Chapter 14:

Now — The Deal

The Story Of Who

There was something heavy in the air between us. I didn't need to search for it to feel the way it wormed its way into me: affection; anticipating; lust. X—Renshaw, whatever he wanted to be called—was just like me. That was why I couldn't take my eyes off him from the very beginning; why I didn't feel threatened by the very life-threatening words he liked speaking; why I let him get this close despite the voice that whispered in my head that whispered: kill, kill, kill.Bookmark here

At the back of my mind, I counted the minutes till midnight, slowly piecing together the pieces of a puzzle I never knew I had. Less than an hour from now, I would have snuck out to see Bess and remind her new husband that he was supposed to keep her happy for as long as he lived, or else.Bookmark here

I knew this, not because I had an exact memory of ever planning Bess' escape or leaving the Block myself, but because I could feel it—the heavy truth in X's words. It was in the way he looked at me with those blue eyes of his, daring me to deny it while breathing in my exhalation. I wondered what he thought of me when he wasn't trying to pin me down for murder.Bookmark here

Did he dream of me or wish that I was beside him when I wasn't? He didn't seem to be the type to be infatuated but I couldn't think of another reason why he hadn't slapped handcuffs on my wrists and taken me away for questioning. Bookmark here

Flower. Glee. Glow. Red. Quiet. Dodo. Sea. Seven girls I had tried to free from a fate they had been forced into. All had been failures. Either the escape attempt itself failed or they ended their own lives once I finally managed to get them out. Slowly, with each life, I perfected the perfect escape plan. Why would Bess' case be different? She could have been just another experiment, a stepping stone on the path to my own paradise.Bookmark here

No, a part of me arguedthe softer part that wrapped itself around my sharp edges so that someone like me could survive in a life like this—you would never use her like that.Bookmark here

And still, I could imagine how I did it. How I snuck into Baron Kor's suite on Mariposa and slit his wife's throat as she slept beside him. How I spent months sneaking suggestions into Matron Elsa's mind as she slept, nudging her to get rid of Bess just after Râini, when passions were high and men went in search of new playthings.Bookmark here

I could imagine it all, but I couldn't remember a thing about it. Because, of course I would be smart enough to wipe my own memory to give myself an airtight alibi. The whole point of committing a crime was to live to tell the tale and I had been a wanted criminal since I was seven.Bookmark here

I didn't think I was careless enough to slip up and let one man stand in the way of my future happiness. I was smarter than that.Bookmark here

I unfurled my fists and rested my palms on X's chest, feeling the way he stiffened at my touch. Maybe he knew that I could kill him right now—command him to stop breathing or ask him to stuff his pistol into his mouth and pull the trigger. It wouldn't be the first time a man committed suicide in the arms of his curtain girl for the sake of dying poetically. Even if I was suspected, there would be no proof. I would be done with him and he would become little more than a memory.Bookmark here

Maybe he knew nothing. I could feel his heart beat in the gentle staccato rhythm of a man not afraid to die. He was betting his life on me revealing myself to him. He had no evidence until he got me to unwittingly confess. He wanted me to get cocky, lord my innocence over him and let something slip—something vital that could pin it all on me. And then what? Would he blackmail me or set me in front of a firing squad?Bookmark here

He flinched when I pressed my hand to his face, as though it was a claw digging into his flesh. When I dragged my thumb over his jaw, his breathing staggered and thinned. I knew he could feel the tension, the weight of a decision bearing down on me—a decision I hadn't need to make in years. He didn't look away. Instead, he watched me struggle, beads of sweat dripping down his temple and stopping at my fingers.Bookmark here

I had never seen a man so still, so determined to be proven wrong.Bookmark here

Did he know that I was dangerous? He had to. That was why he brought the gun today, to put me down if it came to it. Cute of him to think it would protect him from me.Bookmark here

Does a small part of you wish for my innocence, X?Bookmark here

"Won't you say anything?" He was the one who broke the silence this time, voice scratchy and raw as though he had been battling through screams that only he could hear.Bookmark here

"No, it wasn't in your file," I said at last, enjoying the way his skin flushed when I closed the gap between us.Bookmark here

"What?"Bookmark here

"There was no mention of your other talents. I certainly never knew that you could detect lies, Detective. Is that why the nickname pisses you off? You can tell me all about it."Bookmark here

"W-What are you doing?"Bookmark here

He was referring to the way my fingers had left his face to unbutton his shirt, revealing the creamy layer of cloth underneath—laser-proof padding.Bookmark here

