Tyler shook his head as he slipped the duster from his shoulders. “No, just dinner, if that’s okay?”
The concierge smiled, “No problem at all, sir. We have the finest chef in this quadrant. The dining hall is just through that archway. Any seat will do, we’re not that busy at the moment.”
“Thank you kindly,” Tyler nodded, palming the fellow a silver coin. He entered the hall, selecting a dimly lit two-top off to the side. He took a seat in the corner where he could take in the entire room and not have to worry about anything going on behind him. After a moment a petite serving girl approached and handed him a menu.
“Good evening, sir. My name is Chang Mai, and I will be at your disposal while you dine. May I interest you in a drink?”
Tyler scanned the menu before looking at the girl. “What do you have in the neighborhood of whiskey?”
The girl rattled off the liquors from memory, and Tyler selected one that he hoped would be far removed from the rocket fuel that passed for alcohol on worlds like this. He placed his food order as well, and the serving girl bowed and moved away. Ty leaned back in his seat, so that the shadows covered most of his face and waited for the others to arrive.
It was work. The sort of preparation she hadn’t take the time to luxuriate in since before Repose. A small curl of smoke snaked into the air from the triangular incense burner Vanya had set on the dresser. Violet eyes partially closed, the companion traced her lips with a shimmering gloss, smiling as the soft scent of strawberries mixed with the more sensual amber tones in the air.
Pursing her inviting lips, she studied her reflection for a moment then picked up her hairbrush. Smoothing the long burgundy waves, she reached into an open suitcase by her side and retrieved a delicate gold comb that she placed near her crown, pulling the long tresses away from her face.
Certain she looked her best–completely irresistible without appearing to be trying–the diminutive companion rose from her seat and walked slowly to the door. The folds of the sari-inspired gown wound around her body, exposing her skin in all the right places. The color, like everything else about her appearance for the evening had been carefully selected. Pale blues and pinks, as opposed to her usual darker colors, highlighting her delicate size and leaving her looking soft and somehow innocent.
Walking through the adjoining bathroom, Vanya stepped into the room shared by her brother and their friends and paused a moment to show off. “I trust you’re all ready for dinner.”
Jackson nodded, “Joe got their room all nice and bugged, so when we hear Mark leave and then we go surprise his boys.”
“And have we heard anything worth knowing?” She shifted slightly. Knowing that her brothers would never let any harm come to her couldn’t completely displace the small flash of apprehension.
“They’ve been pretty coy,” Dru replied. He was seated beside Joe who was on the floor, working the the relay that allowed them to listen in on their neighbors. The signal, despite all the jerryrigging that held it together, was as clear as a bell. “They haven’t mentioned Matarazzo by name. Professionals of this caliber aren’t ones to let things like that slip though, not if there’s any chance of them being found out.”
Joe rolled over. “He did say that they’d be bringing you back tonight though.” The young boy gave a somewhat conflicted smile. “I guess that’s good and bad, huh?”
The companion’s lips tugged in a melancholy sort of smile. “They’re confident. And probably not without reason, but we can use that. After all, we have you in here and Tyler out there… somewhere.” She idly brushed an errant curl away from her shoulders as she waited for the time to be right for her grand entrance to the dining room downstairs. If the diminutive woman was nervous it didn’t show. Wrapped in her role that had taken years of training to polish, she was as brilliant and serene as the moon. And as distant.
“Don’t worry ’bout it at all, Miss Jahnatt,” Alice’s engineer nodded with a cocky smile on his face, “I really don’t think they’ll have the opportunity to follow through on it.”
“Not a stitch,” agreed the Kokezaru brother. “And Tyler already called in. Don’t you go looking for him though. Just know he’s there.”
“And here I was planning on having my meal on his lap,” Vanya replied with a roll of her eyes. Clearly her brothers had forgotten a thing or two in the years she’d been gone.
“You’ll have time for that later, I’m sure,” he replied, giving a quick look to his watch. The time was now. “You look great, how do you feel?”
“Give me another compliment or two and I’m sure I’ll just fine.” She hesitated slightly, violet eyes meeting his. “Are you going to escort me down?”
He stood. “Would you like me to?”
“As my devoted employee, it would certainly look appropriate,” she answered, avoiding the question.
Durden nodded. Even after all this time it seemed he could read between her lines. “Sure.” He adjusted his brown coat over the pistols that hung from both hips and offered an arm to the lady.”Shall we?”
