thewarbingminstrel: (Affinity Washburne)
[personal profile] thewarbingminstrel
This is episode 7, I hope you all enjoy. As always, ignore typos and pretend that I am AMAZING.

I made and found some icons of all of the chars that I'll be using in my fics. I've also chosen pb's for the characters in past/future episodes. Some will appear again, but some might not.

Here's some more cast:

Romana Maria:


Maalai Tamasa:


Duchess Vontriece:


Adamaris Vusi:


Okay, so go on and enjoy the fic! And remember, I am not Joss Whedon. "It came from pain..."




Affinity

It all starts with a new day. A new attitude to replace the ones held hostage for far too long. The sun rose lazily over a green hill, and every bird within ten miles of the place decided to scream heralding its arrival. I’m not used to birds. Loud ass things.

As I sat on the edge of the bed I had broken in for too many weeks, I could only feel relief. The muscle of my injured leg twitched. Hours and hours of sitting and laying and sitting again had done its job. I was healed. But the tasks before me were many and complicated.

Adamina and Katherine had been missing for nearly three and a half weeks. River had been missing for over a month. The only good news I had was Case, who had been up and about for weeks now and progressing just fine. Everyone was in over their head. Serenity had left to search out River, but had no news to report. My mother was updating me as Mal flew, being that she had stayed behind to keep me in my place.

Though it had nearly killed him, Hale had decided to stay planet side as well until I was ready to fly again. I was not entirely sure why. His father was nearing the edge of insanity and his mother was not doing much better. As it was, my second had been walking around acting as if he had a nest of hornets buzzing where his eardrums should have been. All he ever talked about was updates from Lidiya and Serenity. Both were few and far between. And the long hours of silence was near crippling.

I hung my head low and thought over everything. This constantly having something to worry about lately was working my last nerve. If it wasn’t an injury, it was a mystery of some sort. A kidnapping. A job gone awry. A damn perfume that turned my crew into a rabbit’s nest. There was too much to think about, and too little time to be real intelligent about it.

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Hale

There was too much to do.

It was sunrise, and I had already been up for near two hours. Case was on alert. The minute I said go, he was ready to hit atmo and get Chunjing flying. Where? Well, as of now our heading was nonexistent. But now that Fin was healed, all we had to do was wait for Lidiya’s word and we would be gone. Finally.

I stormed my way up the stairs for the umpteenth time and stood before Affinity’s bedroom door. I needed to talk to her. She always had a way of leveling me, and right at the moment I could probably use that. Plus, since her injury there had been a considerable lack of our communicating. More so than usual. Sure, I was going through a lot. And she, well, she had to deal with Zoe. But we usually kept each other in the know. And I needed her to know how I was feeling.

I thought about knocking for a brief moment before swinging the door open and barraging in. The door clicked closed behind me, and I crossed the room to stand facing my captain.

“I cannot take much more of this.” I felt as if my chest were going to burst open. Restless? Restless didn’t cover it. I was on a rampage.

Affinity had had her head hung down until she heard me talk. She moved a tendril of hair from her face to eyeball me. “I can see that.” Her voice was wry. As always. My consistent Fin.

“Please tell me you can walk. That you’re ready.”

Fin stared at me for a long while. Then she slowly stood up. Only then did I notice that she was barely dressed. This shouldn’t matter to me, especially in the state I was in, but hell if it didn’t. All of my signals started to go off at once, and I turned a deaf ear to every single one of them.

The tight camisole she wore hugged her full chest and waist in a way that was near sinful. The small pair of underwear she wore weren’t doing a good job of covering her up either. She took a step toward me, and my mouth went dry. She was all…woman like. Her hair tumbled down her shoulders, her mouth soft looking, her skin lit by the rising sunlight. Maybe it was that she wasn’t trying to look sexy. Maybe it was that she was challenging me. But my emotions as they were, she was playing with fire.

How long had it been since we got close? I couldn’t remember.

“I think I’m alright,” her voice cracked slightly from the obvious leftovers of sleep. “Care to inspect?”

There was too much going on. And now this. It was enough to make my blood boil. I stomped the rest of the way over to her, but wouldn’t allow myself the luxury of being rough. Sliding my hand down the smoothness of her thigh, I shivered.

“Looks like everything’s in its place.” I stared down at her upturned face. She was begging for it. And I was in no position to deny her.

“I’m just as ready as you to turn rudder in this direction and fly out. But we can‘t leave until we know where we‘re going.”

Damn, if everything about her wasn’t inviting at the moment. She was like a dying man’s last drink. A suffering fool’s nicotine.

I leaned down against her brow and reveled in the fact that she was actually letting me hold her. I couldn‘t help but get comfortable. She soothed me, despite how much could go wrong. One wrong move, one word, and she would turn me out on my hide before I knew what was what.

“We need to do something.” I growled unintentionally. “I’m no good at sitting duck.”

“None of us are used to it.”

“We need to find them. All of them.”

Fin circled my neck with her arms and let her sumptuous body contour to me. “And we will.”

She countered my errant behavior with gentility. It was just what I needed, the proper dose to set me straight. Nothing about this would last. Before long, we would be tossing objects and insults at each other.

But for now, right now, this was nice.

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Adamina

Days went by without me having a clear idea of where I was. Every day it was move, move, move, then sit quietly on another transport ship, then move again. There were no crowds, no ports, only empty bays and blacked out windows. Nights were spent in a cell, cold and dusty and ungodly. Days were spent by travel. Sometimes we were bagged. Sometimes we were allowed to see each other. But it didn’t matter if your eyes were open or closed. We didn’t know where we were going. The only faces were expressions as grim and confused as your own. The only food was rotted or stale or wouldn’t stay down. I could feel my ratted clothing rip more as I was pushed and shackled and slapped. No questions. Don’t talk. Just eat the food they give you and keep your eyes down.

I knew we were headed someplace just as charming as the one we now graced, and I could only feel self pity and horror. Occasionally when it wasn’t too dark or dangerous, I would look for Katherine. I thought I caught a glimpse of her once. She was in the cell with me one night, seated maybe four feet away. She looked as if she were unconscious, dried blood caked down the side of her head and her face was gray with fatigue. I forced myself to look away. The guilt destroyed me.

