That thought was the straw that broke the Devi’s back. The wetness behind my eyelids began to spill over and seep into the pillow I was pressing against my face. A sob jerked in my chest as I curled over in self-loathing. God and king, how much lower could I sink? What had I become? This had to stop. Right now. I had to get myself togeth—
I jumped and then nearly died of shame. I’d been so wrapped up in my misery, I’d totally forgotten Nova was in the room. Pulling myself together with a harsh breath, I pushed the pillow down slowly, so the case would wipe the wetness from my face, to see Nova peeking at me from the top bunk.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she said softly.
I sighed. “Not particularly.”
Nova bit her pale lip. “Do you want to play cards, then?”
The question was so sweet and unexpected, I actually smiled. Cards seemed an odd way to end what was shaping up to be the worst day of my life, but hanging out with Nova suddenly sounded a lot better than crying in my bed like an idiot over things I couldn’t change. “Sure,” I said, pushing myself up. “I’d like that.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting on Nova’s bright purple meditation pillows playing poker. We didn’t talk much. I didn’t trust myself not to explode, and Nova was far too nice to pry, but it was soothing just to sit and play.
We called it quits at dinnertime. Not willing to face the lounge for obvious reasons, I skipped on food and went to bed early. I didn’t cry again, thank the king, but I spent the night tossing and turning and thinking way too much. By the time I left to pick up my suit early the next morning, I had a new perspective on things.
Oh, I was still furious with myself. I’d lost my cool and acted like an idiot over a guy in a way that endangered my career, something I’d sworn I would never do. But as I’d fought tears and pitched a fit, I’d slowly come to a new understanding of why. The reason getting dumped by Rupert had affected me so much more than ending things with any of my other lovers was because Rupert wasn’t like my other lovers, and I didn’t know how to deal with that.
I hadn’t exactly been a normal girl growing up. I’d always been the most aggressive person around, and for some reason boys liked that. And I liked boys. I was also an idiot teenager with a body that was way more grown-up than her decision-making skills, which meant I made a lot of stupid messes before I shipped off for my mandatory two-year service to the crown.
The army grew me up a lot, and the boys slowed down, though they never stopped completely. I was still human, after all, and soldiers aren’t known for their celibacy. I did stop making messes, though, both with my heart and theirs. The situation with Anthony before I’d joined Caldswell’s crew was my first slipup in years, and that wasn’t even my fault. He was the one who’d changed.
But the mess I’d made with Rupert dwarfed everything that had come before it, only this time, it looked like the one left in the mud was me. After years of perfect performance, I’d slipped up big-time. I’ve never exactly been great at being honest with myself, but I could no longer deny that I was falling in love, and I was doing it with the worst man possible.
It was enough to make me spit. Love was the last thing I wanted. I had ambitions, I had a career ahead of me. Love ruined careers. It certainly seemed to be ruining mine, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I felt helpless, like I’d just taken a sucker punch for a fight I hadn’t even known I was in, and that made me feel more murderous than anything else. Nothing pisses me off like being weak.
These thoughts were still boiling in my head as I let myself into the repair shop and found the Lady Gray waiting for me in her case with the mechanic standing proudly beside her. I inspected my baby millimeter by millimeter. When I was satisfied that everything looked correct, I put her on and jumped back and forth over the canal until I was sure.
For all my hovering, the mechanic had done a good job, and I tipped him well out of the fund Caldswell had set up to help pay for my repairs. The rest of the fund, plus a good chunk of my own earnings, went to pay for the actual work and the materials. Verdemont suits were as expensive to repair as they were to buy, but being back in my armor made me feel better than I had in days.
Because of the Republic’s ridiculous public armor laws, I couldn’t wear my suit back to the ship. With deep regret, I packed the Lady back into her case and left the shop in my civilian clothes. After paying for the repairs, I didn’t have the money to catch a taxi, so I started walking, my armor case bumping along behind me.
It was still early, but the boardwalk was already packed with people going about their business, mostly loggers rushing to catch the high-speed trains out to the work camps. I kept my suit close and my head down, threading my way through the crowd as I tried to work out a plan to repair the mess I’d made of my life.
My relationship with Rupert was clearly over. Even if he hadn’t said so yesterday, I would have ended it now that I’d realized I was falling for him. But much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just make myself stop caring, so as I walked, I set down firm guidelines. No more drinking with Rupert and no more moping over what I couldn’t have. My only love would be my armor and my ambition, just as it always had. I’d been slacking on my training sessions anyway, so I’d go back to those. I’d have to find a thermite blade to replace Phoebe, but until then I could work on my hand-to-hand with Cotter. I needed more practice against Count-class armor anyway.
I’d almost managed to get myself excited about this new life of work and discipline when a shadow fell over me. I jerked to a stop and looked up to see a man I didn’t recognize blocking my way. I placed him in his early forties, not tall, but broad shouldered and imposing. His hair was sandy brown and military short. He wore no uniform or identifying mark, but he carried himself like a soldier even as he leaned against one of the boardwalk’s quaint, old-fashioned lampposts.
