Sims arrived at the top of the steps at the same time Gavin emerged from the corridor through which he and Neishi had taken Gemini.
“Brother,” Gavin said, joining Sims at the terrace rail.
Sims jerked his chin in greeting. “How’s the Boss?” he asked before his eyes were drawn back to Jessyn, who was with Arrion now, and introducing a pack of Draconis soldiers to another pack Black Rose operatives.
Slater, he noted, had moved to the bar, seemingly to flirt with the bartender.
Weird, given he’d been all over Jessyn not two minutes ago.
“He’s been better.” Gavin leaned on the rail. “Neishi’s doing what she can.”
“I’ll bet,” Sims said, then shook his head. “If you’re free,” he added, “I could use an extra pair of eyes.”
“Sure thing.” Gavin whipped out his switchblade. “Whose?”
“What?” Sims stepped back, then hissed out a breath. “No one’s. I mean, I need you to keep your eyes on Jessyn.”
Gavin gritted his teeth, but he closed the blade. “Why?”
“I’m not sure.” Sims glanced to where a short guy in a hoodie was sidling up to Slater, and Jessyn was angling toward Dré Altimus, who’d rejoined the party without his pet Judon. “But there’s something going on with her. Something outside the job. I need to know what.”
“Don’t worry, Brother,” Gavin said. “I’ve got your back.”
* * *
Ray’s mind was still spinning through plans and possibilities when a hand waved in front of his face, breaking the spell.
“Hey. Are you all right?”
Ray shook his head, then focused on Ziio, who was leaning over the bar, peering at him with concern. “Fine. Thinking. Sorry. So, what’s the house favorite tonight?”
She blinked. “That’s what you were thinking?”
“Some of what I was thinking.”
“Okay.” She shrugged, looked over her shoulder to where the second bartender was filling up a tray of champagne flutes. “Tonight’s a celebration, so it’s the champagne we’re running through fastest.”
“Perfect,” Ray said.
“Am I late?” Rizzo asked, seeming to have appeared out of nowhere.
Ray didn’t quite jump out of his skin, but it was close. “Please don’t do that,” he said to the pickpocket.
“Sorry.” Rizzo shrugged. “Habit.”
“Sure,” Ray said as a pair Rasalkans joined the party.
One was tall and slender, with ebony skin and emerald eyes. Her companion was medium height, her bronzed skin set off by masses of curling auburn hair.
“Gizma, and Luz,” the taller of the two introduced herself and her companion. “The Lady said you required our aid?”
“I expect to,” Ray said, then turned to the bartender. “Ziio,” he said softly, “I need you to doctor up the champagne—in a very bad way.”
“Wait,” she hissed, then leaned close to whisper. “You want me to poison the guests?”
“Not permanently,” he assured. “But I need to distract a lot of people, all at once, and better they end up wishing they were dead than actually being dead.”
Ziio bit her lip, then looked at the two Rasalkans who, after a pause that likely included a quick telepathic chat with Fayla, nodded their permission.
Ziio huffed out a breath. “On it,” she said and spun away, grabbing bottles as she moved.
“Rizzo, you help her,” Ray said.
“Yes, sir!” The pickpocket turned to follow Ziio.
“Rizzo.” Ray waited for the dip to look at him, then waved his fingers meaningfully.
Rizzo flashed a smile and tossed over the clip of credits he’d lifted from Ray’s pocket before continuing on his mission.
“And for us?” Luz asked.
“You’ll be with me,” Ray said, before again activating his comms. “Heads up, Team Szado,” he began, “Slater, here. From this point on, steer clear of the liquor. Keep an eye on the person or persons next to you, and maybe make sure you’ve got a towel handy. It’s likely to get pretty messy, out here.”
This was followed by a pause before those listening came back with a chorus of ewws, one Maird, a flurry of azfylnjas, and what Ray presumed to be the retching sound of a sympathetic puker.
Oddly, this made him grin. “Welcome to the Ultimate League, folks.”
* * *
Gajor Lok patted Harry’s shoulder, as if congratulating his prisoner on a job well done.
But, as Harry recalled, this was how Lok worked.
Polite, supportive, the epitome of kindness as he introduced his subjects to the next plateau of pain.
Knowing this, Harry worked to steady his breathing while Lok returned to the table where he poured more wine, and while sipping, upended the bag he’d brought in with him.
Harry couldn’t quite suppress the jump when the assortment of pointy, serrated, plasma-spewing, and otherwise unpleasant objects clattered onto the table, sounding a great deal like bones breaking.
“You look pale, Finn-Haija,” Lok observed. “May I offer some wine to fortify you?”
“Thanks, but no.” Harry swallowed thickly, and sweat beaded over his face. “Just wondering.” Now his eyes flicked up to meet the calm, yellow gaze. “Won’t it be bad for you? If you’re not getting the confession your boss wants?”