If it weren’t for me…if it weren’t for my incessant risk taking…

I knew myself. My background had set me up perfectly for this sort of lifestyle. I could have avoided it. There are so many better things I could have done with my money, or the credit, that I had been washing down the drain. Instead I got not only me, but someone completely innocent thrown into debtors prison. All because they thought her my bodyguard. It sickened me.

I did not make a sound when I was forced to my feet by my hair countless times, or when I was lewdly fondled while walking by countless guards. All men, from the feel of it. Luckily, I was not raped or stripped. I often heard crying off in the distance, and it occurred to me that perhaps others had not gotten off as lucky as I had.

If we ever got out of this, I would spend my life trying to make everything up to Champ. Everyday I swore this, it was what kept me going, what kept me breathing. I would find a way to repay her. I would find a way out.

We would be freed, some way.

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The final ride was pretty obvious when it came. We were breaking atmo for the last time, the guards informed us.

“Kiss the skies goodbye! That‘s the last you‘ll ever see of them.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and silently promised myself that this were not true.

The landing was hard and ungallant. We were shuffled like barely alive cattle through the gangway, chains dangling unceremoniously to the ground. The daylight, though waning, burned like fire in my eyes. I squinted hard as I tried hard to focus on keeping my balance. The days…(weeks?) without proper nutrition were taking their toll.

As my eyes adjusted, I took in my surroundings. From the looks of it, this prison was not your ordinary fortified building of cells. Instead, it was a flat village. Workers, obviously forced labor, dotted the surroundings. Some looked to be farming, others repairing run down stables or caved in roofs of homes. Some were deep in pits, harvesting what looked to be mud.

“Welcome to Valgrind.” A deep voice bellowed over the noise. “Your new home.”

Valgrind. The name rang a bell. There was a rumor circling that some wealthy do-gooder was planning on revitalizing one of the ruined battle moons from the Universal Civil War. This person dreamed of making use of the empty terra-formed space. Many called this a pipe dream, being that nothing would grow on the majority of these lands. However, the nameless purveyor had spent a lot of time researching methods with which to shut up the naysayer’s.

Apparently with the use of science and slaves, this dream was now coming true. From the looks of it, the prisoners were working hard for little results.

“One day, this will be one of the richest ports in the ‘verse. Thanks to y’all. If you want to live, you will make this place shiny. Grow crops. Find water. Build houses. If you don‘t, well, you wont need us whippin’ you to make it happen. You‘ll all be dead.” The man in charge was smiling ear to ear as if this were the perfect plan. “A small added incentive to make your progress all quick like. BOYS! Aint no more use for these chains, lads. Let these nice folk take a look around the place.”

The guards began to release us one by one. Men and women. A few children even. We were all now a part of this hell. After being unrestrained, each person was pushed roughly into the confines of the village.

My guard showed even more couth. After releasing me, he let me get three steps ahead of him before delivering me a sound kick to the lower half of my spine. I shouted in pain and fell to the ground.

“Git up!” He sounded appalled by my lack of grace. “Git up, gal!”

I muscled my way to my feet, regained my balance, and then hurried on ahead into the gates.

I spotted Katherine. She was hefted by two guards, neither of which looked very happy to be holding her. I kept my eye on her, wincing when they tossed her to the ground. She barely had enough energy to make a sound, but I saw the grimace of pain mar her expression before she could hide it. I made my way over to her after she was forgotten, taking her head and placing it in my lap.

“Oh God, oh God, OH GOD! Champ!” The tears I had been trying to keep away began to trail my cheeks slowly. She looked bad. Real bad. She was as filthy as I was, but there was a nasty open wound on her head. I don’t know much about healing, but I do know about gross infections due to lack of cleanliness.

After all were inside, the massive gateway closed and the sounds of the guards retreat could be heard. I eyed the reinforcements. It looked paltry, as if the men had not put too much work into keeping the inhabitants confined. Probably they did not worry about it, since there was no real escape from this place. No ships, and no real place to go should you find one. We were stranded. But maybe at the very least, we were left alone.

“Don’t let them fool you. We are still being watched.”

I turned around to see a slender girl before me. She reminded me a lot of myself. Her dark hair and eyes weren‘t exactly lifeless, but not entirely impressive. Her clothing was an ill fitting jumper. She was filthy, covered from head to toe with mud; most likely had been down in that murky clay pit when we had arrived. She wore a band to keep her long hair out of her face. She did not smile. But something about her was comforting. She did not look afraid. That gave me a glimmer of hope.

“A handful of them are always none too far away,” she informed me, an almost wistful expression on her face. “We are still investments, after all. Pricey, pricey people. Fetch a price, so worth the watch. Cannot be left completely unguarded now can we.” It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer. She lowered herself to sit beside me, looking over Katherine’s features. “Is this your friend?”

“Yes.” My voice croaked from being unused. Clearing my throat helped nothing, being that I was so thirsty. “Please…she is hurt.”

The girl whistled, and two other women rushed to our aid. The two of them picked up Champ as best they could, being that the girl was heavy and no where near the realm of consciousness. I made like I would go help, but found I had not the strength. I sighed in distress.

“Come on,” the stranger grabbed my arm hard and forced me to my feet. She had a ton of strength for being such a small girl. I tripped over my shoes, but she kept me upright. “It is going to take more determination than that to survive in this town. We only have the basic necessities, and even those you have to work for. But we have some clean water, and we have some edible food. And that will have to do you for now. It isn‘t much, but its been the only thing keeping us alive for all of this time. And now that you are here, you can help.”

“I’m Adamina.” I found myself compelled to introduce myself to the hard woman. “But…everyone calls me Ghost. And she‘s Katherine. But…everyone calls her Champ.”

“Strange, strange nicknames…” The stranger muttered before stopping to look at me. “Hello Adamina. I’m called Jiejie.”

“Big sister?” I could see why. She was overly commanding, not only in manner but in talk.

“Yes. You’re welcome to call me that.” She gave me a quick look I couldn’t decipher before resuming our pace to keep up with the ladies holding Champ. “Just keep your stride. No wishbone where your backbone ought to be. Our hart and goat are miles away from here. But does that keep us down? No, no, no. Our salvation lays merely awaiting to be picked up and dusted off. Forgotten pennies. Don‘t leave them on the ground.”

She had such a strange manner of speak.

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‎"I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars."

