“Come look at these.”
Jani Kilian maneuvered through the morning workday crowd and joined Lucien Pascal at the shop window. The display proved typical for an establishment bordering Cabinet Row, quiet and opulent at the same time. The store specialized in fine tableware–the cutlery and metal plate that filled the velvet-draped display niches seemed to glow in the Chicago morning sun.
“This is a very good thank-you gift for your better clients.” Lucien pointed to a small silver bowl that had been shaped into a half-shell, then satin-polished until it appeared lit from within. “Not too expensive, but not cheap either. It implies that the document business is good, but you’re too astute to throw money about without good reason. It just so happens that you consider the recipient to be a good reason.” He bent closer to the window to get a better look, his white-blond hair capturing the light like the silver. “Hand out a few of those, then sit back and watch the commissions pour in.”
Jani examined the bowl. Lucien had acquired his eye under the tutelage of Exterior Minister Anais Ulanova–his taste, as always, proved sound but expensive. “I already have more commissions than I can handle.” She turned away from the window and continued down the walkway. “I should be home working on a few of them now instead of walking you to the train.” She slipped her hand inside her trouser pocket, working her fingers through the assorted vend tokens and keycards until they closed around a slip of paper. The crisp, Cabinet-grade parchment crackled–she jerked out her hand, then folded her arms and turned back to Lucien.
He stood in front of the window, watching her. He looked like a fairy tale soldier in his dress blue-greys, the steel-blue tunic cut on the diagonal with a black leather crossover belt, the grey trousers slashed along the sides with mainline red stripes. He’d set his brimmed lid with geometric precision. Even his red lieutenant’s bars and expert marksman badges glittered like costume decoration.
Only the fully packed holster on his waistbelt belied the romantic image. That, and the light in his brown eyes, as cold as the metal on the other side of the glass. “Why are you so edgy?”
Jani forced a smile. “What makes you think I’m edgy?”
“Because you’re answering my question with a question, for one thing.”
“I do that all the time. You’re not the only one who complains about it.”
“But I’m the only one who knows what it means in this particular instance.” Lucien strolled to her side. “At oh-six, you get a call from the lobby. It’s your building manager, with an early morning documents delivery from Cabinet Archives. Nothing unusual in that–you’ve gotten those before. You tumble out of bed, throw on some clothes, and go downstairs to retrieve them.” He leaned close to her, bringing with him scents of soap and freshly washed hair. “Except you don’t return right away, and when you finally do show up, you’re snappish and distracted. You refuse to eat breakfast, and you hustle me out the door before I’ve even swallowed a cup of coffee.” He drew even nearer, until he brushed against her arm. “John would be upset if he knew you didn’t eat. You know that you can’t afford to mistreat yourself, considering your condition.”
Jani backed off a step so that she could look Lucien in the face. And what a face, the full mouth and strong bones still softened enough by youth to imply innocence. An angel, perched on the brink of damnation. Stay focused. She knew he could distract her, then trap her with a question or an offhand comment. “I’m fine. It just hit me how much work I have to do. I’ve got that meeting at the idomeni embassy today, and if form holds true, it will run longer than expected. I’ve got three Treasury summaries due next week, and I haven’t even looked at the data.”
“So as you said, why waste the time playing escort now?” Lucien stood easily, arms at his sides, head cocked in artless curiosity. “Where are you going after you leave me at Union?”
“The only place I’m going after I leave you at Union is home.” Jani turned her back on him and started to walk. Her weak right knee sagged with every step, the persistent reminder of an eventful summer. “I’ve found that the occasional break clears my head. Maybe I’ll take another one later today, come back here and buy something for my best clients.” She took a deep, steadying breath. The crisp fall air held a city melange of restaurant aromas, overheated skimmer batteries, and a whiff of pungent cologne from a passing pedestrian. “What time’s your train?”
“Oh-seven and a half. Same as when you asked five minutes ago.” Lucien moved up beside her, matching her stride for stride. “What’s wrong?”
“How can I help you if you never tell me anything?”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Who are you meeting?”
“I’m not meeting anybody.”
