This material is copyrighted by Shanyn Hosier. Any retranscription or reproduction is illegal. It contains strong language and other material intended for adults only.
“I think we’ve given the kitchen enough time by now.” Senator Kolossa rubbed the back of her neck.
His employer’s cryptic statement scattered Semper’s thoughts.
The Gorgon—Ha! She’d been trying to glare him into stone all night long—nodded and summoned the car. “We’ll get it loaded right away, Mistress.”
Loaded? With what? Damn these women and their secrets!
The answer, confounding as it turned out to be, became apparent when they made their way to the lower kitchen level, rather than the exit, and crammed into the freight elevator with a small platoon of servants bearing boxes.
This was one way to avoid the predatory journalists awaiting the rest of them at the building’s entrance, he thought.
The car now laden with an obscene amount of kitchen scraps, they bid goodbye to The Gorgon. Then the Mistress gave the driver directions to one of the shelter/orphanages she was so enamored of, rather than home.
Semper wasn’t pleased by the change of plans or the cramped quarters in the cab. Mercy missions were all well and good… when they were planned. In advance. “If those servants get caught pilfering from the house, it’s their jobs, if not their heads.”
“No one stole anything,” she sighed tiredly. “Milanda’s always generous with her leftovers.” She rested her head against the seat back and closed her eyes.
For the rest of the ride, Semper focused on recon, tapping into the public surveillance system and making sure the streets ahead were clear of ambush opportunities. He was probably being overcautious when he re-directed the driver through a several-block detour around a routine fire call, but then again, that was his job.
They pulled up in front of a dilapidated, multistory brick building. Even though it was the middle of the night, whispers of “It’s the lady!” rushed around them as they approached the entryway, unnerving him.
Footsteps. Running. A mob of shadows darted toward them, and he instinctively reached for his gun—
“Don’t you dare,” she hissed, swatting his hand.
A small figure dashed out at her, crying, “Lady!” It collided with her, thin arms wrapping around her legs, a wild-eyed, unseeing grin on its face.
“Hello, lovey,” the Mistress purred, tousling its hair.
The mob joined its leader, pouncing on their victim, all of them twitchy and bouncy around her. Grubby little hands reached out to touch her gown, her arms. A choir of high-pitched voices clamored for food and attention.
Something in Semper’s chest tightened. None of the urchins were more than a meter tall. All of them were bone-thin, huge eyes filling up smirched, haunted faces, gap-toothed smiles beaming hungrily, almost maniacally.
She had smiles and hugs for every one of them and promised an edible reward for those who helped unload the car if the contents of the boxes made it to the mess hall unpilfered.
As the mob tore off in the direction of the vehicle, she laughed ruefully. “I think they see me coming a kilometer away.”
“You’re an easy mark, for sure,” he gruffed.
A heavy, unbalanced set of footsteps shuffled down the dark corridor toward them, and Semper moved to intercept, his arms spread to keep her behind him this time. Her small hands tried in vain to push him out of the way.
“Mistress Kolossa?” a deep voice rasped.
“Who wants to know?” Semper gritted out.
“My apologies, Riez,” she called out. “My new bodyguard takes his duty over-seriously at times.”
A hunched and twisted figure shuffled into the light. One arm dangled uselessly, and Semper spotted a prosthetic leg. He didn’t completely dismiss the threat, but downgraded it enough to allow his employer wriggle out from behind him.
“I’m so glad you came.” The cripple turned his head and coughed for several seconds, and the Mistress waited patiently. Once he caught his breath, he continued, “Would you accompany me to the infirmary?”
Why did her unhesitant agreement surprise him? When had she ever displayed a scrap of self-preserving sense in his presence? But Semper’s pulse quickened. He could protect her from all manner of weapons and attackers but was just as vulnerable to contagion as she.
They were led to a large, dim room crowded with sick kids, the smallest ones paired up in single beds. Masked figures moved along aisles, checking statuses and updating records with functional but outdated technology. He’d seen field hospitals better equipped.
“Typical influenza symptoms,” Riez informed her as they donned flimsy breathing masks. “Not the most severe or virulent we’ve seen, but it’s picking up steam as it runs through the weaker population. Without antivirals, we’re only able to treat the symptoms. But the window to prevent an epidemic is closing rapidly.”
“You haven’t reported anything to the Public Health Administration yet?” Her question sounded hopeful.
Riez shook his head. “They’d slap a quarantine on us so fast your head would spin. Nothing in or out. We’d all starve.”
The Mistress nodded. “You have a supplier?”
Riez coughed again. “I do. But he’s expensive.”
“Give him a call,” she said, her eyes drifting over the rows of full beds. “Haggle as much as you can, but get whatever you need to stop this from getting any worse.”
Riez bowed his head. “What they say is true. You are an angel.” His ragged, wheezing voice was awed.
“No, sir, I am a mother.” She took the cripple’s arm and led him away from the sickroom. “You have access to medical staff you trust?”
Riez nodded, cleared his throat. “Just not the medicine.”
“May I borrow a tablet? I need to make some arrangements…”
Riez led her to a dingy office, and the Mistress spent the next quarter of an hour occupied with logistics. She opened a vid connection, tracked down the head of some foundation, apologized for waking her, and authorized Riez’s access to a temporary emergency account. The head tried to argue there weren’t sufficient funds, but the Mistress assured her another large donation had been secured that night.
Semper frowned. He hadn’t overheard any such discussion. The only time they’d been separated was during that closed meeting, and judging by her fretful state afterward, he couldn’t imagine money successfully changed hands.
When she disconnected from the foundation lady, she opened a message window. Semper had excellent vision as well as hearing; it was child’s play to read the contents of the message she typed over her shoulder, instructing her Primeri to transfer personal credit and relaying specific directional codes into the newly created account for Riez.
She cleared all traces before powering down the tablet, set it on the cluttered desk, and sighed, leaning back against a grimy wall.
Semper crossed his arms. “A night of rampant criminality takes it out of you, I see.” Encouraging a charitable organization to fail to report a potential epidemic to the proper authorities, brokering a black market drug deal, laundering money… He’d bet anything McCarty’s food “donation” would never end up on the tax books, either.
“I’m making the most of my last few weeks of legislative immunity,” she quipped, a half-smile gracing her already beautiful features.
“You might ask next time you make me an accessory to subversion.”
“I promise not to resent you if your moral compass leads you to implicate me.”
Semper snorted. He suspected it was a joke, but, “I know a thing or two about loyalty, Mistress.”
Her smile became pensive, serious. “I’m glad of that.”
She reached out for his hand. It felt cool and light in his, but her strong grip contradicted its fine-boned delicacy. Like a small, glowing coal, something in his chest began to pulse, warming him from within.