Kel LeNoy had made himself a good life on Epilotii III. A temperate world with vast azure oceans and delicately sculpted coastal cities, it was quite the change from Sannat’s harsh beauty. At the center of many trade routes, in the ten years since they fled Sannat he had been able to recover some of his wealth. But best of all, it was peaceful.
He spent many nights like this one on the balcony of his manor, staring out at the point where sea and sky met and melded into each other. Tara was twenty. She’d be married in the spring. He’d scraped and saved, and now that they’d sworn a marriage pact with House Sayvada, at long last the LeNoy would be secure. Their home and retinue was far more modest than he liked, but he and his wife Yulia had endured their fall in fortunes for the sake of their daughter. Now it was finally going to turn around.
He stepped in from the balcony, a silvery metal portal sliding shut behind him. For a moment he was in the darkness of his office, only illuminated by the starlight playing through the windows. Then his head slammed into the ground.
“Say a word and I’ll put a knife through your kidney.”
A heavy hand was on Kel’s neck, mashing his face into the floor. A boot was pressed down on the back of his knee, and he did, indeed, feel a cold, hard pressure just to the right of his spine. Keeping his arms wide and flat, he relaxed his body as much as he could.
His assailant let him lie there for a minute, waiting to see if he would resist. When he didn’t, the grip on his neck loosened slightly, allowing Kel to breath.
“Lord LeNoy,” the voice said, familiar, though ten years gone. “You owe me money.”
“You were dead,” Kel breathed. “You died on Sannat. I swear, if I knew you had lived-”
“Contract was payment for getting the girl out alive and uninjured. You got that. I didn’t get my money.”
“I swear, I swear, you must believe me-”
“If I died or not, you were still supposed to pay.”
Tears welled up in Kel’s eyes. What an idiot he’d been. So close, so close to getting it all settled, and now, because of one stupid mistake-
“M-may I sit up?” he asked.
The Bondsman was off him in a second, but as Kel rose to his knees and turned around, he saw the killer already had a pistol trained on his forehead. Kel raised his hands. It was all he could do to keep his lip from trembling.
“I don’t, I mean, I can’t pay you right now-”
“Your girl’s getting married soon,” Tenlok said, his dead, red eyes staring pitilessly at the nobleman. “How much is her dowry?”
“Oh, no…” Kel said. “I-I have creditors, don’t you understand? I’ve been trying to rebuild our life here, and it’s been expensive. The marriage pact, it’s the only thing that’s going to keep us off the streets!”
“People all over the Frontier survive on the streets.”
“You don’t understand! If we break the pact with the Sayvada, it’ll be an insult. This could start a feud!”
“Not my problem.”
The Bondsman pulled something small from a pouch on his armor and tossed it to Kel. Kel flinched away at first, but then he saw it was a white chit. An empty credit slip.
“If I pull all our savings and… and Tara’s dowry, it could just about cover your fee,” Kel said. “But please, if you’ll just wait a few months, I can get it all to you with interest.”
“You could hire an army of killers for less than that much. Not good ones, but enough to give me trouble.”
“I wouldn’t do that!”
“I would. Cheaper. And you already proved yourself a gambling man.”
“Ten years. Ten years! Why did you only come for me now?”
“It took a while to track you down,” Tenlok said. “More than a year, just to get off Sannat. Then there was that Guraggan incursion on Chalathren, made traveling these parts hard. So I took other work. But I didn’t forget our arrangement. I did the job. Now I expect to be paid.”
Reluctantly Kel rose and went to his desk. He opened a drawer, finding one of his data tablets within. As he pulled the tablet out, he saw something else in the drawer. He looked from it to the Bondsman, and weighted his chances.
Kel set the tablet flat on his desk, and inserted the credit slip. With a few key presses, he opened all of his accounts. He was one stroke away from signing over all that he had, and his daughter’s future. He had to risk it.
“I have to show you something,” he said. The Bondsman’s gun still trained on him, Kel delicately reached into the drawer and drew out a small stack of musty, yellowing papers. He spread them out on the desk.
