The clear blue sky stretched on over tropical waters that shimmered in the light of the morning sun. Waves lapped at the beach, leaving moist sand down by the shoreline, and small sailboats made their way up the coast.
Her toes dug into the sand.
Anna Lenai stood on the beach in a blue skirt and a short-sleeved shirt that left her midriff bare, her red-gold hair tied back in its customary ponytail. She paused to watch the scenery.
Pressing her lips together, Anna turned her face up to the sky. The breeze blew hair back from her face. “It's pretty,” she said to her Nassai. “But after three years out here, I think I might actually miss snow.”
Her symbiont offered wry amusement as response, and she had to resist the urge to burst out with giggles. He was much more open with his feelings than he had been in the years after their bonding, so open that when he did choose to share, she sometimes had a hard time not reacting as though the emotions were her own.
Of course, she knew exactly what he was thinking. The Bond didn't work that way – he could read her thoughts, but she could not sense his – but they'd had this discussion on more than one occasion. It wasn't snow that she missed.
It was Earth.
The Bond offered more than companionship. Contact with a Nassai allowed her to perceive the world around her in perfect clarity without having to use her eyes. That was how she sensed the man approaching from behind.
Daython Macklin was a tall, slim fellow in shorts and a button-up shirt who walked along with his head down. “You come out here every morning,” he said as he drew near. “You like to look at the water?”
Anna turned, glancing over her shoulder. She felt her lips curl into a small smile. “I like the feeling of vastness,” she replied. “The sense of something that just goes on and on forever.”
Daython lifted his chin, his square-jawed face fixed with a puzzled expression. He raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Maybe they should have put you on a space station,” he murmured. “Though someone like you deserves to be in the sun.”
Anna grinned and bowed her head, her face growing hotter by the second. “Maybe they should have,” she said with a shrug. “Is there something I can do for the Consulate's Office, or is this a personal visit?”
He looked stunned, the rebuke hitting him like a kick to the stomach. “I also like to look at the water,” he said, moving past her to stare out at the ocean. A bit of sweat made the fabric of his white shirt cling to his back. “It's pretty.”
She let him have the last word.
Daython Macklin was a young diplomat, perhaps five years older than, her and in the last few months, she had noticed a peculiar amount of visits from him. He seemed to find any number of excuses to drop by the Keeper's office. Anna was no fool. She knew flirting when she saw it, but…
Flirting was an art form like any other, and trying to woo someone with awkward compliments was not a very effective method. In fact, it was one of the worst ways to go about it. “It is very pretty,” she agreed.
He crossed his arms, looking up at the sky, the sun shining on his face. “How long have you been out here?” he asked. “Three years. One would think that you're done with your resume building.”
“It was a good experience.”
“Ah… so now we're speaking the language of professionalism.” Daython smiled, shaking his head. “I'm sure it was a good experience, Anna; my point is that it's not what you'd call a high-profile assignment.”
There was truth in that. Since the day she had arrived here, there had never been more than seven Keepers in her office. Seven Justice Keepers could provide adequate law enforcement for the entire southern coastline. Alios was a small colony where cargo ships occasionally put in for some down time.
Every now and then, they had to deal with smugglers, and there was the odd crime of passion. Much of that was handled by local police. But she had survived the last three years with a minimum amount of life-threatening danger.
“You don't socialize much, do you?”
Anna frowned, looking up at the sky. She narrowed her eyes. “There aren't a lot of people my age,” she said, shaking her head. “Most of my colleagues are part of the forty-and-up crowd.”
Alios was where Keepers went to retire.
“A friend of mine is having a small party,” Daython offered. “Just her, a few of her law school friends and some of my colleagues. I don't suppose you'd like to join us.”
Grinning with amusement, Anna stared down at the sand. She reached up to brush a strand of hair out of her face. “You realize I'm a Justice Keeper, right?” she asked. “Not exactly prime dating material.”
He looked over his shoulder, frowning at her with a puzzled expression. “Who said anything about dating?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “I never figured you for someone who leaped to conclusions, but I guess I should take the compliment.”
“My apologies,” she said. “When is this party?”
“The day after tomorrow.”
She hadn't had much chance to socialize. When she had first come here, there had been a young Keeper named Tess who – thank the Companion – was only a couple years older than Anna herself. The two of them had been close until Tess had transferred to a station out on the Fringe.
It was hard to meet people your own age. That, Anna realized, was one of the many ways that adulthood… What was that Earth phrase? Sucked. One of the many ways that adulthood sucked. Well, since this wasn't a date, why not avail herself of the opportunity? “Okay,” Anna said. “I'm in.”
