The Business of Lying
"Sometimes I think I see you still, as in a waking dream. You stand along the corner, with your hand spread to the street. Signal now the cars my love, let one take you away. The wind catches your ponytail, the sun lights up the gray. The cold comes and steals my breath; I can barely speak. I try to call to you, my love, and you turn once towards me. But you've a stranger's face-- a stranger's eye-- a stranger's heart to keep. And I wish I'd never seen you then, neither sleeping nor awake. The pain returns so sudden strong, I wish my bones would break. Every thought of you, a thought of love-- a thought of loss-- a wish someday, someday! To see you at the corner, to drive the car that takes you away."
- from "Fourteenth Street", poem by Vashti Gomes.
The address that Keep provided was several hours drive away.
"Can I call someone?" Keep asked, breaking the horrible silence of the car.
"Use Kino's phone," Sylva said. "Yours is bugged I bet."
Keep reached around to the back seat, looking for any acknowledgment from Kino, who was staring out the window and sitting stiller than death. "Phone?" Keep asked.
There was no response from Kino, so Sylva pulled her own phone out and handed it to Keep. "Use mine then," Sylva said.
Keep dialed, and then had a quiet conversation with someone in a language that Sylva didn't know. She hung up and handed the phone back to Sylva.
"We're going to need to ditch this car," Keep said. "I've arranged for us to get a ride at the halfway mark."
"Okay," Sylva said, not taking her eyes off the road. She felt like all of this hadn't quite hit her yet, but it was all she could do to keep driving.
"Can you tell me what's going on?" Keep asked. Her voice was quiet and pained. "I'm helping you and I don't even know why."
Sylva glanced in the rearview at the silent form of Kino.
"I guess. It's a long story."
"We've got hours," Keep said.
And so Sylva told Keep everything. She started at the very beginning, who she really was, her mother and father back on Emerri, her time at the Academy, Yan. Yan's apprenticeship. Kino and Sid.
She explained the horrible moment when Yan was kidnapped, how Sylva ended up chasing her across the universe with Iri— a momentary aside to explain who Iri actually was-- starting on the Iron Dreams. She told about how she ended up on the Warrior II pretending to be a doctor. Her trip aboard the Bellringer after that. Her narrow escape from death as they careened down onto the surface of an invisible planet.
She had to stop and explain all about the secret, on and off war that the Empire conducted. And then she was back to Yan again, and the Mother. And then rescue from Olkye by the Fleet, and a triumphant and tragic return to Emerri.
And then there was Kino. Learning about what she had done. The feeling of telling it rewoke the awful hatred inside Sylva again, but glancing in the rearview at Kino killed that feeling in its tracks. There were things worse than what had been done to Yan, Sylva understood now. And Sylva told Keep about stealing the First Star, and meeting the Dark Hands, and working with Jeepak who had held Yan prisoner, and about how Yan and Kino had helped destroy Fleet ships, and how they were on a mission to learn how to destabilize the Empire, and that was what all the books were for.
Sylva went on and on, her mouth running without pause, the words tumbling out as though getting the past off her chest would somehow make the present any better. Kino never had any input, even when the situation directly involved her, and Keep just listened quietly. Sylva couldn't tell what she thought of the whole story, and by the time she was in the middle of it, Sylva thought that maybe she shouldn't actually be telling it, but then it was out there, and there was nothing left but to finish.
Keep was silent for a while. "So, this is all some kind of moral conviction on your part?"
"No," Sylva said. "Not on mine."
"What is it, then?" Keep asked.
"I do what Yan needs because I love her." Sylva's hands were on the wheel, gripping it a little too hard.
"And you?" Keep asked, turning around to look at Kino. "What are you doing it for?"
Kino didn't say anything.
"Is she asleep?" Sylva asked, not hearing a response and not taking her eyes off the road.
"No," Keep said.
"Leave her alone, I guess," Sylva said. "She's doing it out of some kind of genuine conviction, anyway."
"And the elusive Yan?"
"I don't know," Sylva said. "I couldn't ever wrap my head around it."
"I can't either," Keep said. "Maybe this is me speaking as a pirate, but it seems like it would have been easier for her," she jerked her head back at Kino, "to work on gaining power on the inside."
"The dice just didn't land that way," Sylva said. "They're coming up all naughts."
"You a gambler, Sylva?"
Sylva barked out a harsh laugh. "I'm whatever I need to be in the moment."
They drove on. Eventually, Keep told Sylva to pull off the highway onto a long unpaved access road. "We need to ditch the car."
"Where's our ride?" Sylva asked.
"He'll find us on the highway."
They got out of Bina's father's car, with Kino moving stiffly, like a robot. Sylva chucked the keys into a nearby ditch.
Keep watched her do that with a ghost of amusement on her face, though really there was nothing funny about the situation. "They're probably going to scrap the car, you know."
"Your Imperial goons. Make it look like an accident."
"Oh. Right." Sylva shrugged. "Are we just walking?"
They walked down the dirt path, towards the side of the highway. The weather was clear but cold now, and the sun was below the tops of the surrounding trees, though its light peeked through their leafless branches. They stumbled along the side of the road, the occasional car whizzing past them with no indication that it cared to stop. Sylva's instincts were to complain, but she clamped down on them as they walked in painful silence.
Across the dividing median of the highway, a car flashed its headlights and slowed to a stop at the side of the road.
"That's our ride," Keep said. She looked down the road, checking to see if there were any cars coming. No rumble could be heard and no headlights could be seen, so she lithely jogged across to the median. Sylva followed, significantly less lithely.
Kino was coming, but as the spark of a headlight crested into view over a distant hill, she stopped in the middle of the road and stared at it, coming closer and closer. Sylva, fed up, ran back out into the road and dragged Kino by the arm back into the safety of the median. The car passed by ten seconds later without seeming to have noticed them.
Keep shook her head, and they crossed the other side of the highway without further incident.
