I left Imogen in the suite and met Luka near Valentin’s room. Valentin had decided to stay in his own suite. Twenty credits said Luka had persuaded him that Imogen couldn’t be trusted to watch his back.
Luka looked over my outfit with a critical eye. I had on nondescript black utility pants, heavy boots, and a long-sleeved, stretchy black shirt. A sturdy gray jacket covered me past my hips, and a cap pulled low obscured my face. A thin scarf wrapped around my neck up to my chin, leaving just my jaw and mouth fully visible. All of the items were of good quality but well worn.
I had short knives in both boots and a plasma pistol in a shoulder holster. The belt around my waist held spare magazines as well as my long combat knife. I was armed enough to give someone pause before attacking me.
Luka was dressed similarly to me, minus the coat. He wore his plasma pistol openly in a belt holster. He looked huge and intimidating, which wasn’t a bad look when hitting up mercenary hangouts.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Are you sure you want to go?”
“Where is our first stop?”
“I planned to hit Blind, BlackHeart, and Jack’s.”
He’d named the top three places I’d found during my research. At least he wasn’t leading me astray from the very beginning. “Sounds good. I propose we split up and enter separately when we get there. We can gather twice as much information.”
“Can you handle yourself for five minutes alone?”
My smile was not friendly. “I only hope some poor fool decides to find out.”
Luka decided not to be that fool. Smart man.
We exited the palace through an underground tunnel. Once out, we caught a public transport that carried us from the clean, shiny Imperial Garden, through the towering business districts, and out into the run-down industrial fringes of the city. The buildings got lower, dirtier, and darker.
It was getting close to midnight local time, but the streets still teemed with people. A city this large never fully slept, and for many of the people of this neighborhood, their day was just beginning.
The transport stopped in a shadowed alley two blocks from the bar. Luka stepped out first, scanned the area then moved aside to let me exit. The night air was a pleasant enough temperature, but the alley stank of old urine and rotting garbage.
“Last chance to back out,” he said.
“Circle the block so you come from another direction and wait at least five minutes. In the unlikely event that the bar is full of Quint soldiers wanting my head, I’ll link you so you can join in the fun.”
“I will watch until you make the door. Then you are on your own.”
“See you inside.”
I walked out of the alley with the purposeful stride and easy confidence of someone who knew exactly where she was going, and thanks to my link to the net and my prior research, I did. Blind wasn’t much to look at, just a generic black door in a low-slung plascrete building. No bouncer, no sign, no windows.
Hesitation would get me pegged as an easy mark, so I pulled open the door and strolled inside as if I’d been coming here for years. The interior of the bar was pitch black but my night-vision contact lenses adjusted quickly enough to show me the man reaching for me from my left.
I dodged his grab and pulled my knife. He backed off, hands up. “Easy, darling, I don’t want any trouble. Just making sure you’re in the right place.”
Right. The greenish gray output of my lenses was good enough to see that he was dressed in dark clothes and built like a tank. One of these days I was going to have to buy higher quality lenses so I could see in color, but I wasn’t used to having money again.
A quick glance showed a typical interior. A long bar spanned the back wall and high tables with barstools were situated throughout the room. The crowd was thick enough that nearly all of the tables were full and people stood clumped together in little groups. Music played, just loud enough to cover quiet conversation.
The man backed off farther when I didn’t sheathe my knife. “Fiesty little thing, aren’t you?” he asked from the false safety of two-meters distance.
I bared my teeth at him. “Come closer and find out.”
He chuckled and the tension in the room broke. “How about I buy you a drink instead?”
Based on the way the others in the bar were stealthily attempting to eavesdrop on our conversation, this man was important. I sheathed my knife in a show of goodwill. “I never turn down free beer.”
“A beer for the lady!” the man shouted to the bartender. He held out a hand. “I’m Finlay and this is my bar. Welcome to Blind.”
I warily shook his hand. His massive paw dwarfed mine, but his grip was firm, not overpowering. Finlay was perhaps two decades older than my own thirty, but time had treated him kindly. His hair was a lighter color, perhaps a light brown or auburn. Laugh lines fanned out from the corners of his eyes, and he had a ready smile. He waved for me to follow him and forged a path through the mingling crowd.
We were nearly to the bar when someone grabbed my ass. I caught their wrist and spun around, knife out. A drunk man blinked blearily at me. He was young, early twenties, but the alcohol had stolen any beauty he’d possessed.
“Do you like this hand?” I asked. For emphasis, I tapped it with the flat of my blade.
“No need to be hasty,” Finlay said from over my shoulder. “Wade didn’t mean any harm. Did you, Wade?”
“No?” It came out a question as Wade tried to focus on Finlay. He should’ve been cut off several drinks ago.
“Apologize to the lady.”
“Sorry, lady,” Wade said. He clearly had no idea what he was apologizing for.
“Keep your hands to yourself unless you want to lose them,” I advised. When he just blinked at me, I sighed and let him go.
“Thank you,” Finlay murmured when I rejoined him. “Wade’s working through some stuff. Not a bad kid, but not too bright right now.”
