Author: Rachel Bach

I turned. Ren was sitting on the couch in the corner, just like she’d been every time I’d seen her. The captain’s daughter was leaned over a small table, playing with a battered game set that used stylized pieces on a checkered board. Chess, it was called, one of those ancient Terran games from Old Earth. I’d thought it was a game for two people, but Ren was moving the pieces like she didn’t need any opponent but herself, so maybe I was wrong.

“Does she ever talk?” I asked, lowering my voice as I turned back to Rupert.

“Sometimes,” he said. “Not often. She’s had a hard life.”

His voice changed as he said that, and for a second, I caught a look in his eyes that was completely at odds with the happy, flirtatious Rupert I knew. “I watch her as a favor to the captain,” he continued, his easygoing expression snapping back to normal as he resumed chopping. “He worries about her.”

“And it’s not hard to watch something that doesn’t move.”

Rupert just smiled at that and slid the drink I’d set aside back toward me. “Don’t waste other people’s gifts,” he said with a wink.

I gave him my best slow smile as I raised the whiskey to my lips and finished it in one long drink. By the time I set the empty glass down, Rupert was looking better than ever, but he was still on duty when it was time for me to go to sleep, so nothing came of it. As I fell into bed, I drunkenly promised myself I’d be taking him there with me before the crew came back.

Despite my best efforts, I didn’t manage to get Rupert so far as the hall over the next two days, much less my bed. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either. I don’t normally bother to dress up for men, but the day after he’d slid me a drink with that knowing wink, I’d worn my favorite low-cut shirt in the hopes of spurring things along.

But while the shirt earned me a long, appreciative look and a slow smile, Rupert behaved the same as ever, talking politely with me while I ate but never really taking his attention off the soup he was simmering. I’d finished my food quickly and was about to start trying to move things closer to the direction I wanted them to go—namely the two of us toward my bed—but Cotter had come in then, and as much as I wanted Rupert, I wasn’t about to do anything in front of the skullhead.

I’m not one to give up, though, and the next day I tried my black dress, a scandalously short little thing that showed off my legs and had yet to fail me. I wasn’t disappointed. Rupert grinned openly when I came in. “What’s the occasion?”

“Laundry day,” I lied, sliding onto what was becoming my usual stool as I looked for somewhere to put my elbows. There wasn’t much room. Rupert was busy shucking a basket of grenade-sized seeds, and their soft shells were all over the counter.

His mouth quirked as he watched me try to clear a space. “You’re free to help, if you’d like.”

I made a show of considering his offer. “Drink with me and maybe I will.”

This was my new plan. I was hoping a few drinks would loosen up his wall of politeness, and helping with kitchen work on my off hours seemed like a small sacrifice compared to the potential payoff. Rupert shrugged, and five minutes later we were both seated at the large dining table in the middle of the lounge with two bowls, the basket of seeds, and a bottle of whiskey between us.

“So,” I said, cracking the first nut on the table with a solid whack. “Where did you learn to cook?” I was betting the army, but I wanted to see if I could get his military record without turning this into an interrogation.

“Here and there,” Rupert said, filling my glass to just below the rim before pouring a much smaller measure into his own. “Seemed useful. My mother always said that no woman wanted a man who couldn’t feed himself.”

“How’s that working out for you?” I asked, picking up the drink he’d been so kind as to pour me.

“Well enough,” Rupert said with a sly smile. “After all, if I didn’t know how to cook, we wouldn’t be sitting like this, would we?”

I took a sip to hide my smug smirk. Now this was more like it. But even while I was congratulating myself on an excellent start, things were already going downhill. See, I have this bad habit of drinking whatever is in front of me, and Rupert was remarkably quick at refilling a glass. As a result, an hour later my hands were aching from splitting seeds and most of the bottle of whiskey was in my stomach.

I can drink with the best of them, but even I have my limits, and I was now very drunk. Way more drunk than I wanted to be in front of a stranger, even one as attractive as Rupert, and certainly too drunk to hold my tongue like a good merc should. So when the conversation drifted to how I was enjoying life on the Fool, I answered a little too honestly.

“I’m bored stiff,” I slurred, peeling half a brown husk before giving up and throwing the seed in the bowl. “This curse nonsense is crap. We haven’t had so much as a potshot since leaving Kingston.”

Rupert reached over and snatched my half-peeled seed before the flaky shell could shed all over his pile of carefully hulled white nutmeats. “We’re still deep in Paradoxian space,” he said, his voice indulgent as he finished shucking the seed with three neat cracks. “Surely you have more faith in your king than to expect bands of pirates the moment we leave orbit?”

“My life to the Sainted King, holy be his name,” I grumbled dutifully. “But I signed up for some action. I thought Caldswell was supposed to be this magnet for trouble. I came here to expand my reputation, but all I’ve done so far is walk in goddamned circles.” I waved my hands in drunken ovals. “If I don’t shoot something soon, I’m going to pop.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone dying from not getting attacked by pirates,” Rupert said with a laugh as he tossed the now naked seed into the bowl with the rest.

Drunk as I was, his laugh went right through me, and I suddenly decided I was done talking about work. I hadn’t come here to actually help him cook, after all. “You know,” I said, leaning forward so my low-cut dress could do the job I’d worn it to do. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I had something to take my mind off it.”

