Sorry this is a little bit later than usual, but it’s because I voted early today! I put on real pants (and a mask!) and left the house and everything. Check with your local officials to see if early voting is an option in your area and beat the rush on election day!
Despite my fears that everything would change with a declaration in the open, Valentin did not try to prevent me from visiting Sawya. Instead, he sent me off with a solemn request to be careful and a lingering kiss.
Eddie and I swept through the intervening blocks with swift efficiency. I wore my cloak with the black side out so that we passed unnoticed. I would reverse it once we arrived in Block 1. Eddie wore unrelenting black from head to toe. His clothes were so dark they seemed to absorb all of the surrounding light and I wasn’t sure exactly what he had on, except that it fit close to his body.
The entrance Eddie had found was in Block 8, which was diagonally adjacent to Block 1. The two blocks barely touched, and even directly adjacent blocks were only supposed to be accessible through the airlocks, but thanks to a network of service hallways, ventilation shafts, and illegal modifications, a path had opened.
I had no doubt that it remained open because of Sawya’s influence.
Eddie slipped into a narrow opening between the back of a building and the wall of Block 8. He fiddled with a tall grate for a second, and then it silently swung open on well-oiled hinges. “After you,” he whispered. “Stop four steps in.”
I did as he asked and he followed me in, closing the grate behind us. The tunnel was dark, but thanks to my specialty contact lenses, I could see well enough, if only in shades of greenish gray.
Eddie passed me with a light touch on my arm. “Follow me and step where I step. Don’t touch anything.”
It took us nearly forty minutes to travel a couple of hundred meters. Eddie disabled the traps and alarms in front of us and then enabled them behind us. We could’ve left the path open—Sawya would’ve closed it soon enough—but it was all part of the entertainment.
Sawya had to know what was happening because for all of his skill, Eddie hadn’t been able to avoid all of the cameras and we didn’t have a security specialist to remotely disable them. But no one came to drag us out.
We stopped just before the door leading into Block 1. I reversed my cloak and raised the hood while Eddie reset the last alarm behind us. Eddie paused at the door. “Ready, boss?”
I inclined my head. We’re going in, I sent across the link to the group.
We’re in position, Valentin said. Good luck.
Eddie opened the door and I stepped through. My contacts automatically adjusted to the light. It was late, but Block 1 never really slept. The overhead lights were low and the towering ceiling consisted of display panels that displayed a sea of stars, but the buildings were brightly lit.
I led Eddie deeper into the block. Unlike the rest of the station, Block 1 had plenty of empty space. Every square centimeter was worth more than the entire Rogue Coalition, but wide streets and green parks nestled around the bases of tall buildings that housed every form of entertainment from casinos and shopping to live fights and sexual fantasies.
It was designed to look like a city on-planet and the illusion held up fairly well—as long as one didn’t look too closely.
The streets were filled with well-dressed pedestrians. They strolled slowly, showing off the latest couture and trying to blind each other with the amount of jewelry on display. It was such a difference from the rest of the station that it felt like a dream—which was part of the appeal.
Black-clad bodyguards trailed behind their clients, shadows hinting at the darkness hiding beneath the block’s pretty lights.
Eddie fell in behind me, just another guard protecting his capricious charge.
Sawya’s building was impossible to miss. It was dead center and clad in silver. It glowed like a beacon.
Who do they think they are? Eddie breathed across the link.
I’d added the feed from my contacts to our group link, so the others could see what I was seeing. I let them marvel for a moment before I replied, Sawya is the most powerful person on CP57. Who do you think funded the station’s independence?
Behind me, Eddie blew out a breath.
I approached the door. A uniformed woman with a perfect smile opened it before I could reach for the handle. “Welcome,” she said.
I inclined my head and swept inside, Eddie on my heels.
The lobby was three stories tall and dripping in crystal chandeliers. They should’ve clashed with the sleek, simple furniture and minimalist design, but it worked. Elevators whisked clients up to whatever pleasure they desired.
