I was home. Not only was I in my captain’s quarters on the Kaitan, but the ship was docked on Alaxak, in my village harbor, Gamut. I stretched on the furs of my bunk, still drowsy from my afternoon nap after a furious Shadow fishing schedule had kept us up all night. I wasn’t ready to be awake, but a knock at the door sent me sitting up.
“Hey?” I answered.
I knew who it would be before I heard his voice.“It’s me.” “Hi,” I said as Nev entered without waiting.
Ancestors, but the sight of him still took my breath away, even with how easily he slipped in that door these days, even with the scraggly beard he now wore as a partial disguise against casual observers.The startling silver-gray eyes, so bright they nearly glowed, the sculpted face, the perfect waves of light brown hair my fingers itched to touch. The fact that all these features came from very particular bloodlines didn’t seem to bother me anymore. Not much, anyway.
I stood up as he entered, and before I knew what was happening, his arms were around me, and he was crushing me to his chest.
Whoa. I still wasn’t used to this. And, Great Collapse, he was strong.
“I missed you,” he breathed into my hair.
I let out a strangled laugh.“You saw me all day—er, night. And you’re also squeezing the air from my lungs.”
“Sorry.” He loosened his hold but didn’t let me go, perching his chin on the top of my head.“And I was around you. It’s not the same.”
“Well, we can’t exactly be doing this in the middle of a Shadow run.We might as well fly straight into a star.”
Nev’s arms slipped away from me. Maybe he’d sensed my stiffness. I didn’t mind his presence here—in fact, part of me wanted it to be a more permanent arrangement. But the tension from the previous run was still too fresh in my mind.
Instead of talking about any of that, he said, “Come out with me.”
I blinked at him. “Where?”
“There’s a bonfire on the beach tonight.” He playfully tugged my arm toward the door. “You know, you led me to believe this place was dreadfully boring—and I thought it was too, when I was here by myself. But I now know that I was just never invited to where the real fun was.”
I sighed. “I don’t go to these things often myself. I mean, I’m invited, but . . .”
Not many people wanted me around. Everyone knew what happened to people in my family. It happened to other families too, even on other planets near concentrations of Shadow, but my family was one of the oldest on Alaxak, our Shadow grounds the biggest. Now only Arjan and I were left of the Uvgamuts. We were like missiles ready to explode.
Not so fun at parties.
That didn’t stop Nev. “All the more reason for you to come,” he said.
Somehow, I let him drag me out the door and off the ship. “Wait, the rest of your disguise,” I said as we headed down the ramp that stretched to the dock.
His new beard wasn’t enough to mask him, though it helped. He paused to slip in the flat brown contacts and bite down on a capsule, both of which he always carried with him, now. His features altered in seconds, almost like they were shifting slightly on his face, and then we were good to go.
The walk down to the beach was freezing, crystalline, stunning. I’d seen it many times, but alongside Nev, an outsider, I viewed it with new eyes. The night sky was black velvet glittering with gems, with a sash of shimmering, colorful light across the expanse—the far-off molecular clouds. The two moons shone like spotlights. Our breath fogged the air as we stared up at it all, walking hand in hand and trying not to trip over rocks, chunks of ice, or driftwood on the path from the dock down to the beach. Gamut itself was a collection of softly glowing orbs beyond the shore, as were the lights of various starships along the dock.
The ocean was a humming whoosh in our ears, and for a second, I didn’t know if I’d ever been anywhere more perfectly beautiful. In that moment, I forgot everything that was bothering me.
Until Nev finally brought it up.
“I know today—last night—was difficult. I know the crew hasn’t entirely accepted me, especially Arjan, and since he’s your brother, you might find that particularly troubling.” He spoke quickly, as if to get it all out before I could stop him— deny it, even though there was nothing to deny. He and Arjan had been at each other’s throats the entire run.“But we can do this,” Nev finished.
This. That little word held so much. And I got the feeling that Nev had intended it to. What was this? Nev, living and working on my ship, my planet? The two of us together, not just as captain and crew, but as something more? Building a future we could both share, despite coming from completely different places?
