For once, Jaxon actually listened to her. She couldn’t feel him shadowing her anymore. And this time Atrea didn’t feel any weird twinge about the lack.
Thank the Mother.
She needed a drink. It wasn’t too early for that, right? This was a pirate ship, after all. In space. Day and night were just ephemeral concepts anyway, out here in the black. She started for the bar, but quickly changed direction. She didn’t just want a drink. She wanted one with her best friend.
By the time she reached Mercy’s quarters, she had half talked herself out of knocking. Mercy had her own problems. Between her murderous family — or maybe not so murderous anymore, Atrea couldn’t keep up — and her new role as queen, the pressure to pick more Consorts, and figuring out her Talent, Mercy’s problems were legion. They dwarfed whatever Atrea might be going through. She stopped outside the door and hesitated, her hand raised.
It slid open before she could decide whether to go or stay. The man who stood there was tall, with short cropped dark hair and eyes so striking a blue it was startling. He was lean and muscular, and the look on his face was cold and forbidding.
Mercy might be her best friend, but Atrea still wasn’t sure what to make of Reaper, the man who shared her bed. Staring into those cold eyes, she shivered. He certainly wasn’t the type of guy Atrea would have chosen herself. Then again, she wouldn’t have expected Mercy to, either.
She realized they’d been standing there for so long the silence had become awkward. But he still didn’t move or say anything.
“Uh…hi. Is Mercy here?”
He moved aside, and she only hesitated a moment before stepping past him. Really, it was stupid to be afraid. Reaper was a type of Talented they called Killers. According to everyone, if he wanted someone dead, he could reach out with his mind at any given moment and make it happen. He didn’t need to touch her if he wanted to hurt her. But instinct urged she keep her distance anyway.
He contemplated her, and Atrea had to resist the urge to fidget.
“Mercy will be out in a moment,” he said. “She’s getting dressed.” He indicated the sleeping nook, and Atrea gave him a weak smile.
“Sure,” she said.
He nodded, and then turned abruptly without another word and left. Atrea was speechless, watching the door slide shut behind him. She was relieved he was gone, but at the same time, nervous. It made her uncomfortable that he’d left without saying a polite goodbye. Which was stupid. Not everyone was polite.
“Are you going to be weird around Reaper forever?” Mercy’s voice was muffled, and when Atrea turned she saw her best friend striding into the room while pulling a top on, the fabric briefly covering her face until she tugged the shirt down and into place.
“Probably.” Atrea sent a look at the closed door. “He opened the door before I even knocked.”
Mercy laughed. “Because we both heard you coming as soon as you stepped onto this deck. He got tired of waiting for you to make up your mind.”
Atrea muttered a curse.
Mercy shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Your shields are getting better. Before long they’ll click and you’ll be better at keeping things in.”
“Can’t happen soon enough.”
“Want some coffee?” Mercy crossed to the kitchen area.
“Maybe something stronger.”
“That kind of day?”
That kind of year. But Atrea just nodded, keeping the words to herself. Mercy held up a bottle of Bennethan Rum, and she gave her a thumbs up, leaning on the counter.
Atrea and Wolfgang, her father, had taken Mercy in when she was thirteen. The two girls had grown up as sisters after that, had even convinced several acquaintances that they were, though the two couldn’t have looked more different. Where Mercy was tall, Atrea was short. Mercy had darker skin, brilliant green eyes, and dark hair streaked with gold and red highlights without the benefit of nanites. She was striking. Atrea was fair skinned, with blue eyes, delicate features, and blond hair that combined to make her look younger than she was. She’d heard people call her everything from beautiful to cute. Like she was some kind of doll.
Mercy wasn’t classically beautiful, but she drew admiring gazes, and she had a presence that took over a room when she entered it. People looked at Atrea, and suddenly wanted to call her things like sweetie, and plop her down and make sure she was fed. It was maddening. And not exactly a benefit to the smuggler’s life she’d been raised to.
Over the years, she’d managed to cultivate a don’t-mess-with-me vibe almost as cold as Reaper’s. When she wanted to, she could project enough dangerous intent that people forgot she was small and pretty. Usually.
Mercy set a glass in front of her, and Atrea picked it up with a grateful sigh. The alcohol was a sharp burn at the back of her throat, down into her stomach. It seemed to burn away all of her anxiety and self-doubt.
