Squealing laughter rang through the dining room. The first rays of a wet grey dawn were sneaking through the shutters, making the light of the lamp seem dim. Niku scrabbled and escaped once more from Benho's tickling fingers, scampering up onto the dining room table, sticking her tongue out and daring the man to chase her again.
“Catch me if you can!” she giggled.
Benho laughed. “Niku, you're too fast for me.”
“I'll give you a head start,” she said pleadingly.
As he jumped up from his chair, Niku fled, running deliberately slowly so that he stood a chance of catching her. She liked this teasing boy in the same way she would like a brother. And his strong fingers knew exactly the right places to tickle her little body without hurting her.
When Maicee eventually exited from the shower room, rubbing his wet hair with a towel, he found Benho and Niku lying exhausted on the floor, the little Chamonkey still convulsing a bit from laughter.
“I didn't invite you here to tease Niku,” he said, throwing his towel over the back of a chair.
“You didn't invite me here at all,” Benho pointed out.
Maicee groaned. His head still ached somewhat despite the pain shot he'd taken when he’d awoken. “I know, I know.”
“He was so dead drunk, I had to carry him up those stairs,” Benho told a giggling Niku. “And the stench of him, you wouldn't believe it. You're lucky that you slept through the entire thing. And you,” he said, looking sternly at Maicee, “need to learn how to hold your liquor better if you're going to drink. I'm not always going to be around to roll you home.”
Maicee poured a glass of water from the large jug on the table. “Never again,” he said before chugging it down.
“That's what I always say too.” Benho grinned.
Maicee was about to protest that, unlike Benho, he actually meant what he said, but then the hand scanner beeped and the door opened, revealing a dripping Kabi.
“Damn rain,” he grumbled, fumbling to take off his cloak without shedding too much water onto the rush floor.
He brought with him the deep, succulent smell of tropical rain, a smell that reminded Maicee of summer days when the heat built up until it exploded into a storm, making him feel reborn and new.
“Hey, Kabi,” said Benho, getting up to take the man's cloak from him. “It's been a while.”
He delicately hung the brown cloak on a hook next to the door. He liked Kabi—he was one of the few decent people Benho had met on Carooine, though he had little idea why. Kabi just seemed to exude a sort of trustworthiness and steadiness.
“Hmph,” grunted Kabi in reply, trying to brush rainwater off his grey stubble hair.
Niku scaled Benho's legs, jumping up into his arms to get a closer look at Kabi whilst avoiding getting wet.
“You look frustrated,” she told the older man.
“Hmm,” he grunted again. “Sorry, it's good to see you, Ben.”
He too liked the boy. Maicee had always been a small child, and Benho had saved him from a lot of the bullying that he'd have otherwise suffered on the streets of Carooine City.
“Watch out for Niku,” he said, smiling at the Chamonkey. “She's got a nasty bite when the mood strikes her.”
To prove his point, Niku nipped at Benho's fingers, not breaking the skin but with enough pressure to let Benho know that she could really hurt him if she chose to. He looked down at the little grey fur ball with renewed respect.
“Be nice to him, Niku,” said Kabi with a laugh, pulling out a chair to sit tiredly at the dining table. “He did help save your life, after all.”
Niku snuggled against Benho's hand and softly licked the place where she had bitten, and Benho carried her over to join Maicee and Kabi at the table.
“Can I ask you something, Kabi?” said Benho, placing Niku down carefully on the table top before taking a seat.
“Sure,” said the older man, reaching into his pocket and finding a paper-wrapped package of Sigars.
“How did you create Niku?” the boy asked curiously. This had been bothering him since Maicee had drunkenly spilled the genetic secrets of the Chamonkey the night before. “I mean, gene modification has been banned for as long as I can remember, so we're not taught anything about it. And, well, I'm interested. Interested in the theory. I understand the basic concept; I just don't understand how it's done.”
Kabi stood and lit his Sigar from the hanging lamp before sitting and drawing a satisfied mouthful of smoke. “You won't find any information in that medical library of yours,” he said, knowing full well that Benho hated a mystery and once sparked, his curiosity would drive him to find answers. “Much of the related information has been deleted from records, and what remains is highly classified.”