I wasn’t even quite sure what that future would look like. I didn’t know if I could I share the responsibilities of captaining the Kaitan with Nev, nor if he could give up all remnants of his old life to accept them. Even if we could, would we make our union more official? I’d never let myself consider something like marriage before. I never thought I’d live long enough.
I still didn’t know if I would, but for some reason, the threat of death was no longer enough to keep me from toying with the possibilities.
“I didn’t bring you out here to talk about that, though,” he said, helping me over a particularly large driftwood log, pale as bone in the night. No one usually helped me step over things; he only got away with it because he was holding my hand. Still, I somehow liked it.Which meant my brain was definitely turning into a puddle of sickly sweet goop.
“So what do you want to talk about?”
“Anything. We haven’t had much time for simple conversation with so much outside interference.” As if our coping with his exile and fishing for Shadow were only outside interference—but in the darkness, I caught Nev’s grin that let me know he was joking. “Why, Miss Uvgamut, courtship usually involves getting to know one another, flirtatious banter, flattery, starlit walks. . . .”
I tried to suppress my own grin. “Is that what this is— courtship?” Nev looked at me so seriously for a moment that my cheeks grew warmer than should have been possible out here. I went on quickly. “Well, whoever wrote your courtship manuals probably didn’t plan for it to be below freezing. Or for giant logs and pebble beaches in place of crystal floors and hand-tailored gowns,” I teased, as he struggled up onto another log that was waist-high. The bonfire winked at us in the distance from beyond it.
“Oh, I don’t think any Dracorvan courtship manual would have covered someone like you. You’re one of a kind, I’m afraid.” He stuck his hand down for me, but I ignored it and vaulted up on the log instead.
“Is this the flattery part of the flirtatious banter?”
Nev laughed loudly, his unrestrained amusement ringing all around us, and I realized I loved that sound.
His hands slid along my arms, top to bottom. It didn’t matter that I was buried in layers of fur-lined leather; his touch made me shiver. “I can’t believe I ever thought flattery would work on you,” he said. “Remember, when we first met? You told me if I sucked up any harder, you’d think you were in a vacuum.”
Now I couldn’t keep from grinning.“Who knows, maybe it did work.”
“Should I try again, then?” He cleared his throat theatrically and swept his hand to his heart.“You fly a ship better than a Bladeguard wields a Disruption Blade, and you lead your crew like a seasoned general—”
My own laugh rang out now.“Ancestors, no. Stop!” “So then let’s get to know each other instead.”
I looked away as his eyes grew more intense again. Unlike him, I didn’t magically have the right words for these types of situations.“Nev, I think it’s safe to say we know each other.”
He shrugged. “I know what you sound like when you’re afraid. I know what you look like when you think you’re about to die.” Before everything could get too serious, he added, “What I don’t know is what your favorite color is.”
I was about to answer something teasing, until I thought about it for a second. “You know, I’m not entirely sure. Wait, yes, I am. It’s the cloudy silvery-blue of glacial runoff.You?”
“Somewhat similar to yours, actually: aquamarine, because it reminds me of Luvos’s sky and oceans.”At the mention of his home planet—the home he could never see again—my smile dropped away. Nev noticed, and his own smile quickly filled in for mine. “Moving on. Hm, you’ll probably throw me off this log if I ask what your favorite flower is.”
“Hey, don’t assume I don’t like flowers,” I said with mock indignation, then seized his shoulders and threw him off the log. Unfortunately, Nev was too fast and dragged me with him.We both went tumbling in sand that was part windblown snow and crusty ice.
Nev took advantage of our tumble and pinned my shoulders to the ground, leaning on top of me while he was at it. The stars sparkled in his hair. My breath caught, and not just because of his weight on my chest. It didn’t matter that his eyes were dull, his nose was a bit crooked, and his jaw, cheekbones, and brow looked off. Whatever it was inside that made him shone out like a sun and drew me in like nothing else could.
“This is where I’m supposed to compliment your beauty and try to kiss you,” he said, his words warm, foggy caresses on my cheeks. “But because you’re you and I’m me . . .” He sprinkled snow on my neck, where it trickled down the back of my fur hood.
I squeaked and threw him off me. He sat up, but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t stand.
“Now I know what you sound like when you squeak,” he said, gasping.“See, learning new things.”