The man waiting in the driver's seat of the other car was slim and old, wearing a dark suit. He looked them over with a mild expression of disgust as they climbed in. Sylva couldn't really blame them—the trio was crusted in a combination of dried mud and dried blood, and it was hard to tell where one crust ended and another began. They probably smelled bad, as well.
"Mr. Olenya is not happy about the loss of his shuttle," the man said as they got in the car.
Sylva glanced at Keep. "I'll pay it back," Sylva said.
"That will not be necessary," the driver said. "Not at this moment."
Keep frowned, the motion barely visible within the dim light of the car's interior. The driver started the car back up, and they sped down the highway, making an illegal u-turn across a paved spot in the median.
It was a long, awkward, and silent drive. Sylva didn't feel comfortable talking to Keep, who was sitting in front, and Kino was so lost in her own misery that Sylva knew saying anything to her would be pointless. That left her with nothing to do but stare out the backseat window of the slick car and think.
She had killed Kino's sister. Kino didn't have to know that, and Bina was going to have died anyway, probably, but Sylva had still done that. And what about the two men that she had dropped the shuttle on? They were dead, too. And that woman—she wouldn't have died if Sylva hadn't literally stolen the oxygen from her lungs, even if it was Keep who actually shot her. What did all of this mean? Sylva couldn't figure it out. She had killed a bunch of people. That was a fact. But she didn't feel very much different. The world was going on in its same old pace, and all the people that Sylva cared about-- well, most of them-- were alive still.
Bina was dead, but that wasn't Sylva's fault. Not really, anyway.
She wasn't going to tell Kino about it, but maybe she would talk to Yan later. Yan would understand. Or Iri. Looking over at the slumped form of Kino, Sylva desperately wished that Iri were here.
The sun was long gone from the sky by time they arrived at their destination. Sylva had to assume this was the house of the previously mentioned Mr. Olenya. It was far from any city, as far as Sylva could tell, and when they peeled off the highway, it still took a good stretch of backroads, and then a long winding driveway lined with neatly planted trees, to arrive at the house. It was an imposing façade, lit with tasteful lights scattered about the front, with columns and high arching windows showing off the front. It was a real country mansion. Though Bina Warez's family had been rich, and their house had been clearly luxe from the outside, it was nothing compared to this, as they were constrained by the city. Here, there was room for a bubbling fountain out front, and carefully manicured bushes, and statues of the faces of God.
The driver pulled them round the back and looked scornfully at them as they exited the car. Sylva practically had to pull Kino out.
"In there," the driver said, pointing to a rather less imposing door than one that had been in the front of the house. "Someone will give you rooms and new clothes."
"Thanks," Sylva muttered, tugging Kino's arm.
Keep led them through the door, into the warm house. There was a woman there, dressed in the classic gaudy Hanathue colors, who had clearly been peering out the window at them, but stopped when they came in. She didn't seem disgusted by their filth, and she grabbed Keep in an enthusiastic hug when she came in.
"Didn't expect to see you," she said.
"Neither did I," Keep said, smiling a little and pushing the woman away. "Marre, this is Sylva and Kino."
"Pleasure to meet you," Marre said, looking them over. When her gaze landed on Kino, she seemed taken aback. "I never forget a face—you look very familiar. Are you from around here?"
Kino didn't respond, seemingly numb to the entire situation. Keep rescued the moment from complete awkwardness. "I suppose the secret is very much out of the dark," she said. "Kino Mejia, you've probably seen her on the news."
It was the last name that struck a chord for Marre, and she gasped. "Well, Apprentice! We should have had you in through the front door. I wasn't expecting to have official guests."
"I think we're about as unofficial as it gets at this point," Sylva said under her breath.
Marre considered it. "Well, official or not, let's get you cleaned up. Mr. Olenya requests his guests' presence at dinner."
At the mere mention of food, Sylva's stomach grumbled. She hadn't eaten since that morning, and she was quite hungry, now that she thought about it.
Marre led the three of them out of the little antechamber in which they had been standing, down a narrow hallway, and up a set of stairs. She unlocked a door at the top of the stairs with a press of her thumb against a fingerprint reader, and it clicked open, spilling them out into a broad and well lit hallway, with a plush red and gold carpet on the floor, and white walls covered in paintings. She beckoned them forward, and unlocked three more doors, each opening into guest bedrooms. Sylva glanced at Keep and Kino.
"Alright, I'll be back with something for you to wear," Marre said. "Please make use of the bathrooms."
Keep entered the far right room without any hesitation, and Marre pushed Sylva and Kino into their own rooms, shutting the door behind them. Sylva heard it click, and didn't like the sound of it. She jiggled the handle, just as a test, and found it locked. A mild panic beat in her chest, but she took a deep breath. She was a sensitive, after all, and doors were nothing. She took a moment to examine the rest of the bedroom. The bed was tall and canopied, neatly made in dark blue sheets. All the furniture was a rich dark wood, ornately carved along its decorative edges. The lights were soft and yellow, and though they were bright to look at, they didn't cast their light very far, so the whole room felt dim. Perhaps it was intended to be cozy, but it was mostly just creepy. She pulled open the door to the closet and found it empty, except for wooden hangers. The other door in the room led into the bathroom.
Although Sylva was getting a pretty bad feeling from this place, enough that she really didn't want to strip down and shower, she had no real choice. The bathroom was large enough that it had both a tub and a shower, and while the tub was exciting (carved out of some kind of black stone), Sylva felt that the less time she had to spend naked in this place, the better. When she stepped inside the shower and pulled the heavy cloth curtains closed, she felt like she was isolated from the whole world.
It was pretty nice to get all of Bina's blood off of her.
When she emerged, dripping wet, she found that her clothes were gone (including her phone, which had been in her pocket, and her bag, which she had been hauling around all day), and in their place was a dark blue gown, hung on a hanger on the door of the bathroom. On the counter were a few pieces of jewelry: earrings and a necklace. They were heavier than they looked, and the white stones in them caught the light impressively. She was relieved to find that there was underwear, but annoyed that there were no shoes. Not having any real alternative, she put the clothes on. They fit well, but she wouldn't have ever chosen this ensemble for herself. She had to wonder who this guy Mr. Olenya was, that he had a whole wardrobe of women's clothing in her size, and presumably Kino and Keep's sizes as well, that he would hand out to guests.
