear you say so.”

“Just don’t tell him,” I groaned. “I have to get through a year of this, remember?”

“My lips are sealed,” Rupert promised.

We were about to start the first round of betting when a soft beep interrupted us. Rupert pulled his handset out of his pocket, glanced at it, then slid off the bed, gently moving out from under my bruised leg.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Caldswell?”

“Who else?” Rupert said.

“Speak of the devil,” I muttered, sweeping the cards into a pile in front of me. “Have fun babysitting.”

“Stay off the leg,” he ordered as he dodged Nova’s hangings. “I’ll be back to check on you before we exit hyperspace.”

“Yes, doctor,” I said dutifully. “Rupert?”

He stopped at the door.

“Thank you,” I said, waving the deck at him. “It was fun. If I promise to get you ribbons to win instead of clips, can we do it again?”

“You wear the ribbons and I’ll play whenever you like,” he said, his voice rich with laughter. “See you later, Devi.”

I took a deep breath. My name still sounded so lovely when he said it. Rupert vanished into the hall, and I caught the loud chatter of the now very drunk party I’d been funding in the lounge before the door slid shut, cutting off all sound except the hum of the ship.

I stretched contentedly, pressing my legs into the lingering heat Rupert’s body had left in the mattress. That had ended much better than I’d thought it would when I’d limped out of the cargo bay. True, my fumbling attempts at investigation had fallen flat, but I had a much firmer grip on where I stood with Rupert.

I still didn’t trust him, of course. No one with any sense would trust someone who could fake a fall that well, but I wasn’t worried anymore about what had happened during the raid. Whatever Rupert’s secret was, it didn’t seem like the sort that would come back to bite me unless I poked it, and I was done being nosy for a while. In any case, it was certainly more enjoyable to be Rupert’s friend than his enemy. I had enough enemies, and I was ready to take what I could get.

I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but I must have because the alarm for our imminent exit from hyperspace snapped me awake. I blinked and sat up, wincing as the movement jostled my bruised ankle beneath the now-melted ice pack. Pathetically, my first thought was disappointment that Rupert hadn’t come back to check on me like he’d promised. Shaking my head at my foolishness, I swung my legs over the edge of my bunk and nearly stepped on a covered tray.

I jerked my feet back and leaned over, eying the tray like it was a wild animal. As though on cue, a delicious smell drifted up. My stomach rumbled in reply.

I let it growl, folding my arms as I glared at the tray. I knew it was from Rupert. He was the cook, after all. What I couldn’t figure out was how he’d gotten it in here without waking me up.

I’ve never been a heavy sleeper, and I’ve only gotten warier about it over the years. Sleeping through the door opening I could maybe see; the doors were about the only quietly operating parts the Fool had. But sleeping through someone coming in, putting a tray down right beside me, and leaving again? That was unheard of.

I worried over it for a good minute before I decided I was being stupid. Rupert was a nest of secrets already, was I really so surprised he could sneak into my room? Maybe if he’d been coming to put a knife in my chest I’d have cause to complain, but it was just bad form to be angry at someone for bringing you dinner. With that decided, I leaned down and lifted the tray cover.

The food was all Paradoxian, and most of it was from Ambermarle, my duchy. There were red potato cakes, fried greens, shredded mushrooms, even a little steamed chocolate cake. Best of all was the shot of whiskey on the tray’s corner, the chilled glass beaded with condensation. I stared at it in wonder for several seconds, and then I picked up the tray, shook the silverware out of the paper napkin, and fell to.

Everything was delicious. True, the greens were some variety I didn’t recognize, the mushrooms were Terran, not Ambermarle longstems, and the potato cake was stuffed with fish stew rather than the traditional creamed chicken, but it was as good as anything I’ve had back home, and I ate well past the point of being full just for the pleasure of it.

Stuffed and happy, I put my dishes on the tray and stood up. My ankle was still sore and probably would be for another few days, but I could limp along well enough, and once I got into my armor and made some adjustments to compensate for the injury, letting the balancers pick up the extra tension, it didn’t hurt at all. Well-made armor is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

When I was dressed and ready for work, I gathered my dishes onto the tray and took it back to the kitchen. The lounge was empty when I got there. I rinsed out my dishes in the sink and loaded them into the washer, no small feat in armor. When I was finished, I pulled up the ship’s com grid and looked up Rupert’s connection. It wasn’t as good as thanking him in person, but I sent a quick message to his handset thanking him for the food and assuring him it had been delicious. The response was immediate.

My pleasure.

Grinning, I closed the message and walked over to the windows, propping myself against the glass to watch as Basil announced our exit from hyperspace.

