Authors: Christine Pope
“Well, yes,” Darlester said, clearing his throat and squinting, as if he were trying to return his focus back to her. Apparently the mere mention of forty-five cases of silk had unsettled him somewhat. “I had to replace the plating all along one side, and then there was the damage to the guns...”
“I assume you kept the bill?” she asked, then wondered whether batting her eyelashes would be too much. She decided it would, and instead gave Darlester another sticky-sweet smile.
He cleared his throat again. “I’m sure I could lay my hands on it if I had to,” he muttered, for a second looking flustered.
“Well, we can do with an estimate for now,” Miala said, straining to keep her false smile from turning into a grin. This was beginning to be downright fun.
She could almost hear the coins jingling in Darlester’s head as he calculated how much he could plausibly claim. “Thirty thousand,” he said finally.
You could have bought a whole new vehicle for that much
, she thought, but of course said no such thing, instead pretending to make a notation in the computer. “Anything else?”
“Of course,” Darlester responded immediately. “The little matter of twenty-two of my men, dead! And most of them with families—I’m a generous man, my dear, but even I can’t hope to support that many dependents.”
It took every effort of will Miala had not to burst out laughing at that remark. She was certain Darlester would rather send all those hungry mouths to the grave along with their fathers before he’d stoop to support a single one of them, but she had to admit the man’s overweening self-delusion was somewhat amusing.
“Well, sir,” she said after a moment, when she was sure she could maintain a reasonably sober tone of voice, “of course no one can put a price on a human life, but—”
“I’ll take ten thousand for each of them,” he said promptly.
None of which would make it to any surviving dependents, Miala was sure—if they even existed, which she was beginning to doubt. She gave a dubious glance at the two henchmen who flanked Rafe Darlester and thought that if they were a representative sample of the smuggler’s staff, then any one of them would have had a difficult time finding someone with whom he could procreate.
“So I believe,” she said, tapping away at the computer keys, although in actuality she was doing nothing but scrolling between two inventory lists, “that would make it a grand total of a quarter-million units, plus the forty-five cases of silk?”
He frowned, and paused for a moment. Miala fancied she could see his lips moving slightly as he did the sums in his head. Then an expression of lazy greed moved over his fleshy features. “That sounds about right.”
Damn. She’d been halfway hoping he’d put up more of a fight—it was beginning to look as if they’d settle this more or less peacefully, and yet there was still no sign of Eryk Thorn. Thinking quickly, she asked, “Would you like that in cash or in kind?”
Darlester sat up straighter in his chair. “What did you have in mind?”
“Only that we could offer you more silk, or some other sort of goods that perhaps you could get a better price for, exchange rates being what they are. You could make back your damages and still profit.”
The smuggler scratched his chin, watching her carefully. Then he smiled, and the glare of Iradia’s sun glinted off his platinum-capped incisors. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, girl,” he said, in what Miala supposed he thought were ingratiating tones. “Now Mast’s gone, maybe you should think about jumping ship and coming to work for me.”
Okay, now would be a good time, Thorn!
she thought, even as she hurriedly fixed another manufactured smile on her lips. “That’s um, very flattering, sir, but I still have work to do here—”
“I could make it worth your while,” he interjected, and there was no mistaking the leer he gave her along with those words.
Miala thought she’d rather jump off the Malverdine Cliffs than go to work for a man like Rafe Darlester, but she was saved from a reply by the squawk of the handheld and Eryk Thorn’s command, “
Without thinking she pulled up the screen that controlled the rear defenses and shut them down. From somewhere behind Rafe Darlester she heard someone call out, “They’re dropping the rear defense shields, sir!”
The smuggler pinned her down with a furious stare. “What the hell are you playing at?”
In all honesty Miala was able to reply, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir!”
With a curse Darlester heaved himself up out of his seat, but by then Miala knew it was too late. She had caught a glimpse from the secondary viewscreens, the ones that surveyed the rear of the compound, and now she saw what Eryk Thorn had planned.