On her bare feet, she padded back out into the bedroom and checked the door lock again. It was still locked, which disappointed but did not surprise. She took stock of the situation for a moment, wondering briefly how much time had passed during her shower. There were no clocks in the room, and her phone was gone.
What would Yan do? What would Iri do? Sylva had to wonder. Iri probably wouldn't have let herself get into this situation in the first place. She definitely wouldn't have let herself get separated from her charge—if Sylva considered Kino her charge, which, at this point, she probably should. And even if she had gotten into this situation, Iri would definitely have some sort of plan of escape. Maybe she would break the lock on the door, then rescue Kino and Keep, and steal a car and ditch.
Yan, on the other hand, would probably investigate the situation before doing something rash. Sylva didn't love that, but she had to admit it was a better idea than attempting to bust out immediately. She sat on the bed, attempting to cross her legs, but realizing that her fancy gown prevented her from doing so. She felt on the whole like some sort of stuffed doll on display, and that feeling distracted her as she closed her eyes and tried to stretch out the power into the other rooms.
She stretched. The power, as always, wanted to wiggle itself out of her hands, but she pushed it through the air and towards the wall towards Keep's room. It passed through the wall, as though it were immaterial, and Sylva found, to her shock, that the walls were alarmingly thick. Completely soundproofed, perhaps. Inside Keep's room, she felt Keep's presence and no one else's. That was good. If Keep was alone, that meant that no funny business was going on.
Sylva switched her attention to the opposite wall and felt around in Kino's room. She panicked for a moment when she felt no one, but then remembered that Kino was cursed or blessed with chronic invisibility. Well, as long as "no one" was in that room, things seemed fine. After all, Sylva could probably break them out at any time. There was just no reason to yet.
Bored, Sylva got off the bed and paced back and forth. She wanted to send a message to Keep, which she could probably do by flicking the lights on and off or something, but there would be no way for Keep to respond, and that would be stupid. She could also send a message to Kino, but based on the way Kino had been behaving, Kino probably wouldn't respond, which was also stupid. This left Sylva feeling trapped and alone, but not in quite enough immediate danger to do something about it.
There was a knock on the door.
"Come in," Sylva yelled, acting more on instinct than rationality.
The door swung open, revealing Marre and Keep, who gave her a grim sort of smile. "Are you ready for dinner?" Marre asked.
"I guess so," Sylva said.
"Excellent." She held the door open, and Sylva stepped out into the hallway, hating the feeling of carpet on her bare feet. Marre apparently had the privilege of shoes, but Keep was similarly barefooted. Her dress was an emerald green, which caught the light and shone. It was low cut and sleeveless, so it revealed the full extent of her tattoos, curling up her neck and down her arms, chest, and back. A necklace with a single golden drop hung around Keep's neck, landing exactly in the middle of her chest where her tattoos swirled to an elaborate center. Sylva blushed a little and looked away. It wasn't as though she hadn't seen Keep completely naked before, but this was a very different circumstance.
As the door to her bedroom shut behind them, Marre knocked on Kino's door. "Apprentice Mejia, are you ready in there?" Her voice held a tone of petulance that it hadn't when she had asked Sylva a similar question, and Sylva glanced at Keep with concern plain on her face. Keep, however, kept on the same grim smile. She wasn't a stranger to this place, and clearly knew the rules of behavior.
With a sigh, Marre opened the door without waiting for an answer from Kino.
Kino was dressed, at least, in a long black dress. She hadn't put on any of the jewelry that Sylva presumed that she had been given, and she was sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed, looking up at the ceiling. Her hand prosthetic was missing. Sylva brushed past Marre and over to Kino, grabbing her arm and hoisting her to her feet. She didn't resist, and she stood on her own, but that was about all that Sylva could say for her.
She squeezed Kino's bare arm, and tried to send a message to her through the power.
"Cooperate, please," she silently begged. "Don't fuck this up."
There was no response, so Sylva gently pulled Kino out of the room and into the hallway. Marre smiled again and led them along the hallway down a long and ornate staircase, into an entrance hall where Sylva caught a glimpse of the front door. She wanted to run out of it, but bare feet, well, they were a way of keeping a person in check.
They came at last to a closed set of heavy wooden doors, and Marre rapped on them with her knuckles. "Mr. Olenya, your guests are ready."
"Come in," a man's voice said.
The doors opened into a dining room, a small one (Sylva wouldn't have doubted that there was a larger one somewhere in this sprawling mansion), with a table that sat eight. There was just one man at the table, dressed in the colorful flowing sleeved shirts that people favored on this planet. The lights were yellow and dim, and they cast his face into shadow as he stood up.
Olenya was of medium height, bronze skin, straight black hair. It was impossible to tell under the shirt if he was fit or simply thin: it disguised his physique quite well. He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.
"Keeper-of-Promises, I'm so glad you could join me here while you're on planet. It's been a while." His voice was cold but had the feeling like he was trying to tone it to be friendly.
"It certainly has, Valeri," Keep said, with her own weird tone of voice. This was clearly some sort of act, and Sylva was just going to have to play along.
"And what beautiful friends you've brought me tonight," Olenya said.
"This is Sylva and Kino," Keep said, pointing them out. Sylva did her best to smile, but Kino stood blank faced. Sylva couldn't even tell if she was aware of where she was, or what was going on around her. It was beginning to be a little creepy, and definitely not opportune.
"Take a seat, please, my friends," Olenya said. He gestured magnanimously at the table. Keep took a seat at his right side, and Sylva spent an indecisive moment hesitating, before dragging Kino over to the left side of the table. She was next to Olenya and across from Keep, with Kino at her other side. It was probably for the best to keep Kino slightly further away.
"Would you care for something to drink?" Olenya asked.
"Of course, thank you," Keep said, looking hard at Sylva.