At the bar, Finlay jerked his head at the two people sitting at the end, and they grumbled but gave up their seats. He let me pick my seat and I chose the one where I could sit with my back to the wall. The bartender poured two glasses of dark beer and set them in front of us.
I raised my glass. “Cheers.”
Finlay echoed the toast and took a long drink. I sipped my own beer. After the whisky earlier, I needed to pace myself.
“So what brings you to Koan?” Finlay asked.
“You wouldn’t have anything to do with that little fireworks show earlier, would you?” His tone was decidedly less friendly.
“No.” I didn’t elaborate, but I didn’t pretend ignorance, either. The local net was wild with speculation about who could’ve been behind the attack.
“Does anyone know who’s responsible?” I asked. When he slanted a sharp glance at me, I shrugged. “Gotta make money somewhere, and I’ve got some free time on my hands.”
“Every hunter in the city is going to be after the Rogue rebels. If they’re smart, they’ve cleared out.”
Evidently that rumor wasn’t going to die on its own.
The door opened and Luka stepped inside, followed by a slightly shorter man in a long, deeply hooded coat that obscured his face. The new bouncer didn’t bother to approach them. Luka swept his gaze around the room without stopping on me, but I was positive he knew exactly where I was.
Luka made his way to the bar, and the other man disappeared into the crowd, his movement oddly familiar. The build was right. I narrowed my eyes. Surely Valentin wouldn’t. Still, I watched Luka while I tried to spot the other man.
Finlay followed my gaze. “That one’s trouble,” he warned.
“Looks like my kind of trouble,” I murmured, just to see what he’d say.
“Only if you like ’em big and dumb.”
I grinned at him. “You just described the perfect man.”
Finlay threw his head back and laughed. He clapped me on the shoulder. “You got a name, Lady Mystery?”
“Dahlia,” I said.
He lifted his glass. “It’s always my pleasure to meet a beautiful woman.”
We spent half an hour talking about inconsequential things. I kept an eye out for the hooded stranger and didn’t find him, but I did occasionally see Luka working his way through the crowd, beer in hand. Finlay told me about the bar—he’d owned it for over fifteen years and had come up with the concept during a night of drinking with friends. They’d told him it wouldn’t work and he’d set out to prove them wrong.
Eventually the conversation worked its way back to me. He looked me over, but his gaze was more professional curiosity than personal interest. “What sort of business are you in?”
“Hunting. Retrieval. Cleaning. I do whatever needs to be done.”
“So you were serious earlier? You’re going to hunt the rebels.”
“Yes.” I leaned closer and he bent my way. In a low voice, I said, “But I don’t think it’s rebels at all. At least not Rogue rebels.”
His gaze sharpened, as if he were trying to see under my hat. “What makes you think that?” he asked quietly.
“Bah,” he scoffed with a wave. “You haven’t been alive long enough to develop intuition. Come back when you’re my age.”
I smiled into my second beer. Finlay glanced at me again and a frown creased his forehead when I remained silent.
“Aren’t you going to tell me I’m wrong?” he finally asked.
“Would it do any good?”
He chuckled quietly. “Maybe you have intuition after all. Who do you think is behind the attack?”
“I’ll tell you, but only if we’re working together. I’ll do an eighty-twenty split of anything they bring in if your information leads me to them.”
“You really do think I was born yesterday.”
“How do I know you won’t just take the money and disappear?”
I stared at him for a long moment, weighing my options. I hadn’t seen Luka in a while, and I didn’t see him now. I’d rather he not get confirmation of my past, though if he dug deep enough, he’d find the connections anyway.
Finally, I pulled a black, square card from one of my inside coat pockets. A rosette of an eight-pointed dahlia was embossed on the front in glittering gold. On the back was the address of a secure digital dropbox.
Finlay’s eyes widened and he snatched the card from my hand before surreptitiously looking around to see if anyone was paying attention. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Everyone knows the Golden Dahlia retired years ago. If she catches you impersonating her, she’ll do more than kill you.”
“Semi-retired,” I said. When he still looked skeptical, I said, “Check the address. It hasn’t changed. Send me a message.”
His expression went distant as he accessed the net.
I opened the dropbox. Because the address hadn’t changed, I still got messages, I just ignored most of them.
When the message came through, I raised an eyebrow. “I’m not going to pay you ten thousand credits to let me know where the imposter is, but nice try.”
He sucked in a breath. “Holy shit.” He said it quietly, drawing out the syllables. “Why are you here?”
“Business, as I said. Business that you can help me with.”
“I didn’t expect you to be so tiny,” he said. “Did you really—”
I cut him off. “No one ever does, and yes, probably. Now do we have an agreement?”
He shook himself. “Fine. Seventy-thirty, but that’s as low as I’ll go.”
“Deal.” It was the standard split I’d been aiming for from the beginning. I held out my hand and we shook on it.
There was a new wariness to him now. Finlay hadn’t become a successful businessman by being stupid, and my reputation proceeded me. It’d been blown a bit out of proportion, as all rumors are, but there was enough truth in it that he was right to be cautious.
“Who do you think it is?” he asked.