“So how come you have the information, then?” said Benho.
Kabi laughed. “That's a story in itself. But I've made a solemn oath not to tell it.” He eyed Benho and grinned maliciously. “I could tell you ...”
Benho's eyes lit up at the thought.
“But then I'd have to kill you,” finished Kabi.
Benho wasn't amused. He might enjoy teasing others, but he wasn't always so great at being teased himself, Maicee knew. It was one of his friend's few flaws.
“Is it because of the Supreme Emperor's laws?” Maicee asked Kabi. “I mean, why we can't practice genetic modification anymore.”
“No.” Kabi shook his head. “This law is far older than the Supreme Emperor's reign. The decision was made many centuries ago. Maybe one day I'll tell you the whole tale. For now, though, I've got other concerns.” He sighed.
Niku made her way over and rubbed her head against his hand. “What is it, Kabi?” she asked gently.
Kabi sucked at his Sigar, releasing a large plume of smoke before answering her. “What worries me most is trying to get you home safely,” he said finally. He scratched his nose with one finger before adding: “It looks like all the pirates and smugglers of Carooine sailed off into hiding when the Imperial Navy dropped anchor in harbour. Can't blame them, I suppose. But I've been trying to find a way for us to get out of here all night, and have found exactly nothing.”
“You want to smuggle Niku out of here before you and Maicee go off on your around-the-world trip?” Benho asked, curiosity once more piqued.
Kabi glanced at Maicee, glad that the boy had decided on his own to come, though Kabi would have forced him if necessary. He wondered what had persuaded him to come along, but decided to let the issue lie. He'd got the outcome he'd wanted, and questioning it would be foolish. Something that a lot of other people could profit from learning, he mused.
“Yes,” he said shortly, in answer to Benho's question.
“Hmmm,” said Benho, thoughtfully, then nodded. “Maybe I can help.”
“And how would you go about doing that?” asked Kabi, a glint of interest in his pale blue eyes.
“I could tell you,” Benho said, then shrugged. “But then I'd have to kill you.”
Maicee laughed, joined by Benho, and even Kabi smiled.
“Fine, have your secrets. Every man must,” Kabi said, when the boys had settled down again. “But you'll have your price, because every man must have that too.”
Benho nodded. “I have my ways. I'll help you find a ship out of here; you have my word. But, yes, there is a condition.”
“Which is?” Kabi asked.
“Which is that you take me with you,” Benho said flatly.
Kabi scratched his nose again and looked suspiciously at Benho. “You seem eager to leave. Not in any trouble, are you?”
“No, no,” Benho said airily. “It just so happens that I too need to leave Carooine, and I'd rather have you three as travelling companions than a shipload of pirates or traders.”
He stood up from the table and looked at his chronos. “Do we have a deal?”
Kabi looked at the boy. Something was going on here, and he didn't know what. And he didn't like not knowing what was going on. However, his needs coincided with Benho's, and if the boy could help, well, fine. “You don't even know where we're going,” he said.
“Britannia,” Benho said. “Maicee told me. Hip, cool, and far away from tropical humidity and rainstorms. Can't go wrong there.”
“Fine. Get us a ship by tomorrow night, and we've got a deal,” Kabi said.
“Perfect,” Benho said with a grin. “Now if you'll excuse me, a prior engagement awaits.”
He winked at Maicee, who had a fair idea of what his friend's prior engagement was, and left the apartment. It was a good ten-minute walk back to his own place, and he didn't want to be late. He thought of Sa-li's hips swaying in her short skirt. Nope. I definitely don't want to be late, he thought, hurrying his steps a little.
The metal bed frame creaked rhythmically. Clothes, both male and female, lay scattered in a trail from the door to the bed, and the heavy, musky scent of hormones was in the air. Sa-li giggled and moaned, and Benho's breath came faster. Glistening skin sliding against skin, sparkling in the early afternoon sunshine, Benho wondered how he could ever think about leaving this woman. It was only when he was spent and the room descended into peaceful silence that he began to think with his brain again, rather than with other parts of his anatomy. This was something that had to be done. And who knew, one day, maybe he'd be back for her. Looking at Sa-li's long black hair spread out on his pillow, he sincerely hoped that he would be back for her.
