Author: Rachel Bach

“No apology necessary,” Rupert said. “Risk of the business.” He returned his attention to his shoe, knotting the laces deftly into a perfect bow. “In case no one else mentions it, that was a good shot. I didn’t even see it coming.”

“Of course you didn’t,” I scoffed. “Do you know how fast my suit can move?” I blew out an annoyed breath before I remembered my manners. “But thank you for the compliment,” I added grudgingly.

He chuckled and reached up to rub his forehead with a sheepish look. “I do wish you’d picked somewhere other than the head, though.”

I shrugged. “Hey, if you give me the shot, I’m going to take it. Next time tell Caldswell to find someone shorter than himself to play his villain.”

“I’ll be sure to pass it on,” Rupert said, sliding off the table. “I was going to the kitchen to start dinner, care to join me?”

I stared at him for a moment before I remembered that I’d been coming off my shift when the alarm went off, and since my shift ended in the morning, it was now dinnertime. Even without the time confusion, though, his invitation took me by surprise. I wouldn’t expect a man I’d shot in the head to invite me to spend time with him, not that any of them had ever lived to ask. And then there was the part where he had a lot of nerve acting like we were still friendly after the stunt he’d pulled. But Rupert was looking at me with that same warm smile I’d noticed the first time I’d seen him, and I found myself walking down the hall beside him before I could think of a good reason to say no.

I took the chance to sneak glances at him. I don’t know what I was expecting to see. He looked exactly as he always did: tall, handsome, his dark hair tied behind his head in a sweep that emphasized the sharp line of his jaw. Even knowing it had all been a trick, I couldn’t reconcile this Rupert with the cold killer I’d shot six hours ago, and the disconnect was starting to get to me. Finally, just before we reached the door to the lounge, I snagged his sleeve.

“Listen,” I said as we stopped. “If we’re going to be stuck on this ship together for a while, I need to know—was all that stuff before an act?”

I expected him to look at me with those clear blue eyes and ask what was I talking about, but Rupert didn’t. Instead, he leaned on the door, his dark brows furrowed as he considered my question. “Some of it,” he said at last. “The captain thought the test would be more effective if you liked the man you’d be shooting.”

“He wanted to see if I’d shoot a friend?” I’d thought as much, but hearing it confirmed brought my rage roaring back. I crushed it ruthlessly. If I was going to be mad at anyone, I’d save it for myself. No point in yelling at Rupert for following orders when I was the one who’d let herself get suckered in. No point in mentioning that we both knew how ready I’d been to take it past friends if he’d let me either. “That’s why you did it?”

“That’s why I sought you out,” Rupert said. His voice was casual, but there was a hesitation between his words that told me he was picking them very carefully. “But it wasn’t all an act. You’re an entertaining person, Devi.” He glanced at me, and his smile came back. “You will have to start buying your own drinks, though.”

Despite everything that had happened, I laughed. “If it can’t be helped,” I said. “But I think you owe me at least one more freebie for putting up with all this.”

“I might be able to swing that,” Rupert said, eying me suspiciously. “You want it now?”

I’d woken up not half an hour ago, but it was technically evening, and I needed something after dealing with this crap, so I nodded and motioned for him to get a move on. Rupert shook his head and went into the kitchen, unlocking the bar and pulling out my usual. “I’ve never seen a woman drink like you,” he said, pouring two fingers of whiskey over ice and sliding it down the counter. “I’m surprised you have a liver left.”

“Nice part about being a merc,” I said as I caught the glass. “Surviving long enough to have liver problems is considered a major achievement.” I tipped my glass at him. “King’s health.”

He watched disapprovingly as I took a long sip. “Now that I’m no longer under orders to get you drunk, I’m going to start cutting you off.”

I set the glass down, savoring the whiskey burn. “You can try,” I said. “But fair warning, being drunk doesn’t slow down my head shots.”

He sighed at me and started getting things out for dinner.

I sipped my drink and took the chance to study him, and not with an eye toward getting him into bed, either. I was well over that. I liked my lovers simple, and Rupert was clearly not simple. Anyone who could switch his personality like that was not one to be trusted. So instead of admiring his skilled hands or graceful shoulders, I started looking for other things, signs of his military training, scars, anything that could give me a hint of the truth, but I found nothing. Just Rupert, lovely as ever, his face a smiling mask as he worked.

I sighed in frustration and finished the last of my drink. But as I tipped my glass back, my eyes drifted to the spot on his forehead where my bullet had hit. The skin there was as pale and unblemished as the rest of his face. There wasn’t a bump, not even a bruise, and the more I thought about it, the more that bugged me.

Shield or not, I’d shot him from under ten feet with an anti-armor pistol. The shield may have kept the bullet from smashing his skull, but the force had still been enough to send him flying across the bridge, where he’d hit his head a second time against the railing, maybe even a third time when he’d landed on the floor. All of that trauma should have left some kind of mark, but there was nothing. Rupert was standing over the cutting board looking alert and calm as though he’d just gotten up from a pleasant night’s sleep, his eyes locked on the knife’s tip as it slid with delicate finesse between the flesh of a large fish and its tiny bones.