Her arm wound through his, hand coming to rest on the warm brown fabric of his sleeve with a gentle touch. A surprisingly young smile sparkled behind that professional demeanor. Working with her brothers again, even with her life in danger it was almost like coming home. “Don’t wait up,” she chuckled to the pair left behind as she began to make her way to the door.
Arm in arm the two of them entered the corridor, casually making their way toward the stairs. Durden looked over to the Companion, his little sister. Head to toe she was perfect, it was no wonder that Sterling Matarazzo would go to such lengths to acquire her. He smiled, though with just a hint of sadness to it. It felt good to have her back; he had missed her. If only their reunion hadn’t been accompanied by such circumstances.
“You do look lovely, mei mei,” he told her, squeezing the link that held them together. “And everything is going to be fine.”
“Of course it is. You’re here.” Though her smile was there, she didn’t quite meet his eyes.
They descended the steps and entered the lobby. The moment they were even in earshot of company their demeanor changed. She was draped off the man’s arm, not like family, but like a lady escorted by her footman. He lead her forward past the lobby toward the dining area.
“A table for two?” inquired the host behind the stand.
Vanya looked past the man, cheeks delicately flushed with the appearance of anticipation. Removing her arm from Dru’s she reached up to touch the flawless locks of hair at her crown. Then, seeing that her date had not yet arrived, she motioned for her employee to talk to the man.
“The lady has a reservation for two.” He stepped back. “Mark, Chesterton Mark.” Out of sure caution, Durden had placed the reservation under the man’s name. The less of a trail there was of her here, the better. Especially considering how things were going to end tonight.
“Ah yes, Mr. Mark’s table.” The host turned about, checking the entire dining hall in one fluid motion.”It is ready. Would you like to sit, or will you wait for your guest, ma’am?”
“No need to wait.” Chesterton Mark’s pleasant but commanding voice announced his arrival behind them. He gave a gentlemanly bow of the head, reaching for her hand. “I apologize if I have kept the lady waiting.”
Violet eyes sparkling with what could have been taken as pleasure to see him, Vanya transferred her hand from Dru’s arm to place it on Chesterton’s waiting palm. “You have the entire dinner to make it up to me,” She didn’t look back as she passed into his company.
“I shall do my best.” He lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed them. Standing he took her hand and tucked it through his own arm as he turned to the maitre d’. “I think we are ready then.”
The host nodded, taking a pair of menus. With a open gesture of his hand he lead the way, winding between the tables toward the back of the dining area. The table was nicely secluded along the back wall. The windows there provided a lovely view of the sunset along the treeline. Setting a menu at each place, the young man pulled out each of the seats before being waved aside by Chesterton.
He held the chair by the back, waiting for her to sit. “Please,” he said, smiling.
“Thank you.” Smiling at him as she took the offered seat, Vanya ducked her head to the side slightly, allowing several of her loose curls to fall across her shoulder in an invitation for a strong hand to brush them away.
Chesterton accepted, “My pleasure.” Taking two fingers he gingerly swept the stray lock back, exposing her pink shoulder. As a gentleman wouldn’t, the didn’t linger there. He slid her forward toward the table. And walked around to the open seat. “Wine?”
She shook her head with an almost regretful smile. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. Call it a professional peculiarity.” To avoid the potentially awkward moment, she turned her head to watch the sunset beyond them. “I can’t say I’m not looking forward to finding a ship to take me back to more civilized places, but you have to admit, there’s a certain rough beauty here.”
Her chin came to rest on her hand as she caught herself marveling at the vibrant colors. Pinks and oranges stained the sky, leaving the lingering clouds above tinted with hints of purple. The brilliance of the scene was nearly enough to take her breath away and fill her with a longing that she thought she’d neatly stored away for after tonight’s work.
“Very much.” He dismissed the host with a simple nod. “I find that there is a certain elegance that you cannot replicate in the smooth curves of the core worlds.” He folded his hands before him, resting his mouth there. It nearly hid the smile on his face. “It’s different, but none-the-less intoxicating. That is why I love to travel. Those that stick to their high rise penthouses and floating islands,” he shook his head, “they don’t know what their isolation costs them.”