I looked away from a gently sleeping Champ to Jie-Jie. She had our cabin window open wide, her back bent backwards over the sill so that she could stare upwards at the midnight sky. I frowned a little. Sometimes Jie-Jie would revert from such a strong, unemotional force to a playful child. It was almost disturbing, considering the severity of our situation. She instilled me with as much confidence as I could possibly gather, and then snatched it away with a nursery rhyme like quality.

However, she was also incredibly insightful. With her odd riddle talk sometimes came great wisdom. When it was time to get things done, she commanded the villagers like troops. Dig deeper for water. Till the earth. Repair the beams. Harvest the straw into bales. I could only assume that the majority of progress being made on Valgrind was because of her. From what she had shown me in the week since our arrival, her intellect was incredibly high. Though it did help that from the group gathered here were people from all walks of life. Some who had grown up on ranches and were used to tending fields, others who knew their way about construction, even something as menial as sewing a simple stitch came in handy here. The “benefactor” who had planted us here had given few supplies to help, but every single thing provided to us was used. It came down to what would help us live another day or not.

Champ still slept. She woke occasionally to drink broth, relieve herself, or ask where we were. She couldn’t get a handle on staying conscious, her body had a lot of healing left to do. But I stayed at her side whenever I could, bathing her brow to keep fever away or helping her move about when she was awake. I was very frightened for her. Head injuries should never be taken lightly. The fact that she could some times manage to give me a look, even if it was a look of anger, had me continuing my prayers for her every evening.

The days were grueling with the harsh weather in Valgrind. There were few trees to keep shade, and those that there were became bare from the heat of mid summer. Everyday I started off with an affirmation from Jie-Jie.

“Today,” She would say. “I begin a new life.” Every day she had a different one. And every day I tried to hang onto it, even if I was not sure what it meant.

Even though I was not used to the back breaking work, I did as I was told. Some days I worked the deposits, helping to make clay. Other days I helped to seed new fields or worked the growing crops that were attempting desperately to sprout. I couldn’t exactly figure out the hammer or nail, and when I tried I was kicked away from the construction areas. But I did manage to assist some of the women in the village with repairing a broken loom, which meant new blankets and clothing were on the way.

When I was not busy making progress with the others, I sat by Katherine’s bedside and asked questions of the few healers who tended her. There was no real doctor amongst any of us, so all they could tell me was to “hope for the best”. I hated the shaded prognosis.

“So. What was your crime?”

Jie-Jie startled me from my thoughts. “Stupidity.” I answered without much hesitation. “I got mixed up with the wrong crowd, despite having a future with a good crew.” The thought that I might never see them again hit me, and I shuddered at the strange wave of grief that came with it. These were people I had insisted on only working with, people I respected but kept my distance from. I had thought previously that I’d managed to have no emotional tie with any of them. It was just honest, well sometimes dishonest, work. Contemptible Mal and his ship of misfits, I’d always dubbed them.

Now…Christ help me. Now I needed them more than I ever had.

“You owe someone. Debt is a tricky thing, Ghost.” She shook her head slowly.

“Is that why you are here?” I asked. It occurred to me that I was not sure why any of the other villagers were here. Would so many people be as careless as I was? And was the mysterious bookmaker so vengeful that he/she would take us all? Children, even?

“My debts are of a different caliber,” she responded with a twist of her mouth. “Something demanded of me that I never pursued.”

I would probably never get used to her odd talk, or her non answers. However, at this point I was definitely not surprised by it.

Jie-Jie nodded at Champ. “And she did nothing. Except have the misfortune of being at the same place as you.”

I frowned. “You can tell?” My body language must speak volumes. Or I had been voicing my fears that Champ would never forgive me aloud without realizing it. But still, so strange that Jie-Jie could guess so accurately. “How do you know?”

She didn’t answer my question. Instead she pushed away from the window, her back bowed in an airy grace before she righted herself.

“Don’t worry so much. She will forgive you. Maybe. If you keep kicking yourself so hard, she wont be able to do it for you.”

Jie-Jie left the cabin after that to head for her own quarters. I was actually thankful. Insight was one thing. Her bizarre predictions were another.

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Affinity

“Don’t ask me how, but I’ve found her.”

The news was music to my ears. But I couldn’t resist my own derision. “How?”

Lidiya sighed and held her brow momentarily. “I just said…”

“Come on. I don’t deserve the basic version? I mean, you were the one telling us not to expect much out of you.”

“It was far from easy. I’m surprised that I found anything at all. I watched the footage of River at the Tam estate for nearly three days straight, trying to figure out her odd message. It was a code. I just knew it was. It was too convenient, her reciting this poem TO the camera…and knowing what Hale told me about her almost psychic like qualities… I knew for a fact that it meant something. Four hours after her message, a transport ship left Bellerophon. I checked its tags and found no information, no license, no identification, no captain…it was suspicious. So I went with my gut and I followed its stops. It was an endless task, or so I thought at the time. The boat made port over five times, and not once could I find any real security footage on any of the passengers aboard it. Something was funny about its clearance access, and nothing was boarded or unloaded on any occasion. Finally, after grueling hours of tracking its course, I found a wave. Delivered from the transport ship to…” She stopped.

“To?”

“To Maalai Tamasa. She is an esteemed representative of Adelei Niska.” Her accent lilted flawlessly over the name.

My insides chilled. “Those are some dangerous names…”

“You know I know them well.” Her eyes bored into mine. “This is not a game. If it ever was. Apparently…my uncle…is the wealthy benefactor who has been talked about for months now. He plans to regenerate some of the battle moons from the Old War. Why he decided to be so generous with his time or money, who can say. Maybe its just a cover up for his secret operation of slave trafficking. I cannot say. And I am not sure how much I want to find out.”

“Right.”

“The wave was brief,” Lidiya continued. “It basically said that the crew was dropping off their newly founded cargo onto Valgrind. And…” She stopped again. This news was hard for her to deliver. However, she did not need me to prod her to start once more.

“They know who she is, Fin. The talk was heavily implied, but from what I can guess they know exactly what wealth they have in their clutches. All they are doing now is holding onto her until they can find the highest bidder. But that is going to take some time. Everyone is still unsure about who took River Tam in the first place, and even on if said party wants her back after the revelation of Miranda. However despite all of that, they are looking. And hoping to make a profit off of her one way or another.”

“This is bad.”

“It is worse than that. Affinity, you and your crew may not be able to win this one. It’s a sinkhole.”

