“Her aunt,” Mollin said for the umpteenth time.
“Yes.” Harry paused in the midst of his fifth set of pushups. “I was there.”
There being back in Fayla’s lounge as he, Ray, and Mollin learned that the leader of the Black Rose syndicate was a woman named Mariska Breeshandra.
And according to Arrion Degas, Mariska was Jessyn Breeshandra’s aunt.
Umpteenth and one, Harry thought, sitting back on his heels as conditioned air chilled the perspiration on his skin. “I get it plays like those serial holo-dramas you’re addicted to—”
“I am not—”
“—but it’s not anything we can control,” Harry continued over the protest. “Whereas finding out the connection between Neishi Fabria’s eyeball collection and their original owners is.”
Mollin, hunkering on a weight bench to Harry’s right, shot him a look that more than made up for his lack of pigment change before turning back to the search he’d begun back in Fayla’s lounge.
They’d still be in the lounge if Harry, mindful of his remaining aches, hadn’t dragged Mollin out to the gym Arrion had directed them to. And, while Harry didn’t recognize all the equipment, there were free weights, a pull-up bar, and a wooden training dummy, all of which he made use of before diving to the mat for a floor work rotation.
“What else do you want to know?” Mollin asked, swiping the central holo screen to the right so the results of his search shot out to hover above his computer to form a holographic gallery of murder. “We’ve matched bodies to the names you gave me, and Kaneth Sooks I already had from your night at the Needle, so—”
Harry rose from the floor with a huff. “So, now we need to learn what the victims did to make Neishi want them dead.”
“What makes you believe they weren’t thrill kills? Sooks was a low-level pros,” he gestured to the holo of the young sex-worker. “The ideal target for a ripper.”
“Sooks, maybe,” Harry agreed, “but the others from her collection?” He nodded toward the other data screens hovering in front of Mollin. “They don’t fit the vic profile for a ripper. Esperenz was a middle-aged financial advisor on Lup; Bhkav, a Suradi District Commissioner a week away from her retirement; Korian worked for CF Galaxy News . . .” He shrugged and yanked off his T-shirt, using it to towel the sweat off his face. “I’m not saying Neishi wouldn’t go full-on ripper. I just don’t think she’d go for these people if she were jonesing.”
“I see your point,” Mollin said while Harry scrubbed himself with his shirt. “Are you aware there’s a stack of towels over there?” He pointed to the room’s rear wall.
“Yes, but like everything else in here, they’re really white and pretty. They remind me of my grandmother’s guest towels which, contrary to any sense, not even guests were allowed to use.” Harry returned to the original topic. “In addition to the backgrounds on the DBs, we need Neishi Fabria’s whereabouts at times of death.”
“On it.” Mollin shifted on the weight bench to look at Harry. “But if you don’t mind my asking, why are we pursuing this? I mean, how does that help with bringing in Gemini?”
“I don’t know how it will help until I know,” Harry said, crossing to the gym’s cold unit and looking inside to find a stash of bottled water. “Right now, it’s just data, just a dot.” He grabbed a bottle, uncapped it, and used it to gesture toward the holo screens bearing the information on eight murdered people. “I need to connect it to another dot, which will lead to another. Eventually it’ll make a picture.”
“And once you have that picture?”
“I’ll frame it,” Harry said, taking a slug of water. “Worst-case scenario, none of this is related to Gemini, but we still have a shot at putting away a killer.”
Mollin tapped his feet before giving a brief nod. “This run will take a little longer,” he said, straightening his spine with a crack. “Neishi may have used aliases, private transpo. I can put out scattershot searches to match ID with space port intake, street surveillance, and any hotels—the usual.” He paused a second, watching Harry down the rest of the water. “It’d go a lot faster if I had access to Ray’s ship.”
Harry finished the water. “Talk to the Lady.” He capped the bottle and three-pointed it into the recycler.
Both men turned to the gym’s open archway to see the Lady, herself. The flowing white robe they’d last seen her in had been replaced by a slightly less flowing dress in black that left her arms uncovered. The fabric, a shiny substance that made Harry think of Fayla’s eyes, nipped in at the waist and fell to just above her ankles, showing her feet to be bare.