If Rupert had missed my meaning before, there was no way he could fail to catch it now. Even I would have been a bit shocked by how forward that move was had I been sober enough to care. But I wasn’t sober, I was drunk and frustrated. Not to be cocky, but I’m not used to men giving me the runaround. I don’t do up my face like a noble lady, but I know I’m attractive. Given Rupert’s earlier looks, I was pretty sure he didn’t disagree, but while I’d practically spray painted a welcome sign across my chest, he still hadn’t taken the bait. It was enough to push my patience, already strained thin by a week of dull guard duty, to the breaking point. I’d put more effort into attracting Rupert over the last few days than I’d wasted on anyone in a long time. A sensible girl would have cut her losses by this point, but I’ve always been pigheaded. Plus, after all this trouble, getting Rupert into my bed was now a matter of pride.

Pride, lust, and whiskey are a potent combination. I stood up, pushing back my chair with a scrape. Rupert put down the seed he’d been working on but otherwise didn’t move as I walked around the table and settled my hands on his shoulders. As I leaned down to press a kiss against his cheek, he turned and caught my face in his hands.

“Devi,” he said quietly. “You are very drunk.”

“So?” I said. He’d gotten me this way, after all. And given how beautifully blue his eyes looked when we were this close, my level of drunk seemed like a minor concern.

Rupert sighed and stood, bringing me up with him. “Come on, pretty girl,” he said. “Let’s get you to bed.”

I grinned wide.

“Not like that,” he chided gently, clamping his hands on my shoulders and steering me toward the door.

I heaved an enormous sigh, but my disappointment was soon replaced by the surprising difficulty of standing upright. As the room started to tilt, I realized with a start that I was even drunker than I’d thought. Suddenly, going to bed sounded like a very good idea. Rupert slid his arm under mine and helped me to my bunk. I was so gone, I didn’t realize he’d left the room until he came back with a glass of water.

“Drink,” he said, wrapping my hands around the cold glass.

“What’s my motivation?” I asked, but the words slurred so badly I was honestly surprised when he answered.

“Not feeling like death tomorrow.”

That sounded like a good reason. I drank the whole glass while Rupert pulled the sheet over me. When he took my empty cup, I said, “Wait.”

He stopped and looked down at me.

“Thanks for being a gentleman and all,” I said, snuggling into my pillow. “But really, it would have been okay.”

He reached down, gently pulling my hair out of my ponytail and spreading it out over the pillow. He stroked it once, almost like he was petting it, and then he stood up, tossing my hair band on the dresser. “We’ll try this over again tomorrow when you’re sober enough to know what you’re saying,” he said, walking to the door. He stopped when he reached it, and the smile he gave me made my whole body feel warm. “Good night, Devi.”

I wanted to ask him to stay and keep smiling at me, but I never got the chance. As soon as the lights went out, I was asleep.

I woke up to a throbbing head and the sour feeling that comes when you’ve made a fool of yourself. It took me a full ten minutes to haul myself out of bed, strip off the dress I was still wearing from the night before, and pull on my armor. That left no time for breakfast before my shift, but I didn’t even want to think about food, and I certainly wasn’t ready to face Rupert just yet.

But while I managed to avoid the cook and the reminder of the idiot I’d made of myself that he represented, my day only got worse as my shift wore on. For a supposedly cursed, insanely dangerous ship, the Fool was letting me down. Today marked a solid week that I’d been Caldswell’s security officer, and nothing had happened. So far, this job had been exactly the sort of mind-numbingly dull guard work I’d avoided all my life, and I was starting to get seriously depressed. If Anthony had been wrong about this job, I’d end up wasting a year of my life for nothing.

By the time Cotter showed up to relieve me, I was so low I could barely choke down dinner. A long, hot shower helped tremendously, though, and by the time I got back to my berth, I was feeling a little more human. I’d just sat down on the edge of my bunk in my towel to work the tangles out of my wet hair when the ship’s alarm began to blare.

On a normal day back in the Blackbirds, it would have taken me twenty-six seconds to put on my armor. Now, after seven days of waiting to hear that sound, I did it in nineteen. I barely took the time to throw on my underwear before diving into my suit. The Lady Gray must have been as ready for action as I was, because we were running down the hall before I’d actually figured out where I was going.

As it turned out, the alarm was for the bridge, and Cotter got there first. As well he should have, being as he was on duty. His hulking armor blocked the bridge door, but his suit was large enough that I was able to duck between his legs. I came up fast, pistol in hand, only to nearly drop it when I saw what the alarm was about.

Caldswell was on his feet in front of the captain’s chair. Behind him, Basil was cowering in his pilot’s nest, his feathers tight against his bony body. And standing beside the captain, with the barrel of a large pearl-handled energy pistol pressed directly under Caldswell’s chin, was Rupert.


I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked the same as always—same black suit, same dark hair, same handsome face—but the expression on it seemed to belong to a different man. Rupert smiled when he saw me come up, but not the warm smile he’d given me yesterday. This expression was cold and calm as a frozen lake, and his hand was rock steady as he pushed the pistol’s muzzle deeper into the soft spot below Caldswell’s jaw. I started to say something, but the captain caught my eyes through my visor and shook his head as far as Rupert’s grip allowed.