I leaned my arms on the console, lowering my head with the weight of everything that had just hit me. “We don’t have a choice.”

“Fin. You know how organized my uncle is. He has backing, more than you do. You cannot fly your ship in there like a cowboy. This is going to take finesse.”

“The only ties I have to Niska are Mal, Vanya and you. Mal escaped him once, I doubt he could do it again. Vanya and you…?”

“Our dealings with our extended family have become strained since my parents decided to become respectable. My father’s ventures counter with those of Niska’s. That does not leave him or any of his immediate relatives on Niska’s good side.” She adjusted her glasses. “In other words, I and my sister most likely have as much reason to fear him as you do. The man does not think like normal people do. He is psychotic. If he sees a threat, he will eradicate it and piss on the consequences. And if he sees an opportunity for gain, not even blood relatives can stop him from pursuing it.”

I tilted my head from side to side, weighing our options. “Well our choices are facing him, or facing the evil that ruined River’s life.”

“Affinity. I want to help you. You know I do. In fact, if I happen to find out anything else, I will let you know straight away. But…but…” She shook. The enormity of what she knew had put her life in danger. I could see the fear in her eyes.

“This isn’t your fight. And you’ve taken more than enough risk as it is.” I nodded at her. “We’ll leave you out of this one, Lids. You did good. Thank you.”

The screen went black, and I stood upright. I had no idea what to do at this juncture. When the crew of Serenity had faced Niska, they’d had the element of surprise on their side. Who would possibly attack that well known gangster and his hive of degenerates? Knowing full well what he does and how he gets away with it all, it was a death wish to simply say the mans name too many times.

But if River was captured, Hale was going to find a way to get to her. I knew that much. There was no stopping him. His father had faced head on the academy who had kidnapped his sister. Hale would face any danger to save his aunt. It was made in him.

It was expected of him.

I turned on my heel and started to leave the bridge. I had to find my second in command and let him know the wonderful news. We had a ton of work ahead of us. And there was no guarantee that we would survive any of it.

I walked out of the room and right into my crew. Well, what crew was there. Shad, Vanya, Case and Sebastian all stood before me. Arms crossed. Faces dour. I groaned.

“I suppose you heard all of that.”

“Were v’e not supposed to know?” Vanya asked.

“I was planning on finding a more sweet like way of breaking the news to you.”

“How does one let a crew know they are on their way to a suicide mission?” Shad queried, fingers steepled before his chin.

“Hey, he aint nothin’ more than some flesh and a bit of bone. Niska can’t be more scary than a reaver, right?” I attempted.

“Want to bet?” This from Case, who had probably seen his share of fighting for the next twenty or so years. Poor guy.

“Look, I aint sitting pretty any better than y’all. But do we really have a choice here? If this were your kin, would you leave them to whatever fate some mad man wants to deal them?”

Not a chance, and they all knew it.

Vanya spoke up again. “This is my kin,” she stressed. “I know what Adelei is capable of. You forget, I was born into this.”

“I haven’t forgotten Vanya. And if you have any ideas on how to handle this, please, now is the time to spill it.”

She gave me a half smile. Apparently, ideas were already in the works.

“Our intention was not to discuss your conversation with Lidiya,” Seb informed me. “We are more concerned with the whereabouts of another young lady.”

“Oh. Yes.” I held a hand to my head. “No developments on Champ?”

“I asked around town.” Vanya huffed. “No one will speak of this mystery man who wanted Ghost. Either they know and stay quiet, or they have heard enough of him to fear him. All I could find out is Katherine was taken when Ghost was. So I assume they are at the same place, wherever that place is.”

“That is nothing to go on.” I stated the obvious, my frustration coming to the fore. “No one in this town knows anything about this bookie?”

“Our sentiments exactly.” Shad pointed out. “Which is why we requested the services of a local.” He gestured to the right.

It was then I noticed Riddly Lowd staring at me. He’d been standing here the whole time. “Whoa…you-”

“I know. I get that a lot.” He preempted my question, shrugging a shoulder. “I blend in well. Especially when Captains are too distracted with missing crew to notice.”

I shook my head at my lack of perception. “Fine. So, what can you do for us?”

“I know how to talk to people here. Especially the type of people you’re going for. I‘ve made friends about this place. Unsavory characters, but folk who keep their ear to the ground.” He rubbed his fingers together mischievously. “For a price.”

“We have to find Katherine under any means necessary. She was innocent in all of this.” I placed the blame entirely on Ghost, and purposefully. “If we find Adamina, then so be it…”

“You don’t plan to save her?” Riddly was surprised.

“I am not going out of my way for someone who dug themselves in a hole.” I placed my hands on my hips, ready for this fight. “She’s not the top priority right now.”

“I was not expecting that,” Riddly scratched his bald head. “I assumed she would be just as important to you. Well, to us.”

I sighed. She was Mal’s crew. And Mal would want her found. Though I didn’t want to acknowledge this. “If we find her, we find her.”

“I’m not sure I like that attitude.” Case replied. “After I stuck my neck on the line for her, I’d expect us to help her as well.”

I stared each of them down before walking passed them. “Well then, she better not hold us back. We are pressed for time as it is.” I stalked passed them, the ever allusive, moody Captain. “When can we talk to these folk of yours, Riddly?”

“Now’s as good a time as ever.”

“I was hoping to hear that.”

“Your wish is my command.”

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Riddly decided that we would seem less suspicious if only Vanya and I went with him to his contacts. Shad, Case, and Seb were more than happy to let us snoop about.

To say the hidey hole we crawled into was underground was probably an insult to moles. This place was hell. Every step I took stuck my boots to the neglected tiling, and the sticky rip of the removal of my sole from ground made me cringe. Could be drink. Could just as easily be blood. It was too dank to see in the spot. The smell filling the rooms were must and bile. The folk covered in shadiness. No one spoke. A lone guitar played off in the distance somewhere, the music unable to distract from the unfortunate haze of the scenery.

Riddly approached a lazy character who was obviously heavily embedded in a drunken afternoon spell. She was a frail thing, her tattered clothing barely doing their job covering her abundance of bosom or the thin of her legs. She wore an unnecessary amount of makeup, her black hair was pleated into one thick braid, her dark skin dusty from the unseemliness of her surroundings.

She popped one eye open when Riddly sat beside her.

