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Copyright

© 2015 Shiloh Walker

Reissued 2017


Cover Design © Kanaxa


This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

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Dedication

For those who enjoy my Kit books, I hope you like Silence too.

To those I love…I thank God for you. You’re my heart.


Chapter One

He knew why I was here.

Maybe it was the wisdom of old age or maybe it was because he was a native.

I couldn’t tell he was aboriginal just by looking at him. It went deeper than that. I’d done a lot of research on the population on my way to the planet, and I’d spent the several weeks studying my target. It wasn’t until the past few days that I’d realized he wasn’t the human I’d been made to think.

He was Ariste, and older, probably nearing the end of his lifespan, and there was no reason for me to kill him. Other than the fact that I was being paid to do just that. But he didn’t fit my standard profile, and the longer I watched him, the more distasteful I found this job.

He had little time left. It was there in the way he moved, in the labored way he breathed. He even looked ill.

What had this old man done to have somebody pay to have his short time left cut even shorter?

The question left me angry and I don’t like being angry on a job.

Ariste, the humanoid population indigenous to Aris, looked almost identical to humans, until you were almost face-to-face. Their eyes had a silvery glint to them, which they often hid behind shaded lenses. Their planet’s days were short but brutally hot, while the nights were long. Most inhabitants dwelled within domed cities to protect them from the extreme temperatures.

Some people said that this was what Old Earth would be like by now. Well, except for the population thing. Aris still had a thriving population. Disease and war had all but decimated Old Earth. There were rumors that those who had remained behind no longer even resembled anything we’d consider human.

Personally, I think human is just another word for animal. None of us are worth much. Me included.

The Ariste were a different beast altogether. Some of the kindest, most gentle people I’d ever come across resided here, on this hot, desert planet that traveled too close to its sun. The people made me nervous, and I wanted nothing more than to kick the dust of this planet off my shoes and leave it far behind.

Leave these smiling people far behind.

I had very little use for people in general. If I couldn’t fuck it, then the only time I was likely to come in contact with anybody was when I was sent a contract to kill.

Like this old man, with his round, cheerful face and his silver eyes—Ariste eyes—hidden behind the tinted lenses he wore.

I was here to kill him.

And he knew.

A smile curved his face as I moved into the room, not bothering to conceal myself.

He already knew I was there. Why bother to hide?

Either he’d called for help, which would mean I had to move things along, or he thought he could handle me on his own.

Neither would change the outcome.

He would die, because the alternative was that I would likely die, and I didn’t plan on that being the case.

He nodded toward the table where he sat.

“Would you join me?”

I paused, my hand on the darts I’d planned to use. The problem was he hadn’t been on the long, narrow balcony, taking his normal walk. The Ariste had a thing about the setting sun. It was a religious fascination as far as I could tell. All of the houses had balconies that faced the west, so they could watch as the brutal, burning sun sank below the horizon. Even the poorest of families would struggle to get a simple opening so the family could face the death of the day.

Cree Ru was far from poor.

Yet he hadn’t taken his sunset walk.

“Come.” He smiled. “Sit.”

I said nothing. I knew better. My voice could be used to track me, pin me to the crime, if anybody was successful at hunting me down. I’d evaded capture on a dozen planets in four different systems. Saying even a single word would be an amateur’s mistake.

Just like walking in that open door was an amateur’s mistake, I chided myself.

“You will not sit then.” Cree nodded. “Very well. I’ll speak a bit. I’ve time yet.”

He must have sensed something because that faint smile on his face widened a fraction. The smile was oddly paternal. “No. The authorities weren’t alerted. I sensed you three days ago and have had the time since then to decide on the actions I’d take. First, I had to think about who must have hired you.”

That wasn’t an answer I could give him.

I accepted the money, the job, all from my handler. There were other things I took from him, and some things he forced on me, but he never told me who hired me. It was essential, he’d once told me, that he protect his clients. Names were never given.

Cree didn’t let my silence stop him as he leaned back, steepling his fingers as he looked out into the night. He had thick, floor-to-ceiling walls of what the locals called plaris. It made me think of pilastene, a manufactured material that was used in almost everything for those who’d settled the New Earth colonies.