“Mollin wants to go out and play with Ray’s toys,” he said, balling his shirt in his hand as he faced her.
“I see.” Her eyes moved to where Mollin sat. “Not yet. I haven’t enough staff to escort you, and the streets are not safe.”
Mollin sighed and turned back to his screens.
She returned her attention to Harry. “We need to talk.”
* * *
After Harry and Mollin’s departure, Ray and Arrion spent a few minutes sparring around each other’s histories, with neither coming out ahead. By the time Arrion’s comm buzzed, calling him away, all Ray had learned about the other man was he’d been born on New Verdun and was unswervingly loyal to House Szado.
Alone in the lounge, Ray considered going in search of an exit. Warnings against such a departure aside, he did have a mission to fulfill, and said mission didn’t include chilling in Fayla Szado’s snazzy digs.
But rather than follow through on the thought, he remained at the bar, staring at the bottle of vodka.
“You are troubled.”
He turned to find Jessyn standing in the doorway, dressed in a flowing green gown that covered her from throat to bare feet.
What did it say that simply seeing her caused his mouth to water, his heart to trip? Moreover, as she entered, he felt something tugging at the edges of his psyche, like a ripple in an otherwise still pond. “I’m not the only one troubled,” he said, stepping away from the bar to meet her in the middle of the room.
“No,” she admitted, her gaze dipping to rest on his shoulder. “You are not.”
“Hey.” He reached out and tipped her chin so he could see into those blue eyes. “What is it? I mean, I know we have this thing, but—”
“A moment,” she said, stepping away so suddenly he thought he’d done something to offend her, but then the woman who’d brought in the breakfast with young Tahna came bustling into the room and he understood that Jessyn had sensed the other Rasalkan’s approach.
“Domina. Mr. Slater,” Quaila greeted the pair.
“Diotessa.” Jessyn’s greeting included a hand over her heart.
Diotessa, Ray thought, automatically translating the word to Priestess.
But how did he know that? And why would a priestess be bringing room service?
“Both sound questions, Mr. Slater.”
He blinked, saw both Quaila and Jessyn studying him—Quaila with amusement and Jessyn with the calm he recognized as a kind of armor.
An armor that, apparently, did little to fool Diotessa Quaila, given the way she looked at Jessyn, arched a brow, and made a tch sound before asking, “You have not told him?”
“Told him what?” Ray asked. “Told me what?” He turned toward Jessyn. “Is this about the—”
“About the psionic link you share, yes,” Quaila cut in, then looked at Jessyn. “You know what you have to do.”
* * *
“Yes,” Harry agreed as Fayla crossed the room. “We do need to talk. Starting with, is Neishi Fabria a hitter for your people?”
Her foot hitched as she took a step toward him. “Not to my knowledge.” She regained the lost molecule of composure and continued on until she stood in front of him. “She has a specialized skill set—”
“Is that what we’re calling it?”
“—but if she has been employed for more permanent situations, the information hasn’t reached my sources,” she finished the sentence. Her gaze dipped to his chest.
“I’ll just get out of your way.” Mollin closed down his comp and climbed off the bench.
“Maybe you could ask those sources to dig a little on it?” Harry suggested.
“Which is what I’m doing,” Mollin said as he reached the door. “Oh, you mean her.”
“And why would I do that?” Fayla asked Harry in return.
“I’ll be—somewhere,” Mollin said from the door. “Maybe the game room. If anyone’s interested.”
“Don’t get lost in Sudoku,” Harry called after him before focusing on the woman before him. “Where were we?”
“You were asking me for another favor.”
“Technically, I didn’t ask you to pull me out of Seth’s historical recreation.”
“Would you like me to put you back?”
She brushed the fingers of her right hand over his chest. “You’ve been sweating.”
“It is not unpleasant.”
“And yet,” he said, “I don’t think you came here for an aerobic workout.”
“All too true,” she said as Harry pulled his shirt back on. “I came to tell you we have a problem.”
“Just one?” Harry tugged the T-shirt into place, made an attempt to smooth his hair.
