Dragon Pearl(11)

The officer who had spoken had the flushed skin of someone who had been drinking too much cheap wine, and he reeked of the stuff. The last thing I wanted was a confrontation with drunken guards.

But in short order, the rest of them surrounded me.

“Haven’t seen you here before,” the tallest guard said, regarding me sourly. The guard had a scar slashing across their face and an empty left eye socket, not even a cybernetic replacement. Like all the guards, they wore a badge with their family name on it. This particular badge also had a small symbol next to the name that let me know they should be addressed neutrally, as neither female nor male.

“No, Officer,” I said in my most respectful tone. “I live out in one of the steadings.” Giving even this much detail made me wince, but I couldn’t get away with saying nothing.

“Pretty well dressed for a steader,” Eunhee said. Her gaze settled on my hands.

My fingers twitched. The emerald rings that Charm had provided me were nicer than any jewelry my family owned. The rings wouldn’t last long once they were off my hands, but what choice did I have? Especially since I wanted to hang on to my money, which had the virtue of being real.

I slipped the largest ring off my finger and toyed with it, saying, “I’m afraid I’m going to get lost in here.” If I couldn’t escape the guards, maybe I could wrangle something out of them. Why not a personal escort? They might be useful for fending off thieves.

Eunhee’s eyes brightened with greed. “Something could be arranged.”

The tallest guard shook their head but didn’t do anything to interrupt the transaction. “Where are you headed, anyway?”

I thought quickly. I should be here to buy something. What wouldn’t cost too much but would prove handy once I got into space? To my mortification, my stomach rumbled before I could come up with an answer.

Eunhee laughed, then plucked the ring out of my grasp. A tickling sensation fizzed through my bones. The ring flickered like a malfunctioning hologram as Eunhee slipped it on her little finger. Had she noticed? No, she grinned down at it with a covetous smile. I knew the ring would quietly evaporate into a flutter of spent magic once I was safely out of sight, and I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for her.

“You’re clearly in need of a feeding,” the tallest guard said with a trace of malice. “We’ll show you a good place to fill your belly, and in return you can treat us to a few drinks?”

I bobbed a bow. “Of course!” I said. I was outnumbered, after all.

The four guards chivvied me along, joking about this merchant or that tourist, or recounting favorite bribes. Remembering the time someone had bought them off with prawns—real prawns, not vat-grown flavored protein—made them smack their lips. I couldn’t help resenting the things they took for granted.

My heart sank when we stopped in front of a lavish garden with arches covered in artfully arranged vines. Pink flowers drooped from the vines in curling sprays, and their fragrance dizzied me. I couldn’t imagine how much effort the gardeners must have put into maintaining the flowers outside of a hydroponics unit.

Eunhee shoved me forward into a courtyard full of bamboo tables and chairs. A few other customers were there, enjoying a midafternoon snack. “Go on,” she said, smirking. She pulled out a chair for me at the closest empty table. “This spot looks good. We’ll let you order first.”

I seated myself demurely and stared at the chopsticks in front of me. The guards dragged over more chairs. A graceful young man emerged from one of the archways, bearing a tray with cups of fragrant jasmine tea.

The cups were the first clue that I needed to get out of there fast. I recognized good celadon when I saw it. The porcelain’s translucent blue-green sheen was unmistakable. This place was definitely out of my budget range.

Still, I didn’t want to seem too eager to escape, especially when the officers were already suspicious. Besides, even if they were corrupt, they might have some information to offer me.

I smiled at Eunhee. “Any exciting news from off-world?” I asked. There was a rivalry between planet-bound security and the Space Forces. The guards might be all too willing to gossip.

“I haven’t heard anything special,” Eunhee said.

The tallest guard frowned. “An investigator came through recently. And not just any investigator, either. He came in on a special courier vessel. Even its port of origin was classified. Whatever he’s involved with, it’s big. He was tight-mouthed, though. Probably thinks he’s too important to deal with people like us.”

I felt a jolt of fear go through me, and I tried not to show it. The investigator’s special status implied that Jun was in serious trouble. More than ever, I wished we could have coaxed further information from the man. But the saucepan had brought an end to that, and I’d left it to my family to clean up the mess.

Eunhee interrupted my thoughts. “Well, a hotshot investigator isn’t going to linger in a dump like Hongok, so who cares about him?” She stared at my rings. “Those are the biggest emeralds I’ve ever seen.” She reached for my hand.

I wanted to nip her. The one-eyed guard might have revealed more if she’d let them keep talking.

I pulled off the rings and cast them on the table, where they spilled in a tumble of facets brighter than cat eyes. “What could be important enough to bring an investigator here, anyway?” I asked Eunhee, though her attention was clearly elsewhere now. “I thought all the action was on”—I picked a random planet I’d heard about on the news a couple days ago—“Maesil.”

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