I tossed a handful of snow at his face. While he was busy trying to block, then spitting and wiping his eyes, I rolled to my feet and stuck out a hand, for him this time.
“Mr. Dracorte,” I said in the finest courtly tone I could muster, which was probably laughable. Instead of laughing, he blinked at me in surprise. Mr. sounded so strange with Dracorte, but I wasn’t about to call him Prince or Your Highness. I didn’t think he would want me to, either. “Might you escort me to the bonfire?”
He grinned and took my hand. After I pulled him to his feet, he kept hold of it. I looked at him, feeling suddenly shy. “It’s a snow-whisper. My favorite flower.They don’t look like much, just these tiny, pale pink blossoms, but they actually bloom on snow. You can even find them in Gamut in early spring.”
His voice was low. “I would very much like to find some with you, when the time comes. But for now . . .”
The bonfire was a massive orange beacon, beckoning us through the darkness between the waves and the shore. I could hear the thrumming of music even at a distance. Some bonfires were the quieter kind, with mingling and conversation. Some, like this one, were for only one purpose.The silhouettes of heavily clad figures leapt and spun—so different from the confined forms of the royal dances that I’d suffered through on Luvos, but no less skillful. Pounding, whipping feet kicked up sand in time to a powerful drumbeat backed by a half-dozen other instruments and a singer with a lovely, smoky voice.
Nev leaned close, his breath a husky murmur in my ear that made me buzz. “I want to dance with you.”
I didn’t—couldn’t—resist as we drew near and the music took hold of us. Nev swept me up in his arms, sending us into something like a skipping waltz, but looser, freer. I was still terrible at it, but I didn’t care. I threw my head back and I laughed, my hair spilling out of my hood. Fire and the shadows of other dancers spun in the night. I couldn’t tell who they were, and I didn’t care. Mostly, all I could see was Nev’s flameglowing face that didn’t even look strange to me anymore.
He bent his head and kissed my cheek, then neck, trying to nuzzle deeper into the layers. His lips were chilly, but I’d never felt so warm. Definitely different from how we’d danced before. Even here, in the darkness, I was suddenly conscious of who might be watching us. Sure enough, somebody whooped, but it didn’t matter.
Nev pulled away for a second, his eyes glowing even behind his contacts in the firelight.Then, finally, he kissed me on the lips, first softly, then deeply, his tongue joining mine and carrying on the dance. My heart, my body, and the very air pounded with the beat. My head spun, but it felt like the entire planet was shifting around us.
The motion of his lips paused, his mouth alongside my face, his breath panting. “Qole.” He swallowed, started again, and my pulse leapt as if attached to his words by a string.“Qole, I think I lo—”
A harsh beeping shredded what he was about to say,wrenching both our eyes open. It was coming from our comms, from Nev’s on his wrist and mine clipped to the inside of my coat.
Nev opened the line before I could.
“What?” he snapped.
“Sorry to disturb you, Your Highness.” My older brother’s tone made me wince. “But Basra has just informed me that there’s a spike in Shadow activity. I know working for a living might be an unfamiliar concept for you, but it’s time to fish.”
I cut in before Nev could say something to irritate Arjan further. “Thanks for letting us know. Prep the ship. We’ll be right there.”
Death was headed straight for us once again. “Arjan, look out!” I shouted into the comm.
I could see his skiff against the bright, rainbow hues of the molecular clouds through the viewport ringing my captain’s station on the much bigger Kaitan. My brother was towing a glowing net between his ship and ours while banking around other asteroids and debris. Except he hadn’t seen the giant rock whirling straight for our net.
The net was only meant to hold Shadow, the energy source we were trying to harvest. Not asteroids. Never mind the damage that would cause to our new net—but the tension of the impact would draw Arjan’s skiff and the Kaitan together as if we were weights at the end of a string, flinging us into each other.
Arjan cursed and barrel-rolled, twisting the cables around each other and collapsing the surface area of the shimmering mag-field. But not fast enough.The cables still glanced off the asteroid.The Kaitan shuddered, and his skiff lurched violently. He barely managed to straighten out in time before colliding head-on with yet another asteroid.
Just another day fishing for Shadow in the Alaxak Asteroid Sea.