The NE colonies weren’t home to me, but many of my tools were NE made. It was what I was familiar with, what I was used to. Pilastene was nearly unbreakable, safe to manufacture and inexpensive.

Plaris, like ’stene, was durable and nearly unbreakable, something that served this volatile planet well. The material was designed to endure quakes that could have leveled cities. His entire home was made of plaris, and the windows were the clear stuff, the priciest form of it out there. Eyes on the night sky, he studied the twin moons and said, “I hated to admit it to myself, but there are only two people who would have done this. Only two who would benefit. My son and his wife.”

Arching my brows, I edged in closer, searching for weapons. So far, I’d yet to see a single one.

“I cannot tell if the look on your face is curiosity or merely an attempt to distract me.” He sighed and then reached out, pushed a covered dish toward me. “If you are any good at your job, you’ll recognize this.”

My eyes moved to the plate as he slid the cover away, revealing a thin disk of what looked like hammered gold.

The sight of the three small berries on that plate made my belly clench, even if I was there to kill him.

Death’s seal, the most poisonous plant in three systems. Deadly, and outlawed on almost every planet in those three systems. Just the touch of it on the tongue was enough to kill a child. Half of a berry could kill a woman my size. Three berries could kill three men.

“I’m going to make this easy,” he said quietly. “My son seeks to kill me, thinking he’ll inherit.”

Cree reached for a berry.

“Wait,” I said, the word ripping out of me despite my intention not to speak. “Why? If you wish to fight him, then why do this?”

“I don’t wish to fight him.” He smiled, rolling the berry between his fingers. “I wish to deny him what he tries to take by betrayal.” Then he shrugged. “And I refuse to let him use another in his endless vendetta against me. Do you know…it’s our belief that for every life you take, you must save two more if you want to leave this existence with your soul intact?”

I inclined my head. “I have no soul left. You do this for nothing if you try to spare me.”

“If you had no soul, it wouldn’t concern you to see this berry in my hand.”

He smiled at me as he tossed it up in the air.

I don’t know why I did it.

It should mean nothing to me.

I could easily claim his death as my own. Poison wasn’t unknown to me. I suspected I even knew who had provided him with those three priceless, deadly berries.

But my hand moved, almost as though it had a mind of its own, and the sliver-thin dart stole the berry from the air. I quickly used two more darts to destroy the other two berries. He could still lick the plate, I supposed, but somehow I didn’t see this regal, elegant man choosing that route.

“Why?” he asked, his voice puzzled.

Staring at the plate, at the thin stalks of the darts, I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

And I didn’t. I truly didn’t know. I knew that the idea of taking his life bothered me more than any other had in a long while, but still, I had planned to see my job through. I had still planned to kill him. Until he had spoken to me… I will not let him use another…

How long had it been since anybody had cared if I was used or not?

Had it ever happened?

For a long moment, I studied the smear left by the ruined berries. Then I lifted my gaze to his. “Do you count now? As one half of a life?”

He cocked his head. “Well. I suppose I would, even though you came to kill me. Do you plan to walk away?”

Walk away. I’d never walked away from a job in my life. I had failed before. Twice. And I’d suffered more pain than I cared to recall. The breaking of my bones was a sound that had haunted my sleep for years.

But to walk away? Never. Doing so meant my life. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was the only one I had, and, as though the son of a bitch who held my leash already knew of my failure, I started to sweat. It didn’t work like that. I had time, weeks even.

But if I didn’t kill Cree, my handler could choose to end me.

It was as simple as that.

Staring into Cree’s wise old eyes, I made a decision.

I turned my back.

“How peculiar,” he murmured.

I didn’t stop.

The bioseal embedded in my brain wouldn’t kill me immediately. He wouldn’t even know right away.

I was just one face out of a dozen—dozens perhaps. Maybe more. I didn’t know how many of us he had in his employ. But I’d learned to push my limits as much as I could over the years. There was a saying from Old Earth—know your enemy. Knowing my enemy meant understanding the control he had over me.

Once I’d gone nearly four months before he realized I had yet to complete the task outlined. It was a complicated one, as I’d explained to him while I lay bleeding on the floor. Bleeding from every bodily orifice I had, and a few he’d created.