I bypassed the main elevators and headed for a secluded alcove guarded by five large men in silver suits. The largest stepped in front of me as I approached. He scowled at me without speaking.
I suppressed a smile. “Dahlia.”
The guard’s eyes flickered as he communicated with someone. He stepped aside.
The alcove housed a single elevator that stood open. There was no call button. I entered with Eddie, close enough together that the door couldn’t close between us—something I absolutely would not put past Sawya. The door slid closed behind us. There were no buttons inside, either, but after a beat the elevator smoothly whisked us upward.
We had not been searched for weapons, which sent its own message about Sawya’s confidence. They knew exactly who I was and what I carried, and they had determined that I wasn’t a threat.
I hoped I wouldn’t have to prove them wrong.
The elevator was lined with mirrors and I took a second to check my appearance. I lowered my hood and fixed my hair. I pushed the cloak over my shoulders so it looked more like a cape, a river of gold down my back.
The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and my connection to the net died. The constant buzz in the back of my mind went silent. Behind me, Eddie sucked in a surprised breath. I’d warned everyone that it was possible, but even braced for it, it was a shock to the system.
“I’m okay,” he murmured.
Taking him at his word, I strode from the elevator into an optical illusion as beautiful as it was dizzying. We were in the penthouse. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrapped the edges of the room, giving a glimpse of the rest of the block.
But the floor… the floor was a piece of art.
It looked like we were standing on the top of a building made entirely of glass. Tiny virtual people moved on the various floors below us. In the center, right were Sawya’s desk sat, was a long open drop straight to the ground floor. Sawya stood next to the desk and they appeared to be standing on air.
Sawya wore a long, silver, sleeveless dress with sharp, wide shoulders. A deep, narrow V-neck dropped to their bellybutton. The floor-length skirt was a frothy swirl of multiple lightweight layers that flowed around their legs like a cloud. The color made their pale skin look even more delicate, as did the smoky eyeshadow and pale lipstick. Their short blond hair was a riot of curls, carefully tousled just so.
They were gorgeous and they knew it.
They held out a hand, and I stepped forward and brought it to my lips with a shallow bow. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.”
“Darling, it’s been too long,” they said. They sent me a canny glance. “I heard a rumor that you went all straight and proper.”
I laughed. “Does that sound like me?”
They smiled, then their eyes moved over my shoulder. “Who is this delicious delicacy who slipped through my alarms like a spirit?”
I motioned Eddie forward. “This is Eddie. He’s mine.”
Sawya pouted, then waved a hand at Eddie. “Be a doll and fix us a drink, won’t you? The bar is over there.” They gestured toward the wall with the elevator. A half-dozen guards stood like stone sentinels in their silver suits. More would be hidden nearby.
Eddied bowed. “Of course. Do you have a preference?”
Sawya cast their eyes to the ceiling, which mirrored the stars shown outside. “Something smoky, with a bite. Fix yourself one, too.”
Eddie withdrew with a nod.
Sawya sat in a bright blue wingback chair and waved me to a low black sofa. Below my feet, the tiny virtual people went about their lives. Or perhaps they weren’t virtual at all. Sawya could be collecting enough data for a real-time display.
“Do you like my new floor?”
“Yes, it’s incredible. Is it accurate or a simulation?”
Sawya smiled and didn’t answer.
I chuckled. “Fair enough.”
“Why didn’t you come to see me when you arrived?”
“I was trying to keep a low profile.”
Sawya hummed. “You know who did come to see me?” They met my eyes. “Commander Tony Adams.”
I kept my posture and expression relaxed through sheer force of will. “You always did keep the most interesting company,” I murmured neutrally.
They laughed. “I met him as a lark. He’s quite the nasty little man, but so full of delicious information. And he had a great deal to say about you.”
“I’m sure he did. I have plenty to say about him, too.”
Eddie returned with three lowball glasses balanced on a small tray. He presented the tray to Sawya. “A spicy whisky sour with a twist,” he said. “Please enjoy.”