She nodded her agreement, her gaze coming back to his face to give him her full attention. “I grew up on one of those floating islands,” she told him with a soft laugh. “It wasn’t until I left Bellerophon and was able to taste the variety of many different skies that I realized what I was missing. Now I wonder how I was able to live so far removed from the living earth like that.”
With her eyes on him, Chesterton’s hands were compelled to fall from his face, revealing himself once more. “That’s just it, you’d never have known if you hadn’t stretched your legs. Taken that leap.” He smiled, a perfectly split set of lips that could have rivaled her own. “How many of your profession actually spread their wings and leave the Guild’s nest?”
“Not nearly enough, I think.” She regarded her honesty with him with a small amount of silent amusement. Any risky transparency on her part could be overlooked for this evening, since her dinner companion would not be leaving the planet alive. “There’s a certain amount of elitism that comes with living and breathing nothing but the air of the Guild. It’s a hard step to take sometimes, but the advantages– and growth– that come with stretching oneself far outweigh any initial discomfort.”
Pausing, she wet her lips with water from the surprisingly tasteful crystal goblet in front of her, looking over at Chesterton with a charming smile. “But what about you, Mr. Mark? What brought you out into this silent dance between worlds?”
“Business.” His reply came with a soft chuckle. “My father made his fortune in trade. When I took over the business I made it my business to oversee as much as I could personally.”
“Seems like a perfectly noble reason to travel,” she replied with a chuckle of her own. Dropping her gaze demurely, she glanced back toward the window where the oranges of the sunset had cooled into lavenders of twilight. Only a few high clouds were still touched with with a fiery red. “You’ll forgive me for going on, I do hope. My time on Repose was pleasant, but the conversation, and polite company, is a highly welcome change.”
Chesterton nodded, clearly pleased. “Gladly. And for me as well.” He lifted his water glass to his lips, taking a sip. “The people I travel with they’re fine people, but, well, they’re employees when all is said and done.” He set the glass down, his fingers lingering there, halfway across the table. “Good company, fresh and friendly conversation… It is, as you said, a welcome change.”
Vanya took a moment to smile inwardly, saluting him like she would a fencing opponent. She supposed she could take a strange sort of compliment from the fact that Matarazzo had sent someone so good after her. “I imagine that’s the prince we pay for such frivolous things like freedom and personal growth.” She allowed the smile to touch her lips as she continued, “we have the sky. But it can be a lonely place.” Her hand came to rest on his briefly, a friendly gesture that spoke of nothing more forward than friendship and understanding.
“It can indeed.” He drew his hand back, that casual smile on his lips as he took up his menu.”These serendipitous encounters can make up for those long solitary moments, I think.”
“Agreed.” Her delicate fingers folded around the edges of her own menu, as she spoke her first outright lie to him. Life on Repose, and Alice before her, had been anything but lonely. Glancing over the choices before her on the menu, the smile returned to her lips. “I must confess, I find myself continually impressed with this place.”
“Nothing like a little a touch of class out in the rough.” He folded the menu back over his empty place setting.
She followed his movements, setting her menu aside and neatly folding her hands in her lap. “And is the food here as impressive as everything else?” the little companion asked, her violet eyes sparkling as she watched him.
Chesterton mark laughed. “Well, it’s no Grande Facade, but they make a fine steak.” Looking up he raised a hand, bringing the server over.
Dinner was just as pleasant as its precursor had been if not more so. The two of them laughed and smiled and shared lingering glances. They opened up little bits of themselves like two old friends rediscovering each other after a lifetime apart. If it had been real, it would have been a truly sweet evening. And it actually was.
But it wasn’t real. The two professionals were playing each other, both thinking they held some sway over the other, some upper hand. Their dance was flawless, neither knowing where the truth gave way to the fiction they created for their partner. The truth was Vanya held more cards up her sleeve than Chesterton Mark had in his hand. And she she played every one of them.
“This was a truly remarkable evening,” he told her, setting his water down beside his empty plate.”Truly. I cannot thank you enough for your invitation.”
“It was.” The words left her with a soft sigh that was clearly nothing more than enjoyment of an evening that was winding down all too soon. The companion’s violet eyed gaze was drawn back to the window, staring out at the night sky without really seeing it. It had been a lovely dinner. Good food and fine conversation. And she couldn’t keep herself from thinking that she would have traded it all in a heartbeat for exploding coffee pots and plain talk.
