Jessup woke quite suddenly, momentarily uncertain of his surroundings, but with wakefulness came the realization he was in his study.
Apparently, he’d dropped off in his favorite chair after seeing Killian Del, last of the guests to depart, to his carriage.
He’d meant to turn into his office, to see if there were any teleph messages waiting on the machine (he had several operatives out looking for Quinn) but had, at Celia’s suggestion, joined her for a nightcap in the study.
Jessup couldn’t have declined without an explanation, and he’d not yet told her Quinn had been released.
She would have to know eventually, but not yet.
Not just yet.
So he’d joined his wife for a drink, and she’d entertained him with her stinging observations of the various and sundry ristos who’d been their guests, but Jessup must have been much more tired than he thought, for he’d fallen asleep.
Tired, his querying mind prodded, or old? Too old for the vibrant woman he’d married—the woman he’d killed for—and she’d left him there, snoring in his favorite chair.
Unbidden, his fingers stroked over the chair’s leather arm, taking comfort in its battered familiarity.
This chair had, after all, been through many a change with Jessup, following him from post to post, all the way back to the Corps Academy.
Jessup often boasted he could trace his career in the various dings, stains, and scuffs that marked the oak-tanned aurochs-hide, from the wine-stain of graduation day, to the nick from an Adidan’s sword in Upper Allianz, when Jessup’s regiment was forced to evacuate.
That was the same post where Celia had missed the evacuating airship, and thus been stranded, leading to the 12th Company being sent to extract her.
This in turn led to Gideon Quinn setting eyes on Celia, and that had led to a cycle of violence and treachery which Jessup had struggled nearly seven years to forget.
On the arm of the chair, Jessup’s hand clenched in a fist.
He looked up to see Celia had entered the room.
Her gown, a miracle of silk in her accustomed red, was held casually over one shoulder by a slender twist which, to his sleep-addled mind, looked more like a wound than fabric.
“I fell asleep,” he said, struggling to shed his exhaustion.
“I know.” She crossed the room, her movements sinuous beneath the sleek fabric of her dress. “I didn’t have the heart to wake you, but then I got lonely.” She held out a hand and he, smitten as ever, took it, rising sluggishly from his chair to follow her, an old dog on a young woman’s leash, out of the study.
At the base of the stairs, he paused. He’d been worried about something, had he not?
Quinn, he recalled. He’d been wanting to check on news of Gideon Quinn. “Should have dealt with him the first time,” he murmured.
“Dealt with whom?” A step above, Celia looked at him. One hand gathered her gown aside to reveal a length of leg. “Jess?”
“What?” He shook his head and forced himself to focus on his wife. “Nothing. Just an old annoyance. Nothing that can’t wait until morning.”
“Good,” she said, starting up the stairs again, “because I will be wanting all of your attention.” Looking over her left bare shoulder, she sent him a smile—a private smile that promised delights of a nature he’d never known until laying eyes on her.
Helpless as he’d been the first time he’d seen that smile, Jessup followed, thoughts of Gideon Quinn quieting to a dull echo.
All he knew, as she opened the door to the bedroom, was her smile, the soft sigh of her dress, her fingers in his hand, tightening in anticipation.
And then he was inside the bedroom, and there, sprawled at his feet in the flickering light of the fireplace, was Gideon Quinn himself.
Jessup froze, staring at his enemy.
He didn’t know what was more surprising; that Gideon, too, had aged in the six plus years, or that he was lying, unconscious (and more than a little battered), on the floor of his bedchamber. He looked up. “Celia?” her name was a question.
“Yes, I know, and believe me, I would love to explain,” she said, moving close and placing a single, chaste kiss on his lips. “But I’m afraid we’ve simply run out of time.”
“Celia, whatever are you talking about? Why is he here?” he asked.
Or rather, meant to ask.
In fact, he only got as far as “Celia—” before Nahmin, who’d been waiting in the shadows, stepped up and slid a cold black blade between Jessup’s ribs, piercing his heart, so that the rest of his questions went forever unvoiced, and hence unanswered.
As he fell, however, Jessup did have time to wonder why Nahmin, bloodied blade in hand, was offering Celia a salute—and not the standard Colonial Corps salute, either, but the odd tap of the forehead that the Coalition forces favored.
Then he was on the floor, staring at the hated Gideon Quinn, also on the floor, which made him wonder…