Blood Price

Chapter One

It always started the same. Even standing in the other room, Skadi heard the rapid breath, the hissing through gritted teeth. Her Lady was a proud woman, and fought every time to keep herself from screaming, as she was forbidden from soundproofing the chamber. Then the ragged breathing became gasps, little voiced exhalations of pain. Finally, there would always come the screams, made that much more terrible because Skadi could not otherwise have imagined the flat, expressionless voice producing such sounds. Perhaps that was why this was always done with fresh clones, and an ungodly amount of nerve boosters. The screams reached a crescendo as Skadi heard the familiar rending, cracking sound. One piercing shriek followed, and then a heavy slump. Sizzling sounds next, and the faint whirr and buzz of mechanical equipment at work, punctuated only by muted, choking sobs. Skadi had heard this many times. It did not get easier.

Ten minutes later, a diminutive Khanid emerged from behind the thin screen provided for her privacy. She wore black and crimson robes, the colors of her house. Her dark hair fell loose about her shoulders, and a new prosthetic hand shone with a factory finish at her left sleeve. Her Lady’s slender build and tiny statue made her look almost childlike, particularly when standing beside Skadi, who was a full foot and a half taller. Tilting her head back, those blank red eyes met the Brutor soldier’s, irises slowly rotating.

“Thank you for being so prompt, Skadi,” Lilly said in her dull, monotone voice so at odds with what Skadi had just heard.

Most people in Lady Terranova’s employ thought of her as emotionless, an ice queen ruled by cold, calculating pragmatism. It was often said that if she had any emotions at all, they were all expressed in impatient irritation. Skadi had known her for years, and had learned better, though she suspected that none believed these rumors more than the Lady herself, perhaps even clinging to the image of her as an emotionless martinet. Or maybe the agonies devised by the King for her intemperate years among pirates simply sapped her of affect. Still, Skadi knew this greeting to be her Lady’s way of expressing that she was pleased to see her.

“Of course, my Lady. I was surprised you wanted me to meet you…here, though.”

“You do not approve?” Lilly asked, looking around.

The station was too far from home and too close to Delve for Skadi’s liking, particularly with the increased activity of the Blood Raiders within the Empire. “No, I don’t. We shouldn’t be here.”

Lilly’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, but not in anger. The Khanid was, Skadi knew, very slow to anger, particularly with her subordinates, though the edges of her calm had begun fraying in the wake of the Triglavians’ invasions. No, this was curiosity. A military woman at heart, Skadi knew Lilly to be the sort of commander who valued her subordinates’ opinions. At times like this, it was even Skadi’s role to disagree with her decisions, to offer an opposing view. That was not so difficult today.

“Why not? We are here only to purchase dropships in the event that a planetary evacuation becomes necessary in our home system.”

“We could do that in the State. Or we could do it in Domain, or even in the Kingdom, where you’d be expected to buy that sort of thing.”

“We could,” Lilly agreed. “But then the purchases would be a matter of record, and I, a Holder, would be seen to be preparing to evacuate or even abandon my holdings. I do not want to cause a panic, or arouse suspicion that I mean to flee an invasion.”

“It would be easy to explain as vessels for deployment of ground forces,” Skadi countered.

“Not if they are equipped with warp drives.”

Skadi frowned. “So you do want to evacuate.”

Lilly shook her head. “Not at all. But I will not leave a population stranded in a potentially hostile situation if it comes to that. I wish only to be prepared for all eventualities.”

“Well how’s it going to look, you doing business out here?”

“I am a capsuleer. I do business in many distasteful places. It is—“

“My Lady, you won’t get another chance if you do something to upset the K—“

“I am well aware, thank you, Skadi,” Lilly said mildly. “So it is better we conduct this business quickly.”

Skadi couldn’t hide her frustration. “If you’re not going to listen to me, then why am I here?”

Lilly looked back up at her, the corners of her lips twitching in what amounted to her typically statuesque face’s approximation of a smile. “It would not do for a Holder to go unprotected.”

The Brutor woman snorted indelicately. “Oh, right. How silly of me.”

“It is best if we complete this transaction quickly. There is too much other work to be done for me to be here long. And there is something else I would like you to do while I am brokering the sale,” Lilly explained, starting off to the station proper without a backward glance.

Sighing, Skadi made to follow her. It wasn’t hard. Lilly had to take two steps to the much taller woman’s one. If anything, Skadi had to consciously slow her own pace to not pull ahead of her Lady. “Is this anything to do with the meeting you had with—“

“—You know nothing of that, and we will not speak of it,” Lilly said quickly.

Skadi did know about it, though, but she understood Lilly’s reluctance to discuss it. If the Bloody King, as many of her fellow House Guards liked to call him, turned his eye back to Lilly, there wouldn’t be much left of her or her Holdings when he got through with her. That included Skadi and those others Lilly employed, to say nothing of those she owned. Skadi was fortunate in that she had been freed, and so might have the choice of simply fleeing and escaping any Imperial ire her Lady aroused.

“All right. But maybe don’t run your mouth so much for a while? Lay low and just keep killing the Trigonometries or whatever,” Skadi suggested. Of course, she knew the proper name, but little things like this she did more to remind her Lady not to take everything so bloody seriously all the time.

“Triglavians,” Lilly corrected predictably, glancing up at Skadi out of the corner of her eyes. Certainly it was not acceptable to speak to a Holder like that, as Skadi well knew. But that was simply how she had always spoken to her Lady. Lilly knew the Brutor respected her and would follow orders when it came to it, and that was enough. “And perhaps you are right.”

“There are a lot of lives to think about.”

Lilly nodded. “Yes,” she agreed, but swiftly changed the subject. “While I am meeting with my…contact, I would like you to go to the entertainment concourse and meet with a man who goes by Renault. He is Gallente. Tall, blue hair. You should find him in whatever bar seems seediest. He has some information for me. It should be on a storage unit, so simply collect it from him.”

“Does he know I’ll be doing that?” Skadi asked. “Or will this be a surprise visit?”

“He has been paid for his trouble,” Lilly answered. “If you have any issues retrieving the data, or find the situation becomes dangerous…” She handed Skadi the panic button that most Holders kept with them and held out her other hand for the receiver to the same, which Skadi kept on her person.

“Seriously? A Holder protecting her House Guard?”

Lilly shrugged, and Skadi sighed, handing her the receiver as she accepted the panic button.

“This is where we part ways. And remember, if anything goes wrong, signal me immediately.”

Skadi nodded. This was more important than Lilly wanted to say. Sure, Lilly only kept her around when she made public appearances so as not to seem careless and rash—an accusation more than once leveled against her. But still, Skadi did not like the idea of calling her Lady into danger. Not, she supposed, that that really mattered to a capsuleer. She was probably in a new clone because she’d backed herself up just before coming here, which also gave Skadi a sense of the danger this whole affair posed, though she expected that the danger was in the deal Lilly was going to make, not where she, Skadi, was being sent.

They parted ways at the lift leading to the entertainment concourse. Skadi took one car down to the areas reserved for lower-class entertainment, and Lilly up to the more well-to-do section of the station. This far out on the fringes of the Empire, so close to lawless space, Skadi saw few actual citizens of the Empire, and far more travelers, traders, mercenaries, and criminals. She fit right in with the bunch, dressed as she was in light combat armor, weapons carried visibly at her hip and on her back. That was maybe the one good thing about stations like this. They represented one of the few opportunities Skadi had to actually blend in, though some noted the lack of a Voluval tattoo on an apparently free Minmatar.

The instant Skadi stepped off the lift, the sights, sounds, and scents of the lower entertainment concourse assaulted Skadi in a wave of pulsing lights, raucous chatter, and the odor of too many bodies packed together in a chamber with recycled air. Being used to the open mountain air, Skadi found the whole experience repellant. But, duty was duty, and she wasn’t going to help keep her people safe from Trianglenometrylavians if she stood there griping about station life.

Unfortunately, the description of “tall, blue-haired Gallente” was not as helpful here as it might have been more toward the heart of the Empire. She spotted two within moments of stepping off the elevator, but neither were in bars, so she simply noted where they were heading and kept on her course. Finding the “seediest” bar wasn’t much of a project, it turned out. Amid the shuffle of station guests and residents, over whose heads Skadi generally had little trouble seeing, one such establishment stood out. Or rather, failed to stand out. Its lighting was only partially functional, so the name “Grande Olde Tyme” read as something closer to “Rande Lyme” to anyone passing by. The windows were smeared with grease and the grime of accumulated cigarette smoke, and the door was open to reveal an almost completely unlit interior. It seemed a likely candidate.

Inside, Skadi had to pause and almost cover her nose. If the scent of bodies packed together in the station was bad, this place had an odor of stale sweat and vomit that came with a rather unenthusiastic cleaning staff working to keep up with an especially slovenly customer base. One of the patrons by the bar noticed the look on the woman’s face and let out a deep guffaw.

“Lookit this monster of a woman. Prolly crush a skull in ‘er ‘and but she can’t take a bit a smoke!” he grunted to the man sitting next to him, a heavyset Civire with a jaw like a tritanium beam and small, watery eyes. He might have been half a foot shorter than Skadi, but he was almost half again as wide.

“Don’t look so tough from here,” he growled.

“It’s not the smoke,” Skadi returned. “You two smell like week-old fedo ■■■■.”

Both men looked at each other. Skadi was too accustomed to saying whatever came to mind around her Lady and those she kept company with. These two clearly didn’t appreciate it. The Civire, clearly drunk, lurched unsteadily to his feet.

“What’d you say?”

“I said you smell like week-old fedo ■■■■, but that was just me being polite,” she replied, glancing about the bar to see if the man she sought was present.

“Hey, Grolan, take it outside if you’re gonna start another fight,” the bartender called. “You can’t afford to replace anymore starsdamned stools or windows.”

Not seeing the man she was seeking, Skadi shrugged. “Fine with me. At least I’ll be able to breathe out there.”

Another of the patrons laughed, evidently appreciating the aspersions cast on the Civire’s hygiene, though one look at the woman told Skadi that she wasn’t a great deal cleaner. Her apparently lack of attention paid to Grolan seemed only to serve to further irritate him. He let out a bellow, and charged toward Skadi. Once, he might have been a threat. What had clearly been muscle had long since gone to flab, and whatever instincts he might have had as a soldier—so Skadi guessed his former occupation to be—had been drowned in whatever rotgut he’d been guzzling. She neatly sidestepped him, letting him barrel past her, and gave him a swift kick in the posterior as he did. In consequence, he tumbled rather gracelessly out the front door, landing face first in the thoroughfare.

That got a laugh. She took a bow to the smattering of applause and turned to leave, wondering what could possibly be seedier than the Randy Lime. Sidestepping the prone Civire, Skadi stepped back out onto the station streets to peer around. There didn’t seem to be any likely candidates in the area. Frowning, she glanced back toward the lift, wondering if she should have gone to a different level. While she stood there thinking, the Civire had managed to force his way to his feet.

“I’ll rip your damned heart out!” he roared, charging at Skadi again.

Truth to tell, she’d figured he was done for the night, and hadn’t been expecting a second attack. Still, he was too slow. Skadi stepped into the alley between the bar and a rather dingy looking restaurant beside it, and as he tried again to tackle her, she ducked, planting both hands in his stomach, and flipped him over her back and into the open dumpster. Unfortunately, it would do nothing to improve his smell, but she doubted he would have an easy time climbing out, given the state of him. Thrashing and swearing echoed from the dumpster, and Skadi had to step back to dodge a few bottles being tossed over its edge at her.

She tripped on something soft.