The water in her glass caught the light as she lifted it to her lips, hiding a smile. “Though I do believe you were the one who proposed dinner.”
Chesterton laughed. “I guess I did, didn’t I?” He sat back in his chair, following her gaze out the window. “Well, then I’m glad you agreed to take me up on it.”
Her own soft laugh mingled with his. Then, knowing what Joe had told her about the plans for the night, she took a calculated risk. “I’m glad too. It’s almost a shame the evening has to come to an end.”
“It really is.” His thumb wiped back and forth over the condensation on his glass. “Vanya, forgive me if I am a bit forward but……” He took a deep breath. He almost seemed nervous. “I have a very old, very expensive bottle of Riesling upstairs in my room. It seems a crime if I were to drink it alone.” He put his hands on his lap and leaned over the table. “I know you said you didn’t drink as a professional peculiarity, but,” the smile was perfectly inviting, “it would be lovely to share it with an old friend.” He laughed to himself, sounding almost nervous. “I know we’ve only just met, but I think someday…”
She looked away for a moment, teeth tugging at her full lower lip in a picture of feminine indecision.”I should decline,” she began, violet eyes finally rising to meet his through their veil of sooty lashes.”But I’d hate to cause you to commit a crime….” Her smile blossomed fully as she let herself accept the offer. “I’d be delighted to join you.”
He raised his hand for their server one last time, and took care of the bill, leaving a rather generous portion for gratuity. He pushed back from the table, and walked around to help slide her chair out, as the gentleman he seemed to be would. The lady thanked him kindly and he offered her his arm.
“Shall we then?”
She didn’t hesitate. Her smile seemed almost shy as she took his arm, gracefully unwinding herself from the chair. There was no need to glance back. Tyler was there; he’d been watching the whole meal. She was surrounded and safe. “Thank you,”
Letting him lead her from the room, Vanya caught her long skirts in her free hand, keeping the delicate silk away from her feet as they ascended the stairs together. Her other hand rested lightly on his arm, seeming to be perfectly comfortable next to him.
“It’s just around the corner here,” he told her, as they reached the top of the stairs and turned. Chesterton’s arm squeezed her a little, somewhat snugly and he gave her a charming smile. He put his free hand into his pocket and fished out the key. “I have to ask. What is the professional peculiarity with drink?”
Her silvery laugh filled the hall. “In the past, I’ve simply found that a drink or two has the unfortunate habit of clouding my judgment. I find it generally safer to avoid it.” She leaned her head toward his shoulder slightly, burgundy curls brushing across his coat. “But I find I have very few worries with you around.”
“I’m glad for that,” his eyes locked on hers as he slipped the key into the lock and turned it. “And you don’t need to worry. I think your judgment is impeccable, Vanya Jahnatt.” For the first time the curl of his smile turned almost playfully wicked. A twist of the handle and a nudge, Chesterton pushed open the door to reveal its dark and shadowy contents. “Please,” with a half bow, he held his open palm toward the open suite.
She stepped through the door without hesitation. It would be highly satisfying to put a bullet in him later on, if for no other reason that for being overly confident.
Chesterton Mark reached for the light switch as he followed her into the dark room. His fingers felt along the wall and there was a click but no lights. He hadn’t even gotten to the switch.
Vanya couldn’t help but smile as she felt his body tense next to hers. Then, since she’d been manhandled enough to last several lifetimes, she prudently stepped out of reach into the darkness.”It is impeccable.” Her tone held a soft purr of contentment. “Please. Why don’t you give us a little light…” Though she couldn’t quite make out the soft tread of footsteps behind her, she could practically feel Ty covering the door.
As if on cue… since it was, the lights next to the bed came on and Mark found himself staring down the twin barrels of Dru’s street cannon. Jacks had a pistol trained from where he stood, having flipped on the lights. And if Chesterton Mark’s evening wasn’t going badly enough, the sound Tyler’s pistol cocking right behind his ear certainly didn’t improve things.
“I’d highly advise against any sort of ruckus,” Ty whispered. “I’m feelin’ a might twitchy, and I’d hate to have to spread your brains all over this fine establishment. High ceilings being tough to clean and all.”