For now, though, he needed her help, and that meant asking for it. And letting her know that he was leaving at the same time. He just hoped that she wasn't going to kick up a fuss about it.
“Sa-li,” he said, stroking her arm. “You wouldn't happen to know of anyone with a ship who wouldn't mind making a little money on the side, would you?”
She lazily opened one deep blue eye. “Thinking about smuggling something in?” she asked.
Benho shrugged. “More like smuggling something out,” he said and paused. “Myself and some friends,” he admitted after a while. “I can't tell you any more than that.”
Sa-li looked at him, pondering what her reaction to this should be. She had long experience with men and knew damn well that the one thing that would drive Benho away would be to try to stop him from leaving Carooine. On the other hand, if she helped him, then he might one day return to her.
“You can't tell me more because you don't trust me?” she asked, pretending to pout.
“No, I trust you!” Benho said seriously, sitting up. “But some things are best left unsaid. Information can be dangerous, you know. And I wouldn't want you to get hurt.”
Hmmm. She had been joking, and it amused her that he would be so serious. But there was something in his voice. This was obviously not something to be joked about. She thought for a few minutes, her fingers drawing gentle circles on his chest.
“I heard from one of the band members that Lucia has a personal ship,” she said finally.
“Lucia the singer?” Benho said, surprised.
“Mmm. And that she occasionally dabbles in ... well, things,” said Sa-li. “Would you like me to set up a meeting?”
Benho nodded, his mind being rapidly distracted by Sa-li's moving fingers. “That would be nice,” he croaked. “I'll owe you one.”
“Well,” purred Sa-li, “maybe I'll take a little down payment right now.”
She sprang up, pushing Benho down onto the sheets, straddling him and letting him see the full sight of her curved body. If she was going to lose him, even if only for a while, she'd better make the most of him while she had him. Benho laid his head back and groaned. Damn, he was going to miss Sa-li.
The troop through the residential quarter to the outskirts of town had left Benho, Maicee, and Kabi dusty and feeling more than a little out of place by the time they reached the quarter where Carooine's mansions and villas lay. The evening was just beginning, and in their own part of town, the night stall holders were already plying their wares, music playing, bells jingling, and the voices of the haggling shoppers calling in hoots of laughter and snorts of derision. Here, though, all was quiet, except for the soft hiss of watering machines on large lawns and the hum of insects taking advantage of the last of the day's heat to feed.
“It looks like that's it,” said Benho, examining the paper he held in his hand and then pointing at a large white house.
Most of Carooine was sand coloured with a little red dust thrown in for good measure. Keeping this place looking white and pristine must be a nightmare, thought Maicee as they walked towards the towering gates. Beyond the gates he could see an immaculate garden, with no sign of a living soul.
“She certainly knows how to live,” Maicee grunted as Kabi lifted a hand and rang a bell.
“Dolean residence,” said a disembodied voice.
“Yes, this is KabiOnn, and I believe Ms. Dolean is expecting me?”
There was a quiet click as the gate unlocked, and raising an eyebrow, Kabi pushed through.
Beds of brightly coloured flowers lined the path from the gate, widening into a large circle before rejoining and leading to the front door. In the centre of the circle sat a fountain, spraying jets of multi-coloured water high into the air, where they turned into mist and floated down to the ground. Maicee licked his lips and tasted no hint of salt in the mist. On an island that had little natural fresh water, Lucia must be very rich indeed to be able to keep a garden such as this. And just how had a singer come to make so much money? Sure, she was famous enough in the small confines of Carooine, but surely not this kind of famous. Perhaps, he thought, as they approached the door, she’s more renowned in her homeland.
They reached the cool shade of the porch that stretched over the front door, and once more Kabi raised a hand to ring a bell. This time there was no voice; the door simply slid silently to one side. After a moment of hesitation, the three men stepped inside.