Catching herself on the grimy wall, Skadi looked down and saw that she had just stepped on the outstretched leg of a very, very dead Gallente man with a shock of bright blue hair. Reflexively, she reached up, slamming the heavy covering down atop the dumpster to mute any sound from within, and turned her attention to the man before her. Yes, he was definitely dead. A laser burn through the center of his chest told her that he’d been killed fairly recently, as there was still the faint odor of burned flesh clinging to him, and his body had not yet gone cold or rigid. So, whoever had killed him was probably close by. She reached into her pocket and touched the panic button. This definitely counted as something going wrong. Worried now, Skadi began patting the man down, searching for any data storage device he may be carrying.

Her world exploded into stars as something flat and heavy hit the back of her head. A boot. Skadi sprawled across the ground, rolling away and curling defensively in anticipation of further blows. The breath almost went out of her lungs as she rolled hard into the corner of the dumpster in which the drunken Grolan was still cursing and shouting. As soon as it became clear there would be no immediate follow-up to the first blow, Skadi sprang to her feet, putting as much distance between herself and the apparent source of the attack as she could.

Coming to her feet, Skadi caught sight of three people crowding one end of the alley, and another three at the opposite, boxing her in. Nausea gripped her as her head rang from the blow. A concussion, she was all but certain. That would have to wait. Her assailants bore no identifying marks on their clothing, but none of it looked to be military issue. That might be a good sign. But it might not. Leaning her shoulders back against the wall, Skadi took a moment to try and steady her spinning head while also looking nonchalant.

“I’m guessing you’re not with station security, huh?” she said, playing for time.

Six on one wasn’t her idea of a good time. She might win. She might not. If they were drunken thugs like Grolan, she’d take her chances. But the almost parade rest stances each of them had told her that if they weren’t active military, then they all had been at once point or another. The best she would be able to do is hope that her Lady made it to bail her out, preferably with station security in tow.

“You were here for Renault?” one of them asked, face obscured by a hood and what was either a privacy mask or a well-concealed tactical visor. The voice was ever so slightly attenuated, leaving Skadi thinking it might have been combat headgear. Fortunately, she didn’t think they were wearing powered suits, or the kick to her head would’ve caved in her skull.

“I was here to take out the trash. Didn’t really expect to find I wasn’t the only one dropping morons in the trash today, though,” she said, trying to play it off as if she hadn’t noticed the man was dead. “But that’s your business, and I’ll just be going about mine.”

The three figures in front of her took a step forward in unison. A soft shuffle behind her told her the other group was doing likewise. Seconds ticked off the clock as she considered what to say. They weren’t attacking, so they must want something from her. Information? Probably to know who she was working for. Maybe the data was encrypted? No. Skadi shook herself. Now was not the time to be speculating.

“You were searching the body.”

Skadi shrugged. “No harm taking a few credits off a sleeping drunk,” she said, spreading her hands. If she went for her weapon, the ones behind he would shoot her before she could bring it to bear. She needed to get around the other side of the dumpster, fight in close.

“Come with us. We have questions.”

So they weren’t official. The MIO would’ve thrown a black bag over her head and had done with it. Any organization here with a more official agenda would’ve arrested her and read charges. That left mercenaries, criminals, pirates… Each of the six figures wore a tan poncho that covered them almost from neck to toe, the hood obscuring any facial features. If they were Cartel, Serpentis, or Raiders, they weren’t displaying it openly, even down here. Well, there was one way to find out.

Skadi shrugged and stepped forward, around the dumpster, hands held out, palms up, wrists together as if she intended to let them cuff her. “Want to tell me why I’m being arrested?” she asked conversationally as she approached the one nearest the dumpster, rather than the one in the middle who had been speaking. This had the desired effect of evidently confusing them. They hadn’t expected her to cooperate. The figure she now stood before glanced uncertainly at the leader in the center, who made an impatient gesture toward Skadi’s wrists. Well, they obviously had restraints of some kind. Still being much taller, Skadi couldn’t get a good look at their faces, but as she leaned forward and drew in a breath through her nose, her face wrinkled.

Serpentis operatives usually smelled like gunmetal and shoe polish. They fancied themselves professionals, and treated their gear with a near-military reverence. Cartel operatives tended to smell like spices and stims. Exotic and hedonist was their thing, after all. But only one faction smelled like copper and the faintest hint of cloying rot: Blood Raiders. Probably the time around their “sacrifices” for their rituals as their bodies were just starting to turn when they couldn’t get them “fresh” enough. That was bad.

The operative was reaching toward the holster at Skadi’s hip to disarm her. “Man, I thought the dumpster smelled bad,” she said, glancing at the middle operative. “This guy knows what I mean, yeah?” Her knee came up between the operative’s knees just as their hand closed on her gun. A harsh, groaning whoosh of air told her she’d guessed his sex right. He doubled over, releasing her gun, and Skadi jerked him around in front of her, positioning him between the other two operatives at her end of the alley as she crouched behind the dumpster for cover from the other three.

No gunshots. They wanted her alive. But that didn’t mean they didn’t come at her. Skadi planted a kick square in the man’s fundament, sending him sprawling into his companions as she drew her own gun. He fell in front of her, and she snapped off two shots at the agents in front of him. Her Minmatar firearm roared as its projectiles exploded from the short barrel, the sound almost deafening in the alley, followed by two bangs. One was muffled, and accompanied by a wet spray of blood in all directions. The explosive round had lodged in the skull of the lead operative, reducing it to a fine red mist. The other had glanced off the wall behind the third.

Firearms were…not always ideal in such close quarters. Before Skadi could bring her weapon down to aim at the third operative, he had shoved his falling companion aside and thrown himself bodily onto her. This had the effect of shielding her from any fire, but the knife in his hands was none too reassuring. He tried to drive it down into her chest, and Skadi was forced to drop her own weapon to grab his wrist with both hands, stopping him. Her muscles bulged as she shoved his weapon backward. Even when he brought his other hand to join the first, he could not overpower her. Slowly, she turned the blade around, pushing it up toward his chest.

Before she could bury it in him, he was yanked off of her and the muzzle of an Amarrian laser pistol, its barrel smeared with red-brown, was pushed into her face. Not fancying the idea of seeing how her teeth fared against an energy weapon, Skadi raised her hands once more. “Okay, you got me,” she said, doing her best to sound sheepish. “I wasn’t taking out the trash. I—“

The operative threatening her was suddenly hurled backward with such force that the wall bucked slightly when he hit it, a sickening thud and crunch making it clear to all present that he would not be getting up again. Ever. For an instant, the remaining four operatives exchanged confused looks as a frankly tiny Khanid woman entered the alleyway wearing a glossy black podsuit. She must have shed her robe in expectation of a fight.

“Blooders,” Skadi said, not wanting to distract Lilly much at a moment when several armed people were confronting her.

One of the others, recovering from their surprise, turned their pistol toward Lilly. Her cybernetic arm shot out, grabbing the barrel and crushing it without a word. She dropped the ruined gun, instead grabbing her would-be assailant by the throat and shoving them back against another of their companions. Skadi heard the snapping of vertebrae an instant later, followed by another crunching sound as she throttled the person behind them with their ally’s corpse. Both slid to the ground. Lilly crouched below a kick from another of the Blooders, bringing her cybernetic arm around and slamming him into the dumpster. She drew his pistol from his side as he lurched forward and fired at the last standing Blooder, taking them in the chest.

Dropping the firearm, Lilly went to the man she’d thrown against the dumpster. His helmet had tumbled off, revealing a weathered face smeared with what Skadi told herself repeatedly was just red war paint. His eyes were wide with fear though as Lilly hauled him to his feet and shoved him against the wall. She gripped his throat, pushing him upward, but the man was so much taller than her that, if she meant to lift him off his feet, she was simply too short to do so.

Evidently he noticed this too. He glanced down at her, then at the ground, then at her again.
“Are you trying—“ he began

“Are trying to lift him off his feet…but you’re too short?” Skadi couldn’t stop herself from asking first, cutting him off.

“Mmm,” Lilly rumbled. “Who sent yo—“

Lilly blinked in surprise as the man dropped the quarter of an inch she’d managed to get him up back to his feet as her cybernetic arm detached from her body in a hissing hail of sparks. Glancing at the metallic stump that ended halfway down her bicep, Lilly frowned, her gaze drifting to a woman standing a few feet away in a combat suit, holding what looked for all the stars in the cluster like a sword.

“A monomolecular blade,” Lilly observed.

Skadi spared a moment to wonder if her arm had pain receptors, but decided it must not have. That would be an odd design choice anyway. Unfortunately for the man she’d been about to interrogate, what the arm did not have was any sort of failsafe release that seemed to be activating. He had slid down the wall, choking as the arm’s fingers remained tight around his throat, a blue tinge creeping into his lips. No. Stop. Don’t, she halfheartedly willed the severed prosthetic.

Whoever this new attacker was did not seem as interested in taking them alive. She lunged immediately at Lilly, the blade flashing. It was a much better fit for close quarters than a gun, but Lilly was faster. She dodged to one side, narrowly avoiding the thrust that would’ve impaled her. The attacker swiftly changed the thrust into a level slice, and Lilly bent almost completely backward at the waist to avoid it. Spinning to come upright, Lilly swatted the back of the blade with her remaining hand, sending it deep into the nearby wall.

This bought her a precious second as its wielder decided not to release it, instead giving a powerful jerk to tug it free. Lilly kicked straight up, snapping her attacker’s head back and sending her staggering half a step backward. She caught herself quickly, sword now in hand.

“Lilly!” Skadi called, not really feeling there was time for a, “Lady Terranova” in this.

She grabbed her own fallen weapon, tossing it to her Lady. The Khanid caught it deftly, ducking and turning to bring it to bear. But her attacked moved with inhuman speed, slicing through the barrel and, very nearly, Lilly’s trigger finger as well. Lilly threw the useless weapon directly into her opponent’s face, forcing the Blooder—if a Blooder this newcomer was—to bat it aside. In the time that took, Lilly reached back, grabbing her prosthetic arm from where it remained, wrapped around the man’s neck. The sheer force of her grabbing it wrenched it free, the fingers curled in a clawlike grip on nothing.

Lilly swing it around with all her might, striking the woman in her mask. Skadi heard the crunch of metal on metal, and glass breaking, followed by a cry from within the mask. Some of the glass, Skadi could see, had sliced into the woman’s eyes. Lilly struck again, this time at the woman’s stomach, knocking her backward. As her assailant fell, Lilly touched something on the arm, and the fingers all pressed together, stretched straight out. These she drove straight down through the mask and into the woman’s skull. Skadi winced as the white prosthetic was stained red all the way to the elbow.

“Are you all right, Skadi?” Lilly asked calmly.

“Think I have a concussion,” she said. “Other than that, fine.”

Lilly jerked her arm out of the visor, flicking bits of skull and grey matter off of it.

“People are going to notice you walking around the station carrying a bloody severed arm,” Skadi pointed out.

Nodding in concession to this point, Lilly ripped one of the ponchos off of the dead Blooders and wrapped the limb up in the thick cloth, tucking it under her arm. She then pulled another poncho off of one closer to her size and threw it over herself.

“Search them for the data drive. It will not be large,” Lilly instructed, hurriedly checking the pockets of those around her.

Skadi went directly to the one who had been the leader, quickly finding it in one of their belt pouches. Drawing it out, she held it up for Lilly. “Got it.”

“Put it somewhere secure. Come. We need to move quickly. That was a clone trooper. She will already be making her report.”

Skadi blinked, glancing at the dead woman with the crushed faceplate. The prospect of facing a clone trooper again was not at all appealing, and so she is quick to slip the data drive into one of her many pockets before glancing out toward the street. Predictably, the sounds of gunfire had aroused a great deal of attention, and people were already milling about, clearing the area. Station security sirens were already audible in the distance.