Just what she’d been hoping for.
She had to give her best friend credit. Mercy waited until Atrea had sipped three times before she spoke.
“So, what’s up? Something clearly is.” She hesitated. “Did you and Wolfgang have a fight?”
“Dad?” Atrea waved a dismissive hand. “We’ve been fighting for months. I mean, he spent my whole life keeping secrets about Mom, so me being pissed isn’t exactly a surprise. You know he still won’t tell me about her family?” Irritation sparked, and she waved expansively. “I could have this whole family out there I know nothing about, but he won’t even give me a hint! He just says it’s better that I don’t know. They didn’t want anything to do with her after she ran away with him. He says I don’t need to know them. Shouldn’t I get to make that choice?”
Mercy leaned on the counter. “Do you want me to talk to him?”
“No.” Mad at herself for getting sidetracked, Atrea took another drink. She forgot for a second what was in the glass and took so large a swallow the fumes almost choked her. Her eyes watered. “I can handle him,” she said on a gasp. “He knows he’s wrong, he just thinks he’s doing what’s best to protect me. I’m going to wait a little longer, and if he doesn’t break, I’ll find them on my own.”
“This is a pirate ship, right? And my Mom came from one of their colonies. Someone knows something. I just have to find them.”
Atrea pointed at her. “Don’t. You’re going to be the first resource I go to.”
“Me? But I don’t know anything. If I did, I’d tell you.”
“No, but you’re someone in this place. You can get answers I can’t.”
As always whenever someone pointed out her unusual status, Mercy looked uncomfortable. But Atrea had spent the past several years helping her friend search for her missing mother. She knew, when the time came and she asked, that Mercy would do anything she could to help.
“That’s not why I’m here, anyway.” Atrea waved a dismissive hand.
Mercy cocked her head. Oh, no. The benefit of having a best friend was how well they knew you. They shared your secrets, supported your hopes and dreams, and told you when you were being an ass. All of which could also be a drawback.
“If it’s not Wolfgang…” Mercy practically drawled the words. “Let me guess. Jaxon?”
Atrea scowled into her drink. “Why would you immediately think he had anything to do with it?”
“Let’s see. Because you avoid him whenever possible. Because when you aren’t avoiding him, you’re looking for him. And because just the other day, you said he’d be even more good looking if he cut his hair.”
Atrea gasped. “I did not!”
“Well, you thought it.”
“That is totally unfair.”
“I hate you.” Atrea downed the rest of her drink all at once, hoping the burn would cover her embarrassment.
Living with a bunch of telepaths sucked.
“Look,” Mercy said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve never seen you drink over a guy before.”
“I’m not. Not really.” A twinge of guilt made Atrea wince. There was a whole period of time in her life that she’d never shared with Mercy. A time when she’d tried for a relationship, and failed utterly.
Initially, she’d joined the Navy to get access to information otherwise unavailable. Information on Talented. For Mercy, to try and find her missing mother. But in reality, the military had felt like home. She’d thrived there, excelling in a way she never had working as a smuggler. It was the first time in her life that she’d lived apart from her father, and the first time that she’d felt truly independent.
She loved the structure of it. There were clear goals, and she’d met and exceeded them so consistently, her file had quickly filled with glowing reviews and commendations. She’d felt unstoppable, like she could do anything. Even have a life of her own.
Unfortunately, she’d been a little too good. At first, she and Devan made sense. Both good at their jobs, but not stationed together where things might get complicated professionally. They were just competitive enough to make the relationship exciting. The distance was hard, but manageable. Things didn’t get really bad until she’d been promoted past him. Suddenly, everything she did was wrong. Things got ugly, fast.
She took a deep breath, realizing that not only had she been silent for too long, but she’d probably been projecting again as well. Mother damn shields.
“I’m not drinking over a man. Not this time.”
“Okay.” The way Mercy said it, Atrea knew she’d been projecting.
She shrugged. “I’ll tell you about Devan some other time. It was a mistake. He was a mistake, and it’s in the past now. I’m just not interested in starting anything with anyone.” Especially not someone she’d be stuck on board a ship with for the foreseeable future.
“Sure.” Mercy sat back, and Atrea relaxed. “I understand.”