As they continued up the walkway, Jani noted that people stepped aside for them. They glanced first at Lucien, then at her, their eyes questioning. Who are you, lady? A Family member on an early morning shopping spree with her officer boyfriend? A colonial diplomat out for a stroll with her bodyguard? She knew she cut an imposing figure in her black trousers and crimson shirt-jacket. She matched Lucien in ranginess and almost matched him in height, her short black hair and brown skin serving as dark contrast to his brilliant blondness and paling summer tan. That’s who I am–the soldier’s shadow. Not the real thing–please don’t make that mistake. It was an error she’d made herself once, thinking herself a soldier. As was usual with those sorts of lapses, others had paid a steeper price for it than she.
They turned the corner, and Union Station loomed into view. Commuters streamed out, on the way to posts in the Cabinet Ministries, NUVA-SCAN, or Neoclona, and in, travelling to Fort Sheridan or other more distant points in the Michigan province. They entered the station, a train cathedral of stained glass and vaulted ceilings; the pound of footsteps and the keen of voices ricocheted off the walls and seemed to increase in volume with each successive bounce. Jani’s pulse quickened as she elbowed through the crowd. She had hurried through many train stations over the years.
They reached the embarkation platform and scanned the Outbound display, then hurried along the line of trains and down the track just as the first call for the Sheridan Express sounded. Lucien stopped before an open car, then turned. “I’ll see you at the embassy?”
Jani hesitated, then nodded. “You’re going to be there?”
“I’d never miss a chance to watch you and Nema cause trouble.” He pulled her close and kissed her, his lips warm and bruising. “Enjoy your break,” he whispered as he pulled away. He boarded the train, remaining in the entry as the door slid closed and the sleek bullet pulled away. They didn’t wave goodbye, just as they never held hands, or hugged–it wasn’t their style. They just stared at one another until the angle grew too sharp and Lucien disappeared from view.
Jani stood on the platform until the train vanished around the bend, then reached into her pocket once more. This time, she removed the piece of paper, her actions of earlier that morning replaying in her mind.
I met Hodge at the front desk. No one else was in the lobby. The only person outside was the doorman. I opened the documents case in Hodge’s presence, like I always do. If the seals appeared tampered-with, or if anything looked strange, better to uncover it before a reliable witness. I found nothing amiss. Seals appeared intact. The papers had been filed in an orderly manner.
Then she had caught sight of the slip of pale green parchment sticking out of the corner of one of the slipcases like a marker tag. She had gone ahead and closed the case, waiting until she boarded the lift before opening it again and removing the scrap with a hesitant hand.
You possess hidden talents, Niall–it takes skill to crack a Cabinet-grade seal. She unfolded the note and studied it as she had earlier. A short sentence, written in the neat script she’d grown accustomed to over the past months.
Meet me at oh-eight. You’ll know where.
“I will?” Jani turned over the scrap and examined the back for any clues she had missed during previous examinations. “Why the mystery, Colonel? And why the rush? We’re meeting for lunch tomorrow–can’t this wait?” She folded down one of the corners, then unfolded it–the weighty paper still rustled like new. “Pale green–that’s the color Commerce is using for their official documents this year–” She stilled. “The Commerce Ministry.”
Now she knew where she had to go. All that remained was to find out why.
Jani crossed the pedestrian overpass that spanned the twelve-lane Boul Mich, Chicago’s main thoroughfare, and entered the lakeside sprawl of government buildings, parkland, and open land known as Cabinet Row. She reached a vehicle dispatch platform, and boarded a Commerce Ministry people-mover amid a group of green-clad employees. After everyone sat, the lumbering conveyance began its slow float down the wide walkway toward the kilometer-long Ministry main building. As it approached a subsidiary gate that led to a small employee park, Jani stood. The vehicle stopped, and she disembarked.
Jani watched the roofless vehicle resume its glide toward the Ministry proper. Then she pressed her hand to the gatekeeper square; the device scanned her palm, and the gate swung open.
Colonel Niall Pierce stood near the entry, talking to a younger man in lieutenant’s gear as he pointed to a late-blooming hybrid rose. Like Lucien, he wore mainline dress blue-greys, but no fairy tale Jani could think of would have claimed him as its hero. In contrast to the prince’s clean, broad brow and high cheekbones, this weathered pretender possessed a narrow visage, sun-battered and lined, the appearance of length accentuated by the scar that cut the left side of his face from the edge of his nose to the corner of his mouth. Young blond was replaced by old bronze; springy fitness gave way to wary tension.