“Sorry, I assumed he’d seen it, or I would have shot it,” Eton said from his perch up in the weapons turret.
“Great Collapse, Arjan,” I said, “that was too close. Watch your blind spot!”
“Captain, word choice,” Basra warned off-comm from his station below me, visible through the grating under my feet. The gender-fluid, slightly slouched twenty-five-year-old beneath me was not only the best trader in the galaxy and so knew how to read people like infopads, but he was also Arjan’s boyfriend. Or girlfriend, depending. His appearance and expression were neutral at the moment, only his eyes sharp in his handsome, coppery face.
It was too late to take back my words.
“Yeah, well”—my brother’s voice was bitter, cracking, furious—“that’s a little hard when I’m missing an eye.”
Sure enough, the asteroid had been on his left, on the side where he now wore a leather eye patch to cover the empty socket. I usually tried to position the Kaitan so the mag-field net wasn’t on his left, but sometimes it was simply impossible. “I offered to be his spotter,” Nev muttered from the copilot station.That console had never been used until now, except by me as a child when I’d watch my father fly. I didn’t turn to look at him, trying to keep my focus. I wasn’t used to having company up here.
My hand tightened on the throttle. Nev’s past—a royal among us commoners—made it difficult for some of the crew to accept him. Maybe, in some ways, for me too. And somehow it was even harder to accept him here in the copilot’s chair than it was in my captain’s quarters. Our differences were easier to ignore behind closed doors, without an audience.
For Arjan, having anyone in the skiff, helping him fly, would have been much worse: an admission. My brother couldn’t fly nearly as well now. He was putting us all at risk. I’d been trying to give him time to adjust, but I couldn’t deny it anymore.
I eased off the throttle, making our course less deadly and forcing Arjan, on the other side of the net, to slow with me.
I hoped Nev would keep quiet, but he added, more loudly, “Maybe next time, you’ll let me—”
“I don’t need your help, Prince,” Arjan hissed through the comm. “Don’t you think you’ve done enough already, hey?”
I tensed. Nev’s guilt over what happened was huge, as was his desire for forgiveness, his hope that he was one of us now.
The word prince made it clear that he was not. Not forgiven, not one of us.
“Nev doesn’t have to be the key,” Basra said crisply from below.“You know I can help you. Bionic replacements are—” “Astronomically expensive,” Arjan shot right back.“I don’t feel like being indebted to any more rich people, unlike some of us.”
Both Basra and I sat back in unison. I wondered if he felt as stung as I did. Basra wasn’t just a rich person. He was also deeply in love with Arjan.
I felt stung for a different reason. Yes, I’d used some of Nev’s remaining funds to rebuild the Kaitan. Not only had I repaired all the damage we’d taken and installed a new mag-field net, but I’d upgraded the ship’s electronics, weapon systems, and containment hold.
The latter was now strong enough to contain a large amount of Shadow until it could be pumped off. This way, we didn’t need a loader—someone who had to risk their life near-constantly by filling smaller canisters with a substance that could drive them mad or burn them to ash in a heartbeat.
Nev was probably happy to pay for that, since I’d first hired him on as our loader, back before we knew he was a prince. Before everything had fallen apart.
But it wasn’t like I’d just accepted his charity. He was the reason the ship was in shambles in the first place, and part of the reason Arjan was missing an eye. He owed us, not the other way around.
And yet Arjan refused to accept anything from him or anyone else.
“Just get the damned bionic eye, Arjan, so you can stop nearly killing us.”
Great Collapse. Leave it to Telu to speak the truth nobody else wanted to. Our hacker, my childhood friend, sat at a station near Basra’s, her eyes focused on her feeds, alert for any drones she would have to reroute.The spike of black hair slashing her face and the stark lines of the tattoo around one eye made her look as sharp as she was.
“How about you stop being a bitch—” Arjan began. “How about,” Eton snarled through the comm,“I shut you
all up with a few plasma missiles?” We had those now, thanks to Nev. Even Eton, my huge surly weapons tech, grudgingly appreciated those upgrades. Still, he couldn’t keep from adding, “Or maybe we can all agree to just launch Nev out of the airlock, and I shoot him instead.”
“All right, pack her up,” I said.“Get back to the ship,Arjan.”