What none of the three noticed was the two Imperial soldiers watching them disappear into the house through the gates. The two soldiers looked at each other, came to some sort of silent agreement, then settled back to wait for the prescribed time.
They were shown into a large room, open on one side to the gardens behind the house and littered with couches, cushions, and low tables. Lucia rose as soon as they entered, her long red hair tied up in an elegant knot, clothed in a white robe that was almost transparent. Benho's eyes nearly fell out of his head as he tried desperately not to see anything that might overexcite him.
“Welcome to my home, KabiOnn,” said Lucia in her husky, lightly accented voice.
She held out her hand for Kabi to kiss, which he did whilst never breaking eye contact.
“It's a pleasure to see you again,” he said.
“The pleasure's all mine,” said Lucia, eyeing him. “You've become quite the celebrity. The last I heard, you were being hunted by Magi Lords.”
Kabi laughed. “From what I hear, you've become quite the celebrity yourself, Captain Seagull.”
Lucia grinned, flashing white, even teeth, and bowed her head in recognition of the truth of what Kabi had said. Maicee shot Benho a confused look, but his friend shrugged, equally baffled.
“Come, sit,” said Lucia, turning towards a collection of couches. “I've had tea prepared, or would you prefer something stronger?”
Her voice really is hypnotic, Maicee thought as he obeyed her order and sat. Kabi refused the offer of strong alcohol, and Lucia delicately began to pour tea into small crystal glasses. Maicee took the opportunity to look around the room, admiring the craftsmanship that had gone into building such an elegant house. Everywhere he looked, there was something stunningly beautiful: a vase, a picture, a statue. He shook his head in wonder. Lucia was either far more famous than he'd thought, or she had done more than her fair share of illegal dealings, such as what they were about to ask her to do, in order to afford a home like this.
“The house belonged to my great-grandfather,” said Lucia, noticing his interest. “One whom I was told was a rich merchant.” She gave a self-deprecating smile. “I was simply lucky enough to inherit it after his passing.”
Maicee felt the colour in his cheeks rise as she smiled at him, and had to shake himself to get rid of the feeling. She couldn't possibly know his secret, but if she had this effect on him, he wondered what sort of effect she must be having on the real men. Shooting a glance at Benho, who was uncomfortably crossing his legs, he guessed that his friend was suffering rather badly from this onslaught of seductiveness.
“So, to business, gentlemen,” Lucia said, settling back, her small glass of tea in her hand. “What exactly can I help you with?”
Kabi nodded, first introducing both Benho and Maicee, and then pausing to collect his thoughts before saying: “We need a ship that will get the three of us away from Carooine without being seen. Rumour has it that you may be able to help us with this.”
Lucia lifted a single, perfect eyebrow and took a sip of tea before replying. “You will understand, dear Kabi, that whilst this would generally be a very easy thing for me to do, just at the moment things are rather ... difficult. The arrival of the Supreme Emperor's Navy in our little harbour does rather complicate matters.”
Lifting his own glass to drink, Kabi swallowed and nodded in satisfaction. “You have very good tea here. I suspect that your ... services ... are even better.” He softly emphasized the word ‘services’.
“That is incorrect,” Lucia said, smiling. “My services are not better. They are the best. And they do not come cheaply.”
She drank again, Benho's eyes following the sinuous movement of her pale throat as she did so.
“Five hundred thousand Imperial Credits,” she said finally. “And I will personally guarantee your safety, and that of your companions, until you reach your destination.”
Maicee gasped. It was a fortune.
“That's more than even the most esteemed surgeon makes in a year,” Benho choked, tea spraying out of the corners of his mouth.
Lucia turned her luminous green eyes on him. “Ah, yes,” she said quietly. “But a surgeon risks only the life of his patients, not his own life, does he not?”
Benho looked abashed and nodded. Lucia rewarded him with a small smile before turning back to Kabi, her eyebrows raised questioningly.
“I'll pay fifty percent in advance and fifty percent on arrival,” said Kabi, unfazed by the price. “And I have only three days, so the vessel must be a speedy one.”
“Seventy-five percent in advance,” Lucia said.
Kabi regarded her for a moment, then gave a sharp nod.