"Er, yes, I'd love something, thank you," Sylva said. It seemed like the best course of action to follow along with what Keep was doing.
"And Ms. Kino?" Olenya prompted.
"She'd love something as well, I'm sure," Keep said smoothly. Kino just stared blankly down at the empty plate in front of her.
"Very well." Olenya pressed some sort of button underneath the table, and a moment later a servant appeared, dressed in a black suit. He had shoes on, Sylva noted. He carried a bottle of wine, and he poured it into every one's glasses.
Sylva, being very thirsty, was tempted to reach for hers immediately, but she saw that Keep kept her hands folded gracefully on her lap, so she resisted the urge.
Olenya reached for his glass. "To unexpected friends coming to visit." Keep raised hers and clinked it against his.
"To beautiful new acquaintances," he said, and quickly Sylva raised her glass to his.
"And to your health," he said to Kino, looking pointedly at her mangled left hand. Kino didn't move for a second, then Sylva kicked her under the table, and she dully raised the glass and knocked it against Olenya's. He smiled thinly but covered it by taking a sip of his wine. Sylva, Keep, and Kino also drank. Sylva's brain fixated on the idea that she should savor it, because it was probably extraordinarily expensive, but she didn't have the experience or palate to appreciate it.
"So," Olenya said, leaning back in his chair. "How do the three of you know eachother? And a more timely question, how did you all come to be here with me?"
Sylva looked over at Keep to see if she would answer that question. It was a dicey situation, to have this man know who Kino was, and Keep, and have them all relying on him. Sylva definitely didn't want to tell him everything, but she might end up being forced to.
Keep spoke. "Sylva travelled aboard the Warrior II for a while. She was with me when Trav was born."
"Oh, how nice," Olenya said. "You must be very close."
Sylva didn't know if she should be offended or relieved that Keep didn't mention that Sylva had been responsible for delivering the baby. Keep was probably still bitter about learning that Sylva was not, had never been, and never would be a real doctor.
"I suppose," Keep said. "I've been trying to help her out of a spot of trouble."
"I see. Well, let's not discuss trouble quite yet. And you, Ms. Kino?"
Sylva took the reigns on this question. "I am, er, was—" she remembered that Yan was supposed to be dead— "in love with Kino's coworker, Yan. That's how we know eachother." Sylva said, very awkwardly.
"From my occasional reading of Imperial news, I had been led to believe that you were travelling with the Fleet." He looked over at Kino. "And no offense to you, Keeper-of-Promises, but I wouldn't typically expect First Sandreas's apprentice to be galivanting around with pirates."
There was a long and awkward silence, as neither Sylva nor Keep could figure out quite how to respond, and Kino wasn't saying anything.
"I had heard that you were taciturn, but I hadn't imagined you were quite like this, Ms. Kino," Olenya said.
"I'm sorry," Keep said. "She's had a horrible experience. I think she's in shock. It might be better to leave her alone."
"Her sister died," Sylva said.
"Bina..." Kino whispered, and Sylva looked at her, slightly shocked that she was saying anything.
"Bina Warez," Sylva said.
"As in Councilman Warez?"
"I wasn't aware that there was a family connection there," Olenya said. "I should call to give my condolences."
He pulled out a phone from his pocket. It made sense that Olenya knew the Warez family. Sylva had the suspicion that all rich people tended to know each other. Still, she tensed up when she saw that Olenya was about to call right then.
"He probably doesn't know yet," Keep said, interrupting Olenya's action. "It's a complicated situation. You probably don't want to be the one to tell him that his daughter is dead."
"Please don't tell me what I do and don't want, Keeper-of-Promises," Olenya said gamely. He put the phone away. "I'll wait until I see the news, then."
The conversation was momentarily interrupted as the first course came in, a salad, and was doled out onto every one's plates.
"A blessing on your heads," Olenya said, then picked up his fork to eat. Sylva was relieved that he wasn't going to ask them to pray. Not that she had anything in general against praying, but she hadn't done it in a long time, and today in particular she wasn't feeling it.
The salad was good. She noticed that Keep stopped eating as soon as Olenya put his fork down, so Sylva hurriedly copied this action, even though she wasn't finished with her salad. Kino had barely touched hers.
A servant came in and took the salad plates away, and replaced them with small bowls of soup, a light and spicy broth.
There wasn't much conversation as they ate, which was a relief, and Sylva began to grow more comfortable with reading the room through Keep's actions. The main course was a beef dish, which Sylva barely was able to enjoy for how quickly she scarfed it down.
Then came dessert, and the conversation picked back up again. Sylva had gotten real food inside of herself, so she was able to slow down and pick at her chocolate cake more delicately than she had the main course. Kino had barely eaten anything. She thought about trying to egg her into eating more, but decided it was better to let the matter pass. Kino would have to eat more eventually.
"So, tell me about this complicated situation that you're in. I've been told that it somehow involved the complete destruction of the shuttle I loaned you."
"I'm very sorry about that," Keep said.
"How exactly was it destroyed?"
Kino was looking down at her plate, and her breath, though quiet, came in rough little spurts that indicated to Sylva that she was on the edge of tears.
"An Imperial agent bombed it," Keep said. She had been awake to see what had happened, so that was as good of an explanation as Olenya was going to get.
"Indeed. And what, exactly, were Imperial agents doing, bombing my shuttle?"
Sylva should have asked Keep what they were getting into when they were driving by themselves. She had been so focused on recounting the past, and had just expected Keep to take care of things, that she hadn't adequately prepared for the future, and how to answer this question. She didn't know if this Mr. Olenya could be trusted further than she could throw him (which probably wasn't very far), and she didn't know how much of the secret Yan would want her to let out. If Kino were functional, maybe she would know how to answer these questions, but Kino wasn't functional, and probably wasn't going to get functional at any time soon.
So it was left to Sylva to chart this dangerous course, with no knowledge and the feeling that she was probably going to make some kind of awful, awful mistake.
"It's a bit of a complicated situation," Sylva said.
Olenya's voice was dry as bone. "I see."