“What?”Arjan demanded.“No, we need to finish this run.
We still need to make our own money, remember?”
“If you guys are going to bicker like children, we’re going home. Children can’t make Shadow runs. You act like this, we’ll actually die, not just nearly die.”
“Now,” I snarled. Only the roar of his engines answered me. The skiff shot forward, and I had to lay on the throttle myself to keep up.
“I can’t hear you!” he called.“Comm is cutting out.”
That was a steaming pile of scat, and he knew it. It would serve him right if I didn’t keep up and let him reach the end of his tether to come to a neck-whipping halt, but I didn’t want to hurt our equipment.There was no way I’d be willing to ask Nev to buy us a second net.
Maybe its destruction would be unavoidable, because Arjan was heading right for an even denser cluster of asteroids, interwoven with thick bands of Shadow that flowed in a glittering purple-black river against the brightness of the molecular clouds in the background. Both Basra and Telu swore beneath me. A run like that would have been tough in the old days. Now, as much as I hated to admit it, it would be nigh impossible.
“Yeah, I know,” I said in response.
“Qole,” Nev said, his tone calm but edged with concern. “That won’t only be difficult for Arjan. Remember to let me help you. You’re not alone.”
The problem was, even back when Nev hadn’t been up here, I hadn’t felt alone. I’d had help; it just wasn’t of the human variety.
I sensed it, as Arjan careened toward the rivers of Shadow in his skiff: the ripple, as if he’d reached out to touch it. My brother had been avoiding any blatant use of Shadow longer than I had, but now his need to prove himself seemed to be overcoming his fear of the substance and what it could do to us. His very rational fear.
Despite that, it called to me—or at least to the Shadow already inside me, lining my bones and veins like soot after generations of my people’s exposure. I wanted to answer. But that was why Nev was here. With his support, I wasn’t supposed to purposefully draw on large amounts of it or ignore it, because either extreme seemed to trigger hallucinations and bone-deep weariness or violent mood swings. But it was a fine line to walk, especially if that line traversed an asteroid field.
My hands tightened on the controls, my focus sharpening. “Qole . . . ,” Nev repeated.
“You’re a decent pilot, Nev, but you’re not this good,” I said through gritted teeth.
“I don’t have to be. I just have to help you be good enough.”
“I’m going to use it if I have to, Nev. I can’t let him kill himself.”
“You won’t have to,” Telu said. “I can hack his controls, force him to return.” She spoke over the comm, not caring that Arjan could hear.
I shook my head, even though she wasn’t looking up at me. “That could get him killed, we’re already too deep in the asteroid field. He needs full control. Eton, be ready to blast the net apart if it catches and he’s in trouble.”
“Roger,” Eton responded, “though I might not be able to get it in time.”
“Idiot,” Basra murmured.“If he doesn’t die, I believe I may kill him.”
“Get in line,” I said.
But Arjan didn’t die. The skiff rolled and dipped, pivoted and rose. He wasn’t just threading a needle; he was threading a dozen at the same time. He must be using so much Shadow, his eye would be fully black with it by now.
What he was doing was amazing, and yet keeping up with him in the Kaitan was even harder. The skiff was far smaller and more maneuverable. I heard the roar of photon blasts as Eton shot debris out of my way, while I did my best to dodge the bigger asteroids. Nev was my backup, his hands sure and swift on the controls, adding thrust where I needed it and giving me an extra pair of eyes. He watched readouts I couldn’t pay attention to and made minor adjustments to avoid collisions that wouldn’t have been fatal but damaging.
“Large one, fast approaching, bearing one-three-seven— blasted hell!” Nev shouted, as I barely reacted in time. The surface of the asteroid came so close to the viewport I could have counted the craters in its surface before it went whizzing by.
I ground my teeth. I could still do this without . . .
Then I saw the drone, breaking away from the other side of the asteroid where it had been clinging. It must have been powered down so Telu couldn’t detect its signal, but I’d gotten too close to its defense field.