He’d given me a job I’d found more than a little off-putting, and I’d been about to walk away, but I’d realized at the last minute that my plan to mislead him wouldn’t have worked—he’d been tracking my movements, tracking me,and he’d never believe my attempts to fool him. So I’d gone ahead with the job…and lost yet another piece of myself.

And still he’d beaten me.

My employer claimed I’d taken too long, moved too slow, but we both knew why.

Time, I’d told him.

I needed time to follow the diplomat, learn his patterns, figure out the best way to finish the job.

He’d nodded, smiled.

By the time he was done, I’d needed six weeks to heal.

I considered it worth it, because I learned a great deal with that job. He also thought that after that particular occurrence, I’d never dare to push him so far again.

I wouldn’t have so much time on this job.

Weeks, perhaps. The trip from Aris was too short, over in four days.

To either figure out how to deactivate the bioseal or just end my own life.

I didn’t know what the best option was.

There were rumors. The bioseal was a biological construct and any bio construct could be deactivated. But I’d been following those rumors quietly for years with no luck. The closest I’d come was hearing about a botanist in the Nuru settlement. My gut twisted even thinking about that place. I didn’t go there. Ever. But if I wanted to know more about the botanist who could supposedly manipulate almost every known biological matter, I’d have to.

And I had to do it before my handler realized I was on the move.

Weeks.

I would have a couple of weeks. The old man was beloved by his people, and I’d told my handler it could be a slow job. He wouldn’t expect me to return home so soon. I’d bought myself some time…assuming I decided I wanted to live.

I thought of Cree’s words.

It’s our belief that for every life you take, you must save two more if you want to leave this existence with your soul intact.

I didn’t believe there was any chance of saving my soul. Save it from what, anyway?

I did believe in balance though. I’d taken lives. Perhaps when I closed my eyes for the last time, I could go quietly into eternity.

I thought of the way Cree had looked at me, like he could see clear through me, down to the very heart of me. Some said the Ariste could. That they could see thoughts, emotions and yes, even the soul. It would explain how he’d known I was coming, because there was no other way he could have known. I hadn’t given myself away. I knew I hadn’t.

“I’ll live,” I murmured as I stripped away the camouflage from the small transport I’d brought with me. It had been my emergency backup, just in case. Now it was going to save my neck. It was a risk, going offplanet by nonregulated means. But it was an even bigger risk to use the false identity that had been crafted for me. I couldn’t risk leaving a trail.

As soon as I could, I’d have to ditch my transport, find an alternate.

But first I had to get home.


Chapter Two

Whatever canny insight the Ariste of Aris possessed, sometimes I think my handler possessed it too.

He hadn’t known when I’d attack, but somebody had been watching, waiting. And they knew I hadn’t acted. Maybe the old Ariste had made some sort of change in his final acts that had alerted the son.

If he’d been the one to request my…services, then that would definitely make my keeper reach out.

That would definitely make him reach out.

However it had happened, my keeper had been forewarned.

I knew it because the simple little compound where I lived was being watched.

They were good.

I was better.

My first warning was the lack of noise. I’d chosen a place where the night creatures made their own music and the silence of the night was its own alarm.

My second warning was the odd, dark little shadows that were part of the normal landscape. I knew each and every one, and tonight, they were just slightly larger than they should be.

My third warning was the one that had me tensing, the nerves in me ratcheting up, while blood thundered and crashed in my ears.

The shock of gold hair was mostly hidden under a tight black cap, but the hot, heavy night must have been getting to him. He’d just tugged it off, swiped at the sweat before settling it back into place. That movement there was what had given him away.

Garner.

They’d sent him in.

Fuck. My keeper’s brother and one of his hands. He sent Garner out when he wanted to cause pain. Garner enjoyed causing pain. He enjoyed it a little too much. He wasn’t particularly patient though, and that sometimes played in my favor.

Not getting me tonight, my friend. Backing away, I pulled out my nightspecs and checked my surroundings.

The red blurs around me gave me their heat signatures. Garner, human like me, was the strongest. They’d brought Dahm too, a reptilian monster who could rip my arms from my body without blinking. His heat signature was harder to make out, a vague, monstrous shadow that blended with the night.

