The fourth anniversary of his family’s death found Brody on Mars. The ship still landed every few weeks to deliver fine Bourbon from Tycho and gems from the mountains of Ptolemy. Brody took it upon himself to lay low on these missions. All ships had to show papers stating the names of everyone on board. Ekon knew he was there. But he’d left the King’s service abruptly, and he didn’t want lingering resentment to affect trade relations.
His services were rarely required in the civilized kingdoms anyway.
They landed in the docks by the palace. Brody helped secure the crates for delivery before Jax lowered the ramp. Two guards came aboard to confirm identification and escort Alexander, who inspected the goods and handled payment on the King’s behalf.
Today, however, he lingered. Brody watched him from the doorway of the corridor. He leaned against the cold metal, gun on his hip but in plain sight. Alexander would never cause that kind of trouble, but it wasn’t in the gunman’s nature to let his guard down.
He’d sobered up a bit in the last couple of years, as time, distance, and new wounds made it easier to bury old ones. He still saw his girls sometimes, in dreams or when he had too much time to think. He still carried the ache of loss, the anger that helped him cope, but it was quieter now.
Except today. Today, he was on edge. It was harder to focus, harder to breathe, and he didn’t want to think about why. Once the crates were unloaded and his unnecessary guard duty was done, he’d be hitting the bottle hard.
The only thing standing in his way was Alexander. Irritation burned in his veins.
The white-haired man beckoned the captain over to a corner of the loading bay for a private conversation. Colin nodded and said a few things that Brody couldn’t hear. Then the advisor stepped down to oversee the crates as they were loaded into a small truck. Jax closed the ramp to the loading bay, and Brody was in the kitchen before the hiss of the air lock sounded.
He had a particularly strong bottle of unopened scotch he’d been saving for a shit day like today. Leroy was there, too, rooting around for food. He hadn’t even bothered showing up for the exchange. Brody tamped down his annoyance with effort. Everything got under his skin today. He had to be careful or Leroy would take the brunt of it, and for once he might not deserve it.
Brody opened the cupboard, found the bottle, and lifted it. It was empty. He pulled it down and stared at it, uncomprehending. Then he caught movement out of the corner of his eyes, and his anger ignited, red hot. Leroy, sneaking away. He froze when Brody’s gaze landed on him.
“Sorry, Shots, I was going to replace it.”
His shrug, so nonchalant, made Brody want to break his shoulder. The bottle fell to the floor with a resounding clank, and his hand was around Leroy’s throat before he was fully aware of what he was doing. He held back, grip loose but unshakeable as Leroy tried to pry his fingers away.
“It was in the kitchen! The kitchen is communal,” he managed.
“The fuck it is.”
“I was just going to have a glass! But that is some quality stuff. I killed the bottle before I even realized it.”
“You’re in the kitchen, Leroy,” Brody growled, leaning in close to the mechanic. “Can I kill you?”
The younger man’s breath came in gasps, from fear more than because his airway was constricted, but it didn’t look good when the captain and Jax appeared in the doorway. Jax pulled his gun without missing a beat, but he’d wait for the captain’s orders—even where his brother was concerned.
“Get the hell off him, Shots,” Colin ordered in a low voice.
He knew better than anyone what this was really about. Brody met his gaze. His eyes had the same anger, the same haunted look as his own, but somehow he remained in control. That had never been Brody’s strong suit, but he didn’t want to lose his place on the ship. He released Leroy and stepped back.
The mechanic leaned against the table, hand to his throat. “Shit, I almost pissed myself.”
Jax returned his gun to its holster but only gave his brother a glance.
“Get off my ship and don’t come back until you’re cooled down,” Colin told Shots. Then he rounded on Leroy. “And what did you do?”
“What?” Leroy’s brown eyes were wide, playing innocent, but under the hard gazes of both the captain and his brother, he faltered. “I may have taken something that didn’t belong to me.”
Colin glanced down at the empty bottle. “Then you’ll replace it, and if you don’t stop fucking with him I might just let him have his way next time.”
Leroy’s cheeks flushed. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled.
“Now both of you, out. We’ve got a job. We’ll discuss it at breakfast tomorrow. I don’t want to see either of your faces until then.”
Brody turned and stalked down the corridor. He took the elevator without bothering to remove the gun from his belt. Technically, he was still licensed to carry on Mars. He fidgeted with the data ring below his first knuckle as the metal cage descended.
