In the vastness of space, the two ships came together as smoothly as ballet dancers from Fra’is—not that Kar had ever seen any of those. Only the wealthiest members of the Lodge could afford such entertainment. He glanced at the navigation station on his right and wondered if Jay had ever seen a ballet before leaving that world and his last name behind. Jay was humming a fast tune under his breath, his gaze darting over the navigation controls that flashed in front of him.
“Ever gone to see a ballet, Jay?”
Jay raised his head a fraction, enough that Kar knew he had heard him, but the humming continued. Two seconds later, a loud clank announced they had made contact with the Cisseis.
“Magnetic locks engaged,” the computer said.
Its voice was female today, and there was a singing quality to it that disconcerted Kar. He sighed and threw a tired look at Jay. “You messed with the synchro program again?”
Jay’s clear blue eyes turned to look at him as he leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms above him. “Sounded too much like my posture instructor. Never could stand the bastard.”
Snorting, Kar rose from the captain’s chair and strode out of the cockpit, Jay on his heels. “And the voice before that sounded like your aunt—”
“Aunt, cousin, the fucking president of the Lodge, I don’t care. Just leave the damn synchro alone.”
Jay’s heels thumped behind him, and Kar glanced back. Fingers bent against his forehead, Jay was saluting him as neatly as any Guardian Kar had ever seen. His smirk, however, spoiled the effect. “Aye, Captain.”
With a shake of his head, Kar started forward again, ignoring his navigator’s antics. Will was waiting in front of the living quarters, a bemused expression on his face. That was all Kar needed now, more lip from his crew. He walked faster and passed Will with a glance that dared him to say a word. Will didn’t seem to mind and fell into step with them, hands in his pockets and his long strides easily matching Kar’s rapid pace until they were side by side.
“I’m not saluting you,” Will said. “Just so we’re clear.”
Kar raised his eyes to the ceiling, then frowned as he spotted a trail of rust on a pipe and made a mental note to check it later. One more thing to check. He loved his ship, but the damn thing sure didn’t seem to love him back. “No one asked you to salute.”
“So it’s just Jay then?” Will’s drawling voice sounded caught between amusement and curiosity.
“Nobody asked Jay to salute either.” Kar massaged his temples, two firm fingers on each side. There were days when he thought he’d have been better off slaving over a patch of dirt on his home planet. Then again, fourteen years spent without stars under Carelleion’s two suns and three moons had been quite enough. “Will you two open the nexus doors or do I have to do everything on this ship?”
“Well, it is your ship,” Jay said with a devious grin, but he went to the first door’s manual controls just the same.
They had arrived in the cargo bay, and Kar stopped in front of a metal door. Jay’s careful navigation had aligned the Danaus and the Cisseis so that the magnetic strips on each ship’s nexus interlocked. All they needed now was to open two doors on this side and for the crew of the Cisseis to do the same thing on their side, and the trade could begin.
Feet planted solidly on the metal floor of his ship and his arms crossed over his chest, Kar took a deep breath. They had good merchandise to trade, and the Cisseis usually gave fair prices. Everything would go just fine.
He inclined his head when Will and Jay looked at him. Jay’s fingers flew over a line of manual switches, deactivating the doors’ secure locks. When the alarm beeped once, Will grabbed the wheel in the center of the door and turned it. His face reddened at the effort, and the horizontal scar on his cheek seemed even paler in contrast.
The pressurized door opened inward with a whisper of rushing air. Will adjusted the fingerless gloves on his hands and entered the nexus to open the second door. When he came out to stand by Jay’s side, the nexus had become an open corridor between the two ships, twenty-five yards long and wide enough for two men to walk abreast. Kar could already see the captain of the Cisseis, Dav Lyenne, striding toward him with a brilliant smile plastered on his face. Wide pants in a violent shade of green were tucked into his boots. They clashed horribly with a bright red shirt.
“Karmykel!” Lyenne emerged from the nexus and stopped, striking an ostentatious pose, arms raised so that the triangles of fabric attached to his sleeves framed him like wings. “It has been too long, my friend.”
