Page 37

Author: Rachel Bach

“God and king, Lady,” he whispered, pulling out my dented helmet. “What happened to this poor suit?”

“Xith’cal,” I answered, which was close enough to the truth.

The mechanic stared at me, jaw slack. From the look on his face, he was clearly trying to envision what kind of horrible circumstances would allow a noble lady to be chewed on by lizards, but peasants did not question nobility, and I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer any information. “How soon can you have it done?”

“I’ll have to refactor everything,” the mechanic said, looking down in dismay at the Lady’s piled pieces. “With the schematics, though, I should be able to get it done by next week.”

I froze. “Next week?”

The cold threat in my voice had the desired effect. The words were barely out of my mouth when the mechanic began to sweat like a fever victim. “I can move some other clients, my lady,” he said, keeping his eyes down. “Would tomorrow please?”

“It would indeed,” I said. “The name is Morris.”

His face went white as paper. I just smiled. After all, it’s not my fault I share a surname with the infamous Baron Morris of Summerland.

While the mechanic closed the Lady’s case and lugged her into the back, I plopped myself down on one of the three battered plastic seats by the open door overlooking the canal and the market on the other side. He put my suit down nervously on his work table. “I will not be done until tomorrow, lady. Surely, you would rather—”

“I’ll wait,” I said. I knew more about the Lady Gray than anyone except the Master Armorsmith of Verdemont himself. I might not be a mechanic, but I knew more than enough to recognize when something was being done incorrectly. Paradoxian or not, there was no way in hell I was going to let some colony tinkerer be alone with my armor.

Peasants do not talk back to nobles, and since I had obviously made up my mind, the man had no choice but to let me stay. I sat on the edge of the chair in the doorway, alternating between watching him like a hawk (and offering my pointed opinion whenever he did something I didn’t understand or approve of) and catching up with the rest of the universe via my handset, since Seni Major actually got timely news updates, unlike the other backwater planets we’d been to. Even when I was reading, though, I had one eye on my suit.

Watching my suit get repaired is always a harrowing experience. My Lady is as near and dear to me as my own flesh, and seeing her crushed pieces being fed into the refactory put me in a vicious, protective mood that Seni’s suffocating humidity wasn’t doing anything to help. By the time he was ready to start work on my chest piece, the mechanic and I were both shaking, him from nerves and me from the pressure of not vaulting over the counter, snatching my beautiful Lady out of his hands, and fixing her myself. Still, other than the flashes of murderous rage, I’d thought I was keeping a pretty good hold on things until I heard a deep, familiar laugh from the street outside.

I whirled away from the mechanic to see Rupert standing on the boardwalk, his hands filled with bags from the market across the canal. “You know,” he said, making no attempt to hide his amusement, “he’d probably work faster if you weren’t hovering like you were about to eat him.”

Considering the fool I’d been making of myself for the past several days, you would have expected the smile on Rupert’s face to send me fluttering into the air. You’d be wrong. No amount of smiles could distract me when my precious armor was in someone else’s hands.

“I’m just sitting here,” I said, crossing my arms so he wouldn’t see the white-knuckled grip I had on my handset. “It’s not like I have anything else to do.”

“In that case, let me put you to work,” Rupert said, holding out a hand laden with bags. “Help me carry these to the ship.”

My eyes widened, but Rupert just stuck his head in the shop door. “You won’t mind if I take her away, will you?”

The mechanic gave Rupert the kind of reverent, thankful look usually reserved for the veneration of saints. “No, my lord. I will continue my work at full haste.”

Rupert glanced down at me and gallantly held out his elbow. I didn’t want to take it, but after that display I had little choice. Snarling at him and demanding to stay didn’t fit the noble lady I was half pretending to be.

Besides, even with my armor in such dire straits, I wasn’t completely immune to Rupert. Not when he drew me up and linked my arm through his, guiding me down the flower-strewn boardwalk. Of course, there was no way I was going to let him pull a stunt like that without repercussions, either.

“Why did you do that?” I hissed, twisting my head to keep the armor shop in sight as we walked away. “Who knows what that idiot will do if I’m not there?”

“Nothing half as terrible as he’ll do by accident while shaking in fear of your wrath.” Rupert’s voice was measured and calm, but his eyes were twinkling with suppressed laughter. “Trust me, I’m saving your Lady Gray.”

He might have had a point there. I was still stewing, of course, but as we walked down the crowded boardwalk, I realized this might not be so bad. Because of the oppressive heat, Rupert had shed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. My dress was sleeveless, and the touch of his skin on mine went a long way toward helping me get over my fury. It must have affected Rupert as well, because we got almost a full block before he remembered the excuse he’d used to drag me out.

“Here,” he said, handing me two bags full of vegetables I didn’t recognize. “Earn your keep.”

I sighed dramatically as I threaded the handles through my fingers. “Fighting xith’cal isn’t enough? I have to be a mule, too?”

“It happens to the best of us,” Rupert said, rearranging his remaining bags to balance the weight. “Though with your natural stubbornness, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“And here I used to think you were so charming,” I said with mock despair, swinging the bags as I walked.