“Station security’s on the way,” Skadi reported.

“Then we must hurry. I do not want it being known that we were involved.”

“I think we’re past that…”

“We will deal with that later. We need to leave with that information now.”

“What is on this thing that’s so important?”

“Later!” Lilly hissed.

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She ducked out into the crowd, gesturing for Skadi to follow her. This proved difficult, as the much smaller Khanid had a far easier time navigating the tide of people. It was only the advantage of Skadi’s height that let her keep Lilly in her sight at all. To Lilly’s credit, she cut a path through another alleyway, then across to the opposite street, which was not in such an uproar. From there, she hugged the shops and restaurants, making her way toward the station elevators.

“We must get on before they lock the level down,” Lilly said, pushing her way toward the elevator and evidently trusting Skadi to keep pace. In a gesture that would surely have been grotesque but for the cloth wrapped around it, Lilly stuck her severed prosthetic out to stop the doors from closing, stepping in and holding them until Skadi joined her. This garnered…more than a few ugly looks from the others in the large, glass lift.

Lilly had her strengths. People was not one of them. Many was the time Skadi had seen her all but completely forget the presence of those around her while absorbed in work, or fail to take into account what someone might feel in consequence of something she said or did. Not, so far as Skadi could tell, a cruel woman, Lilly was simply as inept as it was possible to be at understanding the feelings of those around her, often to hilarious results. It was a game among some of the more experienced of some of Lilly’s retinue to see how obviously they could flirt or make insinuations before she realized what was happening. Skadi had seen that game drag on for hours before Lilly even began to suspect. Sometimes, Skadi was not sure if Lilly was simply unaware, or determined not to care. That robotic demeanor of hers was not wholly genuine. She had seen her Lady smile, and even laugh with her wife. But in her hurry to get aboard the lift, Lilly had…failed to account for how rude she had been in doing so.

“Ah, sorry about that,” Skadi said, covering for her lady. She turned her head slightly, gesturing to the freely bleeding wound. “Need to get up to medical.”

There was a general intake of breath, and a few people pulled away from Skadi, but the ugly looks directed at Lilly stopped. Skadi directed her attention down to the glass lift tube, seeing the flashing lights of station security swarming over the alley where they had just been. “Empress’s tits,” she muttered.

“That is crude,” Lilly said absently, almost as if on reflex.

Skadi grinned. “Maybe, but we made it.”

“Yes,” Lilly agreed distractedly. “We did.”

The trip to Lilly’s hangar was without further incident. Once they were off the lift, Lilly made Skadi sit down so that she could bind the wound on the back of her head in order to stop the typically dramatic blood loss that accompanied a head wound. That done, they made their way in relative silence to the hangar. There, Lilly went directly to her office. Skadi followed.

“You should be going to medical,” Lilly said seriously.

“What’s on the data drive?” Skadi asked, withdrawing it from her pocket to hold it out to Lilly.

Lilly made an odd motion, seeming to realize partway through trying to reach out her left hand that she no longer had one, and so instead changing to the right. “It is a disturbingly comprehensive analysis of my preparations to evacuate my Holdings in the event of attack by—“

“…Oh. Wait, who gathered it?” Skadi asked. “And why?”

“An excellent question. I contracted Renault to erase the data from its original servers, provide me with a copy, and hopefully a source,” she said as she took the drive from Skadi. “Though considering who killed him, I believe we can safely assume the information was gathered by Blood Raiders.”

“Why would they want it?” Skadi asked suspiciously.

“That is a more difficult question to answer. Conventional wisdom would say that they were simply scouting a target for one of their interminable raids. It seems a likely explanation.”

“But you don’t sound convinced.”

“I am sure I do not sound anything at all, one way or the other,” Lilly said. She was well aware how little her voice conveyed with respect to tone or emotion.

“I’ve known you a long time, my Lady. Let’s say I’ve learned how to listen for your tells.”

“My tells?” Lilly asked, arching a thin brow.

“Will you tell me what you think?” Skadi asked, recognizing an attempt at a change of subject when she heard it.

Lilly considered for a moment. “I have no good cause to believe it is anything other than Blood Raiders doing as they do. Raids are growing more frequent. They are taking advantage of the Triglavian situation. Some likely believe this is an apocalyptic end time, and they require additional sacrifices. There is presently no data to support any other conclusion.”

Skadi frowned, considering. “But?”

“There is no ‘but’ here, Skadi. My intent here was to learn who had been scouting my holdings and put a stop to it. If I am correct, and this is Blood Raiders, then I will be sending you with a task force to root out whatever coven is responsible. I cannot spare time away from the Triglavian invasions, Skadi.”

That sounded more like the woman Skadi knew. Lilly had been…consumed with the Triglavian invasions since leaving her planetside estates and returning to space. Having been beside her almost the entire time, Skadi had seen something new in her Lady, something that disturbed her deeply: fear. Lilly was afraid, and the fraying of her calm, her growing impatience, her outbursts of anger…they were all rooted in that.

“Is it that bad?” Skadi asked. She did not have access to the same news feeds Lilly did, did not receive the same tactical information, was mercifully not party to discussions on capsuleer channels about the threats posed.

“No, Skadi. It is worse,” Lilly said, sliding into the small chair behind her desk. She tossed the severed arm carelessly onto the surface of her desk. “We were winning at first, or so it seemed. But the battle is only getting more difficult as more capsuleers declare themselves in support of the Triglavians.”

Skadi’s mouth went dry. “Support of…what? Why?”

Lilly shook her head. “I do not care to speculate as to their motives. What is important is that they are a threat,” she said simply.

There was more to it than that, Skadi could tell. But she had also spent enough time in the military to know that a commander did not show weakness, concern, or uncertainty in front of subordinates. Lilly seemed much the same. Whatever else was on Lilly’s mind, she was not going to confide in a subordinate. And perhaps Skadi would be happier not knowing. She could fight on the ground as well as anyone, but fighting bizarre invaders from some unknown corner of space and their fleets of capsuleer allies? That was…well beyond her.

“I…see. All right, then. Where do you need me?” Skadi asked.

“In medical, having your head wound treated,” Lilly said firmly. “I will have the data analyzed and if necessary, alert you about a deployment against the Blood Raiders.”

Skadi sighed. “Yes, my Lady,” she said with a slight bow of her head. “And thank you.”

“Hm?” Lilly asked, looking up from her efforts to remove the poncho she wore with only one hand.

“For showing up to save me?” Skadi laughed.

“Ah.” Lilly nodded, seeming to realize what she meant. “Think nothing of it.”

Skadi gave another bow and turned to leave. Lilly may not be willing, or perhaps was not able, to express her concerns in the ways others might, but Skadi took the insistence that she go to medical first to be as close as the Khanid could come. Ice queen indeed. The door hissed closed behind her, and as Skadi made her way toward the medical bay in Lilly’s hangar, she fought to walk straight in spite of the ground seeming to lurch at her feet. If her Lady could put on a strong face to try and comfort her, she could at least do the same for everyone else watching the bloodied woman march across the deck toward medical. Still, she could not help but wonder just who had gathered that data her Lady seemed to think was so crucial to recover.

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Chapter Two

The Husk revolved slowly in a sea of blackness smeared with the most delicious of red hues. Yes, the Triglavians were unholy abominations, but they reaped a beautiful harvest, and their sense of decor was certainly agreeable. Lyria could stare out the full-length viewport for hours and not grow bored, particularly as it was accompanied by the view of Raravoss’s dying star. Destruction on such a scale had seemed impossible outside of the Seyllin incident, but she had not been present to bear witness to that. On the one hand, it was a pity. Such destruction was not often seen even in this cluster. But then, to witness it would be to fall to it. Lyria was not ready to meet her God just yet. She had so much more to offer to His glory, and she was not so fortunate as the capsuleers, who could bear witness to such things and then wake, as from a dream, to tell the tale. No, she had but one life to live, one body to offer to God. And in due time, she would, as all must. But not, she hoped, in the too near future.

She shifted in her seat, letting the loose red robes shift about her frame. Her seat of power, such as it was, was a monstrosity of smashed together hulls of conquered Amarr Navy battleships. The first she had claimed, and lost in taking the second. But rather than let good engineering go to waste, she had ordered her subordinates, using labor from newly captured slaves, to begin building a monument to her sect’s victory. The Blood Raiders were, of course, known as a single group, but that was perhaps one of the greatest enduring myths about her people. There were sects, covens, denominations, and all manner of groups under the name. Hers was small now, but had once been mighty. The Husk, some forty battleship hulls joined together in a hideous monstrosity of twisted hulls and broken vessels, had long been a sort of mobile fortress. So many disparate hulls meant it could not move quickly, but move it did. And time had brought it to Raravoss, where it hid near the star, watching the whole system rot from its core.

The site of what her hated foe seemed to consider a personal defeat seemed as good a place as any to choose as her home. Once, Lyria had dreams of leading a harvest that might have claimed worlds, perhaps even systems. But that dream had died in its infancy, scorched away by a single capsuleer vessel and its brutal, meticulous pilot. In truth, Lyria could not help but admire the…thoroughness with which her forces had been wiped out. Had she not hidden the Husk in the remnants of the Cathedral, lying cold and without power, looking like so much wreckage, she might not have been alive now to reflect on that display of carnage. But still, while she could appreciate strength, she did not enjoy it being brought to bear against her. And this capsuleer had destroyed all that Lyria had worked to build—A lesson, perhaps, in the cost of ambition and the hazard of attempting to build even a small bit of order to what should be the glorious chaos of creation and destruction.

Staring into the swirling red mists that seemed to dance through Raravoss, Lyria’s reverie was interrupted by a quiet, timid voice. “M-Mistress? I have brought you what you asked for…”

One of Lyria’s attendants—Kaia, she believed was the girl’s name—came shuffling in, head bent and shoulders stooped, bearing a datapad. This she held out to Lyria, her eyes carefully on her own toes, rather than risking offending her mistress by daring to look upon her without permission. Lyria’s dark lips twisted in a smile, extending a pale hand to take the datapad from her, then dismissing her with a negligent wave. If the datapad was anything but what she desired, Kaia knew what the cost to her would be, whether Lyria discovered this in her presence or elsewhere.

Fortunately for the young Ni-Kunni, it was precisely what Lyria had hoped to attain. The Ministry of Internal Order only had so much authority over capsuleers, who were generally answerable only to CONCORD. But when that capsuleer was also a member of nobility in such a tightly controlled society, well… That was another matter. And on reading the datapad’s contents, Lyria’s lips twisted into a delighted smile.

“So, beloved enemy,” she fairly purred. “You are so much less than you seem, aren’t you? I had not thought the Cyber Knights implantation procedures could go so terribly wrong. What is it like, I wonder, to be so unable to express yourself, to have such difficulty with such simple things? To be unable to enjoy such basic pleasures?” Lyria’s smile broadened. “It must be enough to drive one to madness.”

Far from the dying star of Raravoss and the chaos that continued to roil in that benighted system, Lilly Terranova stared out a large window as well, this one overlooking a hangar where hovered a Muninn-class heavy assault cruiser. Crates of ammunition were being transported aboard, but there was no real cause for her to oversee such a simple procedure. Her station crew certainly knew how to load and secure munitions, and so much of the vessel was automated that she would receive a near-instantaneous notification of any error. But still, Skadi found her staring out the window, watching the crew going about its duties. This was not like her Lady, who she had seldom known to take an idle moment. Somehow, it was comforting to see the stoic woman seemingly lost in thought, perhaps even daydreaming.

Skadi had been summoned, though, and she had a fairly good idea why. “My Lady?” she said, as gently as a voice so gravelly as hers would permit.