The tenseness in the man’s muscles was noticeable for the briefest of moments. If you blinked you probably would have missed it, that flash of surprise. With it disappeared the charming smile, the pleasant airs, every bit of the gentleman that had been at dinner. Now cold steely eyes locked onto Vanya Jahnatt. Then Durden. Then Jackson. His chin tilted down to look back over his shoulder to the hand cannon a the end of Tyler’s arm. His eyes rolled back to the narrow corners where they found Vanya once more.
“I’m impressed.” His tone was as flat as his expression. His head turned to look her full on. “You are all dead. As of now. Dead.”
The cool sardonic smile that touched the companion’s lips proclaimed with perfect eloquence her kinship to the Kokezaru brothers. They were family by choice, not blood. The time apart only served to remind them all that she faced down threats with calm indifference because of her brothers’ influence. Her violet eyes met Mark’s without the slightest hesitation, her chest rising and falling beneath the soft folds of her dress as she took a deep breath. “Am I?”
“Stone.” He looked back over her shoulder to the man that approached from the corner. “All of you. Do you think you can escape?”
“I think we’ll manage to sneak away.” Dru lowered one arm but kept the other straight on as he approached. “Not so sure about you tho. Odds don’t look so good.” As if to punctuate the sentence, the door clicked shut as Tyler closed them all in.
“You don’t get it.” There was the faintest sound of satisfaction in his voice. “It doesn’t matter. Eyes are looking for her all across the verse. You won’t hide. You can’t hide. Is she going to sit idle in a hole, waiting for the bullet with her name on it?”
“Eyes can be blinded. And I imagine there’s all sorts of names going to be flyin’ about soon.” The coolness of Ty’s voice belied the reality of the situation, of how true they knew Mark’s words to be. But it was something they’d worry about as it came. “If I was you, I’d be a little more worried about the bullet with my name on it, and whether or not it’s in this very room right now.”
“Please,” sneered Mark, not giving the satisfaction to look at the man with a pistol in is back. “I’m not stupid.”
Dru thumbed back the hammer on the Walker Colt Peacemaker. “Didn’t see us coming though.” He reached forward, tucking a hand into the man’s jacket and removing the small pistol hidden there.
“A mistake I’m sure I won’t have time to regret.”
“Fair ’nuff.” The Kokezaru handed the acquirement over to the companion. “I can at least appreciate a man who’s plain.”
“And my men?”
“They’re making peace with their dear and fluffy lord,” Jackon smiled, “they cried a lot.”
Though the piece was foreign and inelegant, Vanya handled Mark’s pistol with cool proficiency. “I imagine they were given slightly more consideration than you would have given my friends here… or on Repose.”
“So,” Jackson said with a bit of a laugh in his voice, “what do we want to do with the lǘ zi here?”
Chesterton was unfazed. “Quite the contrary, Ms. Jahnatt. I’m a professional. Your friends here would have received quick painless deaths. I’m no monster.”
“Unlike your employer.”
His eyes slowly rolled toward the man whose barrel never wavered. “What my employer will do when he has you found will make a trip to Adelei Niska seem like a trip to the petting zoo.”
“I like petting zoos.” Durden’s lip curled into a small, almost pleased smile. “They let you touch the animals.”
“And they get rid of the ones that bite.” With that, Tyler casually struck the man in the side of his head. Mark fell to the floor like mown wheat, leaving everyone else looking at Ty quizzically. “What?”he shrugged, “I got tired of trading threats.”
He motioned to Jacks, “Toss me a couple of them pillows.” Jackson handed Tyler two of the small cushions from an over-stuffed chair while Ty kicked Mark over onto his back. Laying the pillows on the man’s chest, Ty pressed his barrel against them and fired a single shot through the man’s heart. The pillows managed to muffle most of the gun’s report.
Durden crouched down and gripped the body by the shoulders. “Pull the mule around. I think it’s time to check out.”
Her gaze lingered on the still body for a brief second. “I’ll pack my things.” Shoulders set, Vanya turned to the door, giving her brothers only a hint of a smile before exiting the room.
Tyler grabbed the other end of the man and the two brothers hefted him up. They carried him back toward the door that adjoined the man’s suite with that of his partners. Jackson opened the door to let them pass through. “They’re always heavier when they’re dead,” he remarked somewhat plainly as the swung him into the porcelain tub, Chesterton Mark’s temporary final resting place.
“I’ll get the mule.”
The brothers nodded. Durden stopped a moment at the nightstand beside the bed and took the “do not disturb” sign from the top drawer.