“Should I be worried about poison?” Sawya asked nonchalantly as they picked up a glass.
Eddie grinned. “Not unless you poison your own bar.”
Sawya’s eyes lit up.
I huffed out an amused breath as Eddie handed me one of the remaining two glasses. “Don’t give them ideas, Eddie.”
“He’s darling,” Sawya breathed. “Can I keep him?”
I rolled my eyes. “Not unless he wants to be kept.”
Sawya turned their considerable charm on Eddie. “Consider it, pet,” they purred. “I would blow your mind.” A playful smile tipped up one corner of their mouth. “And a few other things, too.”
A flush climbed Eddie’s cheeks. Sawya laughed in delight and pointed at the other end of the sofa. “Sit with us.”
Eddie sat, his color still high.
Sawya sipped the drink and closed their eyes in delight. “Delicious.”
I cautiously tasted my own drink. I wasn’t too worried about poison, but I needed to stay clearheaded. The flavor exploded on my tongue—sweet, sour, spicy… the drink was delicious.
Sawya swirled the alcohol in their glass, then looked up and met my eyes. “Let’s talk business, shall we? You are worth an incredible amount of money right now. So tell me why I shouldn’t just hand you over and be done with it.”
I feigned ease and waved a hand around the room. “You already have an incredible amount of money.”
“You know what they say: more is better.”
“But friends are priceless.”
Sawya tilted their head. “Are we friends?”
“More than you and Adams, I’ll wager.”
“That is a dangerous bet,” Sawya warned lightly, but their expression remained clear and calm.
I shrugged delicately. “Perhaps. But did he even attempt to come in some way other than the front door? Did he sidle and scheme and play, or did he demand and bully and shout? And most importantly of all, did he respect you, or did you see the truth in his eyes, when he thought himself clever enough to get away with it?”
I took another tiny sip of my drink. I’d pushed as much as I could, and Sawya was right—we weren’t exactly friends. We’d worked together often enough back in the day, but it had been more of a close business relationship than a friendship.
I still didn’t know if they had known that Jax was unreliable and connected us anyway, but Adams had come to see them, and I hadn’t been picked up, so they hadn’t given my location away yet. I had a reason to hope.
“You always were an idealist,” Sawya murmured. “It’s good to see that some things never change.”
I wasn’t sure the description was entirely accurate, but I lifted my glass in a silent toast.
“I’ve heard rumors that the new emperor is trying to end to the war. Are they true?”
Dealing with Sawya was like walking a tightrope. There were times to deflect and times to answer honestly, and knowing which was which was part of the dance.
“Yes,” I said after a moment. “And Adams threatens that peace.”
Sawya’s eyes narrowed. “War is very profitable.” I met their gaze without flinching. They sighed. “But it’s never been to my taste.”
On the other end of the sofa, Eddie blew out a heavy breath. I knew exactly how he felt.
“What are your plans for Adams?” Sawya asked.
I smiled and said nothing.
Sawya laughed. “You know I love it when you play hard to get, darling, but you must know I’m not going to turn you over to that nasty little worm. We are friends, of a sort, and I make it a priority not to stab my friends too often. Plus, I owe you for Jax, though you took care of that little problem rather admirably.”
I dipped my head in acknowledgment of the unspoken apology. Sawya rarely made promises, but when they did, they stuck to them. Their word was solid gold, and I’d never heard of them going back on it.
So, for now, I was safe.
I blew out a breath and relaxed a tiny fraction. “My plans depend on what happens during capture. If we manage to catch him alive, he’ll stand trial in Koan. If not, I won’t shed any tears.”
Sawya tilted their head and lifted an eyebrow. “You would let him live?”
My answering smile was edged in darkness. “It wouldn’t be my first choice, no. But I also don’t want to give him a chance to become a martyr.”
“He’s surrounded himself with zealots,” Sawya agreed. “And he’s planning something.”