“Duchess.” Riddly turned on the charm. He smoothed his lack of hair back, his eyes roamed over her sprawled out form, then he took her hand and placed a sweet kiss to her knuckles. “Its been weeks, darling.”

Duchess smiled showing surprisingly well taken care of teeth. I suppose whores get better work when they have all of their teeth.

“Riddly.” she cooed, her accent Island. “Where ‘ave you been?”

“Busy. Working. Missing you.”

He batted his lashes, and the urge to laugh had me firming up as best I could.

“Duchess Vontriece,” Riddly introduced her to me and Vanya, his eyes never leaving his partner. “She and I go way back.”

“To before you became a respectable,” she was melted butter in his palm, her drunken stupor lifting as Riddly flirted with her.

Riddly scoffed. “Respectable. I pirate merchandise. I’m not more respectable than any of you.”

I saw his game. True, Mal did a lot of missions under the radar and played some things far too close to the chest. But he wasn’t seedy. Not like Riddly and his ilk. I crossed my arms and ignored the slight insult to the man who I’d been raised to see as my father. Instead, I concentrated on the persona Riddly must have spent years perfecting.

“Duchess keeps all my secrets.” Riddly told us. “She’s my guardian angel.”

Duchess shifted so that she could get a better look at us. “Who are ‘dey?” she asked, a frown line wrinkling her brow. Apparently we were a threat to whatever it was that was going on between her and the man. Or maybe we weren’t supposed to know too much about her. I was guessing it was a little bit of both.

“They are new friends,” Riddly said. “One of their crew has gone missing. I am trying to help them find her.”

“Have you slept wit ‘dem?” she spewed jealousy, sitting up higher to take on any challenge we may have presented.

In a heartbeat decision, I tugged Vanya close against my side. My arm snaked around her, my hand crept up the side of her neck in a possessive grip. She immediately submitted to me, curling into my side with a coy smile.

Riddly pointed at our faux affection. “Obviously not, love.”

“Oh.” Duchess settled with a sigh of relief. “They are degenerates.”

“Excuse me?” Vanya bristled.

“Degenerates,” Duchess slowed her words down brutally. “Fodder. Waste of the land. Only the dire turn to the arms of their same sex. They also turn to hellfire.”

“Oh?” I lowered my hand to Vanya’s bottom, cupping it gently, playing the part. “And where does your good virtue lie? In the work of a whore?”

Duchess was untouched by my insult, though she did cut a cat’s gaze at me. “Do not make pretenses.”

“What benefit of the doubt do we owe you?” Vanya was getting very riled over this conversation. I briefly wondered why.

Duchess preened. “I was once the lover of a duke.” She waved a hand, as if that automatically granted her royalty by association.

“Hence the name.” I deduced.

“He would have married me where it not for his despicable wife.” She shuddered. “If I could not have the man I wanted, then I would turn my tricks on others. The money is good.”

How good could it be? Look where she was.

“You need not explain yourself to them.” Riddly cupped her face. “I know what your life has been. The man was a fool to let such a treasure escape him. Were it me, you would be by my side always. I understand you, Duchess.”

She never lost her smile. “Of course you do. Because I have let you.” She moved closer into his embrace. “Why do you spend time wit ‘des women?”

“They are paying me to find their friend,” he reminded her. “I was hoping you could help.”

She gave him a long stare. “How?”

“Have you heard anything about town of someone being in high debts with the local bookies?”

She smiled. “Who isn’t ‘des days?” She was playing vague.

“What happens when you cannot pay your debt?”

Her lips momentarily stiffened.

Riddly granted her a beseeching grin. “Darling, you would be saving me a lot of time if you have any answers for me.”

“You don’t want a-trouble,” she shook her finger slowly. “Not like that. That is when de’ big b’woys step in. You can’t pay? You go away.”

“Who is behind this?”

“Big men. Rich men. Men wit de’ power and de’ grudge.”

“Any names?”

“None that are safe to say. Nothing comes from their names but danger.” She eyed Vanya and I suspiciously. “If your friend owes de’ big b’woys, you might as well say your goodbyes. You will not see them again. It is a ‘bodderation dat no one stands up to, ya feel me?”

I could feel the frown on my face, forcing tension to roil throughout me. “These boys don‘t know who they’ve crossed this time.”

I let go of Vanya to stoop down at Duchess’ feet. Something told me she enjoyed being revered. It probably had a lot to do with why she had become a night walker in the first place. The desire, the need that she inspired in people. “Please,” I said feelingly. “I am responsible for this person. I have to know who might have taken her.”

“I can’t. Everyt’ing works in a system, you see.” She crossed her legs daintily and began to inspect the dirt in her fingernails. “If I tell you and you manage to defeat these men, whose to say I do not let a bigger snake inside of de’ door? No. An evil you know is safer than one ya don’t.” She looked back at me. “Besides. You could just get yourselves killed. I don’t want ‘dat on my conscious.”

“I find it hard to believe you care about our hides,” Vanya sneered. “And I grow weary of your games. Is…tiring.” She reached somewhere hidden inside of her shirt and retrieved a small bag of coin. Tossing it into the informant’s lap, she then took a step closer and said in a low voice, “If you want something, just ask.”

Duchess tilted her head at Vanya, keeping her eyes on her as she snatched the money and hid it inside of her skirts. “Everyt’ing in ‘dis world has a price. You understand.” She gazed back at Riddly. “Though another night wit you would have been enough…”

“We don’t have the time.” I cut their renewed flirting off. “Tell us.”

Duchess chuckled low in her throat. “You realize ‘dat with finding this man you find your death?”

“Let us worry about that.”

“Fine.” She looked around, making sure our meeting had no eavesdroppers. “The men you are looking for are called Josef and Patty. Their last names? I do not know. They spend most of their time in ‘de gambling halls, offering credit to those who have nothing left to hock. Nothing will sway them if you are over your due. Not promises or pleas or even offers of pleasures to come. If you find them, God save you. They are backed by a ‘mon ‘dat de devil himself fears.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Katherine

“Get off of me!”

My shout was so loud it woke me up. I had never been prone to night terrors. Or talking in my sleep for that matter. So I could only surmise that, being this was totally out of character for me, I was having issues. I opened my eyes and squinted in the glaring light, waiting for my eyes to adjust. From what I could tell through my blurred vision, I was not on Chunjing. And I was not in Zoe’s house. In fact, from what I could tell, I was in a place that I had never been in before.