Jena Morane rolled over, letting her head sink into the fluffy pillow, her pixie hair flying loose in a thousand little strands. Her body was practically singing, every nerve tingling with gratification.
Mouth hanging open, Jena blinked up at the ceiling. “Wow…” she said, sitting up and clutching the sheets to her chest. “That was absolutely unbelievable. You really have an artist's touch.”
The woman who lay stretched on her belly at Jena's side was a tall, tanned-skinned beauty with long dark hair that fell past the small of her back. “I'm glad you enjoyed it,” she murmured. “I know I did.”
Reena looked up, blinking as strands of dark hair fell over her pretty face. “You're not so bad yourself,” she purred. “I'd always thought that Justice Keepers would make terrible lovers, but I'm just glad I could keep up.”
Jena glanced over her shoulder, smiling for her guest. “Glad you could keep up?” she said, eyebrows rising. “Honey, I'm pretty damn sure you took the lead for the vast majority of it.”
With a contended sigh, Jena sank back onto the mattress. Her quarters aboard the star-liner Veloson were dimly lit, but she could just make out the round glass table on the other side of the bedroom.
A painting on the wall opposite her bed depicted bright yellow tulips reaching for a blue sky with just a few clouds. There were a few shelves and a wooden cabinet to store her clothing. When she had first come aboard this ship, she had felt a little out of place – she'd had apartments with less luxury – but the nine day trip to Earth wore on, and she was glad for the extra space.
It loomed in the back of her mind like a shadow blocking out the sun. She had been there only once before, having set foot on its soil for the very first time some three years ago when Leyria had made contact with the people living there. That had not been her mission, of course – she had been sent to recover a missing Justice Keeper – but history would record her presence nonetheless.
Now, she had to go back there. Because Earth was the only place where she would find answers. Convincing her superiors to allow the transfer had been a challenge worse than any fistfight, and she suspected that they'd only done so out of some twisted sense of humor. She'd been reassigned to Earth, all right… as a bureaucrat.
Jena sat up.
Placing a hand over her face, she raked fingers through sweat-soaked hair. “Listen, it's been great,” she said, eyes fluttering. “But I should really get some work done. Lots of prepping to do.”
Reena pouted, sticking out her lower lip. She turned her head to stare at the ornate headboard. “Shall I put a mark there?” she asked, lifting a dark eyebrow. “A woman like you is bound to find other conquests.”
Jena frowned, her face suddenly burning. She lowered her eyes to stare down into her lap. “No conquests,” she said. “Just a lot of work to do. I'd be happy to meet you for dinner later.”
The other woman rolled over, lying flat on her back with the covers pulled up. Her long dark hair spread out in a fan. “Maybe,” she murmured. “I think I might want to find some conquests myself.”
“Whatever makes you happy.”
Jena got out of bed and fumbled around for her clothes. In less than a minute, she was dress in a pair of shorts and a tank top that clung to her trim figure, thin white straps running over her shoulders.
She marched across the room.
The small gray door that led into her bathroom had a chrome handle that reflected the dim light. Pushing it open, she watched as the lights came on automatically. So much to do. So little time.
Her face in the mirror was a little too pale with short auburn hair strewn about. A little too pale and a little too youthful. She was thirty-eight and looked like a woman half as old. That was a side effect of bonding a Nassai.
A symbiont would retrain your cellular structure well into what would normally be called middle age. Keepers did die young, but they also stayed young. Some people said that was a blessing. Jena might have thought so too, twenty years ago. Oh, being asked to present ID was often amusing, but being spoken to like an untrained pup by people five years her junior was not.
Jena bit her lip, letting her head hang. She felt a strand of hair fall over one eye. “If you want to meet later,” she called out to Reena, “I'll be free at nineteen-hundred. We can grab a drink.”
“Why not have one now?”
Leaving the door open had allowed her to observe the other woman with the aid of her Nassai. Reena had dressed and now stood at the foot of the bed with a bottle of wine that she must have pilfered from the mini-bar. “Come on, Justice Keeper,” she said. “It won't kill you to enjoy yourself.”
Oh, it might.
Jena really hoped the other woman would just take a hint. Everyone needed some release from time to time, but she wasn't looking to extend this beyond a solid hour of afternoon delight. Worse yet, her recent experiences had left her wary of anyone who tried to get too close. She had almost talked herself out of what had turned out to be one very pleasant encounter.
Returning to the bedroom, she found Reena standing at the shelf, pouring bubbly white wine into two thin glasses. She set the bottle down on the shelf, then seized both glasses in a delicate grip.