My eyebrows rose. “You don’t know what?”
Sawya chuckled. “While I appreciate your faith my being all-knowing, there are some things that even I can’t easily uncover. Someone warned him about me, and he’s being very careful.”
Eddie shifted in place. When Sawya’s attention turned to him, he asked, “Is Arx in danger?”
I’d cautioned Eddie to stay as quiet as possible, but I understood his need for reassurance. I wanted to know the answer, too.
Sawya’s eyes softened. “No, I don’t think so. The whispers I’m hearing indicate that it may be something here.”
“Tell me where he is and I’ll find out for you,” I said with studied casualness.
The corner of their mouth lifted. “It’s difficult for a dead man to speak.”
“If you want him alive for questioning, I’ll personally deliver him wrapped in a pretty bow.”
Sawya leaned forward, like a predator scenting blood. “Oh, no, you misunderstand. I want him dead. I want his plan stopped. And I want CP57 to lead the treaty negotiations between Kos and Quint.”
I took another sip of my drink while I mulled the offer and the repercussions. “Why do you want him dead?”
Their smile was sharp and vicious. “My reasons are my own.”
I didn’t know what Adams had done, but whatever it was, it had monumentally pissed off Sawya. They usually didn’t involve themselves quite so directly in someone’s demise, instead relying on veiled hints and oblique suggestions to get the outcome they wanted. This one was personal.
“Only two of those are within my ability,” I said at last. “The first two, in case it wasn’t clear.”
“Are you so sure?”
I nodded. “I do not have that kind of influence.”
Sawya sat back, a dangerous light in their eyes. “Perhaps I should have your beau brought to me so I can ask him myself.”
It took every bit of my training to sit in place, calm and placid. I tilted my drink from side to side and thought about all of the ways I could kill them before their guards noticed anything amiss. I let that knowledge seep into my expression. My tone, however, remained deceptively mild. “I would not recommend it.”
Sawya threw their head back and burst into peals of laughter. After getting themselves under control, they delicately wiped at their eyes. “Your expression,” they gasped before breaking into yet more laughter.
It was one of the better outcomes, all things considered.
“I would not have believed that the Golden Dahlia would fall for him of all people, but it actually raises my estimation of him. Very well. Because we are friends, I will give you the information you want on Adams. In return, you will ensure that whatever he is planning fails and that he doesn’t survive. And you will do your best to persuade your beau to let CP57 negotiate the peace.”
I turned the wording over in my mind, looking for pitfalls, but there were surprisingly few. “What if Adams puts his plan into motion before I get to him?”
“Then you will clean it up.”
“I will do what I can, but I am only one woman. I may require your assistance again.”
Sawya shot me an unreadable look, but they inclined their head in agreement.
“Very well,” I said. “I agree.”
Sawya clapped their hands and my net connection came back in a noisy rush. The group link reconnected and everyone started talking at once.
Quiet! We are fine. Don’t distract me, I told the group. I will update you in a few minutes.
The link quieted.
Sawya studied me with a shrewd expression, like they knew exactly how many people had just shouted in the back of my mind. And perhaps they did. I wouldn’t put anything past them, not in their own tower.
“I will send you all of the information I have on Adams,” they said. “If you need something else, you know how to contact me. And while I do adore seeing your lovely face in person, I will respond electronically, just this once.”
I bowed my head. “Thank you.”
Sawya rose, and Eddie and I stood, too.
They escorted us to the elevator. The door opened as we approached. “I expect this mess cleaned up in the next few days. I don’t like vermin running loose on my station.”
“I will move as fast as possible,” I promised.
They nodded and waved us into the elevator. Eddie and I stepped inside, then turned back to the door.
Sawya raised a hand in farewell. “Tell your team to stop lurking outside my walls.”
The doors began to close, but just before they touched, Sawya added, “And I expect an invite to the wedding.”
The last thing I saw was their wink before the doors sealed and reflected my stunned expression back at me.