His arrowhead-shaped ship came out of the late afternoon blaze of the sun, apparently hurtling headlong toward Darlester’s modified ore processor. The cannons of the land vehicle had already begun to fire, but the first bolts bounced harmlessly off the ship’s shielding even as Thorn banked at the last moment—just as two torpedoes dropped from the underside of the
and plowed directly into the ore processor.
The explosions were immediate, and oddly satisfying. Two huge gouts of orange-red flames blew out from either side of the smuggler’s vehicle, even as the image on the viewscreen faded to a wall of static. Miala quickly shut off the comm and turned her attention to the feed from the primary security camera, the one fixed on the front gate.
Not pausing to enjoy the success of his first pass, Thorn came back around again and dropped another pair of projectiles. They, too, connected, and the sporadic firing that had continued after the first torpedoes hit abruptly ceased. Explosion after explosion shook the vehicle, followed by waves of black smoke. By the time it had cleared, Miala could see that the ore processor had been completely flattened.
Miala slowly let out a breath, and then shook her head. There was something very odd about being in the middle of a conversation with a person and then having that person suddenly snuffed out of existence. Not that the universe would miss Rafe Darlester, she thought, but it was still a peculiar sensation. One minute he had been there, and the next—
And the next there had been nothing but static. Static and smoke. But at least he was gone, and that meant one less thing for her and Eryk Thorn to worry about.
She looked up and he was suddenly there, pausing in the doorway to the guard chamber.
“Nice shooting,” she commented.
He shrugged. “They were an easy target. Hadn’t even bothered with particle shielding.”
“How did you know?”
“I analyzed the data from the first attack. Sloppy. Then again, most land-based attackers don’t use torpedoes, so I suppose they weren’t out of line in thinking they were safe.” The black eyes glinted at her, his amusement showing in the slight crinkles at the outer corners. “You did a good job of keeping Darlester talking.”
“Well, it’s easy when you’ve got someone who likes the sound of his own voice.” She stood, feeling suddenly awkward, and pushed her loose hair back over her shoulders. “Of course, he also liked what I was promising him.”
“Forty-five cases of silk and about a quarter-million in loose change.”
“No wonder he wanted to go on talking.”
Miala crossed her arms, and fixed Eryk Thorn with what she hoped was a no-nonsense stare. “Well, I had to keep feeding him what he wanted to hear, considering how long it took you to finally get it together.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Ever been on a spaceship?”
“Even the fastest ship takes a few minutes to power up. You can’t force some things.”
Once again, he was right. Whenever she was around Thorn, Miala seemed to be constantly reminded of how little she actually knew about how the galaxy worked, of how sheltered her life had really been. It was not a feeling she enjoyed. For the first time she realized she had always thought of herself as—how had Thorn put it?—a big fish in a little pond. She’d always considered herself superior to the denizens of Aldis Nova, people whom she’d considered to be narrow-minded at best and positively backward at worst. It humbled her to realize how insignificant she really was.
She lifted her head to look at him. Someone who hadn’t spent the last week watching his face would have thought there was no expression on those dark features, but she knew better. There was approval in his eyes, approval and growing respect. Once again he had set a task for her, and she had not been found wanting. She had a feeling that it was no easy thing to earn Eryk Thorn’s respect.
“I suppose we’d better get back to work,” she said, and at that he actually smiled.
“I had something a little different in mind,” he replied, and held out his hand.
She took it, wondering what was going to come next. She should have known.
“I hate being interrupted,” he said, pulling her toward him.
Once again his mouth met hers, and she let herself fall into the embrace, letting him surround her, become her universe, until nothing else mattered. She had only an intellectual understanding of what drowning was, but she thought dimly that this must be what it felt like—to swirl down into darkness, to feel nothing but the pounding of your heart in your breast, the pulse of blood in your ears and throat.
Finally he let her go, and she stepped back, gasping a little.
He smiled a bit, just that small lift at the corner of his mouth, then said, “
we get back to work.” And with that he turned and headed back out into the corridor, obviously expecting Miala to follow him.