A stale smell filled my nostrils. I closed my eyes again, wanting only to return to the oblivion of sleep. I was so damn tired, though I could tell by the laze of my muscles that I had been asleep for a long time. Curiosity of my surroundings had me firmly waking, though the temptation to sleep was a strong one. I felt disoriented, like something left intoxicated in some sort of a cage for far too long.

Ghost was hovering over me. She looked more red than when last I saw her, her nose and cheeks were sun burnt. Her thick hair was pulled back into a high ponytail. Her clothing was rubbish, even worse than the sack she’d worn before. She was giving me a desperate look.

“Katherine? Are you awake? I mean, actually awake this time?”

What did she mean by that? I groaned and lifted a hand to my head…and jumped when I felt a bandage there.

“Its healed well. But it was so infected, I was nervous leaving it uncovered.” Her voice lowered to a fervent whisper. “You scared me so badly.”

Then it all came back to me in a wave: the table of men. The running. Ghost finding her hiding place filled with thugs. Her screams. My screams. And a smack to my noggin that had left me staggering to my knees.

There were other bits and pieces in there too. Being dragged like a bag of grain. Roughly thrown onto a cold stone floor. A kick out of no where to my side, making me wheeze before blacking out again. Someone unknown saying a prayer over my head. Someone else cooling my brow with a cold compress. Being tied to a bed post.

“Was I…tied down?” I asked slowly.

“To keep you from moving when you had a fever. It was bad. We were afraid you would not make it. But you are strong. You even managed to keep some broth down for us. And your head-”

“Was infected.” I could feel anger begin to coil from the pit of my stomach to flow throughout my bloodstream.

“You were well taken care of.” Ghost bragged. “There are some pretty smart people about this village. None of them doctors, however they know their way about an illness.”

“What village? Where am I?”

Ghost did not want to answer that question. Her eyes widened before she could hide it. “You don’t remember…”

“The last thing I remember is being cold cocked and tossed about like a gorram rag doll.”

She sucked some air harshly from between her teeth. “Uh…well…you see…”

I saw the answer on her face. “We were taken.”

Ghost nodded slowly. “Er…sort of.”

“Beaten.”

“A few times.”

“And…now?”

“We are at Valgrind. Its sort of…a prison.”

I did not think. I reacted. Strength surged throughout my body and I lunged at Ghost. I grabbed her around her neck, squeezing my palms hard against her throat.

Ghost’s shout of horror was squelched by my attack. She gurgled and fell to the floor, me on top of her.

“Are you happy?” I screeched as I throttled her. “This is what comes of your stupidity! Now you’re a prisoner! Worse: I AM A PRISONER!”

“I…am…so…rr…y!” Her words were labored by my shaking her.

I jumped back quickly before I really hurt the smaller girl, my hands clawing the air in my rage as if to damage the world around me. “Valgrind? I’ve never even heard of this place!” I sneaked a look out of the window, seeing a surrounding as dire as my mind had pictured it to be. “Ai ya, hwai luh!

“I can understand your ire, but please…” Ghost rose from the floor, a hand babying her reddened skin. “We are all we‘ve got, Champ. We need to rely on one another.”

“I don’t need you. Stay away from me.”

“If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t be alive. You weren’t able to move for weeks.”

“What, do you expect my gratitude? Why would you trouble yourself? If it weren’t for you-”

“Exactly!” Ghost shouted, flapping her arms. “If it weren’t for me. I’ve been saying the same words since the fiends started chasing us out of that pub. I‘ve sworn to make it up to you. I know that nothing can ever make you forgive me. I wasn‘t worried before, because I thought there was nothing so bad they could do to me that I did not deserve. But now I know that I have to live, if only so that I can help you get out of this mess.” She was pleading, her giant doe eyes pools of regret and self hatred.

I kept frowning at her, unable to do anything else. “I don’t understand. Why aren’t we behind bars?”

Ghost toed the mottled floor and her gaze went downcast. “This used to be battling ground during the wars. The land is harsh, and its going to take more than elbow grease to make it inhabitable once again. That’s where we come in. We are here as laborers. With the intention of making this place a thriving metropolis of the future.”

“This gets better and better.” I spat.

“Its not…so bad. We are watched, but left mostly to our own devices. Since there is little to no chance of escape, the guard stays away unless they are bringing in supplies or more workers. The majority of them leave. But the ones left here stay protected, and they are…uncompromising.”

“Well funded. Hired guns.”

“From what I’ve been able to deduce.”

“Working for your bookie? I find that hard to believe. A small town bookie wouldn‘t have connections like this.”

“From what I can tell, the bookie was only a tip of the iceberg to a much bigger operation. He has a boss. A wealthy, big fish.”

“Someone who is under the radar. Someone who has a hand for slave trafficking.”

“Katherine, I know that you will probably never forgive me. But I am here for you. I will not leave your side until you bade me. I…owe you so much.”

I gave her a sideways glance, my features hard, my smile wry. “Save your apologies for someone who gives a good damn. Or for that matter, save them for when we get out of here.”

Ghost circled herself in her own embrace. “I have given up on thinking there might be a way out of here.”

“Oh there is. Trust me, there is. And I am going to find it. Or die trying.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Lidiya

She stiffened in my hold. This was not out of the ordinary. Luli was always afraid of my parent’s discovering our secrets. She was hired keep, I the daughter of the household. The scandal would mean nothing to me, or to my lack of reputation. But Luli could lose the only income she had ever received. She could also end up on the streets with few other options of livelihood. With such desperation comes drastic measures. She could wind up anywhere due to what some would see as tasteless behavior.

I held her closer, unable to let her go. “Please. Just ten more minutes.”

She relaxed, moving in my lap so that her head resumed its place on my shoulder. I kept my arms circled about her small waist.

This had not started as a love affair. It has started as a friendship. I was so interested in the life my troubled lover kept hushed inside. She was so delicate, yet unyielding all the same. The day she told me of her horrible marriage to an abusive man was the day I had succumbed to my growing feelings for her. She was so in need of love. Just as I had been. She had been beaten by life’s many broken promises. I had been defeated by an overbearing household that kept me prisoner. But we had finally found freedom in one another. Luli was my home.