Lilly seemed to snap from her reverie instantly. Her shoulders straightened slightly and she turned to face Skadi just a little too quickly. Those empty red eyes of hers found Skadi’s, the irises slowly rotating one direction, then another. Ocular implants were usually less obvious in capsuleers, but Skadi suspected Lilly simply didn’t care.

“I have finished reviewing the data you recovered from Renault. It has proved to be worth the trouble it took to acquire,” she said, a certain distractedness in her toneless voice.

“So you’re sending me after the Blooders who want to raid our home?” Skadi asked.

It was, she knew, a strange thing to call Lilly’s holdings. Skadi seldom saw them, in truth, as she was almost always deployed elsewhere. But it was perhaps the closest thing to a home she had ever known. Over a decade ago, she’d thought she lost that home. Lilly had offered her a chance to remain, a free woman. Knowing as she did how the Minmatar were treated in the Empire, even when they were free, Skadi had been unsure, particularly when the offer came from such a cold, taciturn middle daughter of a noble family as Lilly Terranova. But—

“Yes,” Lilly answered, cutting into her thoughts. “But I will be accompanying you.”

That caught Skadi by surprise. “My Lady, you said the Triglavians were where your attention needed to be, and you didn’t want to focus your efforts on a Blood Raider coven in the middle of a war like this.”

Lilly nodded calmly. “I did say that, yes. And at the time I believed it to be correct. But now that I have more information, I believe it is important that I am present. I also intend to speak with colleagues at the Ministry of Internal Order before we leave.”

“What…is happening, exactly?” Skadi asked.

A day ago, Lilly had wanted nothing more than to keep all of this a secret. Now she was going to run to the MIO and tell all? That made no sense that she could see.

“The threat is larger than I surmised. My holdings are likely one of a number of targets. It is important that others are made aware of the potential danger this may represent.”

“What exactly is ‘this,’ then?” Skadi couldn’t help but ask.

“A sect of Blood Raiders that I thought I had destroyed. They had amassed a considerable armada, enough to pose a threat to any number of planets outside heavily defended systems. Now, with the Triglavians having diverted so many assets from the Royal Navy, they may represent a far larger threat than before, if they did indeed survive my attempts to wipe them out, and have regained further strength,” Lilly explained.

The magnitude of what Lilly was proposing to do was not lost on Skaid. Admitting to the failure of one’s duty was not taken lightly in the Empire. While Lilly could not be executed for her failure—at least not in any meaningful sense—she could be punished in other ways. Still, it was one thing to be an office in the Royal Navy who had failed. It was…quite another to conduct the clandestine and often terrible business of the MIO and not be entirely successful. Hopefully, Lilly’s discovery would simply mean that she was continuing her mission, rather than having failed it altogether. There was less of a loss of face or faith in the power of the Royal Navy when a mission no one knows about does not go quite to plan.

“So… You want to go to Domain and tell the powers that be that you…messed up?” Skadi asked flatly.

“Not exactly,” Lilly said. “I have a number of contacts that I can speak with. These things tend to happen. Cut the beast’s head off only to find it has grown to more while you were tending to another. If it were always so simple as pointing tachyon beams at a target and burning it away, there would be little need for something like the Ministry of Internal Order. The Royal Navy has its uses, but matters of finesse are…not generally among them.”

Skadi had to admit that she was not all that familiar with the Royal Navy, and knew even less about the MIO. Still, after a lifetime in the Empire the things that had always stood out to her most were the executions for cowardice, along with the other, similarly brutal punishments for failure and dereliction of duty. Severity had always seemed like a way of life for them.

“So…what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to come with me to the Ministry of Internal Order while I make my report. Once I have done so, we will begin our search for these pirates. If all goes well, it will not take overly long. I do not like the idea of being away from the conflict with the Triglavians for something like this.”

“You want me to come with you to the MIO?” Skadi asked flatly.

Lilly nodded. “Yes. Is that a problem?”

“I…er…I don’t know?”

And she didn’t. While Lilly had always been extremely strict about making certain her slaves and former slaves were treated well in the case of the former and equally in the case of the latter, Skadi knew very well that this was not the norm in the Empire. Her experiences had been somewhat better in the Kingdom—the Khanid not having quite the same sense of absolute superiority the Amarr were so endlessly boastful of. Still, nowhere would she be more of a second-class citizen than in Domain, standing in the offices of the MIO, who were the subject of many a horror story meant to keep Minmatar, slave or otherwise, in line. The thought of stepping into the lion’s den gave even Skadi pause.

Lilly was staring at her, red irises rotating and head tilted slightly to one side in that almost birdlike manner so typical of her. Skadi had long ago learned that this was her way of expressing curiosity. It did not come as any great shock that her Lady might have failed to account for why Skadi, a Minmatar, might not wish to be in such a place. But then, if Lilly was not concerned about bringing her, that told Skadi that there was no real danger, whatever she may think.

“Never mind, my Lady. I’m ready to go.”

Satisfied, and seldom one to ever ask another what they were feeling, Lilly merely nodded. The pair of them made their way down to Lilly’s hangar. Her Lady, Skadi knew, disliked traveling in shuttles, especially with the Triglavians about and causing trouble. So, while Lilly left Skadi to board her pod, her Lady’s Muninn, Baldr, was rotated away from the pad to make room for, to Skadi’s surprise, her Paladin, Durandal. This was as close to a flagship as Lilly maintained in these regions, and Skadi was frankly shocked to see it being used for something as simple as a courier run. Was she really that worried about these Blood Raiders?

Somewhat confused, Skadi climbed one of the many boarding ramps, making her way to the cargo hold. There was little point going as far as the command deck or crew quarters. The trip would not likely take even an hour, and she would prefer to be positioned to enter and exit as quickly as possible.

“Are you prepared to depart?” Lilly’s disembodied voice filled the hold. There was just the faintest echoing quality to it, as much from the currently empty hold, save for the machinery to sort and stack whatever might be placed here, as from the synthesized nature of her voice to begin with.

“Yes,” Skadi said, not bothering to raise her voice. Lilly could have heard her clearly anywhere in the ship had she been whispering.

The ship was too large for Skadi to feel the acceleration as it moved. Too many systems were in place to protect the crew from the enormous inertial stresses capsuleer vessels could create for her to feel anything at all. One of the nearby walls projected an image, showing the route from their current system to the destination, a mere five jumps away. Taking such a large, cumbersome vessel through such secure space seemed ludicrous to Skadi, but perhaps it was simply Lilly’s way of making an impressive entrance at the MIO? This couldn’t be done solely out of concern for a few Blood Raiders, could it?

As Skadi had expected, the trip was both short and uneventful. A few short minutes of pacing the cargo deck and the route screen pinged at her, flashing and scrolling through a list of docking procedures, accompanied by Lilly’s voice announcing that, “We have arrived.”

Moments later, the boarding ramps descended, light from the station flooding into the dim cargo hold. Disembarking immediately, Skadi made her way to the upper decks of Lilly’s hangar, where she would emerge from her pod and decanting suite. This did not take long, though Skadi was surprised to see that Lilly had even taken the time to dry her hair, and dressed herself in formal robes of black and crimson, trimmed at the neck, sleeves, and base in gold. The many indicator lights on her synthetic hand were pulsing a soft golden amber, rather than their usual blue-green. Skadi had not seen her Lady make such concessions to expected appearances outside of court.

As they left the hangar, they were almost immediately greeted by two guards in brightly polished golden armor. Each carried a rifle in hand, though they were held at attention in respect for the station of their charge. They bowed their heads as Lilly and Skadi emerged.

“Lady Terranova. Inquisitor Morne has received your invitation to meet and will be pleased to receive you in his offices. He asks that you permit us to conduct you to him.”

Lilly surveyed both men with a cold, calculating gaze that seemed icy even to Skadi. She was almost regarding the pair, Ni-Kunni if Skadi guessed right, like she had just scraped the both of them off the bottom of her boot.

“Very well. Quickly. I do not wish my business delayed.” Though Lilly’s voice lacked tone as ever, she spoke more quickly, enunciated her words more clearly and crisply. Were she capable of doing so, Skadi thought her Lady might have been looking down on these men.

“Shall we escort your sla—”

“My attendant will accompany me for the entirety of my meeting,” Lilly said, cutting him off and laying just enough emphasis on “attendant” to make Skadi smirk.

The two guards, sensing rebuke in her words, if not her tone, straightened, saluted, and with a rather loud acknowledgement of, “Yes, Lady Terranova,” turned on their heels. When they had gotten a few steps ahead, Skadi bent down to murmur quietly into Lilly’s ear.

“I’ve…never seen you treat a subordinate like that.”

“There is a game to be played here, Skadi. Certain things are expected of a woman in my position, and so I must behave accordingly, to a certain extent, or questions might be asked, unwanted attention garnered.”

Skadi didn’t respond, but the thought sickened her. Of course the Amarrian halls of power would be places of intrigue and duplicity. And if even her Lady, who had never seemed to care what anyone thought about her or her methods, felt it was necessary to play to the expectations others had of her here, then it was likely less a game and more a death struggle. All the years Skadi had spent with Lilly, she had respected how truly direct her Lady was more than anything. She did not lie, did not dissemble, and did not place value on almost anything other than the abilities of those who served her. It was, Skadi knew, not a typical attitude in the Empire, but it was one that she could respect. Even this brief glimpse of what was “expected” here, she could not.

The journey to “Inquisitor Morne’s” office was somewhat longer than Skadi anticipated. No fewer than four elevators and a station transport had been needed to bring them to the suite of offices for the particular division in the MIO in which he worked. Everywhere, Skadi garnered odd looks, probably as much for her light combat armor and Minmatar weapons as for the fact that she almost had to duck to walk through the doorways. Eventually, though, the guards came to a stop outside a particularly ornate pair of doors, turned around to face Skadi and Lilly, and saluted. One touched a panel next to the doors, and they slid open with a soft, mechanical hiss.

“Lady Terranova and…attendant for Inquisitor Morne,” one of the guards announced like he was a herald at court.

“Thank you, Yves, that will be all,” came a rich, cultured voice from within the firelit room.

Skadi blinked. The room seemed to be illuminated only by a large hearth at one side, which cast its light across its full length toward the desk that was positioned in front of a window running the length of the room, looking out onto the station exterior. High backed, plush chairs faced the desk, and Skadi almost had the impression of a holoreel villain’s lair. This couldn’t actually be the office of an official of the MIO. It was too…cliched.

Lilly stepped in, seemingly unaware of Skadi’s surprise, and the larger woman followed just in time for the doors to slide shut, almost catching her braided hair in them as they entered. Her footsteps seemed to echo loudly in the enormous office, and as they entered, the Inquisitor stood, bowing to Lilly. He was an older man. Skadi would have guessed eighty. Broad shouldered but with the thinness that sometimes came with age. His face was wrinkled, the odd implant visible along his cheeks and temples. Not a trace of hair could be found on his head, though whether he was simply bald or kept it shaved, Skadi could not say. By Amarrian standards, she supposed he would be rather handsome. She frankly thought he looked like an overripe prune.

Reaching the large, plush chairs opposite the Inquisitor’s desk, Lilly casually lowered herself into one. When Skadi stood to one side, waiting to be asked to sit, Lilly merely gestured for her to do so. This seemed to amuse the Inquisitor, whose lips twitched in a slow, but surprisingly warm smile.

“Skadi Terranova, yes?” he asked in that smooth, cultured voice.

“Ullr, actually,” she corrected. As a slave bred in her Lady’s holdings, she’d been expected to use the family name, forgoing her own. She had, in truth, not known it until Lilly informed her the day she was freed.

“Ah, of course. Please do forgive me,” he said with a courteous inclination of his head and a self-deprecating smile. “When you reach my age, certain faculties begin to fail you. Much can be done for the body, but less for the mind, my dear.” He raised a faintly liver-spotted hand and his smile spread a little wider.