Drones didn’t like that. Without a hacker, there wasn’t much to do but run as fast as you could. Attacking a drone would lead more than just that one to retaliate, since they responded to destructive threats by beaming alert signals to their companions. Not even their masters could reprogram that function, not since the know-how to do so was lost in the Great Collapse. Hundreds of thousands of drones interlaced the systems, and they could theoretically overwhelm any fleet. But we had a hacker.
Telu cursed. “Sneaky bastard!” And then to me, she said, “On it.”
But not even Telu could hack its programming fast enough and send it on another course of action.The drone, three times the size of the Kaitan, launched straight for us.
Everyone cursed then. Tentacles waving, plasma-rimmed maw gaping, the drone lashed out at our ship. Without thinking, I threw the Kaitan into a maneuver that kept us from being rent in half, and heard Arjan shout over the comms.
Right. He was attached to us, and I’d sent him whipping. We usually only encountered dangerous drones with advanced warning and full maneuverability—as in, without the skiff deployed. I couldn’t move without taking Arjan into account during Shadow runs either, but unlike asteroids, this drone wouldn’t stick to a simple trajectory that we could both predict.
“Sorry, Cap, this is weird,” Telu said through gritted teeth. “Its programming isn’t responding like normal. It’s almost like . . . just gimme one more second.”
Nev wasn’t enough. Even together, we would never be good enough. Blackness flickered at the edges of my vision. It wasn’t the darkness of space outside, but the darkness within me.
Everything was suddenly sharper, clearer, moving more slowly. I dodged the next five asteroids and the drone, and kept in line with Arjan with ease, dancing and skimming around everything like light over the ocean’s surface, all without tangling our net. If Arjan had threaded a dozen needles with the skiff, I was weaving an entire tapestry with the Kaitan. Eton didn’t even have to fire.
In the seconds that could have just as easily spelled our deaths,Telu had time to hack and reprogram the drone, and it went shooting off into the blackness. For a moment, all of us, even Arjan, just breathed.
“Qole . . . ,” Nev began.
“Don’t. Just don’t. Not now.”
“Okay,” he said, and I could feel him turning back to his feeds. “But after.”
At least now we all knew there would be an after.
By the time Arjan strode onto the bridge with a triumphant grin on his face, our new containment hold was filled to bursting with Shadow. Not that it improved my mood. All of us were waiting for him on the bridge, in fact, in a line like a firing squad.
He was much healthier than he had been even a couple of weeks ago, standing tall and looking more filled out, only fading pink scars lacing his tawny skin where there had once been angry red wounds. But his eye . . . that would never heal, without help. His black hair, once shoulder length, was chopped short and spiky to keep it out of the eye patch.
His grin fell when he saw the looks on all our faces. “Oh, come on.”
He especially avoided Basra’s gaze, but with a stubborn set to his mouth. He’d known Basra would be furious but had acted anyway. Maybe even because it would infuriate Basra. Arjan wasn’t only resentful because Basra was rich, but because Arjan hadn’t known he was, not while they shared the same ship as crew, nor even after they started sharing the same bunk.
Basra glanced at me, as if saying, After you.
I tried to keep my voice level without much success. “You disobeyed a direct order and put the rest of us in jeopardy—”
Arjan’s eye narrowed a fraction. “I couldn’t hear you clearly.”
“Like hell you couldn’t!” I snarled at him, unable to resist stamping my foot while I was at it. “We just had those systems replaced. Don’t you dare lie to me.”
“Never mind that you’re lying to yourself.”
Before I could ask him what that was supposed to mean, Telu said, “The comm channels were as clear as deep space, Arjan. I would know, since that’s part of my job to monitor them.”
He shot her a look reminiscent of the obscenity he’d spat at her earlier, then said, “What’s the big deal anyway? I pulled off the run, and outmaneuvered a drone.”
I broke our formation to march right up to him, jabbing a finger into his chest.“No, you didn’t. Shadow did.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, so what? It’s our blasted curse, so why not use it to our advantage while we can, at least?”
Curse was one thing he had right. My father and mother had gone mad and died in their early forties. My oldest brother, Onai, had followed them at twenty-five. Arjan was twentyone and I was seventeen. At the rate we’d been going . . . who knew?
“Why not? Are you serious, Arjan?”