I jumped, but Rupert’s eyes never left the fish. “You’re staring,” he said. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” I set my empty glass on the counter and stood up. “I’m going to get suited up. Thanks for the drink.”

“See you later,” he said.

I waved, but I didn’t look back as I walked down the hall to my room.

I was still brooding about Rupert’s miraculous lack of injury while I put on my suit. Fortunately, when I came back to grab dinner before my shift, the captain made an announcement that took my mind off it. We’d reached the Fishermarch, the last of the Paradoxian colonies, and now that the security team had passed their test, it was time to pick up the rest of the crew of the Glorious Fool.

Like any good Paradoxian girl, I’d never been to the Marches. Slum settlements on the edge of known space? Sure. Pirate camps hiding in the xith’cal hunting grounds? Dozens of times. But if I was in Paradoxian space, I saw absolutely no reason not to be on Paradox itself with the king and the nobles and everyone else who mattered. The Marches were the borderlands, the buffer zone planets used to slow down anyone trying to get to Paradox, the only planet that actually mattered. They were where old people went to retire and immigrants lived while applying for Paradoxian citizenship, definitely not my first choice for a vacation destination. But as our ship set down at a spaceport that seemed to be nothing more than a white speck floating on an endless blue sea, even I had to admit the Fishermarch was kind of pretty. For a colony.

The planet was larger than Paradox itself, but where Paradox had mountains and forests and cities that stretched to the horizon, the Fishermarch was nothing but sea. Endless, virtually bottomless blue sea teeming with life, both the small, tasty kind and the large, dangerous kind. What “land” there was was all man-made, mostly enormous floating platforms like the starport and the cabana city that surrounded it, serving as a base for the thousands of boats that raced under the glaring white sun. Shimmering shields protected the spaceport from the worst of the blasting wind, but they did nothing to keep out the light, and my visor went almost black trying to adjust for the glare as the captain and I walked out onto the landing pad.

I’d gone with the captain as a matter of course, not because I thought there’d be a threat. The king kept his lands well, and the Fishermarch was as safe as any territory in Paradox. But as my visor adjusted to the light, I was suddenly very glad I’d decided to come out with him, for there, standing at the edge of the landing pad like he was waiting for us, was a xith’cal.

There are four space-faring races in the known galaxy: humans, aeons, lelgis, and xith’cal. Any of these could be dangerous under the right circumstances, but xith’cal were always dangerous. The second I saw it, I snapped into action.

I stepped in front of the captain, my suit blocking all of him and my arm holding him in place to make sure it stayed that way. My other arm came up, gun in hand, to point at the xith’cal. The alien didn’t look terribly concerned at having an anti-armor pistol aimed at its face. Instead, it tapped its long black claws against something flat and silver in its palm and then held it up for me to see.

The light was so bright that it took me a few moments to recognize that the thing in the alien’s claws was a handset. The screen was blacked against the sunlight, and the white text across it stood out strong.

Must we go through this every time?

“Stand down, Morris.” Caldswell sounded like he was trying very hard not to laugh. “He’s with us.”

I stared at the captain’s face in my rear cam, but he didn’t seem to be joking. Caldswell tapped my arm, and I let him go, but I kept my pistol up as the captain walked over to the xith’cal.

“Hyrek,” he said, grinning as he held out his hand. “How are you?”

The xith’cal ignored the captain’s extended palm, clicking its claws rapidly against the handset instead before holding it up again.

I’m terrible. But then, you knew I would be terrible when you chose to leave me in this miserable, bright place, so I can only assume your question is a bad attempt at humor.

Caldswell actually had the guts to laugh at that. If a xith’cal had told me he was feeling terrible, I would have shot him before he decided to do something about it. But then, I would have shot him before he’d had a chance to tell me anything, so it was a moot point.

Shooting xith’cal was a natural reaction. After all, they ate humans. They ate pretty much anything they could kill, actually, but they liked the sentient races best. Most of my pirate hunting had been ferreting out xith’cal slavers who raided the smaller colonies to get fresh breeding stock for the “herds” they kept on their tribe ships. Combine that with a violent temper, complete disregard for any laws other than their own, and a scaly, naturally armored body that was three feet taller than any human and three times as dense, and you had something that any sensible person would shoot on sight.

“Morris!” Caldswell yelled, glancing at me. “Put that cannon away and get over here.”

Though it went against every instinct I had, I obeyed. Shoving Sasha in her holster, I walked over to stand beside the captain. This particular xith’cal must not have been one of their warriors. He was a good bit smaller than the ones I’d seen, and his scaly head was smooth, lacking the enormous ridges warriors grew.

That was something at least, but even if he was short for a xith’cal, he still towered over me even in my suit. Nearly eight feet tall, his body was covered in long, thin, overlapping scales, almost like feathers, but they were sharp enough to cut through ballistic steel, something I’d found out the hard way. Most xith’cal I’d seen were black or dark brown, but this one was green, a soft, mottled forest green that reminded me of winter trees. His eyes were like any other xith’cal’s though—long, honey yellow, slitted, and deep set below a heavy bone ridge that made him look like a scowling snake. His snout was long like a lizard’s, stronger than a steel vise, and full of sharp yellow teeth that were starting to make me seriously regret not shooting when I had the chance.