Skadi managed a friendly smile back. His manner was disarming, really. Not at all what she expected from an Inquisitor in a dim office lit only by a crackling fireplace. She settled into the chair beside Lilly and leaned back.

“May I offer you refreshment?” he asked. “Wine, fruit?”

He was looking at Skadi as he spoke, as Lilly was already shaking her head. Curious about how far this man’s hospitality extended, Skadi decided she would accept.

“That sounds great, thanks.”

“Will you have red or white wine? And fruit?”

“Red. And yes, any fruit you have.”

His smile broadened. “Ah, then you are a woman of taste, unlike your Lady here,” he said, gesturing to Lilly. “Nothing for you then, Lady Terranova?”

Another shake of Lilly’s head.

To Skadi’s surprise, the man pushed himself to his feet and approached a small cabinet set in a wall to the left of his desk. Withdrawing a golden tray, he placed several selections of fruit—apples, strawberries, and grapes—along with two crystal glasses and a carafe of wine. This he brought over to his desk and placed between himself and Skadi. Leaning over the desk, he filled one glass from the carafe, offering it to Skadi, then the other for himself. This done, he resumed his seat. Skadi had never been served by an Amarrian before. And her surprise must have shown on her face.

“I do hope you enjoy the vintage,” he said, evidently too well-bred to comment on her surprise.

Skadi took her glass and gulped a third of it down, just for something to do, not even realizing that she was all but chugging the wine until she saw how much was gone. She quickly set the glass down, ears turning slightly red. If this offended the Inquisitor, he gave no inclination, instead merely smiling placidly at her before taking a much smaller sip of his own wine and gesturing to the plate, indicating that Skadi should help herself. She picked up a grape, rolling it between her thumb and forefinger thoughtfully.

“Now that we are comfortable,” Morne began, “I find myself wondering what it is that I can do for you, Lady Terranova. I understood you were following our Empress’s exhortation to take the fight to the Triglavians in support of EDENCOM and the Provost Marshal.”

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Lilly, who had been silent until now, finally spoke up. “I had been, yes. But I have received disturbing news and wished to inform you before I took action, as additional resources may be necessary.”

Morne spread his hands. “I am afraid that the war against the Triglavians is not part of the Ministry of Internal Order’s mandate, my Lady. It is more important now than ever before that there be some force to safeguard the Empire from threats within its borders that might seek to take advantage of this new chaos, as you—”

“I am here because I have reason to believe the Sanguine Hymn was not completely wiped out,” Lilly said, cutting him off.

Morne blinked, straightening slightly in his chair. He took another sip from his glass, this one slightly longer than the first. “I see. Go on, please, Lady Terranova.”

Curious to see just how much Lilly intended to tell him, Skadi glanced over at her Lady.

“I had reason to believe a group of Blood Raiders were planning a raid on my holdings. In the course of pursuing information about this group, I learned that it may be a remnant of the Sanguine Hymn operating within Empire space.”

“You are certain of this?” he asked.

“Yes.”

To his credit, he didn’t question her, didn’t ask how she knew, or any of that. Instead, he touched a button on his desk. A faint beep sounded, followed by a crisp female voice. “Yes, Inquisitor?”

“I will be needing all of the information we have on the Sanguine Hymn transferred to a secure drive for transport. I will also need to meet with the original task force assigned to them this evening. Please make the arrangements, Rivel.”

“Yes, Inquisitor.”

Morne released the button. “Very well. I take it you intend to pursue this on your own, then?”

“If the Sanguine Hymn is investigating my holdings’ defenses, then they are likely seeking revenge against those involved in their destruction. Other agents in the Ministry of Internal Order and persons of significant rank in the Navy during the operation may be at risk.”

“None, I imagine, more so than you,” he said. “Would you like me to send a detachment to bolster your defenses?”

“No,” Lilly said evenly. “That will not be necessary. Any Naval assets you may second to the Ministry for this should be tasked with locating the Sanguine Hymn or be detailed to the protection of other members of the Ministry of Navy who are unable to do so themselves.”

Morne smiled. “Very generous of you my Lady,” he said with a nod. “I will see that any assets we have available are put to that use.” Skadi decided she liked this Inquisitor. “Is there anything else you wish to share?”

“I have reason to believe that their original leader, the self-styled High Sanguinar Lyria, is alive and in command.”

Morne’s wrinkled brow furrowed. “Mmm, that is troubling. She is a clever one. And, worse than that, she has…conviction.”

Lilly’s lips pressed together in a thin line. “I have brought Skadi with me because I mean to find this woman and ensure she does not escape again. I will send any information I discover on her whereabouts, or those of other members of her sect, to you directly. You will do the same for me.”

It sounded more like an instruction than a question. Skadi wasn’t…exactly sure which of them was in a position to give the other orders, but since this man wasn’t “Lord Inquisitor” she had at least some sense that it might be Lilly. She had never bothered to learn a great deal about the intricacies of the Amarrian caste system simply because, well, she knew she was firmly at the bottom of it in the eyes of almost everyone else in the Empire, however much her Lady treated her otherwise. Whether Lilly was within her rights to issue orders to Morne, he seemed to accept them, smiling and giving a slight bow of his head.

“Of course, my Lady. Will you be requiring anything else of the Ministry?”

“No,” Lilly said. “I simply wished to apprise you of the situation so that you could act appropriately.”

Morne nodded again, rising from his chair once more. “Then I will begin to do so,” he said. The door to his office opened, and a young Amarrian woman in a crisp white suit entered bearing a small data drive. This, she held out to Lilly with the slightest of bows. Lilly took it, slipping it into the folds of her robe. She then got to her feet, prompting Skadi to do the same.

“Thank you, Inquisitor. Please send me a report with the results of your conference with the previous task force. I will update you once I have further information.”

“Of course, my Lady,” Morne said, bowing once he was on his feet as well. Turning to Skadi, he smiled. “And it was a pleasure to meet you as well, Ms. Ullr.”

Skadi, unsure exactly how to respond to such courtesy from an Amarrian, smiled in return. “Yeah, you too,” she said a bit lamely.

Then the woman in white was leading them from the office, and the pair of gold-clad guards took up positions ahead of them to escort them back to the hangar. They were, Skadi noted, joined by two more that kept positions behind them. Was everyone that concerned about this sect of Blood Raiders? It didn’t seem possible.

It wasn’t until they reached Lilly’s hangar and the guards left with a salute that Skadi spoke up. “He wasn’t…at all what I expected.”

“No?” Lilly asked as she led the way to her offices.

“No. He was…friendly. Almost kind.”

“He is neither of those things. It is simply a lulling tactic. Inquisitor Morne is a ruthless, dangerous man, which is how he has retained his position for so many years. He is able to both frighten and put people at ease. Each has its use in an interrogation.”

“He wasn’t interrogating us.”

Lilly stopped, turning to regard Skadi oddly, her head canted to one side again. This time, though, she didn’t seem curious. “Of course he was, Skadi. Not in a way you are used to, but it is wisest to treat any conversation with one in his position as a potential interrogation. When you are comfortable, and do not believe he is seeking information is when you are most likely to let slip something that you should not. Everyone has something to hide. It is Inquisitor Morne’s job to find out what that may be, and if that something is a threat to the Empire.”

Skadi shifted slightly on her feet. “Did I…ah…did I give anything away?”

Lilly shook her head. “Nothing of significance.” She sighed. “I must apologize to you. I brought you there to distract him. He has never met any of those in my service, and I knew he would be curious. The prospect of learning about you was intended to distract him from inquiring too deeply into how I came to learn about the Blood Raiders.”

“Do…you think it worked?” Skadi asked.

“Yes,” Lilly said definitely. “He showed no signs of suspicion or curiosity regarding the version of events as I relayed them. They were, in any case, truthful.”

“Not the whole truth,” Skadi pointed out.

“No, but all that he needed to know.”

Skadi sighed. “It’d be easier if you were just all on the same side here.”

“Much easier,” Lilly agreed as they entered her office. “But the Triglavians’ greatest strength, indeed the greatest strength of any invader, is the divisions we make amongst ourselves.”

When Lilly went to stand in front of the window overlooking her hangar, Skadi elected to stand beside her. The faint flicker in Lilly’s eyes told Skadi that she was using her implants to communicate on GalNet, probably speaking with some capsuleer or other. It was unnerving, really, the way capsuleers could multitask, could conduct so many separate conversations at once.

“When will we leave?” Skadi asked.

“Soon. I would like time to analyze the information Inquisitor Morne gathered for us, but that will have to be done as we fly. I can download the information through the capsule interface. It should not take long.”

As Lilly spoke, her gaze swept over the station outside her window, ships coming and going, moving in orderly formation both in and out of the station, some being capsuleers, flying to other hangars just visible from her own.

Skadi did the same, nodding in response to her words. “Do you want me to take the drive on board, then?” she asked.

Lilly turned toward her with a nod. “Yes, thank you. I will join you shortly.” She held the drive out to Skadi. “There are some items I would like to load onto the Durandal before we leave. Please take this to central processing and place it in one of the data receptacles.”

Skadi nodded. “Of course, my Lady,” she said, taking the drive and turning to leave. As the door closed behind her, she heard Lilly speaking up, but was just an instant too slow to turn around before the door could close.

“Oh. I…must go. Now. Be well, all,” she said with a distracted rush to her words that did not sound at all like Lilly.

An instant later, Skadi heard what sounded like breaking glass and tumbling furniture. She slammed her hand against the door control, opening it in time to see a familiar figure in combat armor throwing Lilly against her glass desk. It shattered on impact, Lilly slamming into the wall behind it with such force that the metal deformed on impact.

“My Lady!” Skadi cried, drawing her pistol and firing at the armored figure on reflex. The explosive rounds detonated, but were dispersed by the combat armor’s shields, simply adding to the mess of damaged furniture in the office.

Lilly rose unsteadily to her feet, blood pouring down her face. She leaned back against the wall for support, and Skadi saw that a ragged hole had been torn through her robes around the middle. The edges were smoking, and Skadi could see far too much of her Lady’s viscera to believe she had more than moments to live. That she was on her feet at all was testament to the durability conferred by the Cyber Knight implants her clones retained to this day.

“Go,” Lilly said, her voice somewhat slurred. Skadi couldn’t quite tell, but there was something…wrong about the angle at which Lilly held her head. “Do as I said. Security recordings.”

Skadi, uncomprehending, hesitated in the doorway. Lilly’s attacker did not seem interested in Skadi at that moment, instead advancing on Lilly with a combat knife in one hand, blood dripping from its blade, and a laser pistol in the other.

Go!” Lilly said more sharply, as close as she came to shouting.

The clone trooper moved blindingly fast, slashing down across Lilly’s throat with her blade as she brought the gun up under her chin. “I only regret that you won’t remember this,” Skadi heard her say.

Knowing it was too late, and realizing that she had the data the clone trooper was likely after, Skadi leapt backward, out of the room, and banged her fist into the door control once again. As the doors closed, Skadi shot the panel several times, shorting out the locking mechanism. This was enough to trip the hangar alarm, which brought security forces rushing up toward Lilly’s office.

“Lady Terranova’s been assassinated! Have her backup activated and secure the Durandal,” Skadi barked, accustomed to ordering around Lilly’s security staff. “Get it off the pad and into the maintenance queue in the rear area of the hangar once I’m on board. When Lady Terranova’s clone is active, tell her I am here with information she needs. That’s a clone trooper in there, so don’t warn her. Just open fire with the heaviest weapons you have.”