“Maybe you can pretend you don’t need it anymore, but tell me how else I could have done that, how else I could keep doing what I’ve always done.” With only one eye, he didn’t add, but we all heard it. His anger took on a desperate note, and he tossed his head at Nev. “Just because you’re using him as a crutch, he’s not going to be mine.”
My breath hissed in between my teeth. “Oh, so instead you want to use the thing that will kill you?”
“I’d rather be dead than a Dracorte pawn for another second. What is he doing here, anyway?” He gestured violently at Nev this time. “He’s a royal! These are his family’s drones, in case you’ve forgotten. He doesn’t belong on this ship with us. He grew up in a blasted palace with everything he could have ever wanted, with servants feeding him off gold platters and armies shielding him from any real danger.”
Nev would never defend himself, but Telu snorted. “He doesn’t have any of that anymore. Remember, he helped the rest of us rip his palace half apart to get you out of there.”
“I was there because of him,” Arjan spat back. And, unfortunately, my brother had been too out of it to see what Nev had done, what he had sacrificed, to help rescue him. Being told something and experiencing it were two very different things.
But Telu knew. “Still, he gave it all up. For us.”
“No, he gave it all up because his father, the king, exiled him on pain of death,” Eton said, casting his disapproving scowl in Nev’s direction, this time . . . but not before glancing at me. Not that again. I was so sick of Eton’s attempts to tear down Nev in front of me to make himself look . . . what?
Stronger? More loyal? The better protector of the crew?
Telu turned on Eton with her own ferocious glare. “Nev chose us before that, and you know it! That’s why he was exiled—”
“He’s just playing at being a Shadow fisherman!” Arjan said, his voice rising over everyone’s. “This is a game to him, not life. This is my life. And I’m in control of it.”
“You’re out of control,” I said quietly into the silence that followed.
“Speak for yourself,” he snapped.
“How are your eyes?”
Arjan got right in my face, towering over me and staring me down with his one eye. “How black did they turn? And don’t you dare lie to me,” he mocked.
I flinched away. He had never spoken like this to me before. It was usually me cowing him. Basra watched him warily, while Telu and Eton seemed just as surprised as I was, freezing in place.
“You forced me to do it,” I said, my voice coming out faster, higher-pitched. For a second, I sounded like his little sister instead of his captain.
“Hey,” Nev said sharply, stepping up beside Arjan.
Arjan’s own brown eye flashed black, as dark as his eye patch, and he spoke to Nev without even turning his head. “Do not touch me.”
After a glance at me, Nev took a step back.
“We’re both dead, Qole, one way or another,” my brother murmured, his voice softer now. “It’s just how we die that matters.”
He turned and walked off the bridge before I could answer. Not that I had an answer for him.
“I’ll try to talk to him, though I wouldn’t rate my chances at success very high,” Basra said, stalking after him. “Good thing I have a gambling problem.”
I stared after them both in silence. We were all gambling with something or another: Shadow, these ships, our lives, the people we loved. In this situation, I myself had gambled on Arjan and lost. Control of my crew had slipped away, at least briefly. We’d already been through so much that something like this could fracture us. I could spot the signs of it happening, but I was too stunned by Arjan to stop it in its tracks.
I glanced at Nev, then away again. He wanted to talk, but my hands were shaking. All I could think about was how Arjan had looked at me, what he’d said.
We’re both dead . . . one way or another.
Eton and Telu started to slip away without speaking to each other, and I deliberately turned away from Eton so he couldn’t catch my gaze. The lines were drawn: Telu on Nev’s side, Eton with Arjan, and me trying to stay as neutral as Basra, somehow in the middle.
But just as Basra couldn’t truly be neutral when it came to Arjan, I couldn’t be, either, when it came to my brother, or . . . “Nev.” I hadn’t spoken. It was Telu from her station, her voice raised to a pitch of worry, a comm at her ear.
“I’m picking up a signal. Ships—a lot of them—have arrived in Alaxak’s airspace.”
“Whose?” Nev demanded, his own voice rising with my sudden surge of adrenaline.The lines of the Kaitan grew hard and sharp around me.
“Your family’s—the Dracortes. It’s a delegation from Luvos. The king and queen—your sister too—they’re asking for you.” Nev’s eyes flew wide as he looked at me.“They want you to meet them. Immediately.”