But I sometimes felt that I were nothing more to her than a hotel room to stay for the night in. It could be my many insecurities. It was not like we were in a position to share a normal life together. However it was the source of many an argument between us. She would push me away, wanting me to do as my parents bid and marry. She wanted me out of the only home I had ever known. But she had to know that no matter where I was, even if I were in a ditch somewhere, as long as she was with me I would bare anything. I would do anything.

Like I have said on many an occasion. These were the moments I lived for. When her lips were a breath away from mine. Her hand clasped so tightly in my hold I could feel my knuckles pop. When the rustle of our bodies brushing together confirmed, out loud, that I was not alone. This was all I wanted. But what about her? What did she want?

“Five minutes,” she whispered, the soft of her mouth briefly touching my brow. “I have things to attend to.”

“What things? Cleaning the latrines? Scrubbing the floors on your knees? Spit shining the decorative weaponry in the hall? Your labors go unappreciated.”

“I do whatever is needed.”

“You are needed here.”

She paused. Taking in my words, I hoped, to heart. “I know.” She kissed me again, and my world was instantly alright. Who cares of my future heartbreak? For now she was mine…

“When will you love me as much as I love you?” I always found myself ruining our moments. I craved them with a desperation that crippled me, however I was powerless when it came to my fears. Even my constant attempts at acceptance of our relationship did no good. Obviously.

“When I am in a better place to love you,” she answered. Then she whispered something softly in Chinese, something I almost didn‘t hear.

I wrinkled my nose at her. “It doesn’t count if you cannot say it louder than that.”

Luli laughed a little. The laugh did not reach her eyes, but still it lightened the shadows on her face. “You are my only reason.”

“For what?”

“For all, ai ren.

I supposed that meant I was also her reasoning behind all that she kept from me. I tightened my grip on her. “I will only let you go if you promise to come back once you are done. I mean, the very moment you finish whatever it is that is so pressing…”

“I promise, I promise!” She pushed at my hands, and I slightly loosened my hold. She glared. I smiled.

Steps in the hall, and in a flurry she was out of my arms and across the room. I clutched the empty air, disappointment changing my temperament.

When the steps continued on without stopping, she released a sigh. “I’m sorry. It is just… I worry about what happens if we are ever discovered.”

“You do not have to.”

“I do,” she argued, then stepped toward the door.

I watched her go with no hope of seeing her again for the night. Perhaps it was for the best. If she were so worried about being found out, I should probably grant her the necessary space to keep suspicion at bay. It would make her feel better. And I would do anything for her.

With a forced smile, I stood and checked my dress in the mirror. I wore an ornate wrap that hugged my curves more than I usually allowed a garment to do. But I had been in the mood to look impressive for my lady. Without her in the room my choice just seemed showy and unnecessary. So I changed into a blue day gown that covered my chest completely and ended in a long skirt. I fashioned my long hair into a single braid, then did a twirl in the mirror before leaving the room.

I left the sleeping quarters of the mansion and headed in the direction of the kitchen. It was nearing supper, and I had eaten little since before lunch. I had been busy spending time with Luli, and before that searching fervently for any signs of Champ or Ghost. There was not much sign of surveillance on the rock the captain and her crew currently inhabited, and I could only assume that the people who lived there were of a caliber far more dangerous than secret. As a result Case had become ill and now two women had disappeared as if from thin air.

I rounded a corner near the sitting room and almost crashed into my mother. “Lidiya!” She steered me in her direction, which just so happened to be where I was headed so I did not argue. “You are coming down for dinner this evening.”

“That was the idea.” I gave her a smile. “Dobry vecher, maty.” I greeted her.

She smiled back. “Pryvet, don‘ka.” She seemed genuinely pleased this evening. “We have had a wonderful surprise.”

“Have we?”

Da. We have visitors for dinner tonight. Some relatives we have not seen in such a long while.”

I did not know what I was walking into. We did not have much family, and those that we had were distant. My mother had lost touch with a lot of her relatives, my father had purposefully separated ties with his. It was complicated on both ends. For her to claim that having family for dinner was a wonderful surprise, well, it was unexpected.

Even more so was the family she referred to.

We walked into the dining hall. Seated at the head of the long table was my father, Gosha. Two seats to his right was my sister, Catia.

And to my father’s immediate left. His uncle, Niska.

My chest immediately seized up. My muscles froze from the instant ice flow through my veins. I knew that my eyes widened, I could not help it.

“Ah, Nadia, your daughters have grown so big since last I saw them.” Adelei sized me up. He had a smirk on his face; a predatory gaze.

My mother left to take her seat to my father’s right. Adelei patted the chair back beside him.

“Come, Lidiya, let your uncle have a look at you.”

I did not have a choice. Knowing something was very wrong with his presence here, I tried to keep my caution even as I forced myself into maintaining my manner. This was an evil man, a snake who could see right through me. Being that his visits were, well, never…I could only speculate as to why he would be in my home. Or to why he would specifically seat himself beside me.

“It has been a long while, sir.” I somehow kept my voice from trembling.

“What is this, with formalities?” Adelei waved his hand in airy dismissal. “You are my niece. Nazyvaĭ menya dyadyeĭ.

“Very well, uncle.” I complied with his wishes. The last thing I wanted was to anger him. If he wanted to postpone the reason behind his visit, that was fine with me. Perhaps I could sway him with pleasantries, and some human part of him would realize that I was family. Not something to be butchered.

I could only pray.

The dinner went by without a lot of conversation. My mother must have had some heads up that “uncle” Adelei was making his visit. The fare was far more lavish than it usually was. She pulled out all of the stops: the finest wines and whiskeys, roasted quail with turnips, fresh salads, even a mincemeat pie for dessert.

Adelei talked with my father briefly about business. My father kept his answers vague and noncommittal. Neither of them embellished on what their work actually entailed, and no one asked. We all knew the men were involved in the criminal areas of trade.

“So, niece,” Niska turned to me during dessert. “Your mother tells me that you fancy Sherman O’Boyle. Now that would be a fine match.”

“My mother merely wishes me to fancy Lord O’Boyle. Unfortunately, my eye lays elsewhere.”

“Oh, is that so?”

I tried not to look at him, but manners dictated a glance every now and again. I wanted to seem as guiltless as possible. Yet every time I met his gaze, I had to repress a shiver.

“You never told me that you are interested in someone.” My mother accused with a small chuckle. “These children…” she said as way of excuse.