She kept talking. "We're not exactly in Imperial good graces right now."
"I had gathered that much," Olenya said. "I suppose I should be more specific. Let's start with maybe the question at the root of the issue: why are you," he looked at Kino, "on the outs with First Sandreas?"
Sylva thought of a lie as quickly as possible. It spilled out of her with the practice that came from lying to everyone about being a doctor, the practice that came from bullshitting her way through the Academy when she could barely use the power, the practice that came from years of evading parental scrutiny by smoothing situations over as quickly as she could. She clenched her toes under the table and hoped that Keep would go along with her. Improv. Yes, and...
"Kino was discovered to be using her position to profit off of smuggling," Sylva said, blurting it out. "She was involved in it for years, before her apprenticeship, and kept escalating it. She got caught, and has been on the run since then. That's why we're all together."
Mr. Olenya laughed. "A businesswoman, now that I can respect."
Even though Sylva's story sounded absolutely insane to her own ears, it probably was less crazy than the truth, and Olenya was accepting it, or pretending to accept it.
"I had business on Hanathue, as you know," Keep said, going along with this ruse. "And Kino wanted to see her sister, so we were travelling together. Unfortunately, it seems like Kino is a higher priority target than we had expected."
"I really don't know why you thought that she would be a low priority target. If I were First Sandreas, and no offense to you, Ms. Mejia, the first thing that I would do would be to kill you, once I found out."
"Well, as you can see, she is very much alive," Keep said, smiling grimly
"Not her sister, though. It seems overenthusiastic on the part of the Empire," Olenya said. "Mr. Warez is a very respected man, and he has the potential to make life difficult for the Empire."
"Do you think he will?" Sylva asked, unable to keep the curiosity and mild hope out of her voice.
Olenya looked at her with an appraising eye. "Why do you ask?"
"Making things difficult for the Empire is..." Sylva paused to collect her words. "Well, it makes smuggling easier. And we have a kind of vested interest in it now."
"What do you mean?" Olenya asked.
"A life for a life," Keep said, though Sylva would not have put it exactly that way. "Or at least enough trouble to be comparable."
Olenya scraped the last of his cake up and finished his cup of wine. "I see." He leaned back in his seat, looking at the assembled group, then stood. "Join me in the drawing room, I'd like to continue this conversation in a more relaxed setting." He walked away, and Keep stood up quickly, though she glanced at Sylva with an almost pained expression on her face. Olenya was still in the room, so Sylva couldn't ask what exactly was the matter, but she felt anxious as she pulled Kino up from her seat and followed Olenya out and down the hallway.
The drawing room was dark, with heavy curtains over the windows, and lights on the walls that flickered in an approximation of candles. The place had a peculiar smell that Sylva couldn't place, musty and herbal, like incense that had gone bad but that was still being burned. A real fire behind a grate was a weirdly ostentatious addition to the room.
"Sit with me, Keeper-of-Promises," Olenya said, gesturing to one couch to the left of the fireplace. Keep smiled gracefully and took a seat on it, leaving Kino and Sylva to take up residence on another couch together. Sylva sank down into it so deeply that she knew it would be almost a struggle to get up again. Kino perched on the very edge of the couch and stared into the flames. Sylva was half worried that she was going to reach out and stick her arm int them, but she didn't try to switch places with her once that had sat.
Olenya wrapped his arm around Keep's shoulders, and Sylva tried to stifle a grimace at the way that his fingers trailed over her bare upper arm. Keep kept smiling, but she sat so stiffly that it was clear that this was out of obligation only. There was silence for a moment, and Olenya looked at the door as though he expected someone else to enter.
There was a knock on the door, and Olenya called out, "Come in."
A servant, again dressed in a black suit, appeared carrying a covered tray. "What's your poison or your pleasure, ladies?" Olenya asked.
The servant bent down, and Olenya opened the tray, revealing an array of different drugs. If Sylva hadn't spent so much time on black stations, she probably would have called this debauched, but it seemed to be everyday business for this hyper rich man. He selected a herbal cigarette, which he rolled himself on the end table, and lit with a silver lighter he pulled from his pocket. The servant held the tray out to Keep, and she was clearly about to take the same thing, but Olenya slapped her hand away and chose for her. "How about something a little stronger tonight, my dear?"
"Of course," Keep said, smiling that same vapid smile. Olenya took a pill from the tray and held it to Keep's lips. She opened her mouth, and he put it inside, his finger touching her chin and neck to feel her dry swallow it.
The servant walked over to Kino and Sylva, handing out the tray. Sylva took the risk that she would also be rebuffed for choosing the weakest option, the cigarette, but she didn't know what the other options were, or what they were likely to do, and she was the only one who had even the remotest chance of staying functional in this situation, and she wanted to hold onto that. The panic and horror was settling into her gut. She fumbled with the wrapper and failed to roll it appropriately. She nudged Kino, who, with the same blank stare she had had all evening, took it from her, rolled it, and lit it with the power on the tip of her finger before passing it back to Sylva.
"And you, my little smuggler, what will you have?" Olenya asked, looking at Kino as the servant held the tray out to her. Kino didn't hesitate for a second, and she grabbed at some white pills. Through some sleight of hand, several pills vanished from the tray, though only one entered Kino's mouth.
Olenya laughed. It wasn't clear if he had noticed that Kino had stolen more than her fair share, but Sylva doubted that he actually cared. "Vena is some strong stuff," he said. "You're an interesting one."
Kino said nothing, merely stared deep into the fire. Sylva took a drag of the cigarette smoldering in her hand, and coughed at the fumes. This was all so bad.
The servant left, and for a few minutes there was silence in the room. It grew awkward, but Olenya seemed relaxed. Keep put her hand to her mouth, and there was a choked sound that came from her, like a stifled giggle. Olenya smiled and leaned onto her broad shoulder. The sight of it made Sylva sick, or was that the cigarette?
Olenya broke the silence, blowing out smoke to the ceiling. "So, what is it that you've come to me for, my new friends?" he asked. "Is it something that I can provide?"
