When Ray woke again, he was no longer in the van.
Nor, he supposed, anywhere near the Nuph River.
He attempted to move and immediately discovered three things.
First, he had acquired a few more bruises than being tossed around a van could account for; second, he’d been shackled to a gurney; and third, he wasn’t alone.
“I told you it wasn’t over.”
Ray suppressed a groan and angled his head to where Sims Al-Kar stood, arms crossed over his chest.
At his side, holding a small case with an expression that Ray was sure would haunt him for the rest of his days, stood Gavin Booth.
Oh, Ray thought, shit.
* * *
Harry might have noticed the aches of the crash more, were it not for the pain in his arms, which were bound over his head and bearing the weight of his body. “So,” he said to the only other occupant in the room, “how did you find me so fast?” He thought of the tracker Eineen Marifanne had left in his jacket—perhaps he hadn’t deactivated it soon enough? Jessyn may believe House Szado wasn’t gunning for him, but—
“Let’s just say you shouldn’t drink everything a pretty girl puts in front of you,” Seth said, pacing the square room Harry had woken in.
At that, Harry thought back to Ankhar’s lounge and Lyselle setting a glass in front of him. On the House. “Isotonic tracer in the seltzer,” he said, coming back to the present.
“Poetic, since the boys tell me you used an iso on León Enris last night,” Seth observed before asking, in his turn. “How do you like the accommodations?”
Harry blinked and took in the rust-brown cell, empty but for a small table near the door. “It’s very evocative,” he replied truthfully, as the room was the spitting image of Gajor Lok’s interrogation room. “But I wouldn’t think you’d enjoy revisiting Kelmno.”
“You’d think wrong.” Seth turned to face Harry. “Then again,” he said, “your experience of the Judon was worlds different from mine.”
“You never broke!” The hiss of accusation was enough to make Harry jerk, much to his shoulders’ regret. “You were all they talked about—the Inquisitor, the zai on the ward, the fucking sek on the slop brigade.” He began to circle Harry as he spoke. “Finn-Haija is strong, Finn-Haija has honor, Finn-Haija is almost as good as a Judon. Do you have any idea how much Seth hated you for that?”
At that, Harry’s breath, already labored, caught. “Did he?”
“He wanted to rip your guts out with a hook,” Seth said, not noticing how that statement caused Harry to jerk. “And then, what did you do? You got him out of there. You broke the fuck out and brought Seth along. But what you didn’t know,” the dark eyes, shining with madness, met Harry’s, “is that Seth didn’t escape with you.”
Oh, Harry thought, shit.
* * *
He hurt in places he never thought it was possible to hurt, which, given his history, was saying something.
Every nerve in every limb was shrieking to wake the dead; his muscles, shocked past the point of agony, kept seizing—and he thought, though he couldn’t be sure, his liver was tapping the mat in surrender.
All courtesy of the fingertip nodules on Gavin’s glove, which sent untold levels of electrical voltage coursing through Ray’s body.
Over, and over, and over again.
And for how long?
And more to the point, why?
Because at no time during the process had either Gavin or Sims asked Ray a single question.
Normally, in his line of work, the sort of treatment Gavin doled out had a purpose beyond the simple delivery of suffering.
In this case, not so much.
“He’s one tough sonufabitch,” he heard Gavin say after delivering a shock. “You are one tough sonufabitch,” he repeated, leaning into Ray’s hazy vision.
Ray bared his teeth, got his jaw to unlock enough to ask, “Does that mean . . . you’ll stop?”
“I suppose you deserve a little break.” Gavin tipped his head to one side. “To get your strength up.”
Then the slim figure disappeared from Ray’s vision. The absence of Gavin allowed Ray his first chance to see the space, but there wasn’t much to it—he’d seen closets with more personality than this gray cube of a room.
It was, he thought, oddly reminiscent of the cells on Danseker.
Not a fun comparison, but memories of the prison didn’t have time to take root as Sims slid up to take Gavin’s place.
“Dude,” Ray said as lightly as he could manage. “I get you people have a beef with my employer, but that’s all he is to me, a paycheck. If you think I’m up on his secrets or whatever, you’re wasting your time and your buddy’s toys.”
“Please,” Sims said, the sneer marring his features. “If the boss thought you had anything worth spilling, you’d be at his place. Lucky for you, Gemini knows you’re a nothing from nowhere.” The sneer dropped, and all that remained was pure hatred. “Fact is, I’d kill you right now, if it weren’t for one thing.”
“And what is that one thing?” Ray asked, trying not to sound hopeful as Gavin returned to his field of vision.
“My brother needs to let off some steam.” Sims glanced at Gavin, then back down to Ray before he added, “You should never have touched her.”