“Then we have a deal,” she said, her voice soft again.
She stood and waited for Kabi to haul himself out of his chair so that the two could shake hands to seal the deal.
“Meet me at the beach to the west of the city tonight at midnight with your payment,” she said, once the deal was officially done.
“Very well,” said Kabi. “And I thank you for your help.”
She nodded in acceptance of his thanks. “Now, gentlemen, it has been a pleasure, but if you'll excuse me, I must go and give Sansoe the bad news. He'll need to find himself another singer for the next few nights.”
The serenity of the lovely room was broken by a harsh beeping from the com set on Lucia's wrist.
“What is it?” she barked.
“There are three military men looking for you, ma'am,” said a voice from the com. “One of them a lieutenant of some sort.”
Lucia's perfect face creased into a frown for a flash of a moment, then cleared.
“It appears that we do not have time for pleasantries just at the moment, gentlemen,” she said, striding towards the door and pulling a rope that obviously rang a bell elsewhere in the house.
In less than a moment, the door opened, and Falorni entered. Both Benho and Maicee looked surprised to see the scrub nurse.
“What...?” began Maicee.
“There's no time for questions yet,” Lucia said, raising a hand to stall him. “Falorni, here, will show you gentlemen out of the house the more...discreet way.”
She nodded at all three men, then left the room, leaving behind her an invisible trail of flowery scent.
“This way, please,” said Falorni. “And quietly too, if you don't mind.”
The scrub nurse led them through a wide gallery with arched windows pierced by orange rays of setting sun, before turning into a narrower corridor and finally stopping in front of a small door. She tapped three times on different areas of the door, which then opened to reveal stone steps descending down into darkness.
“Very good,” said Kabi, looking down. “The basement, I assume?”
“Excellent,” Kabi said. “Now, I am going back to check on the situation. The three of you go ahead, please.”
Falorni looked ready to protest, but Kabi gave her a cold, hard stare.
“I am more than able to care for myself,” he said. “I ask only that you lead these two miscreants to safety somewhere from which they'll be able to find their own way home.”
Falorni bowed her head in assent. “Very well.”
“You have my thanks,” said Kabi.
He turned and left, going back the way he'd come before either Maicee or Benho could think to stop him.
“What now?” Maicee asked.
“We follow Falorni and do as we're told for once,” replied Benho, certain that there was about to be trouble and not wanting to be a part of it.
Falorni beckoned, and the two men followed her down the cold stone stairway.
Kabi followed the sounds of voices, his footsteps silent on the cool marble of the floor. Once he reached the entrance hall of the house, he secreted himself into a dark corner from where he could observe exactly what was going on. In his experience, it was always a bad plan to jump in with both feet if you could avoid doing so. Far better to scope out the situation first.
Lucia was arguing with three men, all in uniform, one obviously the leader, the other two some form of guard. From the looks of the bulge on Lucia's right hip and the way her hand kept straying to it, she was armed. Probably a knife, he thought, watching carefully as Lucia moved until he saw the outline of a dagger beneath her skirt. He grinned to himself. He really was beginning to like this woman. Tearing his eyes away from her movements, he concentrated on what was being said.
“You can cut the act and stop wasting our time,” the officer said forcefully.
“What act? There is no act.” Lucia's voice was soothing and calming, but her hand once more reached down towards the dagger, just in case.
“We have more than enough proof that you're Captain Seagull. A ridiculous name to choose; has anyone ever told you that?” the officer jeered. “And we've got more than enough to put you and your merry little band of, what did you call them? Ah, yes, the Sunshine Raiders—yet another foolish name ... To put the whole lot of you away for a very long time. If you're lucky enough not to have your pretty little head lopped off, that is.”
Lucia's hand was closer than ever to the dagger on her hip, and Kabi brought himself up onto the balls of his feet, ready to move.
“So, you can either come with me quietly,” the officer continued, “or...”
At this, the two guards un-holstered their bolt blasters in one synchronised movement. Kabi sighed and stepped out from the shadows.
“Come, come,” he said calmly. “Violence will not be necessary, Lieutenant. We are all law-abiding citizens here.”