Of all the men Garner had brought with him, Dahm was the deadliest.

He was the one I’d have to be careful of. He was the farthest from me, but he could move the quickest and he’d catch my scent trail easily if the wind changed.

One wrong move and he’d hear me.

One wrong move and he’d see me.

One wrong move and it was all over.

My best bet would be to move along the path nearest me and get to the cliffs. I had some of my emergency supplies there and I could recoup, plan my next step there.

Assuming my keeper let me live through the night.

Sweat beaded at the base of my neck as I began the slow, tedious journey, watching the colorful dots in front of me, waiting to see if they moved.

It might be best if he simply annihilated that biotrace, crushing my lower brain and killing me, all over in one simple step.

It took most of the night, but I got away.

Once I reached the cliffs, I located my cache and then settled in to get some rest.

They weren’t on my trail.

If they had been, they would have followed me and I’d have already been on my way, gagged and bound, to my keeper.

I’d once wondered why he didn’t just have some sort of locator device embedded in the bioseal, but I’d figured that out quickly enough. If it could be used to trace me, then it could be traced back to him as well. Considering the jobs I did, he wouldn’t risk anything that would be so easily tracked back to him.

Stars forbid he dirty his hands in such a fashion.

That’s why he had us, after all.

Us.

His pets. His toys.

His personal army of trained thieves and killers.

His slaves.

I have no memory of how I came to be…this.

My earliest memories are twisted and dull, little more than flashes. I can’t even call them mine—they feel more like a story somebody told me long ago, one I can barely remember. The few things that do feel real, that do feel like mine, I can’t even call them memories, really. Just…fragments. Echoes. There are images of a world that isn’t this one—someplace green and lush, where the air was thick with flowers.

I can recall screams and shouts. Then pain.

Always pain.

That is one thing that is a constant in my life even now.

While I’m hardly a child, I can claim no true memories up until ten years ago. I was told I’d misbehaved. When I emerged from a fogged, pain-filled stupor, those insubstantial memories were all I had, and my keeper smiled at me as a health intern bustled around me.

“Are you going to continue to cause me trouble, pet?” he’d asked.

Apparently, I’ve never been a very good little slave.

My life has never been mine.

I belonged to my handler.

My keeper.

My owner.

My own personal demon.

He controlled the choices I made in life, even if he did let me live off on my own, pretending that I was my own person.

He chose my jobs, he provided my clothing, my shelter and my food. I could always refuse the clothing, shelter and food, but then I’d end up back on my knees while he took his time reminding me of his claim on me.

So I took the jobs, the clothing, the shelter, the food.

The one thing he couldn’t control were my thoughts. He’d tried that and it had nearly killed me. The bioseal buried in my brain matter might be keyed into my thoughts and memories and emotions, but he couldn’t change my thoughts, memories, emotions. He could just punish me when those little acts of rebellion displeased him.

I had one escape from him, and only one.

I had a decision to make—either take that escape or take a chance that this botanist could do something about the bioseal. I needed to decide. But first, I had to get some rest. I was running on nerves and adrenaline and if I didn’t recharge soon, I’d regret it.

I checked the defenses around the perimeter of the cave and then checked the sec system I’d set up high on the outer cliffs. Nobody around the perimeter. I was safe. They hadn’t followed.

I stretched out on the floor and closed my eyes.

Dreams started to tug at me almost the moment I did.

I went willingly.

Sometimes, when I slept, I almost remembered…something.

“—choose which you’d rather have.”

Pain licked at her and blood streamed into her eyes. She wanted to wipe it away but she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything. Trapped. She was trapped.

Just leave her alone!”

That voice! I thought he’d killed you, she thought desperately, struggling anew to free herself from the unseen bonds. Pain wracked her with every movement, no matter how small, but she couldn’t break free, couldn’t do much more than twist her wrists or arch her back. Even her head was trapped, making her unable to follow the sound of the voice. Rolling her eyes from right to left, she tried to see, but the blood streaming down from the laceration on her brow blinded her.

I’ve already discussed the conditions under which I’ll leave her alone. Do you agree?”

No! She wanted to scream it out. Don’t agree! But her mouth was as useless as the rest of her body, and all she managed to get out past her battered throat and swollen lips was a strangled moan.

