After promising a chapter featuring Princess Olivia, your author realized it was more important to write about Jana and Tilly.
A day after our meeting with Drake, Tilly and I slipped unnoticed from the Gaunner Palace. And I mean literally unnoticed—not even Drake knew we were gone. The ease of our escape disturbed us so badly we left a detailed description of the vulnerabilities we exploited and implored Drake and Captain Reel to fix them.
Undiscovered by any of the guards, Tilly had mapped out the hidden passages Colin used when he abducted Jeanine and Olivia. She discovered three unguarded routes that led from the residence wing to exits beyond the wall surrounding the palace. Each route was circuitous and passed through areas where guards patrolled, but any reasonably competent kidnapper or assassin could have slipped in and out of the Palace using one of them. For a thief of Tilly’s caliber—even hampered by her less-than-nimble slicer companion—it was no trouble at all.
Of course, the head of Palace Security, Captain Reel, is extremely good at his job. He was aware of the holes in his defenses. Unfortunately, he was also shorthanded after the recent purge of disloyal men among his guard ranks. In time, he’d build the guard back to their full strength. Until then, he was forced to plug gaps with security cams and sensors. Those, of course, were linked into the Palace network—and that made them vulnerable to my particular set of skills. I left a detailed list of the weaknesses in their network security, along with the names of a couple of reputable specialists they should hire.
There was much more to our departure plan than simply getting out of the Palace—including hacking the planet’s subspace relay so I could tell Kelly to meet us with the Rising Star in a different star system, having Tilly acquire false identifications for us, and me arranging a ride off-planet.
We rented a cabin on a tramp freighter willing to carry passengers and, as I record this, are already a day out from Gaunner. It’s been a peaceful trip, too, other than us having to deflect a few come-ons from some of the men in the crew. No amount of makeup can make Tilly unattractive and, well, I’m a woman, which is apparently all some men look for during an interstellar voyage.
“Don’t put yourself down like that, Jana!” Tilly insisted.
Sigh. Guess who heard me dictate that last bit into my journal?
“Are you saying I’m not a woman, Tilly?”
My friend vented her own sigh, “You’re quite aware of what I mean. You’re no less attractive than I am!
“Said the woman who never has to buy her own drink at a club and has her pick of the best-looking dance partners. And partners of a more intimate nature, including the crown prince, himself.” In the driest tone I could manage, I continued, “But, yeah, I’m just as attractive as you.”
Tilly glared at me, apparently serious in her delusions concerning my beauty, and then made a sudden change of tack. “How many guys have introduced you to their mother?”
“Just answer the question.”
Tilly’s eyes burned with an emotion I couldn’t identify, so I humored her. “Four or five. Why?”
“None of the guys I’ve hooked up with have ever introduced me to their mother. Not one.” Tilly’s shoulders sagged as she blew out her breath. “I lived with William for a month, just two doors down from his parents’ suite, but I’ve never met Queen Charlotte.”
I waved this off. “Be happy for it, Tilly. Meeting a guy’s mother isn’t as much fun as you obviously think it is. I end up walking on eggshells because I know she’s watching me like a hawk and judging my every word and action.”
“Yes, Jana, the guy’s mother is judging you because she knows her son thinks he might want to spend the rest of his life with you. Whether the guy knows it or not, he’s watching his mother for signals of acceptance or rejection. Did any of them ever break up with you shortly after you met his mother?”
“One. I wasn’t surprised, though.”
“Because you picked up his mother’s signals, too. Those other mothers, though—I’ll bet they were disappointed when things didn’t work out between you and their son.”
“So? I don’t see where you’re going with this.”
“Jana, you’re take-home-to-mother beautiful. You’re plan-for-a-life-together gorgeous. You’re bear-my-children desirable. You’re what smart, caring guys really want.” Tilly leaned her head back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes. “I, on the other hand, am just a notch in a bedpost. No guy worth having will take me home to meet his mother because every guy worth having wants you.”
I was certain Tilly was just kidding around and almost dismissed her rant with a flippant remark. Then, a tear spilled out of the corner of her eye and the words froze in my throat.
I pulled her into a hug. In my most soothing tones, I whispered, “Hey, now, don’t cry! There are plenty of guys in the galaxy who would love to take you home to meet their mothers. You just haven’t met any of them yet.”
“But, why not? I go out a lot. I meet plenty of guys. Why hasn’t just one of them been interested in me in that way?”
I didn’t think this was the time to go into the difference between regular guys and kinds of guys who traveled in the same circles Tilly did. Sure, she needs to mingle with that crowd for professional reasons, but at that rarified level of society every woman was an exotic beauty—either naturally, like Tilly, or through careful sculpting like…well, like a whole lot of the Beautiful People who dominate the society pages. In those circles, would a guy take Tilly home to meet his mother if he could take an equally beautiful baroness home, instead?
Even though I had a huge to-do list, I mentally added helping Tilly find a guy worthy of her to the list. I’d have to be careful, since I doubt Tilly would welcome my help any more than I would if I was in her place. If I was careful, though, I was pretty sure I could keep this off her sensor screens.
Neither of us said anything about Tilly’s revelation after that, but it made our already-tight friendship even tighter. We both understood each other just a little bit better and our minds seemed just a tad more in synch.
Two days later, we docked at a way station in a system so barren no one had even bothered naming the star. Kelly and the Rising Star—now flying under the name Dragonstar—were waiting for us. Two hours after our transport docked, we had everything aboard the Dragonstar. Traffic was so light we received immediate departure clearance. Kelly jumped us a few light minutes outside of the system, leaving a false departure vector. Chances were no one was watching us, but we all agreed it was better to play it safe.
When we were far from any other human, Kelly said, “Drake’s message was pretty mysterious, and your follow up just deepened the mystery. It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed, “but why don’t you plot a course to Xapreathea, first.”
Kelly stared at me for a few seconds, nodded, and began working with the nav system. Tilly, on the other hand, was more vocal.
“We’re going to the capital of the Star Kingdom?”
“Home to our most dangerous enemy, Queen Charlotte?”
“Who, by your own admission, doesn’t know you,” I replied, “and definitely doesn’t know me.”
“And home to our second most dangerous enemy, Princess Olivia, who most certainly does know me!”
“But not me,” I countered.
Tilly visibly took control of herself and then, in a calmer voice, asked, “I’m sure you have a good reason for going to Xapreathea, Jana. Why don’t you share it with Kelly and me, so we’ll all understand why we’re flying into the dragon’s mouth?”
“I’m pretty sure the best slicer in the galaxy lives there. We’re going to need him or her to help us recruit the slicer strike team I want to take into the Star Stone.”
“That’s a lot of risk for something you’re only pretty sure about.”
I shrugged. “It’s the best I can do, Tilly, but I really do think we need this slicer’s help.”
“If you say so…” Tilly looked thoughtful for a minute. “Wait a minute, I thought Protosloth lived on the planet Zeenus.”
I couldn’t help laughing, “That guy isn’t the best slicer in the galaxy. I wouldn’t even put him in the top two hundred.”
“But he’s the one all the newsies quote when they have a big slicing story,” Tilly protested.
“Yeah, because the newsies could find him. He’s just smart enough to realize he can line his pockets using the publicity he gets from being the most quoted slicer in the galaxy. The rest of us keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid, but we’re more than willing to let him color the public’s perception of the slicer community.”
“Okay. Then, who is the best slicer in the galaxy?”
“Who’s the Fox?”
“I have no idea,” I replied, “but we’re going to find out.”
Can one of the best slicers in the galaxy find the best slicer in the galaxy? Find out more in Chapter 8, coming Friday.