Negative. The lipstick’s results came with relief the next evening, though Katya thought Mina viewed them more with trepidation, perhaps afraid she’d be turned out with the removal of impending danger. Katya made no mention of it, allowing the girl to continue what she’d mentally termed “the spread.” For having so few possessions, Mina had managed to scatter them across the small room. Clothes lingered next to the sofa. An artist’s sketch pad and three colored pencils took up a chunk of space on the small table. The backpack had been shoved against the wall and bits of food left over from Salvius’s kind-hearted sharing had been propped up on top of Katya’s small dresser.
She let it slide, along with the chattering that now punctuated her existence. Oddball questions. Why do you do this? Can I do this? Where do you keep this? Nowhere amongst those inane questions did she ask about their current living arrangement—perhaps mollified by the day’s activities of buying her new clothes and other basic supplies. It’d left the girl with a sense she wasn’t being brushed aside.
Then the stream of questions turned darker. How did they kill those girls? How were they found? Katya’s one-worded, vague responses, often consisting of the word “classified,” didn’t deter her. Even when she’d lain on the sofa for the night, Mina had peppered her with questions while she ignored the “rest” part of her orders and reexamined case files. The inquiries grew slurred, becoming nonsensical murmurs followed by silence.
The sites had always been so scrubbed, except for the two they’d interrupted within the past few days. A time block prevented her from accessing Cervum Squad’s reports of what had been collected from the latest operation beyond what she and her team had been involved with.
Over twenty sites, thirty girls. Not limited to the turf of any one syndicate. They had to be taking cuts. There was no way such enterprises wouldn’t catch their notice—no way they’d let them proceed without receiving money. Bone Ash, in particular, had muscle. They’d slaughtered freelancers in their territory before. Yet this was Serva. The illusive arm of Deep Reznic, as it’d been termed by local peace officers.
You heard of Serva but rarely saw proof of its existence. Sure, the feathers inked into their victims’ skin shouted Serva, but there was always the possibility others were tapping into that widespread fear of what amounted to phantoms. She thought of Mina’s reaction when she’d mentioned Serva. In the end, it didn’t matter if the organization officially existed; the thought of its existence was all that was required.
A voice issued from her door’s security console: “Valens.”
Katya glanced at Mina’s sleeping form on the couch, unperturbed by the voice or small light she’d kept on for most of the night.
“Allow entry,” Katya responded, hoping the AI would register her wisp of a voice.
Ruffling through her paperwork, she pushed them all into a uniformed pile, hovering above her chair, all but prepared to go to the door. Despite her doubts, it did open, allowing Valens’s entrance.
He made an effort to do so without a noise. He scanned the apartment, landed on Mina, and then shot Katya a toothy grin. Her own mouth formed her familiar lopsided smile while shaking her head, daring him to comment. Of course he dared.
“So,” he whispered. “I see the rumors are true.”
“I know. I’m a softy.”
He snorted. “It suits you.” He approached the table and its hoard of papers, tapping them. “Burning the midnight oil after I ordered rest, I see.” He jerked his head toward Mina before saying, “Let’s go somewhere quiet.”
Katya wrote a brief note in case Mina woke and found her gone; however, from the girl’s prone form, face embedded in the pillow, she doubted her absence would be noticed. After placing it on the table in plain sight, she followed Valens to his apartment and its aroma of Serentilly lace. He’d taken to the herb when the headaches began. By the amount hovering in the air, he’d been plagued with them the past few days. How had the trip to the Mezzo gone? He’d yet to divulge that.
Pressing her lips together, Katya stepped farther inside.
The space was marginally larger than her own, filled with overly stuffed sienna-hued armchairs and a lounge sofa made of leather. He had a desk instead of a table. Organized. Every piece was in its place with odd bits stored in gold-colored containers. The biggest difference was that Valens had filled his apartment with personal touches, things from home, including family symbols and artwork. One, in particular, a watercolor, portrayed Meracus Domus’s river country. Each time she lay on the lounge, she would lose herself in that painting—its lush green brush strokes, the captured movement of the water, and the stunning blooms serving as pops of color, pinks, blues, and purples. On Reznic, it stirred homesickness, even though her family’s happiest moments had been spent on Vergo, a nearby planet that served as a popular vacation destination.
Exhaling loudly, Valens sank into one of the armchairs. His head flopped against its back as if he wasn’t capable of supporting its weight any longer. His hand retrieved his pack of joints, freed one, and lit it.
As he took drags from it, Katya sat on the lounge. He was paler, his skin having an unhealthy sheen of sweat. Had there been a treatment?
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, smoke snaking upward from his mouth. “I have enough of that without you too.”
“Is that what we’re going to talk about, or is it the case?”
More smoke poured out from the small “o” his lips created. He never made a move to talk, seeming lost in the same watercolor that always enthralled her.
Sighing, Katya dodged the health-related questions rushing through her mind. For now. “Did the prisoners have anything to offer?”
He shook his head, more as if clearing his mind rather than in response. “No, we got nothing. They fear their allies a lot more than us.”