Only his eyes spoke to the humor in the man. The warm gold-brown of the richest honey, they hinted at depths of emotion that Lucien had never experienced.
Niall straightened when he heard the gate slam shut. “Captain.” He touched his fingers to his forehead in a modest salute. “That’ll be all, Pull,” he said to the lieutenant. “Meet you back at the skimmer.”
“Sir.” Pull snapped a salute, then turned to Jani. “Ma’am.”
Jani nodded. “You’re new.”
“Lieutenant Randal Pullman, ma’am.” The young man blushed. Since he was a pink-skinned redhead, the rouging made it appear as though he’d just popped out of a boiler. “Good morning.” He backed away, his smile wide and fixed, then turned and clipped down the walkway that led into the Ministry.
“I’ve been telling him about you.” Niall’s voice twanged, middle-pitch and sharp, lower-class Victorian blunted by years spent on other worlds. “Suffice it to say that you have a new admirer.” He moved from the rose to an autumn hydrangea, lifting one of the bloom-heavy branches to his nose.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that.” Jani wandered a wide semicircle until she stood beside him. He pushed the branch toward her and she bent to sniff the blooms, which were brilliant purple and possessed of a heavy, spicy-sweet scent. As she did, Niall released the branch and stepped away. Jani had flinched once when he accidentally touched her. Since then, he took care not to remain close to her for too long.
“Why not?” He drew up straight and locked his hands behind his back. “The work you did at Rauta Shèràa Base was admirable; even twenty years later, it manages to impress.. And that flaw you found in Transport Ministry docking protocols was a marvel of critical analysis.”
“Niall, I was forging manifests for a smuggling operation when I uncovered that flaw.” Jani paused, then looked up from the flower. “I don’t think I ever told you about that, did I?”
Niall hesitated. Then he jerked his chin toward the garden entry, and sniffed. “Pretty Boy waiting for you?”
“No, he’s on his way back to Sheridan.” Jani picked a shriveled petal from one of the blooms. “I didn’t tell him I was meeting you, but he knows something’s up. Don’t be surprised if you get back to Sheridan to find someone had checked into your whereabouts this morning.”
“Isn’t he the crafty one?” Niall sneered, his damaged lip accentuating his disgust. “Is he still… dating that father of four who runs the Justice Ministry Appeals Division?”
“Yes, and a few others as well. I’ve explained to you before–I don’t mind. That way, he doesn’t get bored, and I get a few nights a week to myself.”
“You call that love?”
“You know I don’t. I never did. Between Lucien’s essential nature and prototype augmentation, he can’t love anyone. My… experiences have taught me the value of his sort of outlook. He doesn’t know how to ask for what I’m no longer prepared to give. We have just the relationship we want.”
“I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
“Can we please cut to the chase?” Jani backed away from the shrubbery until she stood in Niall’s path. “What’s going on? You didn’t go through the trouble to break into a sealed Treasury Ministry documents case in order to lecture me about my personal life, did you?”
Niall reached beneath his brimmed lid to scratch the top of the head. Then he readjusted the braid-trimmed hat to its former dead-on level, and brushed a speck of nonexistent dirt from the front of his tunic. “Ever been to Tsing Tao Station?” He tugged at his own expert marksman’s badge. “Biggest shuttle transfer station in the Pearl Way, last stop before you hit the GateWay and enter La Manche, the Channel Worlds–”
“I know what it is.” Jani watched him take great care to look everywhere but at her. “A few years ago.”
“Four and a half?”
“Yes. Four and a half.”
“Just passing through, or did you work there for a time?”
“I did a few odd jobs to earn billet money. Same as I did at every other station I ever passed through. I think I stopped-over there for a total of six months.”
“Five.” Niall yanked a brown leaf from the branch of a late-blooming rose. “Kill anybody while you were there?”
Jani studied him for any sign he joked. She’d learned to spot the hints over the months of their acquaintance–the narrowing of his eyes, the working of his jaw as he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. But she couldn’t find them this time. Unfortunately. “No, I didn’t.”
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