"Keep knows you," Sylva said, the words feeling soft and blurry in her mouth. "She thought that you could help us."
"Keeper-of-Promises knows me very well, yes," Olenya said. "And what is it that you want?" He looked at her, at her hand over her mouth, her eyes slid half shut.
Keep giggled again. "Just want," she laughed, "to go home."
"You need passage to the Warrior II?" Olenya asked.
Sylva was about to say no, but she bit her tongue. Even if Xuanhuan was their eventual destination, the Warrior II could help get them there. And she thought that the less this man knew about their specific plans, the better. "Yeah."
"You've already cost me, in terms of resources. Is there some reason I should help you?"
"Because you're my friend," Keep said, voice light and high.
"That may be," Olenya said, running a hand over Keep's hair. "But friendship has its limits, and its price."
Keep laughed again, but didn't say anything.
Sylva's mind raced. She needed to find a way to swing this. Her brain felt like it was moving at quarter speed.
Olenya continued speaking as Sylva's brain churned in its slow course, mulling over all the possibilities. "You know, my shuttle was destroyed by Imperial agents, which puts me on their radar. I don't like that, not at all. It would be tying myself to you, and risking dragging myself down with you, to help you more. Is there a compelling reason why I should risk my own business? That's all I'm asking." His voice was calm but sharp, and cut through the haze around Sylva like a knife.
She strung her answer together, fishing for each word like she was picking up beads to form a necklace. She was sweating. The heat from the fire was intense. "There is a chance that you could profit," Sylva said. "If you are willing to work with us."
She knew on one level that she was probably digging her own grave, and she was probably going to have to reconcile this with Yan at some point, but that was later. This was now. If she could strike a deal...
"What do you mean?" Olenya said. He seemed interested but not invested.
"If we can..." she stumbled over the words a little, "restructure... the way the Empire works... There's room for some people to come out on top."
"I thought you had decided to only take revenge for Ms. Bina Warez," Olenya said, clearly somewhat confused.
"No, this is bigger than that," Sylva said. "We originally wanted to shake up power to gain power. Best way to make goods flow better."
Olenya traced Keep's arm tattoos with one lazy finger, and she giggled some more. Goosebumps were visible on her arms, even in the heat of the room.
"I see," he said. "How big is your operation?"
"It's hard to say."
"Things are decentralized," Sylva said. "They had to be, to not get cracked down on."
"Is Ms. Mejia not on the top?"
"She was working on it. We still are." All the lies were building on each other. She spun them together like wool, covering earlier holes in the story, forming a new pattern
"And you think that in a big shakeup of the Empire..."
"Kino could come out on top."
"On top of what?"
Sylva took a drag of her cigarette in order to give herself time to answer. "On top of whatever is going to make the most amount of money."
It was Olenya who laughed at that one. "I like you, Sylva."
She smiled, rather uncomfortably. "Thank you."
"It surprises me that you're willing to cut me a piece of the pie."
"You clearly have experience and connections, and you have something that we need right now. I'm willing to make friends. I don't see it as a bad business proposition to cut you in." In her brain, she was wondering exactly how bad it would be if she did attempt to abandon Olenya as soon as they had acquired his assistance in getting off planet. It would probably come back badly on Keep and the whole of the Warrior II, which Sylva didn't exactly want. She was making promises in over her head, but she hadn't exactly said anything concrete.
"And what would be the work that I would be expected to do with you?"
Sylva shifted uncomfortably in the too-plush chair. "Keep didn't tell me really what you deal in."
"Oh, everything." He waved his hand, wafting some smoke away.
He grinned, a predatory looking thing. "You're jumping right to the big stuff. I'm surprised that's what you're looking for."
"I have my reasons," Sylva said.
"That I presume you are not going to disclose?"
"We're not that good of friends, Mr. Olenya."
"I appreciate your forthrightness."
"Would that be something you're willing to sell?"
"Of course," he said. "Though I would perhaps like to know who I would be selling to."
"I think a good first step would be to have you meet with one of our contacts." She imagined a meeting between Olenya and Jeepak, found the image extremely funny in a horrible way, and tried to stop herself from smiling.
"I agree, and I look forward to it." He was silent for a long while, long enough that it moved past the point of Sylva thinking that she should say something else, and into a truly awkward territory. He broke the silence casually. "You have your trip off planet, by the way. I'll loan you another shuttle. One that I expect to return to me undestroyed."
"Thank you," Sylva said, truly grateful, and the relief was palpable in her voice. Her cigarette had burned down to nothing, and she stubbed the end of it out in an ashtray.
Olenya checked the time on his phone. "It's late. You should sleep." He made no move to stand, however, and Sylva had grown used to following his cues, so she stayed seated for a moment, until he raised an eyebrow, then she stood hurriedly, struggling for a moment to get off the couch.
"Come on, Kino," she said.
Kino didn't move. Her pupils were huge, and her breathing was almost imperceptibly shallow. Sylva grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. She stumbled and leaned on Sylva heavily. Sylva looked at Keep, who was still in Olenya's arms, and hesitated. She didn't want to leave Keep alone with this man, but she didn't want to make a scene, either, since they were all depending on his goodwill.
Keep looked up at her and giggled a little.
Sylva hesitated. "Are you coming, Keep?"
"She'll be up later," Olenya said. "Say goodnight, Keeper-of-Promises."
"Goodnight," Keep said with a laugh. Olenya stared at Sylva, hard. It was hard to tell in the dark light of the drawing room, but Sylva thought she saw Keep mouth something. "Go," maybe.
Yan wouldn't have left her there, Sylva felt. Neither would Iri have. But she wasn't Yan, and she wasn't Iri either, so I was all that Sylva could do to drag Kino out of the room, where Marre was waiting, and pull her up the stairs to bed.
There was one little act of resistance that Sylva was able to pull off. When Marre tried to shut them each in their own separate rooms, Sylva stopped her.
"Can Kino and I stay together, please?" she asked. "I don't want to leave her like this."
"I assure you, she'll be perfectly safe by herself," Marre said.