Adelei held up a hand to stop her. “Now, Nadia, we are all allowed our secrets.” He never turned away from me. “Do we not, Lidiya? I am sure that you have many, many secrets.”

My skin was crawling, and I only hoped it was not visible. “I suppose.” My voice cracked on the last word. I knew without a doubt now. I had been found out.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Katherine

The heat was monstrous. But I refused to let it faze me. I had to get a good long look at our surroundings. The entrances, the exits, the routines. If I memorized it all, then I would better be able to formulate a plan of escape. As I had told Ghost, nothing but death would keep me from it.

It seemed that since we were on someone’s time, we had a set schedule. Almost as if we were a true work force and not slave laborers here against our will. A troop of about fifteen would stalk though the front gate around noon to check on progress. They would just about ransack every inch of our rooms in search of weapons of any kind. We were all forced in a single long line as they did their search. Then they would leave. After an hour, three others would show up with a cart of meats or other paltry food stuffs to be stored for our use. Most of the meat was already on its way to rotting, any other edibles were either stale or softening or otherwise. So the grub would be sorted through by the villagers. Whatever was usable was taken and wrapped, whatever wasn’t was left in the cart. Then what little clutter or trash would also be placed into the cart, and the three guards would hurl it away out of the vicinity and to somewhere unknown. Probably a ship with a dump transporter.

I knew for a fact that at least one ship stayed on land. The majority of the guard was visible, or so I saw through a knot hole in the gate. They also seemed to be out of sight for a good amount of the day, they had leisure time to spare. It must get boring sitting around waiting for something, anything, to disturb you. Every now and then two or three would play cards in the open hull. I could only guess that they stayed on ship more often than not. When they left the ship and strayed too close, I would hurry away. If they did not come bother us, I assumed they were doing brief security checks. Always a chance someone would figure out how to get out of the gate. If someone did, we could take their ship. If it weren’t for their gorram guns.

Another ship would come through every three days or so. They came with supplies or more prisoners, and then they left. They had to switched shifts. I never saw the same guard more than twice in a week. As far as organization goes, they were pretty dead on with it. But there were holes in their routines. The men were lazy, they kept their guard down. Even when they took time out of their day to go through our rooms, they did so with their backs turned. They weren’t afraid of any of us. They couldn’t be trained gun hands. They damn sure weren’t soldiers. Just strong men who needed a job doing something, anything, with their brawn. They hadn’t been brainwashed with any purpose beyond watching us villagers. That meant they could be swayed, if some of them even slightly disagreed with the occupation they had chosen. Or if they didn’t want to die for a line of work that they cared little about.

If I could only sort it, we could take their ship and leave them high and dry. If we could at least get to their guns and ammo we’d be in the lead.

“You have been at this for hours now, Champ.” Ghost startled me when I turned from the gate. “There is no way out. And even if there was, what would we do? Run right into a bullet? We are stranded.”

“We might be trapped, but we’re not stranded. There is at least one boat kept planet side at all times.” I’m not sure how many it can hold, but if we get to it we can at least have some leave and then come back for the others. We can get in touch with our captains and have backing as well.”

“Do you even know how to fly a ship?” Ghost found the error in my scheming.

“Not anything that big. But someone around here has to. How hard can it be? Besides, if I get out of this damn holding, do you think for one second that I‘m not going to try?”

“So we take the ship…and then we crash it and die a burning hot death?”

“I will figure something out!” I almost yelled at her, still unwilling to be civil. After all, if it weren’t for her…well…yeah. She knew that. If it weren’t for her. Even she had said it.

“Our best bet right now is to stay alive.” Ghost grabbed my hand, even though I tried to resist her touch. She stayed persistent until our fingers were folded together. “That is what everyone here is doing. Trying to survive until a miracle happens.”

“I aint sitting pretty waiting for some mystery rescuer. I can do this myself.”

“Jie-Jie says to be patient. She says that when everything unravels, we’ll all know redemption. I’m not quite sure what she means by that, but redemption sounds better than what you’re thinking.”

“You do not know what I am thinking.” I snatched my hand away from her.

“I know you want to barrage through that gate like some mighty bull and lash out at all takers.”

True. I did. “Who is Jie-Jie?” I asked instead of confirming her thoughts.

“She kind of runs this place. She takes care of everyone, knows what needs to be done, she makes sure everyone eats and stays healthy, she was the one who made sure you got well-”

“Yeah? Well she sounds like someone who has accepted this place. That isn’t me. I am not staying here. I am not making their land all pretty for them. I am not planting their food or building their bridges. I don’t even belong here.”

“And what? I do?” Ghost struggled to keep up with me when I started to stomp away from her. “I should be forced into hard labor because of a mistake?”

“You wont find sympathy here.” I told her. “I tried to talk to you about changing your life around.”

“I agreed with your advice! Even though you were carrying on your holier-than-thou attitude. And that was the same night we got kidnapped!”

“Yeah, well…” I grunted. “You still got me beat and God knows what else.”

Ghost stopped hard in her tracks. “You think that the men…er…took liberties…?”

I turned to face her. “The point is I don’t know, Ghost! I have no idea what did or did not happen. I don’t even know how far we traveled from my ship! All I know is I‘m on some dusty rock, expected to work like a dog and take zao goa from a bevy of armed blockheads! And its your fault! So stop trying to make me rational and help me come up with a way to leave!”

I turned away from her again, only to almost stumble over. A lone woman stood in front of me. Her long dark hair swayed with the slight breeze, her small face unworried. My eyes widened as I looked at her. I knew her. I had seen the picture that Hale had been showing not only Lidiya, but everyone involved in the search for his aunt.

His aunt…his gorram aunt!

“River?” I croaked.

A smirk. “So, this is the heavy weight champion of Chunjing? Surprise alludes me.” She pointed at my feet. “Your shoe is untied.”

I looked down dumbly, then looked back up at her.

River chuckled. “Just kidding.”

Date: 2010-09-15 07:28 am (UTC)
gorgeousnerd: Christina Hendricks, smiling, with shoulder-length red hair and a black strapless dress. (Christina Hendricks.)
From: [personal profile] gorgeousnerd
HOLY CRAP. You really raised the stakes with this one! Lidiya and Niska! River and the prison planet! So much could (and probably will) go epically wrong!

And at the risk of using more exclamation points, I can't wait to read more!

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