“You are late,” Mariska Breeshandra declared as Fayla stepped into the communications hub, adding her holo image to that of the gathered Black Rose council.
“My apologies,” Fayla addressed the faces surrounding her. “I was dealing with the repercussions from an incident at Ankhar. The damage was considerable, but I believe the club will be ready to open at the usual time this evening.”
“Your care of Black Rose assets is notable,” she heard a voice say from a screen at her left.
A male voice.
Fayla turned to Mariska, the Affályur—chosen leader—of the Black Rose Sisterhood. “Since when does this council allow offilan to join their meetings?”
“Since the offilan in question has earned this council many millions of credits and has a legitimate grievance which requires our aid to rectify.”
Fayla angled to face the man. “And what grievance has come to your door?”
“Harry Finn.” The name slid through gritted teeth. “My men tell me you allowed him uncontested access to Ankhar last night.”
“Hardly uncontested,” Fayla countered. “As Mr. Al-Kar and Mr. Booth should know, being the ones who delivered Mr. Finn to me soon after his appearance at the club. I monitored the interview, and as I detected no dangerous intent toward the club or the Black Rose, I allowed him safe haven for as long as he remained within Ankhar’s walls.” Here she turned to the others on the council as she added, “A surety broken within the hour, when Al-Kar and Booth turned my lounge into a shooting gallery, forcing Finn and his bodyguard to flee the premises. And shortly after their departure, both Mr. Finn and his bodyguard were abducted.” She turned her attention back to Gemini. “An abduction I learned of because my operative, Jessyn Breeshandra, was with them, at the time.”
“Why in the Mother’s name was Jessyn present?” Mariska asked.
Fayla met Mariska’s glare with an arched brow. “Your niece is skilled at discovering secrets. I had hoped she would learn more of the two humans and their purpose. Sadly, the attack prevented her from discovering anything substantial.” She flicked her eyes toward Gemini. “But it cannot be that much of a loss, given you have Mr. Finn in your custody.”
“About that . . .” Gemini grimaced and rubbed his bionic hand over the back of his neck.
“It seems Finn escaped,” Mariska inserted, her voice flat. “As did the jammer.”
“I see,” Fayla replied, sharing a telling look with the other council members.
“I’m not sure you do,” Mariska countered. “Both men were held in different locations, under heavy guard, and yet both managed to free themselves. Or,” she added, “someone helped them free themselves.”
“Beyond that,” Gemini added, “while Neishi’s time with Finn was brief, she did discover that Finn has a surprising resistance to interrogation.”
“Interesting, but hardly helpful,” Dama Alia, who held the office of second chair, observed.
“You’d think,” Gemini agreed. “Except for the fact that Neishi uncovered the reason why Harry Finn is so resistant.”
“And that would be?” Mariska asked, her voice edging toward impatience.
“According to Domina Neishi, Finn has undergone psionic conditioning.” Gemini paused, meeting the gaze of each of the eight other Damas before his eyes came to rest on Fayla. “Rasalkan conditioning.”
Azfylnja, Fayla thought.
* * *
Mariska Breeshandra closed out the Council session with a reminder of the importance of the upcoming summit.
If all went as planned, the alliance would strengthen both the Black Rose and Draconis positions in the Known.
It would also provide both cartels a better chance of ending the unusual scourge of deaths each organization had recently suffered.
Of course, it was those very murders that had finally convinced the Brotherhood—and the more reluctant Sisters—to acquiesce to Mariska’s planned merger.
But for now, she waited as the damas winked out one by one, until only she and the holo of Gemini remained.
A heartbeat later, Neishi Fabria’s image joined him.
“My apologies, Dama,” Gemini began.
“Your apology means nothing,” Mariska told him. “What I value are results. You are, I presume, searching for Finn and Slater?”
“Keep on it,” she said. “The sooner this issue is contained, the better.”
He nodded again, then turned to Neishi, who placed her hand over his ravaged features in a gesture of farewell.
As Mariska watched, the man’s body gave a shudder of pain, underscored by an undeniable pleasure. Then the moment ended, and Gemini stepped out of view.
Neishi’s eyes tracked to her right, and a few seconds later turned back to Mariska. “He is gone.”
“Good,” Mariska said. “Now tell me about this conditioning of Finn’s. Did you truly sense such a thing, or was it a way to turn the others to Gemini’s cause?”
“I sensed it,” Neishi said, her expression serious. “There was a pattern to his responses, one that repeated. A telepath would catch more detail, but from an empathic standpoint, the more pain I gave him, the further away he went.”
“Where did he go?”
“A place of burning and desolation. A place so real to him, I smelled the smoke, experienced his anguish. I’ve encountered the like before,” Neishi said. “It was the czozprjz andi.”
Mariska hissed out a breath.
The technique Neishi spoke of was more than conditioning.
Psionic adepts used the czozprjz andi as a method of healing traumas, but there were also instances of spy craft, imprinting false memories on an operative, in order to protect their legend.
But no Rasalkan had ever used the czozprjz andi on an offilan.
“I will keep it in mind,” she said, “but for now, how bad is Finn’s escape for us? Not for the Sisterhood,” she clarified. “For us.”
“It might not have been bad at all,” Neishi said, her expression troubled. “Except I’ve only just had the chance to return to his cell and found my toolkit is missing. I believe Finn took it with him.”
“How would that prove dangerous to us?”
“Dama,” Neishi began, “mistress . . . it held evidence.”
Mariska’s eyes narrowed. “Evidence?”
“Of the killings.”
Mariska didn’t ask which killings. Neishi would never bother her over a common death. “What sort of evidence?”
“You recall how you wished the deaths to have a signature? So the Brotherhood and the other damas would have no doubts we faced a common enemy?”
“Of course I recall,” Mariska snapped. She’d even chosen the detail that would mark the killings, some sort of holy words she’d once heard a Terran capo say, right before she had him killed. “Wait.” She stared at the woman before her. “Are you saying you kept the eyes?”
Neishi didn’t need to respond. Her face told the story well enough.
“Are you mad? No,” Mariska said as she remembered to whom she spoke. “Don’t answer that.” She paused, loosening the fingers she’d clenched. “I don’t believe I have to stress how important it is you get that case back.”
“Then I suggest you get to it. Just remember,” she said, “every single soldier from every House on planet will be looking for Finn. If he still has the briefcase, and anyone other than you were to open it . . .”
“They will not live to tell what they have seen,” Neishi promised.
“Or,” Mariska offered, already spinning the problem, “we employ another strategy.”
“Strategy, Mistress?” Neishi’s expression was curious, but willing.
And once Mariska explained the plan already formulating in her mind, the smile that struck fear in the hearts of anyone who spent quality time with Neishi Fabria had returned.
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