We left hyperspace smoothly, coming out in orbit above Mycant with only one second’s difference between the local space controller’s clocks and our own. Mycant was one of those sparsely populated Terran colonies on the edge of civilized space, the ones that were so far out from the Republic’s core worlds you wondered why they bothered. It was pretty, though, with lots of strange, spindly forest, stormy, dark gray seas, and a population of about a million spread so thin it was easy to imagine there weren’t twenty people together in the whole place. The starport was little more than a dirt field walled off with chain-link fence, a fact that bothered Basil more than anyone else. He was cursing so loudly about getting dirt in the thrusters I couldn’t hear Caldswell when he called with our orders.

“I’m going out to meet a potential client,” he repeated after sending Basil off to have his meltdown somewhere else. “He has family, so I’m bringing Rupert and Ren with me. The buyer will be here to pick up our current cargo in the morning. I’ll be gone for three days, and I want you to stick to the Fool like glue the whole time, understand?”

“Do you think something will happen, sir?” I asked.

“No,” Caldswell said. “But that never stops it from happening. Just don’t budge until we get back. I’ll contact Basil if plans change.”

“Yes sir,” Cotter and I said in unison as the captain cut the connection.

I hadn’t noticed that the Glorious Fool had two atmospheric skippers stowed in a special berth beneath the cargo bay until Caldswell had Cotter roll one out. They were pretty drab compared to the silver-plated beauties I’d seen nobles flying around Paradox, but they were still much nicer than anything I’d expected him to have.

Caldswell loaded himself, his daughter, and Rupert, who was presumably stuck on Ren duty, into the newer of the two and took off without so much as a look back, zipping through the overcast sky and disappearing behind the tall trees in a handful of seconds. I couldn’t decide if he was in a hurry or if the quick, cold departure was just the captain’s nature. Both seemed plausible.

Now that we were on planet for a few days, the crew began to scatter. Hyrek, of course, never left his room, but everyone else seemed determined to get outside. Since it was my job to watch them as well as the ship, I had Basil make me a sign-out system and forced them all to log their destination whenever they left the ship. I’d expected Basil to grumble about this, but the bird actually seemed to like me more for having suggested it, and I got the feeling he’d been trying to impose some sort of order on shore leave for years. As it turned out, the only person who did grumble was Cotter, mostly because I’d told him to do it, too.

“I never heard the captain make you head of security,” he growled in King’s Tongue when we were sitting on the downed ramp a few hours later, watching the night rain turn the spaceport to mud while we waited for Nova and Mabel to get back from a shopping trip in the tiny clump of buildings that somehow qualified as a planetary capital.

“He didn’t,” I said, keeping my eyes on the adjustments I was making to Phoebe’s new thermite blade. “But someone has to do it, and I’d rather it be me.”

“Bet you would,” he said. “But I didn’t see you in the thick of things when the xith’cal attacked.”

“That’s because I was killing the ones jumping you from behind,” I snapped. I didn’t have to lift my head to look at him, but I did. Some things are instinct. “Let’s get this straight, Cotter. Only an idiot would doubt your ability to be a deadly fury after that last fight, but I’m not taking orders from you. If you want to try and make me, go right ahead, but we all remember what happened last time you fought me one on one.”

“That doesn’t count!” Cotter cried. “You got the jump, it wasn’t fair.”

“I’m not fair,” I said. “But if you’ll shut up and listen when I tell you things, you’ll find I’m the one who’s going to get us through this year with our skins intact.”

Cotter leaned forward. “Where do you get off being such a bossy bitch?”

I looked him dead in the eyes. “I was born a bossy bitch, so you can either roll with it or get rolled over. Your choice, sunshine, but remember, Caldswell already treats me as lead because I shot first on the bridge, and I haven’t led us wrong since. Stick behind me and all you’ll need to do is follow orders and be a good merc. Try to pull ahead, and your life’s going to get a whole lot more complicated.”

Cotter surged to his feet, towering over me, and for a moment I thought we were about to throw down again then and there. But then he swore and turned away, and I knew I’d just won dominance struggle number two. He was mine until the next outburst, which would probably be his last unless I screwed up. Cotter was a dick and a braggart, but he wasn’t dumb, and you’ve got to be pretty stupid to bang your head against the brick wall of Devi Morris more than three times.

“So, boss,” he sneered, folding his armored arms as best he could over his suit’s massive chest. “What should I do now?”

I ignored his snide tone and answered in Universal. “Go inside and make sure Basil isn’t cooking birdseed for dinner. I’ll keep watch here. We’ll switch at lights-out.”

He must not have expected such a reasonable order, because he stood speechless for a second before turning on his heel and marching back into the ship without so much as a dirty word. I turned my head back to my thermite blade as he clomped over the remains of the plasma patch and through the hole the xith’cal attack had left in our ship, but I watched him through my rear cam until he disappeared up the lounge stairs. Only then did I reach down and slide Sasha’s safety back into place.