Kar forced a tight smile onto his lips and held out his hand to Lyenne. Friend was not a word he would have used to describe the other captain, but he wasn’t about to say as much before they started trading. The way Kar saw it, they did business together, and things stopped there. He had trouble trusting people who smiled too freely, or who flaunted clothes they could only have acquired on one of the Prime Planets. Black pants and a simple black shirt had always served him right. On that, his crew followed his lead, though as he glanced at them, he wondered, as he so often did, how Jay could bear to wear pants so snug. They looked even tighter, he was chagrined to notice, when Will’s hand was stuck in the back pocket. Couldn’t they behave?
He forced his eyes back to Lyenne and gave his hand a firm shake. “Too long, indeed. I heard you don’t follow local trade routes regularly anymore.”
Lyenne puffed up his chest. “You’ve heard right, at that. I’m moving up in the universe.” His arms rose again, as though the extra fabric on his sleeves somehow signified anything other than his foolishness. “But I’ll always trade with old friends. What do you have for me?”
Kar led him to the first stack of cargo boxes and undid the clasps on one of them before flicking the lid open. Lyenne stepped closer to examine the saffra powder. Some traders vaunted the quality of their goods until they were blue in the face; Kar preferred to let his merchandise speak for itself.
While Lyenne rubbed a pinch of spices between his thumb and forefinger, Kar looked back at his crew and couldn’t help rolling his eyes at them. Will had pushed Jay back against the wall and was leaning into his neck, murmuring words Kar couldn’t hear but that made Jay’s lips curl into a lazy smile. Kar cleared his throat loudly, and the two men threw guilty glances at him as they straightened. At least, Kar wanted to believe they felt guilty. He had no desire to repeat that painful conversation about business, personal matters, and the many ways the two should not mix on his ship.
“I trust that you have the paperwork for this,” Lyenne said, oblivious to the byplay behind him.
“I always have paperwork.”
Even as far away from the Prime Planets as they were, no trader worth his ship would be caught without the credentials for anything he wanted to sell. It didn’t matter so much that the paperwork was authentic as long as the forgery looked good enough. Planets in the outer systems weren’t too inquisitive as far as paperwork went, but they still insisted on the proper credentials to accompany any goods traded to them. Guardians looked at those credentials a lot more closely when they boarded a trade ship for inspection, but Kar tried his best to avoid systems where he knew the Lodge kept a Guardians outpost.
Lyenne nodded absently. “Anything else?”
Kar frowned as he gestured Lyenne to the second, larger stack of boxes. It was unwise to show too much interest in a potential trade, of course, but Lyenne wasn’t very good at hiding his thoughts. The fact that he wasn’t raving about the quality of the saffra—and it was of a damn good quality, Kar was no fool to trade for junk—didn’t bode well.
“Raw moonsilk from—”
Lyenne let out a dramatic sigh. “Moonsilk? Raw moonsilk? No one trades for that anymore. You don’t keep up with fashion, do you?” He looked Kar up and down, his nose wrinkling in distaste. “It’s all about colors, my friend. The brighter, the better. Now if you had chromore to trade with that moonsilk, I’d take the whole lot from your hands.” He shook his head and clucked his tongue. “It pains me to leave you with non-tradeable goods, really.”
Kar clenched his teeth. He had traded high for that moonsilk not two weeks earlier. Part of him wanted to call Lyenne on the lie, but he couldn’t afford to offend him, not when the Danaus was on her last box of food. How long until his crew tired of it and quit? Unlike Kar, neither of them was used to going hungry. His gaze drifted behind Lyenne, and he crossed his arms again. Jay and Will were back at it.
Will’s fingers were tracing the tattooed lines that encircled Jay’s throat like a necklace. Any second now, it’d be his lips on Jay’s skin instead of his fingers, and another one of these purplish bruises would bloom. Kar hated those bruises—and he hated that he could never stop staring at them. A muscle ticked in his jaw. If these two didn’t cut it out, he’d trade them instead of the moonsilk. Hell, he’d even pay Lyenne to take them off his ship.
“I know this is not what you wanted to hear,” Lyenne said, misinterpreting his growing annoyance and drawing Kar’s attention back to him. “But as I said, if you had chromore…”
Again, he was smiling too widely. Kar’s patience was running thin. “I don’t have chromore, nor do I know where to find it.”
At that, Lyenne beamed. “What a coincidence! I just happen to know where you can…acquire some. I’d go myself, but these days I try to keep a low profile, if you know what I mean…”
Kar had a pretty good idea what Lyenne meant. He knew where one could steal this chromore but didn’t want to dirty his hands by doing the stealing himself. As a rule, Kar didn’t like to steal. Even this far from the Prime Planets, Guardians patrolled all mining operations that belonged to the Lodge.