The Bondsman took a step forward, and glanced down. They were drawings, eight in all. Some were dated ten years ago, others only a year or two back. The oldest were crude sketches, but they grew more sophisticated with age. They were drawings of a man in armor and a little girl, or sometimes just the man. His mempo, especially, seemed to fixate the artist, growing more detailed and well rendered as the years passed. They all bore Tara’s signature.
“You barely knew each other a week, but you changed her life,” Lord LeNoy said.
“Saved her life,” Tenlok said.
“Yes. It broke Tara’s heart to leave you behind. She never stopped thinking of you, like you were something out of a fairy tale. All the other children thought it was strange, her drawings frightened them…but she believed in you. You were her hero.”
The Bondsman’s gaze rose to meet Kel’s again. There was nothing there: just cold, hard disks of crimson.
“The money,” he growled.
Kel sighed. He made the last key stroke, then handed the white chit back to the Bondsman.
“We’ll be destitute without that. We’re finished.”
“You’ll be alive,” Tenlok said, as he backed away to the portal, opened it, and stepped out onto the balcony.
Kel’s jaw clenched and he closed his eyes. He wanted to shout something, he wanted to attack that vile, mercenary bastard. But when he opened his eyes again, the Bondsman had already disappeared into the night, as if he had never been there to begin with.
Tara LeNoy lay flat on her stomach on the beach. Night had fallen, but through the scope the world was a clear green. The only sound was the crashing of the waves and her steady breath: in, then out. She sighted her target, inhaled, let her breath half out and squeezed the trigger.
The buoy flashed and sank beneath the waves. One by one she shot them, ten buoys in all, each target further out than the one before, the last little more than a bobbing dot in the black sea.
It was her private ritual, the thing that eased her nerves and made her feel like herself. She could use a simulator, she supposed, but nothing compared to the feel of a real rifle in her hands, or the wind whipping across her face. Being out here alone made the troubles of tomorrow far away.
She heard footsteps, soft in the sand, coming from her right. Easily, she rolled to one knee, then stood up, keeping the rifle low and ready. On her House’s property, she was not afraid of any intruder, but all the guards and servants knew she hated to be disturbed during her practice.
Her eyes focused on the approaching figure, and she let out an involuntary gasp. She blinked hard to be sure she wasn’t dreaming.
“Tenlok?” she asked.
The figure halted, meeting her gaze.
“Tenlok!” She cried, slinging her rifle and running to him.
She wrapped her arms around him without thinking and hugged him tight. He grabbed her shoulder and broke the embrace, pushing her backwards gently but firmly.
“You’re alive,” she stammered. “You’re really alive! Tenlok, I thought you were dead! Is it… is it really you?”
The Bondsman nodded.
“But… Tenlok, what are you doing here? Did my parents hire you again, or… you’re not here for my wedding are you?”
Tenlok shook his head.
“Just finishing up some business,” he said. “Didn’t think I’d run into you.”
They stared at each other for a long moment.
“Well, you have to stay,” she said. “My wedding’s coming up. You can be in my honor guard! The Sayvada boy I’m marrying is kind of an idiot, but I– if you could be there, then maybe…”
The Bondsman shook his head again.
“Got another job lined up,” he said.
“Oh,” Tara said. “I just… I’m worried. There’s a lot riding on this. My parents told me the pact is everything for our House. It’s my duty as the heir to marry and I’m not afraid of that but… I don’t know. It’s stupid. I thought maybe if you were there, it’d… it would be alright.”
Her cheeks flushed and she looked at the ground. She felt like a little girl again, small and scared and in the wilderness with no one to help her.
No one but him.
“We could pay you,” she added after a moment.
“No,” Tenlok said flatly. “Like I said. Another job.”
He pointed at the rifle on her back.
still practice with that?” he asked.
She smiled. It wasn’t too big for her anymore.
“Every day that I can.”
“You remember what I taught you?” he asked.
“Don’t point it at something you don’t want to kill. Center mass. Nothing fancy.”
“I have to go,” he said finally. He brushed passed her and walked off down the beach, heading into the darkness.
She watched him go, unable to even call out a goodbye. Before long, he had disappeared. Tara sat down on the shore, watching the waves come crashing in. The wind was cold, but not as cold as the snows of her homeworld, and the rifle was no longer heavy on her back. At last, she stood up again, and began the long walk back to her family’s manor.
Whatever the next day held, she would face it.