"It's for my own peace of mind," Sylva insisted. Marre sighed and relented, letting them both into Sylva's room. She handed Sylva two sets of pajamas, then shut the door, locking them both in. Sylva was too stressed out about everything else to care about that minor inconvenience.
Kino stood in the center of the room, seemingly dead to the world.
"Come on, Kino, take the dress off," Sylva said in her most cajoling voice. If they had to run, which Sylva had half a thought that they might still, the pajama pants they had been handed were probably easier to manouver in than the fancy dresses they were currently wearing.
Kino showed no signs of moving for the moment, so Sylva ignored her again and changed out of her own dress and into the pajamas. They were a little loose and floaty, but they would do for sleeping, at the very least, even if she had no intention of sleeping. She removed the jewelry with a tiny bit of regret; she did enjoy a touch of fanciness on occasion. Still, she didn't want to take any more from Mr. Olenya than was absolutely necessary.
When she was done changing, and had washed her face ad rinsed out her mouth in the bathroom (there was no sign of toothbrush or toothpaste), Sylva returned to Kino, who stared at the wall with those huge pupils and a blank expression. Sylva put her hands on her hips and considered the situation, then resorted to walking behind Kino and unzipping the dress and letting it fall off her. As it slid to the ground, the pills that Kino had stolen earlier fell out of the bra cups and tumbled to the floor. Sylva picked them up with a grimace and put them on the dresser.
Kino at least cooperated when Sylva pulled the pajama shirt down over her head, and let Sylva wrestle her arms through it. Sylva didn't bother with the pants. That would have been too much of a headache. In any event, she nudged Kino towards the bed and got her to sit, then lay down. She pulled the blankets up over her.
It was disconcerting, how Kino didn't close her eyes.
Sylva flipped off the lightswitch, then sat on the bed herself, pulling the covers up over her lap and leaning back against the headboard. She had no intention of sleeping. Although her head felt somewhat muffled from the cigarette she had smoked earlier, she still tried to use the power. It came to her, if sluggishly. She stretched it out through the house, to the extents of her ability. Admittedly, this was not very far, but it was better than having no sense of what was going on in the house.
There were more people here than she had expected. She could feel the light of life in at least ten people, though she knew her power fizzled out before it reached even the full extent of the large building. Some of those people she could account for: Mr. Olenya himself, Keep, Marre, the driver, the servant who had brought in their food, perhaps the person who had cooked their food in the first place, but that still left so many people that she had no idea who they were. It alarmed her, a little, but she didn't think that she would have been any more comfortable in a huge and barren house, so she let it go.
Oddly, none of the lights were close together. That was a relief, in some sense. it meant that Mr. Olenya had left Keep alone, though Keep not being in the room next door meant that something strange and probably unpleasant was still going on. Sylva kept her watch, sinking deeply into the power, watching the lights travel in and out of her range.
One thing she noticed, which did alarm her, was that this house had an underground component. She was on the second floor, but she could feel people moving around below her, far below her, and occasionally they moved out of her range completely, moving into the bowels of the earth. This whole place gave her the creeps. There was nothing good about Olenya, she decided. It had been a mistake to try to work with him, but she was wrapped up in that lie now. As long as they got off planet in one piece, that was all she needed. The rest could be figured out as it came.
She was jerked out of her meditation by a weird sound next to her. At first she couldn't place it, because she had grown so detached from her body she had almost forgotten where she was and who was next to her (especially since Kino did not show up within the power). Sylva opened her eyes. The room was completely dark, so it didn't really matter that she did.
Kino was making an odd sound, curled up on herself, breathing strangely. Worried that it might be some kind of bad reaction to the Vena that she had taken, Sylva shook her shoulder. "Kino, are you ok?"
Kino shuddered underneath her hand, and the sound grew identifiable as ragged, stifled breathing and sobs that Kino was trying to choke down. Sylva didn't know what to do. She had never seen Kino cry before, she didn't think. Not even back when they had first been aboard the First Star. She didn't know Kino.
She was frozen in a sort of awkward stillness as Kino continued to cry next to her.
Was she supposed to comfort Kino? Did she want that? Could Kino even be comforted? Why should it be Sylva, if Sylva had been the one to actually kill Bina in the first place? The questions rolled around in Sylva's brain with no answer, and, again, she wished that Yan were here. Or Iri. Or anyone else. Anyone but her would have been able to handle this situation with more grace, more skill.
What would Yan do? What did Yan do?
Sylva thought back to that first day they had been on the First Star. Sylva had been so angry. She had wanted to hurt Kino, and had been angry at Yan for caring about Kino. Selfish. She was a selfish creature, she knew. But Yan had held Kino's hand.
She wasn't Yan, but she tried to pretend to be. She slid down, underneath the covers, and grabbed Kino, wrapping her in a tight hug. "It's okay," Sylva whispered. "It's ok."
Kino continued to cry, but she didn't push Sylva away. Sylva stroked her shorn hair, felt the warmth of her body, listened to her ragged breathing, whispered things she hoped were soothing. Eventually, Kino seemed to melt in her arms, twitching occasionally, as sleep took her. Sylva lay there still, and tried to contain the situation.
In the morning, Sylva was relieved to find that Mr. Olenya wanted nothing more to do with them, and that Keep seemed to be unharmed. On the surface, at least.
They had been given their belongings back, along with new clothes (normal) and, thankfully, shoes.
Sylva was too tired to appreciate the breakfast that they were served, in a far less formal dining room than they had been in the night before. She hadn't slept in... almost two days. Kino barely ate, and didn't acknowledge whatever had passed between the two of them the night before.
They were driven to an airfield, about two hours drive distant from Olenya's house, one that had large hangers housing private planes, and no other traffic. The driver showed them to one hanger, and there was a plane inside, but more importantly, a space-to-ground shuttle, a tiny one, but a shuttle nonetheless.
"Please do not allow this one to get destroyed," the driver said, handing Keep an envelope. "You may leave it with a beacon on, and one of Mr. Olenya's associates will retrieve it."