“They’re calling in the big guns,” Valens said before expounding at the rise of her eyebrows. “Oneiroi.”
A tingle passed along her spine, particularly at the base of her skull. Elites. And not just any Elites, the species known exclusively for their abilities to mess with the mind. Interrogators most heinous. Most would go out of their way to avoid them. Little was known about them by the general populace, only the rumors that accompanied them. A black-zone world, deemed uninhabitable by most, sustained them and their mystique.
“I still want in.”
“Cassius.” He pressed the joint into a tray on the side table beside his chair, killing its light. “It’s out of my hands.” Fatigue rang in his words. “They’re breathing down my neck. I have people from the Core messaging me.”
“Will Elites be taking over?”
“No. It’s still our case; we’re just getting an assist cracking what our prisoners aren’t saying. But we’re running out of time. If we don’t wrap it up, more Elites might be shifted into our sector, nasty ones.”
“Nastier than Oneiroi?”
“You’ve no idea,” it came out as a whisper. “Oneiroi keep to themselves. But for the most part, you can count on them to be ‘human.’ No extreme acts of violence. They look down on you, but they don’t go out of their way to show aggression. Jar’rasks are what I worry about. Barely tamed. They’ve been known to turn on friends from time to time.”
“When do the Oneiroi arrive? How many?”
“Just a small crew. They’ll be coming in early this morning. 2 a.m. local.”
“So you’re passing time with me until they arrive.”
“Well, you were up, logging into files. So why not?” He shot her one of his toothy smiles. “You’re still a part of this. But I can’t get you into that interrogation—I’ll likely be on the outs myself. The Uppers don’t like too many being in the know about how the Oneiroi work.”
“But you’ve dealt with them before?”
The smile faltered. “Be grateful you’ve never run into them, Cassius. Given the order, they’d turn you into a comatose husk, shivering on the floor, just from looking them in the eye.”
The interrogation was definitely out. Though, she almost pressed him about the Oneiroi. How had he come to interact with them in the past? Given Valens’s family, he’d probably been given several special privileges. Some she had through the Cassius name.
“We’ll have answers by 8 a.m.,” Valens continued. “I’d place several aurums on it.”
“They work fast.”
Valens rose and shuffled to his small kitchenette, putting a kettle of water on the stove. “Something strong, or something decent for the hour?”
“Anything from the Mezzo?”
A snort followed, and he reached for a parcel from one of the cabinets. He also prepped a pair of mugs, which had been poorly formed by the man himself and his brother back when they were twelve and fourteen respectively. The key from the story, at least from Valens’s retelling, was they’d really tried no matter what their mother might still believe. The teapot was much more polished, a basic tan one. As he lowered his stash of sugar, the kettle shrilled.
Katya remained seated as he brought out a hot pad, on which he placed the brewing teapot before returning with the mugs. When he poured the amber liquid, she reached out and touched his cheek, which had more stubble than normal.
“You don’t have to put on a performance for me.”
A tight chuckle that resembled a snort in its shortness erupted from his throat. “Who says the performance is for you?” His voice cracked as he leaned into her touch. “Krezk, Katya.”
Her throat clenched upon catching the sight of the tears and guided Valens’s hands and the teapot so that it rested safely on the table before embracing him. Stroking his back, she let him cry while fighting the sick sensation growing in her stomach. Her grip tightened around him.
After a bit, he laughed. A deep-throated one that radiated from his gut. “What a crybaby,” he chided himself, standing and pacing.
Katya followed his movement for a time before pouring the rest of the tea. “Sit. Drink. Tea can’t fix everything, but in the moment, it’s rather nice.” Or so her father warmly espoused.
“Tea’s a miraculous substance. I’ll give it that, but I’m afraid this is well beyond its medicinal properties.”
“Even so, sit and drink.”
He did one last circuit, running his hands through his wavy chestnut hair. As soon as he’d returned to his seat, he picked up the mug and sipped, an action Katya followed. He’d picked an herbal brew, floral in flavor with the hint of some type of fruit. Left to steep too long, it would become a sour mess.
“Forgot the sugar.” He once again lurched out of his seat to retrieve it. “Yes, it definitely needs sugar.”
Katya covered her mug’s opening with her hand, shaking her head as he hinted at adding some to her mug.
“Your loss.” He added two cubes to his own, stirring them in. “Much better.” His hands shook as he brought it to his mouth.
“So the trip went poorly.”
“I’m still in denial.” He clasped his hands around the warm ceramic. “But no, it didn’t go well. The headaches are . . . much worse than anticipated.” A shaking inhale. “There are several tumors, and the prognosis isn’t—it’s not favorable.” He ran his hand through his hair again. “We’re talking quality of life decisions, not beating it.”
Katya’s jaw went slack, her brain refusing to form any response. Quality of life, not beating it. Her breaths restricted. “Oh.”
He smiled at it, though it was a hallow thing. “Yeah.”
Sliding her mug onto the coffee table, she leaned toward him. “There has to be something.”
“An experimental treatment. But even with it . . . I’m on borrowed time. Here on Reznic, likely among the living.” He, too, discarded his mug, but rather than returning to his feet, he rested his head against the seat’s back. “The cards are poorly stacked, nothing more.”
Swallowing, Katya asked, “How are you going to play them?”
Another shaky breath. “I’m currently on Zaphonex. It should slow the progress . . . buy time. I’m to settle affairs here”—his eyes finally settled on her—”and go home. My father, well, he’s pushing for some rather experimental treatments. But . . .”
“It’s worth a shot.” The words came out strained, her chest so constricted. It worsened when he smiled at her, eyes welling with the new starts of tears.
“I won’t just roll over. But . . .”
Her mouth went dry, the lump in her throat growing unbearable. Her inner horror must have shown on her face.
“We all die of something, Katya,” he said, shifting his tone as if soothing a skittish creature. “We can rage against it, push against the inevitable, but our time’s limited. We have to spend it wisely, and I-I don’t want to suffer needlessly against the inevitable—not when the deck’s this set against me.” He shook his head and then took a sip of now-cooled tea, scrunching his mouth as he did. “Not now, mind you . . . I’m still clinging to the mortal coil, as it were. But I imagine, I’ll know when . . .”
Katya clasped his wrist, squeezing it. “You’ve always had a knack—” The words failed her. She choked on tears and mucus.
He still kissed her, arms wrapping around her, drawing her closer. Her fingers pressed into his back, taking comfort in the muscles under the surface, the vitality, the physical proof of the now. And the now was the only thing that mattered at the moment, not . . . not what would come.
Valens broke the kiss and nestled his face in the crook of her neck. Katya rolled her head, adding separation when he rubbed his stubble against her sensitive skin.
He winked at her, clasping her hand even as he pulled away.
Summoning her best heavy-lidded expression, she rolled her eyes while gripping his hand as tightly as he held hers. “How long?”
“A few months left on Reznic; I’m still navigating this whole thing. The prognosis? Maybe a little over a year. If they’re slow growing.” He slumped down on the floor, leaning into her legs. “I imagine Ragonius will be promoted into my position. He has the seniority and the right temperament.”
“I can come with you.”
“No.” He squeezed her hand. “No, you’ve worked too hard, and I can’t ask that—I don’t want you to stop your life to watch me die. You’ve got to carry on, Cassius. I’ll rest easier knowing that you are.” Then he released her hand, standing and taking the mugs into the kitchen, dumping the tea. “But I think leaving Reznic would do you good. Ragonius will be a good CO, but this planet . . . it crushes the soul.”
He reentered the small living area but didn’t return to his chair, shifting to his desk, where he toyed with a paperweight. “You have your fancy pilot’s badge, right?”
“For as well as it’s served me.” She’d shot too high in her post inquiries, and then there was the fact: “Ground posts need more bodies.”
Valens shook his head as he passed the paperweight back and forth. “That’s what I don’t understand. All you have to do is use that last name of yours. Heck, I’m shocked they didn’t see it and place you in the Mezzo, if not the Core.”
“I didn’t want an easy post. And they can never secure enough recruits for Reznic.” And now that she was here, she refused to cave to the planet, though she was guilty of browsing piloting posts that’d opened—any of them. Reznic was a post one could only take for so long. “I also don’t want things handed to me.”
“Sure you don’t suffer from imposter syndrome?”
She bit her tongue, stumbling to contain the barb burning in her mouth, the rapid desire to punch first then deal with the consequences. Her pulse hit an unnatural rhythmic pattern. Breathe. She drew in a long breath before placidly grounding out, “You’re redirecting. You’ve received horrible news, but that doesn’t mean you get to take it out on me. I don’t want to fight. I’m still trying to”—she rubbed her itching eyes—”to let it sink in.”
The paperweight rattled upon its return to the desk. “There’s no point to it.” He chuckled. “No—”
“We’ve both been up longer than a human body can handle.” Katya rocked onto her feet and rested her hand on his arm after crossing the space separating them. “Let’s go to bed and not dissect our mutual challenges, not tonight.”
Without waiting for affirmation, Katya guided him into the bedroom, looping her arm through his. They kicked off their black boots but didn’t bother undressing before sinking onto the bed. The mattress sank under their weight, creaking as they maneuvered around each other seeking the most comfortable angles. Valens’s arms snaked around her frame, and she laid her head on his chest, relishing the steady beat, ignoring for the moment inevitability.
In the darkness, his breathing evened out, and the slight wheeze, a remnant from the earlier burst of emotion, dissipated as slumber soothed it. It lulled her. On the edge, she swore there was a rustling in the space’s air vent. Damn rats.
Stay tune for the rest of “The Promise.” Currently, Heritage Lost is available for pre-order as an e-book on Amazon, The paperback version should be available to be pre-order shortly. If you’ve enjoyed this story and would like to support my indie publishing, I also have a Ko-Fi account.