Her orders given, Skadi sprinted down the corridor, hoping that the eight man team that had come in was equal to the task of taking down a clone trooper. Much as she would have liked to help, while Lilly’s consciousness could be restored, this data in the hands of the Blood Raiders would be a loss more difficult to recover from. They would know everything the MIO knew about them, and would be able to plan and act accordingly. How, then, had they known Lilly would have it, assuming that was what they were after?

As she rounded a corner, Skadi heard the door open and the shooting start. Even as she hit the hangar deck and made her way to the Durandal, she could see flashes of light from Lilly’s office. A moment later, the glass over the hangar exploded outward, and two bodies came tumbling out. Neither appeared to be the clone trooper. The second Skadi cleared the boarding ramp, she used the access codes Lilly had given her years ago to secure the ship, all the ramps retracting, and a number of the ship’s defensive measures activating.

“Skadi here. Move the ship back into the maintenance hangar and divert a security detail there. What’s the word on the clone trooper?” she asked.

“We got her, but she took out six of us. Should we alert station security?”

“No,” Skadi said quickly. “No. Get cleanup teams in the area, and make sure nobody knows until Lady Terranova is here and has been briefed. She’s going to want to know how the assassin knew we’d be here.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Skadi closed the channel and leaned back against the wall with a heavy sigh. The second she closed her eyes, she regretted it. An image of Lilly, pressed against the wall, gun under her chin, blood spraying from her throat. Had she really seen the laser fire up through Lilly’s skull, or was that just…what she knew had to have happened? She shook her head. Capsuleers died all the time. It never seemed to bother them. Still…she’d never watched the Lady she was meant to protect die in front of her. And whoever did it had…enjoyed it. Wanted her to remember it. No, Skadi would deny them that. She would make sure Lilly never learned the particulars of this death.

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Chapter Three

For years, it had always started the same. The restrained breathing, the sound of bones snapping and flesh tearing, the cries of pain, the choked sobs, and finally a composed Khanid emerging from behind the screen.

This time was not the same.

Skadi had rushed to the cloning facility to activate her Lady’s backup—a process which took only moments. Strange as it was to watch a perfectly intact version of Lilly floating in a tube of nutrients after moments before seeing her brutally killed, Skadi supposed this was all very normal for capsuleers. Death was just something that happened to them at work sometimes. Many were the times Skadi had seen her Lady jump into a different clone or even awaken in a new one after her capsule was destroyed. That was why it was so easy for her to tell that something was different this time.

Generally, Lilly snapped to alertness saying something in her own language. This time, after Lilly crumpled to a heap at the base of the tank once it was drained, her red eyes fluttered, and she looked around in confusion, saying nothing for several moments. The look of disorientation on Lilly’s face was…one Skadi had never seen, and it worried her. Gradually, Lilly’s silence gave way to the more usual coughing as she cleared her lungs of the fluid that had filled her cloning tank, but still, she glanced around as if she didn’t understand what was happening.

Finally, she spoke. “What happened? Where am I?”

The small, almost quavering quality of Lilly’s voice worried Skadi all the more. She had never seen her Lady so confused, so uncertain. Worse, she was trembling slightly, the nutrient fluid glistening in little droplets on her bare skin, her left arm twitching slightly. Normally, she’d have been on her feet already, heading off behind the privacy screen.

“M-my Lady, you… You were killed. A clone trooper, I think the same one we saw a few days ago, broke into your office. She…you told me to run and secure the data.”

Oddly, as bad as this news seemed to Skadi to be, it had a sort of calming effect on Lilly. Her trembling ceased, except for the odd twitch in her left arm, and she took a deep, steadying breath.

“I was killed outside my pod.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, my Lady,” Skadi answered anyway. “After our meeting with the Inquisitor.”

“So that has happened?” Lilly asked.

“What? Yes, my Lady. We returned from it barely an hour ago…”

Lilly’s red irises began to rotate slowly as she thought this over. “I see. Thank you, Skadi,” she said, slowly getting to her feet. She ran both hands through her hair, then took a towel to begin drying the nutrient solution off of the newly smooth skin of both her arms, then the rest of herself. All the while, Skadi watched her in frank confusion. She had never seen such frank emotion on Lilly’s face, much less something that seemed almost to border on fear.Cracks in the armor here and there she had seen over the years, but never such a bald display of vulnerability.

Seeming to notice something of Skadi’s thoughts written on her face, Lilly paused in drying herself. “The experience of activating a backup clone as opposed to a jump clone or a regular clone after dying in the capsule is…jarring,” she explained. “Jump cloning and capsule deaths carry with them a sense of continuity. I can start a sentence as the process begins in one clone, and finish it in the new with memory of everything that was happening up to the instant of death. In a backup clone, it is impossible to know how much time has passed, how or why you died, or what happened during the time you may have lost between backing yourself up and dying. The lack of continuity is…disconcerting.”

She finished toweling herself dry and sighed, flexing the fingers of her left hand. “I must attend to the…usual matters. Please prepare whatever information you gathered as well as a summary of the meeting and any security recordings of my death. I need as complete a picture as possible of what happened to determine how to proceed.”

Skadi blinked. “You want security recordings of your own death?” she asked, incredulous. It seemed a grisly sort of fascination to have, and Skadi could not for the life of her understand why Lilly would want to relive her own death.

“Yes,” she said matter of factly. “Is there a problem?”

“I just…don’t understand why you’d want to see that,” she admitted.

“It may help me to see where the security gap was. It may also help me to determine what, if anything, my killer learned about our meeting and what we intend. It will also help me to see where I failed to combat my attacker.” That last bit almost seemed to annoy Lilly.

“I…” Skadi sighed slightly. “Yes, my Lady.”

Lilly nodded as if this satisfied her completely, and then turned to go behind the privacy screen. Rather than remain for the sounds of rending flesh and bone, Skadi departed to do as she had been told.

The drive they had received from Inquisitor Morne was encrypted, leaving Skadi with little notion of what to do with it other than load it into Lilly’s data server and see if her Lady knew how to decrypt it. The matter of compiling a report on her meeting with Morne was a little more difficult. Part of Skadi wanted to downplay how forthright she had been with the Inquisitor, how his kind performance had taken her in. Writing up a report for her Lady that made her seem gullible, or a fool galled her more than a little, but she could not countenance a lie to her Lady. Maybe it was that she’d already had this conversation with Lilly before. Lilly’s response had not been cruel—her Lady had never in her experience been cruel—but she had still felt foolish. Revisiting that experience was not a thought she found she enjoyed. But Skadi was nothing if not dutiful, though she did note that Lilly had explained to her the meaning behind his feigned kindness.

It was compiling the security footage that Skadi truly struggled with, though. It was easy enough to find, of course. But the prospect of showing Lilly her own grisly death was…not an inviting one. The cleanup teams had put her office back in order almost immediately, had even managed to erase the scent of scorched flesh. Still, Skadi found she could locate the exact spot on the wall where the beam pistol had burned through her Lady’s head. A trick of the mind, of course. She wasn’t even certain she’d seen the shot that killed Lilly, and didn’t care to check the security recordings to see if she was still in the room when it happened. Those…Lilly could review alone.

Except…Skadi remembered the clone trooper had mentioned that her only regret was that Lilly would not remember her death. Would showing Lilly these recordings be giving that woman what she wanted? Skadi hesitated. She could delete this data, could likely even make it seem the clone trooper had done it. Denying the vicious clone trooper the satisfaction of Lilly being aware of what she’d done seemed to Skadi like the only way she could pull a small victory from such a defeat.

Skadi’s fingers hung, irresolute, over the keys that would purge the data. Lost in her indecision, she did not hear the soft footsteps behind her, did not notice the approaching figure until Lilly spoke.

“Do not delete that data.”

Skadi almost jumped out of her skin, whirling around so quickly that she would have struck Lilly had the shorter Khanid not taken half a step back, away from her.

“M-my Lady, I…” she stammered awkwardly. “I was just…”

“Skadi,” Lilly said, stopping her. “I have always valued you for your skill as much as for your honesty and integrity. Do not compromise the latter.”

Skadi sighed, her shoulders slumping. “The clone trooper, before she killed you, she said that her only regret was that you wouldn’t remember her doing it. I thought if I deleted the data, I could deny her the satisfaction.”

Lilly considered her words for a long moment, then gently interposed herself between Skadi and the computer. “I…believe I understand your desire. But it will not trouble me to witness the events of my death. I have died several times, Skadi. It is a matter of course for capsuleers, and it has long since lost any menace to me. There is information in those recordings that will be helpful to us, and deleting them would only serve their interests, whatever they may be.”

Much as she was loath to admit it, Skadi saw the logic in what Lilly said. Part of her even wondered if Lilly’s killer had said that in hopes of Skadi erasing the footage to protect Lilly. But if that were the case, it suggested that the Blood Raiders who sent her knew a great deal about Lilly and her subordinates.

“I understand, my Lady. Everything is here, but the data drive is encrypted.”

Lilly nodded at this. “Of course. I have the decryption protocols. But I would like to review the security recording first…”

Skadi didn’t share her priorities, even going so far as to turn away from the monitors as Lilly reviewed the footage. Even hearing the grunts, gasps, and other sounds of their combat upset Skadi. Not because combat bothered her, but because the recording was evidence of Skadi’s own failure to keep this complex secure. In time, she knew she would have to review it as well, to determine where and how the clone trooper gained access to seal any gaps in her security, but for the moment, the experience was still too raw, and she needed no further immediate reminders of her failure.

“Interesting…” Lilly murmured.

“What?” Skadi asked, grateful for something else to think about.

“She was in the room when I gave you the data drive, but she attacked me instead of you.”

That didn’t make sense. “But, if she wasn’t after the data, why go to the trouble of breaking in? Are you sure she saw you give it to me?”

Lilly stepped aside to gesture to the monitor. Reluctantly, Skadi stepped up, studying it. As she did, Lilly advanced the recording, highlighting one section of the room. It was difficult to spot, but Skadi could just make out the clone trooper’s shadow behind Lilly’s desk. How she’d gotten there, Skadi could not tell.

“Do you want me to take the drive on board then?” she heard herself say.
“Yes, thank you, I will join you shortly,” Lilly responded in the recording.

Certainly there was no way the clone trooper could have missed that from her vantage in the recording. Skadi had just assumed that the trooper was after the data drive, wanting to be aware of what the MIO knew about the Blood Raiders she worked for. But obviously if that was what she’d wanted, she would have gone after Skadi, who both had the drive and would have represented an easier target than Lilly.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Skadi said. “If she’s not after the drive, then what is she after?”

Lilly stared thoughtfully at the monitor, watching the recording progress until the clone trooper slashed her throat and pressed her gun up under Lilly’s chin. She could hear Lilly choking for an instant before the weapon discharged and Lilly went silent.

“I do not know,” Lilly said, still staring at the monitor. “And that is what troubles me. The attack seems random, pointless. But to waste a clone and all the trouble of infiltrating a private hangar, doubtless making it harder to do a second time, putting an enemy on alert…”

Lilly shook her head.

“She really seemed to hate you…” Skadi observed. “Wanting you to remember the death. Do you think she was upset that you killed her?”

“It is possible,” she admitted. “But a clone trooper would be as accustomed to dying as I am. They are often not as stable as capsuleers, but still… Such a minor inconvenience should not have engendered that kind of hatred. Unless…”

Lilly scrubbed backward through the recording, playing it from the moment of the attack. Skadi watched the clone trooper leap over Lilly’s desk, watched Lilly turn toward her, heard a wild yell in a language she couldn’t understand. She’d discounted it before as a battle cry, but Lilly played it back again. Then again.

“What is it?” Skadi asked.

“It is an archaic form of one of the Empire’s early languages. Many sects of the Sani Sabik believe it lends them a kind of legitimacy. This is a very old sort of curse.”