Rupert chuckled but didn’t reply. We walked another block in silence, and then he asked, “Why did Hyrek put you back in the infirmary?” His voice was light, like he was just making conversation, but I could see the tension in his shoulders.

“Nothing serious,” I said. “Just more tests. He found nothing, just like I’d told him, but the old lizard doesn’t like being wrong.”

The tension eased out of him, and I tilted my head back to peer at his face. “What, concerned?”

His eyes stayed locked straight ahead. “You of all people shouldn’t question my concern for your well-being.”

There was no anger in the words, but I still felt like I’d been punched. I dropped my head, staring at my feet while I silently chewed myself out both for being a jerk and for the surge of giddy joy that came from knowing he’d worried about me.

“Rupert,” I said at last. “I—”

“We should pick up the pace,” he said, stepping out ahead of me. “Rain’s coming.”

I had no idea how he knew that. The sky, what bits of it I could see through the canopy, was clear blue. But the locals were clearing the boardwalk, and as we reached the spaceport, the rain started to fall.

We broke into a run, but by the time we’d made it to the elevated deck where the freighters were docked, it was pouring buckets of warm, tropical rain. My long dress was soaked through in seconds, and with the wet skirt tangling my legs, I started to fall behind. The downpour was so heavy I was having trouble seeing Rupert even though he was only a few steps ahead, so I was caught by surprise when his hand grabbed my arm and pulled me sideways.

I stumbled out of the rain into the shelter provided by the wing of an old planet hopper that, judging from the empty engine casing and the rust on its hull, wasn’t leaving anytime soon. There was room to stand beneath the wing, though not to do much else, and I found myself panting inches away from a soaked Rupert surrounded by a thick curtain of rain.

I shoved my bags into the dry space under the planet hopper and braced my hands on its rusted hull as I caught my breath. Rupert hadn’t appeared to mind the run at all, but by the time I straightened up, his breathing was quicker than usual, his chest rising and falling clearly beneath his drenched shirt. For a moment I just stood there, tracing the beautiful, lean lines of his body with my eyes, and then I forced myself to turn away before I did something stupid, like touch him. Instead, I focused on pulling the now-useless clips out of my soaked hair, but I couldn’t see what I was doing, and the hair kept getting caught. I was about to give up when I felt warm hands push mine aside.

Rupert turned me around and began gently pulling the clips out until my hair was hanging free. I expected him to let go then, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood just behind me, his warm fingers brushing my wet hair down my back.

“Here,” he said at last, his hand darting over my shoulder to give me the clips.

“They’re yours anyway,” I joked as I took them. “You won them.”

“They look better on you,” he said softly, his fingers brushing my neck one last time.

The intimate contact left me shaking, and I cast about desperately for something to ground myself until I could get back under control. I settled on assessing the damage from the rain. My makeup was washed clean away, which I counted as better than being half washed and streaky, but my clothes were ruined. In addition to being soaked, my pale sandals were now black from splashing through puddles of tarmac grime. The run had also left long splashes of black sludge on the side and back of my dress where my feet had slung it up. I growled in frustration, partially because I’d ruined my favorite dress, but mostly because I looked disgusting in front of Rupert.

That thought made me even angrier. What the hell was I doing, worrying over my appearance in front of a man I was supposedly done with? I clenched my teeth. What was I doing fretting about how I looked to any man? Had I left all my dignity behind in Rupert’s room?


I jumped. Rupert’s voice was closer than I’d expected. His hand touched my shoulder, steadying me.

“You’re angry,” he said quietly. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I snapped. “I’m just pissed because my dress is ruined.” I looked down again at the long black splashes, and I nearly had to laugh—it was that bad. “God and king, I look terrible.”

“No you don’t,” Rupert said.

“I look like a drowned rat,” I protested.

His next words were so soft I nearly lost them in the rain. “You’re beautiful, Devi.”

I looked over my shoulder to see him staring down at me. He was so close, the rain dripping out of his hair landed on mine. The tropical water was warm, but it was nothing compared to the heat in Rupert’s eyes as he looked at me. I think I stopped breathing then, my fists clenched so tight the hair clips dug into my palm.

A mercenary knows how to make fast decisions in the field. Even if he hadn’t just said I was beautiful, the look in his eyes told me everything I needed to know. Rupert wanted to kiss me, badly.

Actually, I was pretty sure he wanted to do a lot more than kiss me, and he was fighting himself over it. I wanted to kiss him just as much, if not more, but unlike him, my mental battle was quickly settled. After all, Caldswell had told us to keep away from each other on his ship, and we weren’t on his ship. We were standing in a tiny shelter surrounded on all sides by a rain that hid the rest of the world, and that little bit of logic was all I needed.

I moved so fast even Rupert couldn’t dodge. One moment I was looking over my shoulder at him, the next I was pressed against his chest with my arms around his shoulders and my mouth on his, the hair clips clattering to the ground at my feet. I must have surprised him, because he stumbled back into the planet jumper’s hull. I took advantage of the position at once, pinning him against the metal wall with my weight as I kissed him like I’d been dying to since the morning I’d left his room. For a second he just stood there, stunned, and then he was kissing me back, his warm hands sliding over my wet dress to lock me against him.