“I don’t have the weaponry or the engine speed to take on Guardians.”
“Ah, but who’s talking about them?” Lyenne gestured dismissively. “They have some sort of festival on the main planet right now, and the entire moon will be deserted for five more days. The refining factory will just be waiting for you.”
Kar had been called many things since embarking on a ship as a wide-eyed kid close to twenty years earlier, but no one had ever called him stupid who hadn’t lived to regret it. It was extraordinarily convenient that Lyenne happened to know where to find chromore and would impart this knowledge to Kar at the precise moment when the mineral lay unguarded. Kar wondered if Lyenne had suggested this business opportunity to others already—or if Kar was the first who had looked desperate enough to accept.
“Four large boxes of food for the saffra,” he said, easily sliding in the strong tones of trading. “And twenty thousand credits for the moonsilk and the chromore when I come back.”
He had expected Lyenne to protest the price of the saffra and was surprised when he thrust a hand at him. “Done. But for that price, I want at least fifty boxes of chromore.”
They shook on it.
Too busy mouthing Jay’s neck, Will didn’t hear Kar calling for him or didn’t care to reply. This was getting tiresome.
“Will! Get your ass over here and carry the saffra over to the Cisseis now, or ask Captain Lyenne if he’s got room on his ship for you.”
Will raised his head and turned an amused look to Kar, his lips set in a smile just shy of derisive. With a mock salute, he went to grab the lift. Jay joined him and helped him pull the first box onto the flat bed of the lift. Lyenne chuckled and clapped Kar on the back.
“Quite a crew you’ve got there, my friend. I bet there isn’t a dull moment on your ship.”
Kar glared at him, but Lyenne, his eyebrow suddenly rising in surprise, didn’t notice. His eyes were on Jay. He licked his lips before saying in a very low voice, “It’s funny, I could have sworn those tattoos looked like—”
“The Lodge,” Kar cut in abruptly. “But don’t go mentioning that to him. Touchy subject.”
Lyenne’s chuckle this time was weak, as though he were not sure whether Kar was joking or not. “I’ll send the food over. And the coordinates.”
At that, he took regal steps back to his ship, waving his hand over his shoulder. Teeth clenched, Kar stomped over to the stack of saffra and pulled a box from Jay’s hands. He gave him a harsh look and tried to ignore the red mark on his neck, which was half on the tattoo, half off. Damn them.
“Cockpit. Now. The Cisseis is going to transmit coordinates.”
Jay shrugged. “The computer’ll catch that.”
“Go to the cockpit, Jake. Or find another job.”
Jay’s full lips tightened into a thin line. His eyes darkened, no longer a summer sky, now a rising storm. He considered Kar for a few seconds, his back straightening slowly until he stood ramrod straight. “I never went to see the ballet, Captain. Would you like to know why?”
Suddenly, his words were crisp, each syllable detached and smooth. Behind him, Will shook his head and smiled, but he continued working. Kar said nothing.
“All things that are worth having are worth having on your own terms,” Jay said in the same tone. “I didn’t go to see the ballet. The ballet came to me.”
Despite being a couple of inches shorter than Kar, he managed to stare him down before he turned on his heel and walked away. Somehow, in his simple pants and sleeveless shirt, he managed to look more stately than Lyenne in his flamboyant attire.
“Posture instructor, no shit,” Kar muttered, and helped Will stack up the saffra.
Will raised a questioning eyebrow at him. “What was that ballet stuff about, then?”
Kar shrugged. “How would I know? You’re the one who fucks him.”
Will’s baritone laugh filled the entire cargo bay, echoing back to them. “You shouldn’t have called him Jake.”
Hoisting the last box on top of the others, Kar groaned. “I know.”
“He’s going to be a pain for days.”
Will started guiding the lift down toward the nexus, but he looked back at Kar, dark eyes gleaming mischievously. “I guess I’ll have to put him in a better mood.”
Kar watched him go and shook his head. Sometimes, he really wanted to fire the two of them and fly solo. Surely no amount of loneliness could be worth the daily torture these two inflicted on him without even knowing it.
… continued in Moonlust