“A curse? What does it mean?” Skadi asked.

“It might be loosely translated as something along the lines of ‘may your agony continue into the hereafter’ or, if you prefer, ‘the afterlife’.”

Skadi frowned. “That’s…huh… The afterlife? I mean, I know it’s just an old saying, but you’re a capsuleer. You’re not really heading to the after…life…”

The coin dropped as she said the words, and Lilly nodded.

“She knew killing me would cause me more pain in the afterlife, my next life as a clone, than any death she could inflict.”

“She did it just to hurt you?” Skadi asked.

“Perhaps. But the bigger question is: How did she know what would happen? That is not a matter of public record. They have a means of accessing private information about me. Whether someone in my employ, one I thought was a friend, or some documents they stole from me or the Kingdom itself…” She shook her head. “No, it is more likely that we have been betrayed.”

Skadi swallowed. “No…”

She didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to believe that one of the soldiers and agents she’d worked with would betray her Lady, much less to Blood Raiders, particularly considering that Lilly would be far from the only one to suffer at the hands of such an enemy. But it was Skadi’s duty to disagree with Lilly, especially in situations like this.

“My Lady, I don’t think there is anyone in your employ who would betray you to Blood Raiders. All of us know them enough to know that it wouldn’t stop with you. There would be so many other casualties and people made to suffer. It seems more likely they were able to get documents from the Kingdom somehow.”

Lilly turned toward her, but rather than angry, her expression was thoughtful. “I would very much like for you to be right, Skadi,” she said calmly. “We cannot ignore either possibility. I will return to the Kingdom to make inquiries about stolen data, and you will begin investigating possible Blood Raider traitors or infiltrators.”

“My Lady, I really don’t think—”

“It is precisely because you do not think this is true that I wish you to do it. As I said, I appreciate your skill as well as your honesty and integrity. You do not have it in you to give this anything less than you full effort to prove to me beyond any doubt that there is no traitor in our midst. And if you are able to do so, I will be satisfied. In either case, you cannot make the necessary inquiries in the Kingdom.”

Skadi opened her mouth to argue.

“Skadi, you must do this quickly. If it is someone here, you must determine who, what information they have turned over, and who their contact was. I will be back in no more than three days. I expect results by then.”

“My Lady, there are tens of thousands of people in your employ.”

“Far fewer with access to this information,” Lilly said. “I am giving you access to that personnel list, and my seal to order them here for you to investigate. They will feel a certain…gravity to the questioning in this station, considering it is operated by the Ministry of Internal Order. You will investigate and, if necessary, interrogate each.”

“Lady Terranova, I…” she trailed off. She what? Didn’t want to investigate her colleagues? Her subordinates? Even some of her superiors? Didn’t want to do what her Lady required of her? Lilly was watching, her expression neutral as ever. “I…understand.”

Lilly nodded. “I must leave now,” she said. “It is imperative that we act quickly. I must know what else they have learned.”

Lilly turned to leave the room without another word, making her way down to the hangar. Standing in the office, she could even see one of Lilly’s smaller ships being rotated out to the hangar. She obviously meant to travel quickly and, if the fact that she had selected her Purifier for this journey said anything, discreetly. The vessel was gone in moments, Skadi standing in Lilly’s office and watching it leave, wondering how she could possibly undertake the task Lilly had left her.

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Excellent! Looking forward to future chapters.

Chapter Four

Three. Skadi had spent the last day poring over every iota of information she could find on the few dozen names Lilly had given her, and she was certain that no more than three of them had both the knowledge and the opportunity to share it with someone they shouldn’t in the past month. She reasoned that if this was information that had been shared much longer ago than that, the Blood Raiders would have acted on it earlier too. These three people had been operating either alone, or with sufficient opportunity to be alone that they could have met with an agent or transmitted sensitive information without being noticed. Of these three, two were field operatives who could have met with a Blood Raider agent at any time, and one was focused on analytics, and would have had the skill to hide any transmissions sent to a Blood Raider agent.

But that was as far as Skadi felt she could get. How to determine which, if any of these three it was, she did not know. Worse, what if she missed something? Or what if Lilly had? What if someone else had somehow learned about this secret of hers, and been the one to share it? Or what if the person who had shared it covered their tracks so well that Skadi had already overlooked them? This was exactly why Skadi had always hoped to stay away from this sort of work. Mistrust and paranoia only gave way to more of the same. She preferred to believe that none of those working for her Lady would do this, would betray her, would betray all of them to Blood Raiders. The Minmatar Republic, she could perhaps understand. But Blood Raiders? They would kill Lilly, her staff, her slaves, everyone. And that only if they were feeling generous. Skadi couldn’t imagine any of these three people, two of whom she knew, doing such a thing. Nor did she want to believe it of anyone…anywhere. If she was lucky, Lilly would find that it had happened in the Kingdom’s halls of power where corruption was simply the order of the day.

On the other hand, what if she was right? What if one of these three people was responsible, and she ignored evidence simply because she didn’t want to believe it? No, she couldn’t do that. The more frightening prospect, though, was that she might make a mistake, might miss something because she was not an investigator, was not an expert in interrogation. Sure, she could figure out how to work thumbscrews if she had to, but the prospect turned her stomach. There had to be a better way of getting information out of someone than just beating it out of them. If she tortured all three until one confessed, none of them would be loyal to Lilly afterward, to say nothing of the toll such an action would take on her. She needed an expert in…

Skadi blinked. Lilly had specifically left her on this station after introducing her to Inquisitor Morne. Could she call on him for help? Her fingers tapped thoughtfully on the surface of her datapad as she considered. What was the worst that could happen? He’d say no? Well, no. The worst that could happen was probably drawing the ire of an inquisitor who might then make her life a living hell. All she could do was hope he wasn’t the type, she supposed.

Getting in contact with his office wasn’t difficult. He was listed on the station directory, but not surprisingly, he didn’t answer his own calls. It was an unfamiliar male voice tha answered.
“Office of Inquisitor Morne.”

“Erm… Hello, I’m trying to reach Inquisitor Morne…?” Skadi said a little uncertainly.

“Yes, Ms. Ullr. He has been expecting your call. One moment.”

“Wait, wha—” Skadi didn’t have a chance to finish the question as she heard a faint click, and then a gently pulsing tone as she awaited her call transfer. He’d been expecting her call? Why? She didn’t have time to wonder.

“Ah, Ms. Ullr. A pleasure to hear from you again, my dear,” came the inquisitor’s melodious voice.

“I…uh… You were expecting to hear from me?” she asked, unable to keep the confusion from her voice.

“Indeed. Though it seems I owe you an apology. I did not give you quite enough credit, my dear; I hadn’t thought to receive your call for at least a few more hours.”

“I… What? Why? How did you know I would call?” she stammered.

Unlike Lilly, who had a tendency of cutting her off when she knew what Skadi was asking, the inquisitor allowed her to finish before answering. “Lady Terranova informed me that you may require some assistance with evaluating the veracity of some of your colleagues’ claims involving a matter of some sensitivity. As you are not experienced in these matters, she believed you might reach out to me for assistance in doing so.”

“Ah… Oh. Well, um… Would you?” Skadi asked, almost annoyed that this had been planned out, and she was apparently the last to know about it.

“I am at your service, Ms. Ullr,” he said pleasantly. “But might I make a suggestion?”

It wasn’t until he actually said that he would help that Skadi realized she had expected him to turn her down. She was silent for just a little too long, as she heard a soft prompting of, “Ms. Ullr?” from the inquisitor before she realized she hadn’t answered his question.

“Um, yes. What…do you suggest?”

“Well, were I to appear as an inquisitor, it would put everyone present on the defensive. Rumors would circulate about an inquisitorial presence in Lady Terranova’s staff, and morale would suffer considerably, to say nothing of how guarded it would make your traitor, if indeed there is one to be found. It would be better, I think, for me to appear as a functionary on your Lady’s staff present merely to keep a record of what is transpiring to keep her fairly apprised of the circumstances, rather than relying solely on your report.”

That…certainly sounded like something Lilly would do, she supposed. And she did have to admit that seeing an inquisitor wandering about, or being marched into his office, would put everyone on edge. But…disguising himself as a recordkeeper? Skadi thought his position was a little too important for something like that. Still, if he was willing, it made sense.

“That… Yes, all right. That makes a lot of sense. I’ve already asked my, um, suspects to come here. How soon could you be here at the hangar offices?” Skadi asked.

“Oh, I will not need but a few minutes. I should arrive before anyone else, and will come directly to you, Ms. Ullr. I shall see you shortly,” he said, and disconnected.

Skadi leaned back in her seat. Surely the inquisitor would be helpful, but if he was just going to show up as someone there to keep records, how would he help her question the people she’d called to the station? There really wasn’t time to wonder about these sorts of things, though. Arrangements had to be made for questioning rooms and separate quarters for each of the people she’d called. It seemed a bad idea to let them mingle too much, or at all, during the questioning. She probably didn’t want them discussing the questions or speculating about what was going on with each other.

True to his word, Inquisitor Morne arrived only a few minutes later, and with very little fanfare. None, in fact. One moment, Skadi was alone, having directed the staff to prepare three separate living quarters, and the next she heard a familiar voice at her side.

“Ms. Ullr, lovely to see you again.”

Turning, Skadi found herself facing the inquisitor. He wore simple gray robes, a hood pulled up over his head, but not so low as to obscure his face, letting her see the pleasantly disarming smile on his face.

“Erm, Inquisitor Morne, that was fast…”

“I believe it would be better if you did not address me that way for the time being, Ms. Ullr. It would be simpler to merely call me by my given name, Raphael.”

Perhaps because Lilly had always been one to use people’s given names unless she had good cause not to, this didn’t bother Skadi the way it might have someone else in her position. But there was one thing about the situation that did.

“All right. I just… I have one question, if you don’t mind.”

“By all means, my dear,” he said, that smile warming a bit more.

“Why would you, an inquisitor, help me, a…” Skadi trailed off, searching for the right words.

“An upjumped, former slave to a Holder of the Dark Amarr?” he supplied. Frank and distasteful as the words were, his expression was amused, and his tone joking. If anything, he’d just voiced the worst version of what she had been thinking.

“Well… That’s not how I’d put it…”

“No,” he said more somberly. “But it is how you might expect a True Amarrian of my high and noble office to put it, yes?”

“I…suppose so.”

His smile did not falter. “Many of us are ruled by such prejudices, but not all of us, my dear. I am here to help because I believe your Lady does good work. Unorthodox and impious as she may be, her work is for the betterment of the Empire. So long as that is true, you will find me willing to assist.”

Skadi had to admit that Lilly was neither orthodox nor pious. Never once had she seen her Lady pray, or instruct others to do so. She was openly critical of the Empire in many areas, and had often assisted in combating the Nation and Triglavians even in the territory of the Republic and Federation. No, orthodox she was not. But, Skadi largely agreed with his assessment of her, save that she though Lilly’s interest was the cluster at large more than the Empire itself. Correcting him on this seemed like a bad idea under the circumstances, though.

“Well, then I’m glad to have your help. But if you’re here just to take records, then how are you going to help with the interrogation?”

“Ah, of course. I have brought something to assist with that, as it happens.”

Morne reached into his pocket, drawing out a small box about the size of the palm of his hand, and not much thicker. Opening it, she saw what looked like a tiny black dot resting on a piece of white blotter paper, and a single contact lens.

“Assuming you lack a comm implant, this can be placed on the underside of your ear as a temporary substitute. The lens will allow me to monitor what you see on my own datapad. I will then be able to provide you with my impressions simply by subvocalizing, which you will hear on the communication device.”

“Huh. My first spy kit,” Skadi remarked.

“Quite,” he said, giving an amused little chuckle.