“I just need your advice on something.” Atrea took a deep breath. “I told you about my Talent and how I had to replace some of my weapons.”
“Well, I’m still seeing the…visions, or whatever. I dream about them.”
“Oh, Atrea.” Mercy knew exactly what those visions entailed. “I’m sorry. Have you tried talking to someone about it?”
“Not really.” She turned her empty glass around and around in her hands. “But Jaxon knows. He just…knows. And he’s offered to help.”
“That’s interesting. I’m not sure what Jaxon can do about them, exactly, but it’s nice that he offered. I’d recommend talking to Vashti, or even Treon, though. Or maybe Doc, if you want to go back on the inhibiter to block your Talent for awhile.”
“That’s not the kind of help he’s offering. He’s a Hunter.”
“I know.” Mercy’s brow furrowed. “I’m not following.”
“Meaning, he thinks he can track this guy down. The one who murdered those kids. Who might still be murdering kids for all we know.”
If there was one thing Atrea could count on, it was that Mercy wouldn’t judge her. Her best friend didn’t even frown at the suggestion that Atrea might track down this person with the intent to kill them.
“Are you going to take him up on it? I’m sure Reaper could spare him for a few days.” Jaxon was one of Reaper’s dogs. A specially trained unit assigned to him. The dogs were a stepping stone to greater position and power within the pirate society. They were also among the most dangerous and skilled soldiers they had.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” She sighed. “Yes.”
Wordlessly, Mercy offered to refill her glass. But Atrea shook her head. One was enough. Now wasn’t the time for muddled thoughts.
“I guess I just came here to say it out loud. I’m going to do this.”
“I’d offer to go with you, but…” Mercy sounded wistful. Atrea understood. Once, the two of them had traveled the galaxy on one adventure after another, it seemed. Those days were past, now.
“I know. But if you came, a whole entourage, and probably this whole ship would have to come with you.” The pirates were paranoid about losing their queen, now that they had one.
“Seems like overkill,” Mercy said. She tugged at her hair, a sign of frustration. “Look, I might be leaving soon anyway.”
Atrea went still. “You mean, you convinced Cannon and Reaper?” She knew all about Mercy’s plan to go into Commonwealth space and dig up information on the pirates’ past. Specifically, on their creation, and the creation of Queens. The problem with that plan was the pirates’ need to protect her. None of them wanted Mercy going into enemy territory, especially while that territory was in a state of upheaval over the loss of the royal family. The entire government, really.
Mercy had been trying to convince Reaper and Cannon for weeks that this was the necessary path, with little success.
“They’ve both agreed that it’s necessary. Now, it’s just a matter of convincing them I need to go.”
“Ah.” Atrea smiled, shaking her head. “Seriously, sometimes I wonder about you.”
Taken aback, Mercy stared at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’re their Queen. You don’t have to as for permission.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Atrea rolled her eyes. “Look, the pirates are just like any other military organization. They function on their own brand of structure and rules, and a chain of command. And you are at the top of that chain.” Atrea pointed at her friend. “You just aren’t comfortable with it yet, but the fact is, all you have to do is tell them this is what’s happening, and they’ll find a way to make it work.”
Atrea knew that look. “Uh-oh, what?”
“It’s just, Lilith has been telling me the same thing for days.”
Atrea still wasn’t sure to make of the idea that Mercy’s crazy grandmother, the previous pirate queen, was sort of a ghost occupying a bracelet her friend wore. It was probably the weirdest thing to happen since they’d joined the pirates, and that was saying something. “Well, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d agree with your psychotic grandmother, but here we are. She’s right, Mercy.”
Her friend closed a hand over her wrist, covering where the bracelet rested. “Maybe. Anyway, I might be leaving soon, you might be leaving soon. Looks like we’re both headed into enemy territory. Be careful, Atrea.”
“I always am.”
Mercy laughed. “You are so forgetting who you’re talking to. Just…try not to do anything too crazy.”
“Hey, it’s me.”
Mercy gave her a pointed look. “I know.”
“Trust me. I’ll be careful.” Atrea stood up straight, setting aside her glass. “Thanks for listening. I just needed to talk it through with someone.”
“Of course.” Mercy gave her a sly grin. “And maybe while you’re gone, you and Jaxon…”
“Oh, shut up.”