“Alfie, grab my bags, please. Let’s get settled in.” He glanced back at Andi with a faraway look in his eyes. The thoughtful gaze unnerved her momentarily, but then he smirked and said, “It’s great to be back on my ship.”
“My records tell me,” Alfie said, trailing after Dex, “that the Marauder belongs to Androma Racella.”
Andi laughed in satisfaction as they disappeared.
Even his name was poison in her mind.
At another time in her life, Andi would’ve felt guilty for her coldness toward him. But that time was long gone. Now she was made of ice, too full of anger and regret to get close to him again.
He’d betrayed her, and so she’d betrayed him.
One shredded heart for another.
She remembered the way Dex’s eyes had burned, how the hilt of her dagger stuck out from his chest as he lay there on that scalding, barren moon. It was the day she’d claimed the Marauder as her own. The day she’d claimed her heart back, too.
Hearts were pathetic things, too easily broken. The Bloody Baroness couldn’t afford such weakness. Especially not now that Dex was back at her side.
It’s one job, Andi told herself. You can shoot him out the airlock the second you recover Valen Cortas.
She smiled at that thought, then settled back down into her seat, where she resumed her tallying.
There would be another tally added soon, accompanying the others on her blades.
It had Dex’s name written all over it.
Chapter Thirteen (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
Four years ago
DEX HATED COMING to Uulveca during their annual harvest.
It was a minor planet in the Stuna System, a place where the pungent smell of the dung of feathered uhven filled the air. Dex covered his nose and mouth with a cloth to suppress the odor, but it failed to block the nauseating stench entirely.
He wouldn’t be here long—all Dex had to do was check in on a suspected bounty who was rumored to be making some under-the-counter deals and take a few snaps of the evidence. If he caught the scheming bastard in the act, it would mean a load of Krevs, and another constellation tattoo added to his body. Another mark of his Guardian status.
If not, well... Dex didn’t want to think about the look on Raiseth’s face if he came back empty-handed.
This was his opportunity to prove to the leader of the Bounty Hunter’s branch that he was more than just some seventeen-year-old student with stars in his eyes. He was a Guardian, born and raised, newly adorned with the title he’d worked his entire life to obtain.
Life as a Guardian after graduation wasn’t easy. You weren’t offered free room and board or given a steady mission.
You could work a desk job, damning yourself to a life of boredom while you waited to be called upon for something greater.
Or you could be like Dex.
Desperate to live in action, to collect riches, he had joined the Bounty Hunters’ branch of the Guardians in hopes of getting his hands on the worst criminals in Mirabel and placing them behind bars. To keep himself busy, honing his skills, while he waited for further orders.
With the peace treaty between the Unified Systems and the Olen System, Dex guessed it would be a long wait before he saw any real action.
He was just as good as any of Raiseth’s other bounty hunters. Better, even. If this had been the Guardian Academy, he would have aced every skill test. Dominated in the fighting classes. Destroyed all the other ranks when it came to intel.
But Raiseth didn’t care about Dex’s hard-earned title. Raiseth himself was a war hero, a retired Guardian of the highest status. To him, bounty hunting was about proving your worth, catching a criminal prize with ease.
Dex was determined to do so.
Now, on his first mission, Dex wove his way through the crowds of people selling their goods in rickety tents. Some offered ripe senada fruit, a rarity that only grew in the southern rainforests of the planet, while others hoisted chunks of freshly slaughtered meat on hooks, blue blood dripping into pans beneath.
“Drink the blood to find the woman of your dreams,” an elderly shopkeeper called to Dex, her one eye twitching as he passed. It was pure purple, a shade that reminded him of the moons outside New Veda. Her eye twitched again. “Five Krevs a pint, dear boy.”
Dex laughed as he sidestepped her booth. “There isn’t a woman in the galaxy who would put up with me.”
Her cackles trailed after him as he faded deeper into the crowd.
All around him, laughter bubbled up like a wellspring. Music drifted through the air, the different songs sounding out of time—yet somehow it all wove together as if played by one hand. Despite its stench, this small planet was a place of growth and love and life, and somewhere in the midst of it all was his target.
Dex kept his head on a swivel as he walked, searching for his target’s telltale shock of red chest fur. Raiseth had said the Stramh man would be here, peddling illegal brainworms. Striding past a leather maker’s stall, Dex hastened his pace, boots gliding effortlessly over the rocky ground. He could see his target’s shop in the distance, a ramshackle booth made of canvas and rusted metal poles.
But as he drew closer, Dex frowned. The booth was empty, its owner nowhere in sight.
Almost as if he’d packed up and left, knowing Dex was on his way.
Raiseth had warned him about this—targets with their own informants, too quick and too clever to be caught on the first try.
Since the beginning of his mission, Dex had been imagining the moment when he’d reach out and hold a knife to the peddler’s furry red side, whispering words of defeat in his pointed ear. That moment was now dead and gone. Instead, he strode over to the booth and slipped inside, kneeling down to the inspect the dust-covered shelves nailed together within.
Dex needed a sign, any indication of where the target had fled, but he was greeted with only dust and dirt.
He’d have to come up with a new plan. But first, he needed to trek back to his ship and contact his informant.
Dex was just sliding back into the crowd when he felt it.
A shift in the weight against his belt where he kept his bag of Krevs.
Dex whirled, flipping out his blade and simultaneously wrapping a fist around the would-be thief’s neck.
It was a young woman. She had white hair the color of stardust, tangled and matted as if she’d just been caught in the midst of a storm. Gray eyes stared out of a face masked by filth and grime. Dex’s bag of Krevs was clutched tightly in her fist.
He snatched the bag away from her, but didn’t release his hold on her throat.
“Nice try,” Dex said. “On any normal person, you would’ve gotten away with that.”
He’d dealt with street rats before, knew all of their tricks and, as Dex tightened his hold on the young thief, he expected her gray eyes to well up with tears. He expected a kick to the groin, or for her to sink her teeth into his hand. “I could kill you with one twist of your neck,” he added, waiting for her to make a move.
Her eyes narrowed. It was his only warning that she was going to react before her body twisted. He felt her foot hook around his ankle, and before he knew it, they were on the ground.