"Did the Warrior II respond?" Keep asked.
"They should be in system within six days," the driver said. "The shuttle has enough supplies for twice that."
Keep nodded. "I suppose I was lucky that you were able to contact them. They're not usually in contact range."
"Mr. Olenya would not let you off planet without guarantees for your safety."
Keep smiled, an expression that was clearly an ill disguised grimace. "I have nothing but thanks for Mr. Olenya's concern."
"He protects his assets."
"Well, thank you again," Keep said. "We'd better get going." She walked over to the shuttle and gently touched its side before opening its heavy door. "In, you two."
Sylva pulled Kino by the arm and loaded into the small shuttle.
Six days of being with Keep and Kino took their toll on Sylva. Kino didn't say a word the entire time and barely acknowledged their presence. Sylva found it difficult to broach the subject of the future with Keep, especially as they would be returning to the Warrior II, where everyone thought that she was a doctor. And, maybe more especially, because she had gotten them deeply embroiled with Mr. Olenya.
She wanted to ask Keep what had transpired after Sylva and Keep had left that night, but every time she brought it up, the words died on her lips, stifled by a kind of horrible awkwardness and feeling of guilt. She didn't want to know, because then she would feel responsible for it, but she did want to know, because she was curious and because she perhaps wanted to make amends. Keep showed no signs of being wounded in any way, so Sylva just had to hope that it was all normal. It was normal.
They saw the Warrior II before the Warrior II saw them. Both ships wanted to keep radio silence, because they were both wanted ships: pirates one and all. They met in orbit around the furthest planet out from Hanathue's star, a cold little rock. They orbited so far from the planet's surface that it could barely even be called an orbit; the tether of gravity was so little that any force could have sent them spinning away into space rather than working their lonely circle.
The Warrior II jumped into a lower orbit, from outside the solar system, and its bulk eclipsing the stars and planet from their shuttle's view was enough to get a fix on it and send a burst of radio confirming their position and allowing them to link up.
They landed in the Warrior II's bay, and were immediately greeted by Keep's brother, Sign, and husband, Shielder, who was holding the fat baby Trav. Sylva climbed out of the shuttle with the joy of finally being in less of an enclosed space as Keep greeted her family.
"It's been a ride, let me tell you," Keep was saying. "Nothing but crazy things happened since the moment I left the ship."
"I can tell," Shielder said, releasing the little baby Trav to float around in the air of the bay. His giggles rang out loudly, echoing as he grabbed at his mother's cloud of strawberry blond hair. "Who've you brought with you?"
"Wait, is that Sylva?" Sign asked, looking back at Sylva as she tugged Kino out of the shuttle.
"Hi Sign," Sylva said, kicking off and coming over, bringing a reluctant Kino with her. She dragged her feet on the floor of the bay to avoid crashing. "Yeah, it's me."
"We all assumed you were dead," Sign said.
"Yeah, I heard," Sylva said, rather embarrassed. "Sorry I left in such a rush."
"No, it's fine, it's fine," Sign said. "Happy to have you back."
"Trav's been doing well, as you can see," Sheilder said. "Do you want to hold him?"
"Er, not right this second," Sylva said. She desperately hoped that Keep was not going to reveal her 'not being a doctor' secret. Keep looked vaguely constipated, so perhaps she was struggling with the question herself.
"Well, let's not stand around in the bay," Sign said. "I'd love to hear all about what's been going on over dinner."
"We have to get this shuttle out into space," Keep muttered. "Olenya wants it back."
"I thought it was a charitable donation from our benefactor," Sign said, with a laugh that indicated he thought anything but about Olenya.
"I think we're considering the one that got blown up as the charitable donation," Keep said.
Shielder whistled, which made the baby laugh. "You didn't lie when you said it's been crazy, I suppose."
"I definitely didn't."
They followed out of the bay, Sylva feeling a weird sense of homesickness as they passed through the Warrior II's halls. They passed by the room in which she had caught Iri having a dalliance with Sign, and the memory made Sylva blush and look down at the ground. She missed Iri. Things had seemed so complicated back then, but in retrospect, that had been a much simpler time.
As they walked, Keep fell back, and Sylva came back next to her. "It's really alright that I tell them the whole story, right?" Keep asked.
"Yeah," Sylva said. "I mean..." She bit her lower lip. "We talked about it. It's fair. Your family probably deserves to know, since I got you all tied up in it."
Keep nodded. "How many people do actually know the whole story?" she asked.
"Er..." Sylva thought for a minute. "The crew of the Iron Dreams does. The Imperial government, the top level anyway, does. And the people on the other side, there are a couple."
"Small group," Keep said.
"It keeps getting bigger," Sylva said.
"Maybe that's a good thing. If it's no longer a secret, that might help you accomplish some of your goals."
"Hah. Maybe. Or it might get us all killed."
They sat in the dining room, Shielder bouncing the baby on his knee, Sylva digging in to the first non-rehydrated meal she'd had in days (a plate of pancakes), and Kino staring off into the middle distance.
"So I suppose the first question I have is, who's the dark and mysterious one over here?" Sign asked, pointing at Kino.
Kino looked up. In a voice that was rough and quiet from disuse, she whispered, "Kino Mejia." She looked down at her plate then. Sylva smiled broadly, happy to hear Kino speak. It seemed like a good sign, even if it wasn't very much.
"Former apprentice to First Sandreas," Sylva said. "Sorry, this is going to be a complicated story, maybe we should start at the beginning."
So she told them the whole tale, just as she had told it to Keep, and when it was done, she said, "And so now I need to get back to Xuanhuan. I don't know if it's super out of the way for you, but could you take us there?"
Sign had a look on his face that indicated that he was processing the story far slower than Sylva and Keep had been telling it. "I'll have to ask the captain," he said, rather bemused. "But it's not that far out of the way."
Sylva, who at this point did have the baby Trav on her lap, smiled broadly. "Thank you," she said, and the gratefulness in her voice was genuine. Trav giggled and grabbed at her hair.