The officer spat on the floor. “Law abiding, my eye. This one of your pirate crew?”
Lucia took a deep breath and, still soothing, said: “I have no idea of what you're speaking about. I'm a singer in a bar, as anyone around here will tell you. This captain that you're looking for ...”
“Enough,” the officer interrupted her. “You can either come with me, or you can taste the bolt. And that goes for your little gigolo too. Take him.” He motioned for one of the guards to grab Kabi.
The guard trained his weapon on Kabi, taking a step towards him.
Kabi half-closed his eyes, searching his mind for the sharp place of intense focus that he knew was there. Finding it, he sank himself deep into it, feeling the power thrumming along his veins. Only once he was sure that he was in the place did he open his eyes and speak.
“I'm certainly not a gigolo,” he said placidly. “And I don't appreciate being insulted.”
Reaching out, he put a hand onto the guard's outstretched weapon, letting the power run through him as the bolt blaster morphed into sand, trickling down to form a small pile at the feet of the stunned guard. Without waiting to see what the effect of this on the guard would be, Kabi drew back his hand, forming it into a fist, pulling back and pushing both his hand and the power hard into the guard's stomach.
For a brief slice of a second, the guard still stood, spikes of crystal formed by the power protruding from his back and making him porcupine-like, before he shuddered and collapsed, dead. There was only the sound of blood dripping on marble for a moment, and then Kabi turned towards the other guard, who was breaking out of his shocked trance and raising his weapon.
Even as Kabi walked towards him, the guard fired. But the magical man simply lifted a hand, palm facing the oncoming bolt, and let it hit him, the power deflecting the shot to dissipate without even a sizzle. With a hint of irritation, Kabi flicked his finger up, releasing a sharp shard of crystal that flew directly at the guard. It hit him squarely between the eyes, killing him instantly.
This was too much for the lieutenant, who turned to flee, not understanding what the hell was happening, but not wanting to wait around to find out. But before his shaking, terrified legs could take more than a step, Lucia's hand moved casually and a dagger spun through the air, hitting the lieutenant at the base of the spine with a very satisfying thunk. He died before he even realised that he'd been hit.
Kabi nodded, impressed at the woman's skills. Not bad at all, he thought. He turned to see Lucia watching him speculatively.
“You know,” she drawled, “I do so like it when unbelievable rumours turn out to be true.”
Kabi bowed in acknowledgement. “All rumours must have some basis in truth,” he said. “Or they wouldn't start in the first place.”
Lucia thought about this for a moment and nodded. “Well, it appears that the rumours about you weren't even close to being unbelievable enough. You are far more powerful than I could have imagined.” Her eyes narrowed as they regarded him. “I can understand now why the Magi Lords might be hunting for you.”
She walked towards the corpse of the lieutenant and stooped to retrieve her knife.
“Did you know that there's a bounty of ten million Imperial Credits on your head?” she said, turning back to him. “Alive, or ...” and here she tossed the dagger gently into the air and caught it again, “dead.”
Kabi grinned at the implicit threat in her words. “It's always a pleasure to help a damsel in distress,” he said. “Particularly when she is as lovely as you are.”
Lucia laughed, the tinkling sound of it echoing through the hallway. “After what I've just seen, I wouldn't dare,” she said, wiping the dagger clean and sliding it back into its sheath under her skirt. “And you are quite the charmer. But you are correct. You have helped me, and your aid should be rewarded.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I shall accept your proposal and charge you only three hundred and fifty thousand Credits, rather than the five hundred thousand we had agreed on,” she said. “Both as a show of gratitude for your help here and as a sincere offer of friendship.”
Kabi nodded. “I thank you.”
“However, the incident here must necessarily change our plans,” Lucia said, regarding the three bodies that lay strewn around her floor. Flies were already gathering, hovering over the corpses. “We leave with the tide. Meet me at the beach in two hours. No longer.”
Kabi turned to leave the house, but the sound of her voice stopped him.
“Any longer than that, KabiOnn, and I will leave you and your boys to your fate in Carooine,” she warned.
He understood and hurried out, his feet clattering on the gravel path.