A hand smoothed down her hair. “Hush, pet.”

She cringed away—or tried to—from that touch. Him. It was him.

Decide,” he said, either unaware of her hatred of him or unaffected. “If you don’t decide soon, I will.”

Fine. I’ll…” The words were erratic, ragged. “You win. I’ll do whatever you want.”

Perfect.” There was a faint, electronic whine. “Now…kill her.”

She wanted to sob. She might have been doing so already.

No!” The furious bellow was abruptly cut off by the sound of a deep, tormented howl of pain.

You will kill her…or I will keep her.”

Silence. It was a noiseless summons, a tug in my brain, and it pulled me straight out of a dream that fell apart like gossamer threads. I tasted blood in my mouth.

And I could hear the echo of laughter.

Gold’s laughter. My owner. My tormentor. My nightmare.

That was all that lingered from the dream.

His familiar, mocking laughter.

What had I been dreaming about?

There was another tug within the seal in my brain and I shuddered. Curling into a tighter ball, I hugged my knees to my chest with one arm, while the other held my weapon, ready and pointed at the mouth of the cave.

So much for escaping him.

Silence.

The sound of my name had me wanting to smash my head against the stone of the cave until sweet, blissful oblivion welcomed me into her arms. First the dream…

And now this.

Silence.

I knew him, knew what he wanted, and I didn’t want to deal with him yet. I’d hoped for a few more hours of sleep.

Silence.

After the fourth whisper of the name I’d taken for myself ten years ago, I finally opened my eyes and stared up at the roof of the cave.

The son of a bitch wouldn’t be quiet.

Reaching out, I caught the comm and activated it. The scrambler would delay my response as it bounced it around, making it impossible for him to find me. He’d try, and it was entirely possible he would track me down after I’d left here—long after I’d left. But that wouldn’t do him any good, and it pleased me to think of him chasing after my shadow.

“What do you want?” I asked sourly.

“I want to know why the job wasn’t completed.”

I curled my lip.

Overhead, a fat drop of water collected. As it started to fall, I closed my eyes and then held still as it let go and came down toward me, hitting me in the middle of my brow. I welcomed the cool, wet relief, a balm against the rage I felt anytime I had to deal with this bastard.

I hated him.

I loathed him.

I needed him to survive.

“The job wasn’t completed because there were complications. I would have called you to discuss them if you hadn’t had your watchdogs outside my home. I don’t like it when you do that,” I said softly, opening my eyes as I began to weave the careful web of lies I’d crafted during my journey. Did I go through with this? Or just end it? Even if I found the botanist, Gold would still seek me. I knew him. He’d never give me up.

“Complications,” he murmured in a voice that sounded of silk and poison.

Just the sound of it was enough to make me shudder. I knew that voice, so well. It had murmured to me when I was barely clinging to life. He had put me there more than once. And more than once, he’d found me there and nursed me back to health—it was only fair, since every time I’d ended up in that precarious position, it was because of a job he’d sent me on.

And then there were the other times, times that made me hate myself even more.

Maybe I did have a soul.

If I were as empty as I liked to think I was, then I couldn’t hate myself.

“Tell me,” he continued, and the sound of his voice drew my nipples tight even as revulsion ripped through me. “Silence, tell me of these complications.”

“He knew I was coming. I told you it was problematic to accept a job on Aris. The Ariste are not an easy race to assassinate.”

“Were there guards?” He sounded curious.

As far as my body was concerned, he might as well have been in front of me, his hands, beautiful and elegant, stripping my clothes away. But my mind blistered with rage and my hands shook with the need to wrap around his throat, to throttle him, to hurt him. I could kill him two times over before he could strip me naked. I’d learned well. I knew how to kill, just as he’d planned.

Only one thing stopped me.

The bioseal he had embedded in my brain.

But one day, even that might not be enough.

“No.” I managed to keep my tone bored. “But nobody truly understands the Ariste, do they? As he knew I was coming, I didn’t know what else he knew. If he knew to plan for me, perhaps he even knew about you. I didn’t wish to bring that mess to your door.”

There was a sigh, heavy, regretful. “You say the right things, Silence. If only I could believe those words.”