“Your concern is both odd and unnecessary. Unlike our time together in Kelmno, tonight’s activities will remain quite private.”
“How special,” Harry said.
/He’s telling the truth,/ Mollin’s voice vibrated through Harry’s skull. /No internal monitors. I’m the only one who can hear this./
Good, Harry thought. “Since we are alone,” he said as Lok took another sip of his wine, “I want to tell you I’m sorry.”
The gleaming eyes looked up, the slitted irises widening in surprise. “That is most generous of you, Finn-Haija,” Lok said with a curt, military bow. “As always, your honor does you credit. Though it does not, of course, change what is to come.”
“Oh, I think it might.”
Lok’s tongue clicked in amusement. “How so?”
“Because I’m not sorry for escaping the Kelm, or costing you your job, or—you know—ruining your life,” Harry explained, holding the other man’s gaze.
“I’m sorry,” Harry overrode the question, “because, due to a scheduling conflict, you won’t be getting your revenge today.”
Then, before Lok could respond, Harry was out of the chair, cuffs dangling from his left wrist so they clanked against the table as he grabbed the nearest implement of torture—a shock baton he remembered having quite the kick—and activated it in the same moment Lok drew the weapon holstered at his hip.
* * *
Sims had departed, muttering something about tracking Slater, leaving Gavin to keep an eye on Jessyn.
The Naihad stayed busy enough, Gavin thought, flitting like a butterfly from group to group.
She’d left a trail of smiling faces on the ground floor and was now easing away from a beatific Dama Alia, who she’d joined on the second floor terrace.
Baffled, Gavin took a slow sip of his whiskey and watched as Jessyn tilted her head toward Arrion, always at her side, and he escorted her toward a corridor that, Gavin knew, led to a handful of conference chambers.
Since Gavin had promised Sims he’d keep an eye on Jessyn, and Gavin took promises seriously, he left his glass on the bar and sliced through the brightly chattering guests and champagne-bearing servers like a shark through a coral reef.
He reached the hallway just in time to see Arrion disappearing through one of the conference room doors.
Gavin eased into the corridor and studied the door as he thought back to Rija’s design specs, which included a second door in all the meeting rooms, leading to a service passage for staff.
He also thought how none of the meeting rooms were scheduled for use tonight, meaning those passages would likely be empty.
Then he thought about Sims—or, more, about Sims as he’d been prior to his obsession with Jessyn Breeshandra.
Lastly, he considered promises made, and timing.
He’d made a promise to Sims, yes, but Sims had also made a promise to Gavin. A promise that, in exchange for releasing Ray Slater, Gavin would be allowed to seek relief from the daggers of the mind that tormented him in ways that no one could truly understand.
But Sims, who had been with Gavin from the slums of their childhood, through the blood sports they’d been forced to survive, Sims at least understood why Gavin needed this.
Just as Gavin understood his brother needed help, now.
Because since meeting Jessyn Breeshandra, Sims had not only not been himself, he’d become distanced from Gavin.
Which was why, though the treaty had not yet been signed, Gavin recognized that were times, such as now, when the universe dropped a gift in your lap.
And Gavin never turned down a gift.
* * *
“He’s out,” Harry said, staring at Gajor Lok, flat out on the carpet.
/Zynga!/ Mollin’s voice came back. /But how did you manage to free yourself without the lock pick?/
Harry set the shock baton on the table. “Broke my thumb to slide out of the cuff,” he explained. “Which is a lot easier to do once someone’s already broken your fingers.”
/. . . Okay,/ Mollin said after a pause. /Be aware you still have two guards out in the hall, for a little while./
“How little?” Harry asked.
/That depends on metabolism./
“Metabolism?” Harry leaned down to grab Lok’s gun from where it had landed on the carpet.
/Long story involving doctored champagne./
Harry decided he didn’t need to know. “Fine. Just tell me where I can find Neishi and Seth once I’m out of here. And also when I can get out of here.” On the floor, Lok groaned. “Shit.” He looked around, spied the bottle of wine. He smacked it with the gun, knocking it off the table and onto Lok’s head.
“The sooner the better,” he added.
* * *
Following Rizzo’s directions, Ray entered the storage room Ziio had chosen, and where she and Rizzo had a good dozen bottles of champagne doctored.
“All set, boss,” Ziio said.
“Perfect.” As he spoke, Ray liberated one of the bottles from the crate Ziio had been filling. “So, who wants to take some bubbly up to the hardworking folks working surveillance tonight?”
“I’ll do it,” Rizzo volunteered, no doubt calculating how big a take he could manage if the surveillance team were impaired.
“Fine. Just—don’t get greedy,” Ray said as he handed him the bottle.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rizzo smiled, ducking out of the storage room.
“He’s gonna get greedy,” Ziio said.
“Oh yeah,” Ray agreed, then strode out to collect Gizma and Luz.