Which of course she did, her pulse still racing and breath coming to her with difficulty. As she trailed after Thorn, she wondered if she would ever begin to understand him—whether he was just toying with her, or whether he felt for her even a little.
What frightened her was that she found she didn’t care. As long as she could be with him, nothing else mattered.
The forty-five crates of silk turned out to be hidden in the third and final vault, just as Miala had suspected. She paused in her exertions for a moment as Thorn stood and looked at the neatly stacked crates, his eyebrows creasing slightly. Probably he was trying to decide whether it would all fit in the already overloaded cargo hold of the
“We’re leaving it,” he said finally, and Miala stared up at him in shock.
it?” she demanded. “Do you have any idea how much that stuff is worth?”
“Probably more than you,” he replied, fixing her with a quelling dark gaze. “But I’m not a smuggler or a silk dealer. I’ve got no use for it.”
Miala opened her mouth again, took a closer look at Thorn, then decided it was better not to argue. He was right—of course she had no idea what the street value of that much silk could be. However, she was fairly sure it was quite a bit, probably as much as the treasure they’d already loaded. Still, he must know what he was doing. She thought for a moment of the difficulties involved in trying to move that much silk around, realizing that without connections they’d have a very tough time unloading the stuff. While she didn’t know all the ins and outs of the silk trade, she did know that if you weren’t on file with the silk merchants’ guild, you could be in big trouble if you tried to sell it as an indie.
“Besides,” he added, pushing the button to close the doors to the vault, “if the bones aren’t picked completely clean when the next scavengers show up, there’s less of a chance they’ll start wondering where the rest of the treasure went.”
It took a few seconds for the full import of his words to sink in, but once it did, Miala cast a worried look up at Thorn. “So you think there’ll be more?”
“Of course. The universe has an unending supply of scum.” He must have noticed the concern on her face, for he went on, “But don’t worry—we’ll be long gone before the next one shows up.”
That did reassure her, as well as the fact that he had said “we.” The fear had still been there, buried but not forgotten, the worry that he would just go off and leave her here once the treasure was loaded. Even as she watched Eryk swoop down on Darlester’s ore processor, one small part of her mind had wondered whether he would just keep going once he finished his attack run. After all, he was on board a ship already loaded with the bulk of Mast’s treasure. There had been nothing to stop him from heading on out into space.
Nothing, except...except what? He had kissed her, but even Miala knew she wasn’t naïve enough to think that necessarily meant anything. People left all the time. Her mother had run off, and she’d abandoned a husband and baby. All Eryk Thorn would have left behind was a silly girl who’d been foolish enough to think he owed her some kind of debt.
But he didn’t leave,
she thought fiercely.
He came back, and he’s still here now. That’s got to count for something.
“When are we going?” she asked. Best to confront the source of her worry at once—not that she would necessarily know whether he was lying to her or not.
His reply was immediate. “Tomorrow morning. I’ve been monitoring the local transmissions and just hearing the usual chatter, nothing to indicate anyone is planning on coming here any time soon. We’ve bought some breathing room. And the ship’s ready to go if any more trouble crops up sooner than that.”
“Good,” she said, perhaps with a bit more depth of emotion than she had intended. Thorn gave her a searching look, and she added, “I could do with some rest first. And a decent meal.”
He nodded, but didn’t look particularly enthusiastic.
“Steaks straight from Gaia,” Miala offered, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Where’d you get those?”
“Lost treasures of Mast’s refrigeration units,” she replied.
“Dinner at nineteen hundred, then,” Miala said, and was gratified to see him nod. After all, they deserved a little celebration for their last night on Iradia…
She tried to make everything as perfect as she could. Cooking for her father all those years had certainly given Miala a certain level of skill, for of course they’d never been able to afford a mech to take on those sorts of tasks. But they’d also never had the funds to buy the sort of foodstuffs she was making now for Eryk Thorn, and she fretted over their preparation much more than she ever had over a meal for her father.