He left the docks, still in search of a drink. There were no dive bars on Mars, nowhere his twice-worn shirt and unshaven face would really fit in. The closest thing was the bar by the far docks, which was frequented by other interplanetary travelers and off-duty security guards from the palace.
Still, just walking in made him feel unsettled, and he was already in a shit mood. Mars’s worst place to grab a drink was better than the best in Sector 25. The scent in the air wasn’t cheap alcohol, sweat, and vomit. It was something fresher, something better. Wood soap and citrus.
To the right was the wooden bar top, a natural resource which wasn’t easy to come by for the satellite kingdoms—except maybe for Mercury. The barstools had seatbacks. To the left were intimate round tables, and in the back was a lounge. The faux leather couches were piled with more throw pillows than had probably existed in his entire apartment building on Ptolemy.
This was the life he’d failed to attain for Jill and Maxine. The names formed in his mind, unbidden.
He needed that drink. Now. He sat at the bar and glanced down at the reader. It had been preloaded with a menu and advertisements, but he already knew what he wanted. The bartender appeared with a ready smile before Brody could signal.
“That bottle of scotch.” He pointed to a tall bottle with smooth lines on the top shelf.
“The fifty-year single malt?”
“Yeah,” Brody grunted. The bartender hesitated, and Brody struggled to keep his anger under control. “I know what it costs.”
It was midday. There were only a few patrons in the bar, but they turned at Brody’s menacing tone. The bartender’s face flushed.
“Sorry, yes, of course.” He grabbed the bottle and poured a glass with swift skill, anxious to put the embarrassing incident behind him.
Brody downed the glass like a shot and poured another. On the third, he finally found some of the relief he’d been searching for. Warmth unwound his muscles, numbed the heat in his veins, and quieted his thoughts. He looked down at the reader again, starving, now that the knot in his stomach was abating.
What he found himself focused on instead was the full-page advertisement he had to view before he could get to the menu: Now accepting bids for the 68th King’s Auction.
He glanced through the details. One night with one of King Ekon’s beauties. Starting bid $100,000. Brody had more than twice that in his account. He considered for a moment. Fine booze and a fine woman. It would be one hell of a way to get rid of the money that had been weighing on him for the last four years. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at the number.
Once upon a time, it had a purpose. Now it meant nothing.
Someone sat down next to him, too close, considering there was only one other person at the bar. He caught a glimpse of a palace uniform in his peripheral, instinctively alert even through his alcohol-induced haze. He didn’t look directly at the person, but he sensed body movement. The person was leaning in to talk to him. Irritation rippled through him.
“Your new job must be treatin’ you well.”
The gravelly female voice was familiar, and it compelled him to turn. Tamara. They hadn’t worked together long, but he’d liked her well enough—back when he’d let himself feels things for people.
“Tamara,” he grunted in greeting.
He motioned to the bartender for another glass, and, out of habit, poured a generous amount. Tamara raised the glass in thanks and took a sip, closing her eyes in silent appreciation.
When they opened again, she pointed a finger at the ad on his reader. “You gonna bid?”
He made a noncommittal noise. He could tell she was joking.
“The last Victor paid $248,000. The first time she got $910,000. But I ‘magine interest wanes a bit once you know she’s been with sixty-odd other men. And women.” She winked.
“When did it start?”
“’Bout two years ago. Guess the King realized he had an untapped commodity on his hands and could spare a girl.”
“Is it always the same one?”
Tamara took another long sip and nodded.
Brody glanced down at the ad again. There was no picture. No other information on the Prize. Just that tomorrow was the last day to make an offer. The following night the Victor would claim his—or her—Prize. Brody ran a hand over his jaw.
He didn’t need any other information, and neither did anyone else. Ekon’s beauties were known throughout the System, and there were plenty of people who would pay just to see one of them, let alone fuck one.
Brody was surprised the bidding might actually stay in his price range.
He’d never taken much moral issue with paying for sex. It was a mutually-beneficial arrangement. No different than paying someone to cook a meal. The whores needed money, and he needed to get off.
He wasn’t sure it was the same this time around. She wasn’t selling herself, after all; she was being sold.
But he’d stopped caring about things like right and wrong four years ago. On impulse, he tapped the link that would allow him to bid. Tamara was busy downing the rest of her glass. He flipped open his ring and aligned the sensors. He bid $250,000. It was all the money he had, except for what he might need to survive.
Tamara glanced down just in time to see the confirmation.
“Shit,” she breathed. “You were serious.”
She raised her wide eyes to his. “You gotta get me a job on that ship.”