“This one may be bigger than all the others,” she told him, and drew something from the folds of her dress pocket.
“I have a hard time imagining—” he began, and then he saw what she held.
It was the still shot Harry had tucked in his go-bag, the photo of a young woman with a crooked smile he carried with him, wherever he went.
“That’s private,” he said, going dangerously still.
* * *
“What you speak of is private,” Jessyn said, her voice dipping to subarctic levels and her eyes flashing cold.
“I wish it could be private,” Quaila said to Jessyn. “But you know—more than any other Rasalkan—it is not. Can never be. Not if you or your man have any desire to survive.”
“Survive?” Ray stepped forward. “Wait a minute—”
* * *
“No,” Fayla told Harry, matching his stillness with her own. “It is not. There is nothing private between us. Not after I have, twice, put my own House, my own plans, at risk on your behalf.”
“And I didn’t ask—”
“Only to learn, not only are you carrying a picture of a Rasalkan woman—but that you allowed that woman to train you in Rasalkan techniques.”
* * *
“Ray.” Jessyn stepped between him and the priestess.
He stared down into the blue eyes, saw the anger he was experiencing bubbling in the cool depths and stepped back, hands up in grudging surrender.
Jessyn turned to face Quaila. “What you say is true. I, of all Rasalkans, understand the gravity of this situation. But . . . this bond was not something we chose.”
“Of course not,” Quaila said, her expression softening. “But I doubt that truth will matter to the Matriarchy.” She stepped forward, held out her hands, and Jessyn took them in her own. “It did not matter with your mother.”
* * *
Harry’s head was shaking, his eyes ice as he met Fayla’s challenging gaze. “That’s not only not true, it’s ridiculous.”
“Neishi knows,” Fayla told him with a hiss. “While she was torturing you, she caught the edges of a psionic failsafe—a trick unique to our kind. She believes this failsafe is the reason you were so resistant to the Judon Inquisitors.”
This time he said nothing, only met her accusing gaze with one of utter rebellion.
“I want the truth,” she said.
“Like the song says, you can’t always get what you want.”
* * *
“Mother?” Ray asked.
Neither woman responded, but Ray felt a buzz in the back of his skull, and understood, without knowing how he understood, the two Rasalkans were communicating.
Then the buzzing stopped, abruptly enough Ray had to take a steadying step.
Next to him, Jessyn’s head dipped in a short nod.
“And the Lady?” Quaila asked, apparently continuing the silent conversation.
Jessyn’s shoulder hitched up in a shrug. “If she does not already know, I will tell her, but chances are very good she was aware of the sáttmalli before I was.”
“Very likely,” Quaila agreed. “Very likely, indeed.” And then she turned and left the room.
“Sáttmalli?” Ray echoed.
“A Rasalkan term,” she explained, “as you will have guessed.”
“I got that part,” he agreed. “And I’m guessing it has something to do with the—this,” he waved a finger between himself and her.
“And I’m also guessing that said connection is a problem?”
“Again, you would be correct.” She took deep breath and released it before continuing. “Two, in particular. The first is that Rasalkan society does not allow for anything beyond casual coupling with other species. And when I say does not allow, I mean the penalties for breaking this stricture are—excessive.”
“A little xenophobia can go a long way,” he murmured. “And second?”
“And the second, and possibly worst for the both of us,” she said, “is that when two individuals become bonded, as we have, it is,” here she hesitated, then continued in a rush, “it is a permanent situation. In effect,” she raised her hands in a helpless gesture, “you and I are married.”
“Right,” he said.
Then he said, “Okay.”
And then he said, “I need a drink.”
* * *
“Do you recall,” Fayla asked, “my response when you said was nice to meet me?”
His head tilted. “You said it wouldn’t be.”
“Yes,” she said. “That.”
And then he felt his skull explode.
No, not explode.
If it had exploded, he’d be dead, the pain over, nothing but a headless Harry, splattered over the white room.
This, his few cogent neurons told him, was more along the lines of being stung by a few million wasps.
From the inside.
I take no pleasure in this, he heard/felt through the initial torrent. But I must know.
Then the next wave hit, taking him under.
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