“What good does it do me to lie? You hold my life in your hands.”

“Hmmm.” There was a pause and then I heard a soft crackle. “Come to me. I have another job. It’s…important, and if you do it, we will wipe this slate clean.”

Slowly, I sat up, my body protesting as the night spent on stone made itself known. “Clean?” I echoed.

What…he wasn’t going to beat me? Punish me to make it clear how very unacceptable this was?

He chuckled. “Yes. All will be forgotten. But don’t make me wait. You won’t like the consequences if I have to send Dahm to hunt you down. He’s already on your scent trail.”

Liar. I kept that locked behind my teeth. If Dahm were on my trail, he’d be here already. But the threat was enough to have me up and moving.

I thought of the botanist, thought of the decision I’d made.

Then I thought of what Gold had promised. Would he lie? Yes. If it suited his purposes, but why would he suggest such a reward?

“Why now?” I asked softly. “Who is the target?”

“Come in and we’ll discuss it.”

There was something in his voice that made me tense.

I recognized it.

Very little got my keeper worked up. Very little. This job though, it had him on edge. Was it possible he meant it?

I turned to look at the entrance to the cave, debating.

“Silence…foolish, foolish girl. I know where you are now,” he murmured.

I closed my eyes. An amateur’s mistake. I’d just made one. He couldn’t control my thoughts, no. But if he tapped into the bioseal, he could access them—and he’d just done that, enough to see what I could see.

“I’ll come in,” I said flatly. “But pull in your dogs, Gold.”

“That’s a good girl.”

Garner wasn’t happy with me.

He was waiting outside the club, playing his brother’s ever-vigilant watchdog, his cadre of men spaced out around him on the multileveled street.

Two of them were already shadowing me, and my skin was crawling because at some point soon, I expected them to take me down. I’d messed up a job. The punishment would be in pain or flesh.

I preferred pain and I even hoped for the bastards behind me to make a move. I was ready for it. Ready, prepared, a blade tucked discreetly in one hand. When they moved on me, I’d kill at least one.

I always did.

That was one of the reasons Garner hated me.

To date, he’d lost nine men to me.

He’d broken every rib in my body, eight fingers—and several of them twice or three times over—my left knee, my right cheekbone, both bones in my left forearm, and he’d dislocated my right shoulder. Twice. Of course, he always had help. I’d killed his men on my own. Perhaps that was why he looked at me with ugly hate in his eyes.

As I came into his line of sight, I let a smile curve my lips, despite the fact that I could all but feel the heavy breaths of Dahm coming down my neck.

“Dahm.”

Those breaths stilled.

“You should invest in some breath tonics. I hear they even sell something that will cover up that lizard smell. You could almost pass for humanoid as long as one didn’t look at you.”

A low, ugly hiss escaped the Vagarian, and I dodged to the left just in time to avoid having his claws punch through my spleen. Sliding him a smile, I waggled a finger. “Now, now. You know how the boss is. He doesn’t mind if I’m broken, but he’d rather me not be bleeding when you throw me at his feet.”

Dahm opened his great maw, flashing wicked teeth and treating me to a faceful of breath toxic enough to kill a dead pack animal. Fortunately, I knew better than to breathe in. Vagarians had been known to stun people with that stink of their breath alone, and if you got enough of that rot in your lungs, it could render you sick. His flat, black eyes flicked over me and I spun the staff I’d brought with me, smiling.

“Want to dance?”

“He waits,” Dahm said, his forked tongue dragging over the s.

“Yes. I’ll be sure to let him know you wanted to chat.”

He snapped his jaws at me and pointed past my shoulder.

We were done. Dahm wouldn’t risk angering the man who held the controls over his seal, either.

None of us wanted to do that. Well, I did. But most of them weren’t as close to crazy as I was.

I doubted any of them hated the man who controlled this portion of Jakor as much as I did. One of the more depraved colonies of New Earth, it was a forgotten, fucked-up piece of hell and my keeper ruled over it with an iron fist.

It wasn’t just the miles that he owned, or the clubs, or even the land outside the city of Jakor. He had his hands in the pockets of officials; he knew secrets that could destroy the government. People smiled to his face and behind his back, they dreamed of his death.