Reena spun around, grinning at her. “A celebration,” she said, nodding once. “Of the best sex I've had in a long while.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Jena frowned down at the floor. She stepped forward. “I don't drink much,” she informed the other woman. “I got that all out of my system as a teenager.”
Reena lifted her chin, batting her eyes in a way that sent shivers down Jena's spine. “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed. “A few misadventures twenty years ago shouldn't prevent you from having fun now.”
Jena turned around, facing the bathroom door with her arms folded. A not so subtle reminder to the other woman that a Keeper could track her without eyes. “No, they shouldn't,” she said. “But the fact that you know my age does.”
“We met three hours ago,” Jena went on. “It's impossible to judge a Keeper's age by her features, and I haven't told you. So that leaves me with the uncomfortable conclusion that you came here looking for me.”
Reena dropped both glasses, letting them spill their contents onto the carpet. “Oh, very well,” she muttered, drawing a small, flat knife from a sheath inside the waistband of her pants. She held it with the blade pointed down, the sign of someone who knew how to use it. “Your last memories would have been blissful, but if you insist on doing it the hard way…”
Jena broke into a sprint.
She ran up the wall, then bent her knees and pushed off. She back-flipped over the other woman's head, turning upright to land on the balls of her feet.
Reena whirled around to face her, stabbing with the knife.
Jena crouched and brought a hand up to strike the other woman's wrist, flinging the knife away. She jabbed Reena hard in the nose. The impact sent her stumbling backward all the way to the wall.
Reena thrust out her free hand, two metal needles extending from the bracelet on her left wrist. A thousand hard-earned credits said that both of those were tipped with deadly poison.
She let them fly.
By instinct, Jena called on her Nassai. A bubble of warped space-time surrounded her body, a shimmering curtain through which she could see the needles hanging still in mid-air. Time would pass more quickly for her than for anyone on the outside. She had over a minute to dodge if she needed it.
Jena dropped to a crouch. The bubble popped, and she felt the needles pass right over her head, zipping across the room to sink into the wall on the other side. Of course, using her Nassai's power left her winded.
Reena dashed forward.
She leaped and flew with her arms outstretched, passing right over Jena's head. She landed on her hands, thrust her feet into the air and then flipped upright. Not a Keeper, but she sure was nimble.
In a heartbeat, Jena was on her feet and spinning around. The other woman was already facing her, a scowl twisting those once beautiful features into something feral. “I've never had the honour of killing a Justice Keeper.”
Reena kicked high, striking her across the chin with enough force to fill her vision with silver flecks. Another hit to Jena's chest sent her stumbling away. She felt the hard, cold wall against her back.
Contact with a Nassai allowed her to perceive the assassin's silhouette as she drew near. Reena stalked forward like a hungry lioness trying to run down a gazelle. She spun and back-kicked.
Jena crouched, reaching up with both hands to seize the woman's ankle. A touch of concentration was all it took to reverse gravity's pull. She flung her opponent upward.
Reena fell toward the ceiling, colliding with a thump. She dropped back down to the floor, landing hard upon the gray carpet. There were reasons why intelligent people did not challenge Keepers.
The assassin was lying on her side.
Jena kicked her in the spine, applying a Bending that changed gravity's pull. The woman went flying, tumbling like a log through the air. She crashed into the wall, then fell back to the floor.
Jena felt a flush singe her face, wincing and shaking her head. “Every time I think I've met a nice girl,” she said, pacing across the room. “There's always a catch. Papa was right when he said he wanted to approve my suitors.”
The fallen assassin was stretched out on her belly, dark hair spread out in unkempt tangles. Anguished whimpers filled the room.
Seizing a handful of the woman's hair, Jena pulled her head up to make eye contact. Reena's face was haggard, tears glistening on her cheeks.
It took a little effort to pull her to her feet and spin her around so that her back was pressed to Jena's chest. Wrapping an arm around her throat prevented her from struggling too much.
Clenching her teeth, Jena brought her lips to the assassin's ear. She hissed softly before speaking. “This is your chance to walk out of here with a heartbeat,” she said. “I suggest you take it.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's fairly simple,” Jena whispered. “Tell your masters that I remember what I saw on that ship. Tell them I have the documentation to prove it, and that if anything happens to me – anything – that documentation goes public.”
With her mouth open wide, Reena shut her eyes. She tilted her head back, groaning. “I don't know what you're talking about,” she squealed. “I have no masters. It was just a simple contract.”
“Authorized by who?”
The assassin trembled. “Wesley Pennfield.”