Skadi took the small black dot on its blotter first, and tugged one of her ears back with one hand. “Just on the back of my ear?” she asked, paper in hand.

“Yes. Anywhere should do.”

She pressed the paper to the back of her ear and, not sure what else to do, made a slight wiping motion down along its back until the paper came away. The dot was gone.

“How do I get rid of it?” she asked curiously.

“Some tweezers and a mirror ought to suffice,” he said, the corners of his lips twitching slightly. “Would you like help with the lens?”

She shook her head. “No, I can manage.”

Flipping open the cap on the container for the lens, Skadi dipped the tip of one finger into the solution, coming up with the lens. The other she used to pry back her eyelid, angling her head upward. She rolled her eye slightly, and pressed the lens somewhat inexpertly against it. The experience wasn’t exactly comfortable, and Skadi had to blink several times before she felt like it was where it should be, and minimally disruptive to her eye itself.

As she completed this task, Morne glanced down at his datapad and nodded in satisfaction. “Can you hear me?” he asked.

“You’re standing right next to me,” she said flatly.

“But I am not speaking aloud,” he pointed out.

Skadi realized he wasn’t. His lips weren’t moving. Or at least, not as much as they should have for him to be speaking at such a normal volume. More than that, she only heard him in one ear. Well, that probably meant everything was working, she supposed.

“Well, now that we know everything is working, we have only to greet your guests. I will simply linger at the margin of things. It would be best if you paid me no mind, and encouraged them to do the same. If asked, simply explain what we discussed, that I am here to keep a record of what transpires and report back to Lady Terranvoa.”

Skadi nodded. “Right, In—er, Raphael. They should be arriving in just a few minutes.”

“I have in fact received word that they’ve just been admitted to the station. They should be on the hangar deck momentarily.”

Of course he would know that. She doesn’t bother asking how. It will be easier to accept that it is true and move on. So she does. Skadi makes her way to the hangar, looking up as two shuttles arrive. Her three “guests” disembark from the two shuttles, one of them talking quietly with the other, gesturing around. The one speaking Skadi knew to be Riona Jaeger, a fellow agent in Lady Terranova’s service and longtime friend of Skadi’s, though she tended to operate alone, gathering intelligence. The person she was speaking to was the analyst Skadi did not know, a Hestia Terranova, one of her Lady’s slaves who had shown a brilliant aptitude with computers. The third, disembarking alone, as Thror Muspell, a troop commander of Lady Terranova’s marines, and another of Skadi’s oldest friends.

Riona and Thror were both, like Skadi, slaves freed by Jamyl Sarum’s decree just over a decade ago. Hestia, though younger than any of them, was a seventh generation slave, and so had not been freed. While Lady Terranova tended to treat her slaves more like employees, Hestia was the only one of the three who did not serve Lady Terranova by choice, and that helped Skadi’s suspicions along somewhat.

“Ms. Jaeger is explaining the purpose of various of the ships and equipment here to Ms. Terranova,” Morne explained. “It seems Ms. Terranova does not get out much.”

Skadi nodded her understanding, but said nothing, as she recognized the presence of his voice only in one ear to mean he was subvocalizing, speaking only for her to hear. It wouldn’t do to respond to words nobody else heard.

“So what gives, Ullr?” Thror yelled over the sound of the hangar, swaggering over to her and clapping her on the back with a hand the size of a dinner plate. A Brutor like Skadi, Thror was barely a centimeter shorter than her, but was half again as wide. Like Skadi, he wore his long hair in thin dreads, though his were adorned with beads and bits of metal. “Call us away from our jobs over to an MIO station? I’m guessing it’s not to catch up, eh?”

Riona and Hestia, who were just reaching them, both looked curious, though Skadi noted that Hestia was keeping her distance from the loud bear of a man as he shouted to be heard, perhaps a bit more enthusiastically than was truly necessary. Ignoring Hestia’s timidness, Riona punched Skadi on the arm and then hugged her. She was almost a foot shorter than Skadi and a deal more slender, and her was head shaved completely bald. The Vherokior woman could blend into almost any crowd, and was absolutely deadly with anything sharp.

“Good to see you, Skadi,” she said feelingly.

“Yeah, both of you too,” Skadi said, though she was afraid a bit of her awkwardness might have come through in her voice.

“So, who’s the little one?” Thror asked, glancing at Hestia.

“Um, I’m Hestia… Hestia Terranova,” she said in a mousy voice that fit the woman herself quite well. Standing of a height with Riona, Hestia was not quite as slender, having an altogether softer physique somewhat obscured by the gray robes she wore. Her light brown hair was pulled into a bun, but a few loose strands hung freely about her face. She was busily chewing on the end of one of them.

“You hardly need me to tell you that Ms. Terranova is quite nervous. But it is not you she is concerned about,” Morne said into her earpiece.

Skadi had noticed that she was nervous, and had put it down to her presence in an unfamiliar environment. But when she shifted her gaze to Hestia, she noticed that she was studiously avoiding looking at Thror and was keeping Riona between him and herself. A quick look at Thror told her that he had not noticed this.

“Quite right. She seems to be afraid of your rather large friend.”

Skadi had seen that reaction often enough. Thror was an enormous man, and the only thing bigger than his hulking frame was his bellowing voice. He had what they referred to as a battlefield voice. He could shout to be heard over gunfire, explosions, and the roar of engines so common in ground combat. Unfortunately, he was not so good at turning that particular voice off. Still, when he wasn’t wielding heavy repeating cannons or a combat knife as long as Skadi’s forearm, he was as gentle a man as she knew. Fear was just the first reaction most people had to someone that size who never stopped shouting.

“No, there’s something going on and I wanted to talk to you all about it. I asked Hestia here because she’s one of the best analysts Lady Terranova has, and she might see something we don’t. I’d like to get to it as quickly as possible, though. We might have some time left after to drink Thror back under the table.”

Riona smirked but Thror was all righteous indignation. “That contest was fixed! Neither of you told me Riona had implants for that sort of thing!” he roared.

Skadi managed a small chuckle. Years ago, Riona had challenged Thror to a drinking contest, having recently received implants to filter out blood toxins, so that she could be seen to drink and partake of any drugs necessary to secure the confidence of potential sources of information. Two hours later, Thror was facedown on the barroom floor, snoring loudly in a puddle of what was mostly spilled alcohol. He’d never quite gotten over the indignity, which had not been helped by Riona capturing a few images of his unconscious form and distributing them liberally among their colleagues.

“So, what’s going on, then?” Riona asked, always a little faster to get to business. “Lady Ice Queen causing trouble again?”

Skadi twitched unconsciously. Referring to their Lady like that was hardly uncommon when she was not present. Those in her employ had a whole host of unflattering nicknames for her. But there happened to be an inquisitor standing with them this time, and he might not think it was so funny. Hestia squeaked slightly at the address, clearly not being the sort for such open insults to her Holder. Of course Skadi knew it was only half an insult. While Riona didn’t like Lilly, Skadi knew she quite respected the woman. Else she would have taken her skills to the RSS. Or the Cartel. It was hard to say with her.

“Oh, don’t be afraid, girl. She’s not going to pop out of the deck plating and give us lashings for talking about her like that,” Thror rumbled, chuckling.

Hestia only squeaked again, half hiding behind Riona and shaking her head. “That’s n-not appropriate!”

“Tell me I was never like this,” Riona sighed.

You were never an analyst. They don’t get the job because they’re gutsy,” Thror pointed out.

“Mmm,” Riona murmured. “Come on, Hestia. Seems like we have work to do. You ever had a lashing?”

Hestia shook her head, wide-eyed.

“Ever beaten?”

She shook her head again.

“Then what’re you worried about? Come on,” she said impatiently.

Skadi shook her head at Riona. “Not helping,” she said sharply. Turning to Hestia, she gestured back toward the hangar offices. “You’re here because Lady Terranova wanted you to be, and you know you don’t have anything to fear from her, which means you don’t have anything to fear from us. Now, please follow me. All of you.”

Thror gave Hestia a pitying look and nodded, accompanying Skadi. Riona rolled her eyes. While she could charm a person out of their eye teeth when she wanted, she was actually rather prickly when she wasn’t working. Hestia shuffled along after them, looking, wide-eyed around the hangar. Skadi had seen slaves who had been abused before, had been a part of putting an end to it on a number of occasions when working for Lady Terranova. That’s not what she was seeing in Hestia. No, Hestia was afraid of something very specific, and it only made Skadi that much more suspicious.

Skadi led the way into the hangar offices, directing the trio to the living quarters she’d had staff prepare. “I don’t know how long this’ll take, so I figured I’d set up someplace for you each to stay. Take a bit to get settled in, and I’ll come get you when we’re ready to start,” she said.

“Didn’t tell me to bring a change of clothes,” Thror growled. “Doubt there’s anything here in my size.”

“We’ll sort something out if we have to,” Skadi said.

He shrugged, turning into the room she’d assigned him. Riona did the same, though not before giving Skadi an odd, searching look, brows slightly furrowed. When Skadi met her gaze, Riona merely raised both brows, then lowered them before turning into her room. Hestia had already gratefully hurried into her own room and closed the door. None of them had asked about Morne following along.

“Well, as I do not know any of them, I can hardly provide much in the way of assessment compared to their usual behaviors. I have been reviewing what information your Lady provided me on them, and I would say that any of them is capable of having betrayed her. Ms. Terranova is plainly terrified of Mr. Muspell for some reason, though he does not appear to know her. Ms. Jaeger simply seems to be annoyed at being pulled away from her assignment, which was, I should note, surveilling a group of Blood Raiders. Doubtless you were aware of this, though.”

Skadi was aware, and it was part of why Riona was here. She disagreed with Morne’s assessment that any of them was capable of doing this. Or, at least, she wanted to. Thror would never abandon the people he commanded, though he was more the sort to think with his battle lust than anything else. Riona, while an accomplished liar, very much believed in what Lady Terranova did, and while she had no love for the Lady, would not betray her cause. Hestia, she couldn’t say.

“Well, who would you question first?” she asked, turning to face Morne since nobody else was present.

“An interesting question. You are obviously most suspicious of Ms. Terranova, which on its face would make her appear to be an excellent place to begin. But, if you are asking for my opinion, I would hold her for last. You will have more information by then, and a clearer picture of what the other two may or may not have done. That might affect what you wish to ask her about, particularly as she may have information about both of them, and you may have to compare her accounts of their actions to hers. Better, I think, to save her for last.”

“I had actually considered that,” she said evenly. “She’s worked on analyzing a lot of the data that Riona provided, and a few of Thror’s combat deployments. I’d like to get her version of events after I’ve had theirs.”

Morne smiled broadly. “Again, I fail to give you enough credit. Were you testing me, or testing yourself with that question?”

“Myself,” Skadi admitted. “It made sense in my head, but you’re a lot more experienced, so I wanted to see if I was right.”

“Indeed you were. Now, if you will indulge me: Have you given any thought to where you will question them?”

Skadi had, and she hoped that she had arrived at a sensible answer here as well. “Yes. I want to talk to them first in their rooms. It won’t feel like an interrogation, so maybe they’ll be more comfortable and talkative.”

“Very good,” he said. “Better to get a version of events while they are comfortable, to later compare to another in a proper interrogation should it become necessary. The more times you get a story from someone, the more likely you are to find its holes. We’ll make an inquisitor out of you yet, Ms. Ullr.”

Skadi doubted that, but at least her thinking so far had been sound. Nodding, Skadi glanced at the three rooms. If she was going to do Hestia last, then she might as well start with Riona and work her way over. Besides, she supposed she could do this under the pretext of introducing Morne and his role, and catching up a bit.

“I guess we’d better get this over with,” she muttered to herself, turning toward Riona’s door.

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