I doubted any of them wanted him dead as much as I did though. I was almost crazy enough to try for it, and screw how many others it damned.

Almost. But I wasn’t there yet.

The night was young though.

Depending on what happened in his offices tonight, it was entirely possible I might end up crossing that line before the twin suns crossed the horizon.

The pulse and throb of the music assaulted me as I went inside.

I mean…assaulted me.

He ran a den of sin and the music was little more than a form of rape, taunting the brain and teasing the area that brought about arousal and made you think of sex and sweat and bodies rubbing together.

My eyes adjusted to the pulsing silver-and-purple lights enough to see that many of the bodies packed inside his club were already rubbing together. As I passed by one table, one of the hustlers came up to one of the couples, tapping the male on his shoulder. The couple was odd, a bulky, leather-skinned Cragorian and some other humanoid—she had blue skin and winglike appendages instead of arms—rather pretty, really. The two of them were directed to one of the skin booths, and when the male of the pair balked, the hustler simply stared him down.

They’d pay, or they’d hurt.

Nobody would do anything about it, either.

Not here.

Not anywhere in the Mihor quadrant, the slice of land all but ruled by one very depraved king. Perhaps he wasn’t a king in truth, but he might as well be.

“If you’re in the mood to watch, he might let you. After he’s done.”

I looked away from the couple to find Garner staring at me with his dark, dead eyes. “Watching isn’t really my thing, Garner.”

“No. You prefer to fuck my brother and try to play cunt-games with him.” He leaned in, the smell of synthetic garlic heavy on his breath. “The games don’t work. But it’s fun to watch you try.”

My gut rolled. Play with his brother. If only I had much choice in it. I’d stay on the other side of the galaxy if I had any say in the matter. But I didn’t mention that. If either of them had any idea just how deep my revulsion ran, it would become a tool, a weapon against me. Instead of showing how I felt, I reached up and touched a finger to his cheek. “You spend an awful lot of time worrying about the games I play with your brother, Garner… What’s the matter?” I leaned in closer and pressed my lips to his ear. “Are you jealous?”

Then I pushed around him and headed for the center of the dance floor.

You might think he’d have his offices in the back. Or down below the floor, in a dungeon, where monsters like him should rot.

But no. He kept his offices high above, and if I wanted in during business hours, I had to take the tube in the middle of the floor. Where he could see me coming.

Garner was right behind me.

I pretended not to notice.

It wasn’t that hard. If he were going to try and hurt me, he’d have had more of his men with him, and he would have done it outside.

That meant I had a bigger fear to concern myself with. I’d rather take pain over his other forms of keeping me in line. Pain was easy. The humiliations… Shudders gripped me, wrenched at me, even as I fought not to let Garner see any sign of what I was feeling.

No matter what he’d said to get me here, my handlerwouldn’t just let me walk away from a job like that.

There would be a reckoning.

And if he wouldn’t take it in blood, he’d take it in flesh.

My body was already burning.

My soul was already screaming.

A hand came up behind me and shoved me into the tube and then Garner crowded in around me.

As it sucked us up into the air, I bowed my head, my hands braced on the smooth, clear ’stene surface.

I’d get through this.

I’d done it before.

I’d even do this job, I thought, just because doing it took me away from Jakor. Maybe this would be the last one. Maybe when it was done, I’d guide my transport into the nearest star and end it, swift and easy. Or I could just fuck with the wiring on my transport, dump the oxygen supply—I knew how to do that. I’d killed one of my targets that way once. It wasn’t a pleasant way to die, but I didn’t need pleasant. I just needed it done and final.

Anything to be away from here, forever.

The tube opened up and Garner slid past me.

I stepped outside and slowly lifted my head. Darkness greeted me. This…this wasn’t good. Heart hammering against my ribs, sweat trickling down between my breasts, my shoulder blades, a dull memory worked its way free. It was an old memory; more than a decade had passed since that day. The first time I truly remembered much of anything…including the man who awaited me somewhere in the darkness.

He owed me money. But he was too afraid to face me himself…so I’m taking you instead. You’ll have to serve in his stead…

And here I was. Still serving. Still trapped.


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