At which point Sims backed away, and Ray learned firsthand that reading a file about Gavin Booth’s compulsions was a pale, pale substitute for being on the receiving end.
* * *
“If Seth didn’t escape, where did he go?” Harry asked quietly as, at long last, he began to grasp the full scope of his old partner’s injuries.
“What difference does it make?” Seth’s arms flew up, so the light glimmered over the bionic fingers of his right hand. “He was weak, too weak, so he gave up.” The hands dropped, and Seth shrugged. “And I took over. Someone had to make the hard choices.”
“What hard choices?” Harry asked.
“Kidding!” Seth grinned. “It wasn’t really that hard. I just told the Judon everything they wanted to know.”
“You talked because you had to survive,” Harry told him. “No one blames you.”
“Seth did,” the burned man spat, just as the room’s single door opened, rusted hinges squealing, and Neishi Fabria entered the room.
She still wore the shimmering excuse for a dress and killer heels. Her perfume wafted before her, a heady musk that seemed to overwhelm the tiny cell.
She carried a briefcase with her, which she set on the lonely table. “Gemini,” she greeted, her voice full and throaty. “Thank you for asking me to play.”
Oh, boy, Harry thought. “I don’t understand,” he said, as Neishi turned to open her case. “If you’re so pissed, why bring me here at all? Why not just finish the job and drop me in the Nuph?”
“Because you’re my friend,” the other man said. “I don’t want you to die, Harry.” Dark eyes, filled with confusion, stared into his, and even in the dim of the cell, Harry saw there had been a distinct change of personality. “Why did you have to come here?” Seth asked. “Didn’t you know what would happen?”
“Seth,” Neishi murmured, confirming Harry’s suspicion that Gemini was a separate entity, and that he had, at least temporarily, left the building. “Me esprezi, I think you are tired.”
“Maybe,” Seth agreed, his eyes glazing over even as Harry watched. “A little.”
“Tired. Overworked. Stressed,” Neishi continued, her attention fully fixed on the broken man. “You need your rest.”
“Rest,” Seth echoed, as if in a trance. “Yes. It has been . . . quite the day.”
“And you know, Mariska will want a progress report before tomorrow’s summit at Rija.”
“Work, work, work.” But Seth smiled as he took her wrist in his bionic hand and dropped a kiss on the pulse point. “She is a gem, is she not?” he observed, glancing at Harry, even as Neishi led him to the door. “I wouldn’t have survived without her.”
“Take your rest,” Neishi told him . . . soothing, soothing . . . before pulling the door open.
Seth sighed, then met Harry’s eyes. “We’ll talk later, partner.”
Neishi closed the door and let out a soft sigh.
“Wouldn’t have survived?” Harry asked.
She turned and her eyebrows rose. “Gemini was correct when he said your mind never stopped.” She crossed the room, looking up to meet his eyes as she came up close. “He hurts, all the time. The burns, the ghost of his arm . . . not a minute passes that he is not in pain.”
“And you? You make the pain bearable?”
“More than that.” She ran her hand over his torso as she circled behind Harry, where he felt her fingers flicker over the lump of scar tissue at the base of his spine. “I make the pain desirable.” And in that moment, Harry’s entire body jerked in agony, as if a munitions crate had, once again, landed on his spine.
And worse, somehow worse than that shattering echo, was the equally intense rush of pleasure that followed, leaving Harry trembling and sweating, simultaneously fearing and craving what came next.
“Seth and Gemini both rely on me to manage their pain,” Neishi explained, “which allows them to perform their duties to the Black Rose Sisterhood. Unfortunately, since your appearance on Ócala, Seth and Gemini have been at odds.”
Not as odd as this conversation, Harry thought.
“As you might imagine,” Neishi continued, returning to the table, and her briefcase, “this is a problem for our mistress.”
“Mistress?” he asked. “The Lady?”
“The Black Rose is larger than House Szado,” Neishi said with some disdain as her hands danced over her cache of tools. “The dama I serve wishes to learn whatever can be learned from the Inter-System Marshal who so brazenly walked into our territory, no matter how it might affect Gemini . . . or Seth.”
Harry said nothing to that.
What, really, was there to say?
But still Neishi looked up, surprise washing over her features. “It hurts you, what happened to him.”
Rasalkan, he reminded himself, hissing out a breath.
“If it helps,” Neishi said, holding up a needle the length of Harry’s palm, “this is going to hurt much more.”
This is another chapter that was originally more than one chapter. We had a lot of "getting to the places" and "describing the places" in detail. We lost a sub-sub-plot that was, in hindsight, confusing, and a few more under-five characters. Hopefully, this round we've managed the balance of keeping the characters (and readers) grounded in a tactile place, but also keep the story engaging (and readers engaged).
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