We were on a pedestrian bridge that spanned the wide stretch of shops leading up to the starport. The way was narrow, and this man was taking up most of it. Normally, I wouldn’t have hesitated to walk over him, but I didn’t want to lug my case over him as well, so I stopped and gave him a glare that should have been enough for anyone with an ounce of sense to get the idea and move along. Unfortunately, this man seemed to have no sense at all, because he smiled wide at me and started talking.
“Good morning, pretty lady. Where are you off to?”
I blinked. He was speaking King’s Tongue. Paradoxians and Terrans both came from Old Earth, but we hadn’t been separated long enough that you could tell us apart by sight.
My first thought was that the mechanic had blabbed about me, but then I remembered I was hauling a Verdemont armor case. That was as sure a giveaway as my accent to anyone who knew enough about Paradox to speak the king’s language. But though I had no reason to think the man was anything other than what he appeared, a lonely Paradoxian expat flirting with a fellow peasant girl on a sunny morning, I didn’t let my guard down.
“Shove off,” I told him with a look that said I meant it. “I’ve had a bad last few days. You don’t want any of this.”
The man pushed off the lamppost to block the way completely. “Thought you’d be used to bad days,” he said casually. “Aren’t you one of Caldswell’s security dogs?”
My hand went immediately to the gun on my hip. My concealable pistol might be accurate as a blind man on a dark night compared to Sasha, but it would still take an unarmored man down, and I didn’t have to be accurate when we were this close. The man lifted his brows when the gun came out, but he didn’t panic or raise his hands. He just looked at me with a sort of lazy half smile, thumbs tucked in the pockets of his worn pilot’s jacket.
“No need to be uncivil,” he said. “My friend works at the traffic control tower and saw you leaving Caldswell’s ship yesterday. I’ve heard a lot about the Glorious Fool, and I thought this would be a good chance to satisfy my curiosity.”
“About what?” I said, lowering the pistol but keeping my finger firmly on the trigger.
He shrugged. “I’ve heard that ship is cursed. Is it true?”
“I can’t speak for curses,” I replied. “Caldswell attracts trouble, sure, but that’s to be expected when you go around sticking your nose in hornets’ nests.”
The man laughed much harder at that than I’d expected. “That bad, eh?”
“Some trouble is worse than others,” I said, eying the railing that walled us in. He’d shifted back toward the lamppost. I could get by him if I squeezed.
“Like that xith’cal tribe ship?”
I dropped the handle to my armor case and stepped in, bringing my pistol right up against his stomach. I hadn’t actually thought much about the tribe ship since I’d survived it. It was burned and I’d had bigger things on my mind. But the only people who knew we’d been there were the crew and the lelgis. There was no reason this man should know anything, and the fact that he did was proof enough for me that he was up to no good.
But if the man was bothered by the idea of a bullet taking up residence in his small intestine, he didn’t show it. The cocky smile never left his face as he leaned down, dropping his voice to whisper in my ear. “Now, now, hear me out. I’m not after your ship or Caldswell, all I want is the truth. Tell me what happened out in the asteroids and I’ll make it well worth your while. Won’t take half an hour, and then you can scurry back to your tyrant with no one the wiser.”
“Or I could shoot you here,” I growled.
He straightened with a shrug. “Or that, but this isn’t the king’s land, girl. The Republic doesn’t respect duels, and even in the colonies, the police tend to react badly when people start shooting on a nice street like this.”
His eyes flicked to the people on the bridge across from us, the happy morning shoppers talking and strolling with no clue about what was going on a few dozen feet away. I glared at him one last time before holstering my gun. “Let me pass.”
The man didn’t move a muscle. “Last chance to make some money, little mercenary,” he said sweetly. “If we have to do this the hard way, you won’t like it.”
I laced my fingers together and cracked my knuckles. “For your information, the hard way is usually my favorite. I told you I was in a bad mood, and nothing cheers me up like a good fight.”
We stared at each other for five long seconds, and then the man stepped aside, holding out his arms in a grand gesture. I grabbed my case and marched past him, hand on my pistol the whole time, but he made no move to follow. He just stood there watching me with that cocky smile until the doors hid him from view.
The moment I was inside the terminal, I ducked into the ladies’ room and put on my armor. Suited up, I hoisted my now-empty armor case onto my shoulder and ran back to the Fool. My newly refactored legs cleared the quarter-mile stretch to the freighter landings in forty seconds. Cotter was on duty when I came in. I grabbed him and called the captain to come down to the cargo bay.
“This had better be good,” Caldswell said when he stomped down the stairs a minute later.
“Someone just cornered me on my way back.”
That got his attention, and he listened gravely as I described the man who’d stopped me and recited our conversation. “Do you know him?” I asked when I’d finished.
“I might,” Caldswell replied. “Thank you, Morris. I want you both on guard until we take off. If you see anyone lurking around, get a picture and let me know.”
“Sir,” Cotter said, saluting.
I saluted as well, but the captain was already on his way back upstairs.
“What do you think that was about?” Cotter said.