I kept my voice low. The background music and ambient conversation would mask us from all but the most sensitive hearing augments. “I have reason to believe it’s Quint, either military or mercenary. Have you heard anything about a new crew in town?”
“New crews turn up constantly in Koan,” he said. “Though not too many from the Confederacy. I haven’t heard anything specific, but I’ll put out some feelers, see what my people can find. Should I use this address?” He patted the pocket where he’d put my card.
“Yes. I believe they’re being led by an older man with reddish-brown hair, graying at the temples. He may or may not being going by Adams. And have your people be careful. I don’t think this crew much cares about collateral damage.”
“My people know how to stay invisible.”
That’s what I was counting on and why I wanted to visit the bars in the first place. His network would be far better than one woman futilely scouring the city. Of course, that information highway worked both ways. In the unlikely event that someone was looking for the Golden Dahlia in Koan, I’d just given Finlay the perfect setup.
I drained the last of my beer. “Thanks for the drink. Keep me posted on what you find.”
He shook his head in wonder. “Never thought I’d see the day that you darkened my door, but I’m glad you did. I’ll send the word tonight for my people to keep their eyes open. It was a pleasure, Lady Mystery.”
I exited the bar and made my way back to our rendezvous point. I took a circuitous route to ensure I wasn’t being followed, then added another two blocks when I thought I caught sight of the edge of a long coat. When I looped back, the alley was empty. Twenty minutes later, Luka approached from the opposite direction.
“Is Valentin out tonight?” I asked.
Luka frowned and glanced around, looking for his wayward charge. “He’s not supposed to be. Why?”
“I saw someone who seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Learn anything?”
“Everyone is talking about the attack. The Rogue rebel rumor is spreading here, too. You and Finlay looked cozy.”
“He’s going to ask around, see if he hears anything about a crew that doesn’t belong.”
“Out of the goodness of his heart?” Luka managed to convey his skepticism without altering his tone.
I laughed quietly. “No, because I promised him thirty percent of the bounty. I hope Valentin doesn’t mind paying up.”
We went to BlackHeart next. The crowd was rougher, noisier, and looking for trouble. Luka got in a brawl with two young men too stupid to recognize the threat he presented. He laid them out with a single punch each, but then he was quickly tossed out.
I wasn’t much more successful. While I didn’t exactly get in a fistfight, I planted a fair number of elbows in kidneys and other soft tissues. No one I talked to had enough connections to find the team we were searching for. And while everyone was talking about the attack, no one seemed to have any information other than what the news outlets were reporting.
Jack’s was moderately better. Luka didn’t get thrown out, and he made contact with some people who promised to keep an eye out for a cut of the bounty. I talked to Jack, the owner, briefly, but he was more interested in getting in my pants than earning credits. His attention didn’t stray above my chest long enough for me to determine if he had an information network or not, so that was a failure.
All of my hopes rested on Finlay because I didn’t know how good Luka’s contacts actually were.
I’d kept an eye out, but I hadn’t spotted the man in the coat again.
The sky was starting to lighten by the time we returned to the palace. We entered through a smaller side tunnel that seemed suspiciously like a secret passageway, albeit one with five locked doors along its length. “Why not use the tunnel we used before?” I asked.
“Palace staff are arriving for the day.”
“Ah.” It would definitely look bad for a foreign queen to be caught sneaking in with Valentin’s closest guard. I needed to sleep before I had lunch with Margie or she’d wrangle every secret from my exhausted brain.
Luka escorted me to the door of my suite. “Do you want me to check your rooms?” he asked.
“No, thank you. And thank you for going with me tonight.”
He nodded silently and turned for Valentin’s suite. So much for our bonding time.
I let myself into the suite. Imogen stood from the sofa and looked me over.
“No. But you missed Luka in action. Two dumbasses decided he was a good target.”
“Is he hurt?” She sounded concerned.
“He might’ve bruised his knuckles on their faces. Otherwise, no.”
She grinned. “Was it beautiful? I sparred with him in the gym. He moves like liquid.”
“It was beautiful,” I agreed before changing the subject. “We’re having lunch with the dowager empress today. Before that, I’d like to go talk to Myra Shah and get her insight on the advisors. I’m going to grab a couple hours of sleep. Please be ready to leave by ten. You’re on your own for breakfast.”
“I’ll survive, somehow,” she said, her voice desert dry. “I’m glad you’re back in one piece. Sleep well.”
I was stripping out of my gear when Valentin linked to me. Luka just got back. Are you okay?
Valentin was in his suite, as expected, not out on the streets of Koan, unprotected. Relief burned through me, and I belatedly realized I’d been worried for him.
Yes, just tired, I replied. We didn’t get anything definite but we have a couple of leads. Now I’m going to crash for a few hours. Then I’m planning to go see Myra Shah before lunch with your mom. Come find me after lunch?
Of course. Sleep well. I’m glad you’re safe.
Warmth bloomed in a gentle wave. The knife-sharp pain and rage I felt every time I thought about Invictia eased, just a bit. I had friends who cared. I would weather this storm as I had all that came before.
And then I would rain hell on whoever was responsible.
If you like TQA, perhaps you would also like my debut novel, Polaris Rising. Available now: