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Nina never slept during space travel. Her ship was fast and complex, nothing so simple as to be left to autopilot. Besides pirate ships and worse scanned ships for cryogenic support systems, easy prey for their crackers to take over with just a few humble strokes of code. There were other scavengers who scanned for such systems as well, only in their case no cracking was needed as it wasn’t the cargo they were hunting for but rather the easy sleeping prey themselves. Human flesh had been outlawed in the Clan Wars but that never stopped the right buyers from paying the right prices. Space Fleet had earned humanity its place in the stars by the pulses of their blasters but to some mankind would never been seen as more than just another form of meat.
“You have a call.” Her ship informed her in its crisp feminine tone. “Shall I answer it?”
“Just ‘a call’?” Nina echoed perplexed. “No Dial Sector?”
“Dial Sector is unknown. Caller is overriding my communications feed.” Her ship’s voice flattened dully as the communications screen flashed to life. “Call answered.”
“Well.” Nina murmured, eying her new virtual guest irritably. “That was rude.”
He sat deliberately in shadow, letting just enough light fall across his face to display short dark hair, a sharp brow, and a cutting smile. Clearly polished, military upbringing if not presently enlisted, and more importantly he wanted her to know this. Also, he placed value on his appearance and clearly wanted her to note his good looks despite his care to avoid being susceptible to recognition.
Interesting opponent. Nina thought, privately bemused behind her cool gaze. This could be fun…
“I have a mutually beneficial business operation for you Nina Ajax.” He offered in smooth tones. “I do hope you will choose to accept it.”
Nina flinched at the sound of her surname, her expression going cold. “I am not an officer of Space Fleet, perhaps you would be better left calling my father directly.”
“If I wanted your father, I would have called him.” The stranger replied coolly. “And I assure you, this is just business. Now, I have already taking the liberty of rerouting your ship…”
The Pale Mistress groaned in protest before Quantum Re-Routing for what looked to be the Altaris Quadrant. Nina immediately changed her mind, she hated this guy.
“The City of Night hosts a ball every century, and has done so for the past twelve centuries since its inception.” Her hijacker informed her lightly. “The night of the ball coincides with the planetary of alignment of the full Altaris Quadrant and Altaris Sol.”
“I do not require a history lesson on The City of Night.” Nina glared. “It is the only fully developed artificial commerce planet from here to the Systaline Sector. It mechanically rotates away from the Violet Radiation of Altaris Sol and only lets a single beam of it through every century on the night of the ball.”
“Oh.” Her irritatingly coy caller smirked. “But I highly doubt you know as much about The City’s history as you believe you do, my lady, or you would already be on your way. Luckily, you are a smart girl, I have no doubt you shall put everything together quite nicely once you land.”
“And why in all the known Quadrants would I land?” Nina asked darkly, her ship pulling to a safe slow just beyond The City’s Clearance Port. Nina was displeased with the way he had slipped in her title, it was too familiar in its delivery suggesting the stranger was also born to a family per-dating the Clan Wars.
“Because down there is something you believe you have been called to hunt.” He replied calmly. “And because you just lost one of your rear access thruster valves. Expensive little things, are they not? I suppose they have to be to withstand all that pressure and heat.”
Her ship groaned again this time with an explosive hissing noise, followed by a sickening metallic crunch and then the shrill scream of alarm bells.
Nina changed her mind again, she didn’t just hate him, she was going to kill him.
“I shall collect twenty percent for myself as a finder’s fee. No need to track me down as I can crack it myself upon your deposit. Have fun at the ball, my lady.” He smirked, and then the screen winked out into darkness leaving Nina to swear vehemently and try and re-master her wounded ship.
“This is Lady Nina Ajax of The Pale Mistress requesting permission to land, I have a busted… everything! Am I cleared, City of Night?” Nina asked sharply, furiously pulling rank as she violently checked her gauges, flipping switches desperately to balance the pressure. She could almost hear the silence on the communications line as the officials gushed and whispered, checking and re-checking to confirm her outrageous credentials and fighting over who would get to see her first.
Was there any system less helpful in a crisis than politics?
“You are cleared and granted full City access Lady Nina, please dock at Armano Tower our best mechanics will be out to meet you.” The Clearance Port officer paused audibly. “And it is a serious honor just to be speaking with you Lady Nina.”
“You are too kind.” Nina declared, flipping off the com and focusing all her efforts into landing as gracefully as possible on what was clearly both the tallest and most expensive tower in the City.
Nina collapsed back into her chair, undoing her harness with a groan as her ship let out a defeated whirling whine and shut down into planetary mode. Nina refused to check the damage status, able to tell just from the locations of those poor sad sounds just how bad it was. Luckily if she had been able to hold it together in a landing like that it was mostly contained. That would not make the repairs any less necessary however, or any less expensive for that matter. Which had clearly been the true aim of her mystery caller.
“Alright.” Nina muttered, sitting forward and stretching her arms. “Time to discover just what could make this City so… ‘mutually beneficial’.”
“Execute planetary inoculations.” Nina ordered, entering the decontamination chamber. It went both ways of course, Nina had no interest in wiping out an entire planet any more than she wanted to catch the local plague.
Nina pulled on her basic gear, leaving her weapons on the ship and slipping a single countermeasure on her wrist. Her weapons would just be seized but the watch would be overlooked. Nina fervently hoped would not have to use it, this trip had already cost her more than she wanted and it would be a long flight to pick up a replacement. However, the way this little adventure already seemed to be going she was rather certain she probably would.
An armada of assistants met her on the ground, their leader nowhere to be seen. Both Noble Royalty and Merchant Royalty wanted you bent at the knees and looking up at them upon your first encounter, the only difference was businessmen had to wait till they got you sitting in their office. So while a Noble never missed a landing, a businessman never made one.
Said businessman turned out to be Argonni Armano, a dark haired greasy olive-skinned man with intense brows and the owner of Armano Tower, as well as one twelfth of the city. Armano collected curved blades from the Nygonni Colonies in the Apex Quadrant. He had a series of mineral and gem mines out there and held an appreciation for the native settlers more primitive approach to Colonial living. Nina had lived with the Nygonni briefly, Chief Kar’rok had referred to Armano as “The Pale Suit”. The Pale Suit had killed many men in the Festival Games. This told Nina two things. First, that those blades decorating his walls on all sides would be kept as sharp as they were polished, and second that Armano had outbid his fellow businessmen to see her for one simple reason.
Blood was attracted to blood.
Power sat between them, each aware of the other’s but neither acknowledging it as he offered her a seat. Nina declined with a simple shake of her head. Armano smirked, resting against the window, allowing her to take-in and potentially be impressed by his massive city view.
“Did you notice the wind on your way in, my lady?” He asked casually. “As you can see we have no clouds, so it is artificial, the wind. Do you know why we make it?”
“Odor control.” Nina replied simply.
“My, my.” Armano murmured, taking a seat behind his desk in his large leather chair. “Not just a pretty face.”
Nina took a seat as well, now that the test of wits had been met. “I need parts to fix my ship. Expensive parts, and a talented repair crew.”
“Also expensive.” Armano stated, clasping his hands under his chin and pursing his lips. “Tell me, are you aware of the festivities you have found yourself unwittingly attending this season here at our fair City of Night?”
“I was told there was a Ball.” Nina replied. “However I fail to see…”
Armano smiled, cutting her off coolly. “Not just a Ball, but a celebration. A feast and a dance to celebrate the alignment and kick off the Labyrinth Games.”
“The City is controlled by twelve families, one for each planet in the system. When the planets align for the eclipse the founding families each appoint a sort of champion.” He explained lightly. “The champions are sent into the Labyrinth for the duration of the eclipse and whoever emerges decides which of the twelve families shall become the ruler.”
“But there is no ruler of the City of Night.” Nina replied.
Armano’s smirk darkened. “That is because no one has yet to ever emerge from the Labyrinth.”
“Until now, I suspect.” He stated pointedly. “Should the great Lady Nina Ajax agree to enter as my champion, that is.”
It was beginning to come together now, more than even her oily appointer suspected. Nina was quite certain she knew precisely what lay at the end of this game of rich fools with too much time and not enough wit to entertain themselves without human cruelty, but Nina was also quite certain it was a game she had to play.
“I have a stipulation.” Nina replied calmly. “You will fix my ship first. Universe forbid I blindly let you lead me underground only to emerge and find her stripped down and scrapped for parts. Once you fix her, I shall know I can trust you to guard her. Then, and only then shall I enter as your champion.”
She watched him size her up, determining if she would flee the moment her ship was repaired and Nina let The Pale Suit of the Nygonni see in her eyes exactly what he needed to see to trust her word.
The hunter he saw himself.
“It is struck.” He offered slowly, holding her gaze as he shook her hand. “Leonaldus will be your man while you are at the City. He was my late father’s servant and a bit along in years but a sturdy soul who knows better than to pester you with unceasing questions of your fame and travels.”
Leonaldus led Nina to her chambers and Nina smiled kindly. “Thank you.”
“No concern, my lady.” He replied evenly. “It is simply pleasant to be tending to a true lady for once, as opposed to what passes for such around here.”
“Most unfair.” He murmured softly, looking up at her with unhappy brown eyes. “What they plan to do with you.”
Nina smiled softly. “Well, in a way, my plans for them are far from fair as well.”
“Tell me Leonaldus.” Nina murmured wrapping an arm around his shoulders quietly. “How would you like to make some money and help out this true lady?”
“I think I should like that very much.” Leonaldus smiled.
Nina grinned bemusedly, and it was then that the Demon Slayer told her new man her very clever plan.