I'm considering whether to kill you or not, I wanted to tell him. Instead, I tugged on the last button and pulled the shirt off him. He didn't struggle—because he was confused. I could feel his mind reeling, going through a thousand thoughts and preplanned conversation in search of what had gone wrong.Bookmark here

He had accused me of murder. To him, my next step should have been to either silence him or beg for leniency. He had been prepared for those eventualities, not whatever this was.Bookmark here

"X," I searched his uniform for spyware, "if you could prove my guilt you wouldn't be here."Bookmark here

"We've read each other's files, there's no need to beat around the bush," I told him with a coy smile, draping the camouflage shirt over my shoulders. "How do I look?"Bookmark here

"Nice... No." He shook his head and swallowed but still couldn't find his voice. He grabbed his teacup and drained it all in one loud gulp. I had served enough men to know what had gone through his mind when he saw me in his shirt. He did like me.Bookmark here

The thought made me feel giddy.Bookmark here

"Did you kill the Baroness?" he asked.Bookmark here

"Yes." I stuffed my arms into the sleeves and did the buttons, enjoying the way the fabric drowned me in his scent. I had to fold the sleeves a few times to see my fingers again.Bookmark here

He shook his head again, the confusion peeling away as he examined the planes of my face in a way few men dared to do openly. "You're lying."Bookmark here

Two years ago, someone malicious had spread rumors that I had sold my soul to devils for the sake of charming men. Look at my face too long and you lose your free will. There was no way he hadn't heard about it. Bookmark here

"I don't know whether I killed the Baroness or not. All I know is that I have a lot of enemies. Are you one of them?"Bookmark here

"I don't understand."Bookmark here

I didn't need to be a mind reader to know that he didn't care for the politics that surrounded influential men and the women whose time they paid for, but I wanted to rile him up. I wanted to see him yank his hair out again. I wanted to hear those screams he bottled deep within himself.Bookmark here

I want to burst his bubble.Bookmark here

"Out of all the stations in the galaxy you volunteered to do your service here. Most soldiers give us a wide berth but you don't bother hiding the fact that you are paying extravagantly for my time... You want something from me. That's why you stuck your head in an investigation that has nothing to do with you. I doubt you even knew of the Baroness before I became one of the last few people to see her alive. How long have you been waiting to talk to me like this?"Bookmark here

"A year." Confusion dropped from his face entirely, revealing the cold, hard mask I was used to seeing. "You're right. I don't care about the Baroness or the shady businesses you run under the name Malvini."Bookmark here

"You want me to do something?"Bookmark here

"I want to make a deal."Bookmark here

"You sure have your own charm, Renshaw." I let out a breath, glad that the choice I made turned out to be the right one. I would have hated to kill him. "Can I call you Renshaw?"Bookmark here

"You can call me whatever you want."Bookmark here

"Alright then." I gestured for him to sit down. "Ignore the mess."Bookmark here

I stepped over the wine puddle to seat myself beside him. "Care for some cake, or tea?"Bookmark here

"I'm fine."Bookmark here

I picked a cake up from a tray of them and bit into it, savoring the pudding that flooded my tongue when my teeth found its creamy center. "You are from Milday."Bookmark here

"So are you."Bookmark here

The fact hung over us like Death's scythe, strengthened by our acknowledgement of it. Children of a planet that would have no more children. We were survivors—but barely.Bookmark here

"There is a gap in your file between when you were registered for the Sorting Farms and when you were found by  Matron Anissa and became her apprentice."Bookmark here

A statement like that didn't require any input from me so I focused on finishing my cake.Bookmark here

"I did some more digging and discovered that we were on the same farm, which I thought was funny because there was a girl a few sets behind mine who managed to turn the entire center upside down and break out. Did you know her?"Bookmark here

I pretended to think about it but really I was trying to imagine something he would find funny. "No. Did you?"Bookmark here

"We've exchanged some words," he said coolly, sending a meaningful glance my way. "But no, we weren't close."Bookmark here

"Ah, and what does this have to do with me?"Bookmark here

"Nothing. I just didn't realize that we would have so much in common, Who."Bookmark here

"Cut to the chase, Detective." The nickname made him bristle and now I knew why, but I didn't let myself dwell on it. I didn't want to have to filter my words when I was with him. "Why did you come all the way here from your cushy job in Central? Did kissing the emperor's ass get too tiring?"Bookmark here

"I was looking for the most alluring entertainer on Centaur," he said quietly. "I just didn't expect it to be you."Bookmark here

I waited for his ultimatum. The idea in his mind that had forced our paths to cross and forced me to this point of no return. Bookmark here

"Help me kill the emperor and I'll give you the freedom you've been searching for."Bookmark here

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