heather lin book

Lady of Mars: Chapter 53

Capri walked back to the palace in a daze. She’d found a tram heading in the right direction and hopped on the back, keeping her head down and alighting a few blocks from her destination.

She had to take every precaution until she was safe within the palace walls again. She had to stay focused, even as shock, hurt, and anger coursed through her.

It had been naïve to think the auction would end with her. She’d been a valuable source of income. She knew now why Briony had avoided her. She was trying to keep it a secret, to save Capri the anguish of knowing that her own role hadn’t changed in the slightest. Briony would teach Gina to entertain rich men and women, all of whom would have different tastes and expectations, in the name of the King.

Briony would teach her, and the next Prize, and the one after that.

Gina didn’t deserve that future. None of them did. But now it was crystal clear that there would always be a sacrificial lamb in Ekon’s flock—because they were disposable, and he was greedy.

Capri forced her mind to quiet as the docks came into view. Getting out had been easy enough. Getting in would depend on confidence and luck, like much of her life so far. She took a deep breath, relaxed the muscles in her face and shoulders, and pulled back her hood. She tilted her chin up and adopted an air of regal authority as she approached the guard at the footpath entrance.

There were two ways into the palace: the front gate and the docks. She was counting on the likelihood that the guards stationed at the docks hadn’t been briefed on the tracking devices. The fewer people who knew about the devices, the less chance there would be of a leak, she reasoned. The guard looked bored until he caught sight of her.

He shifted a bit so he was more upright. His cheeks turned pink. His gaze was appreciative.

“You need to let me in,” she said.

The young man’s brow furrowed. “I can’t do that without seeing proper identification.”

“You know me,” Capri said, and he glanced around, as if hoping someone else would come along to share the responsibility. Then he squinted.

“Lady Capri,” he said finally. “The one who was taken.”

She nodded.

“You aren’t supposed to leave the palace.”

“Well, I did,” she said briskly. “And now you need to let me back in.”

“I’ll need to run this by—”

He reached up to touch his linker, and Capri cut him off. “If you tell anyone about this, I will tell them you let me out.”

He looked stunned. “They won’t believe you.”

“Are you willing to take that chance?”

He paused, considering, and Capri took a gentler tone in order to smooth the feathers she’d ruffled. “I’m only trying to get back to where I belong. No one will be the wiser, and you’ll get home on time instead of sitting in an interview room—or worse.”

His gaze was angry, but he didn’t argue. Capri felt a pang of guilt. He was innocent in all this, but there was no way around it.

“Go,” he grunted.

“Thank you.”

She replaced her hood and walked quickly through the docks until she found a truck heading for the warehouse. She hopped on the back of it, concealing her body behind boxes, and placed the stolen hat on her head for good measure. Once inside, she employed her trick of passing for a kitchen worker, grabbed another bag of sugar, and entered the walkway.

Capri took off the hat and apron and made to go through the door to the stairs. She was almost safe, as long as she could retrieve the necklace before any guards saw her and realized she wasn’t where the tracker indicated.

But the door opened, and the tall, round figure of the night chef blocked her way. He eyed the burdens in her arms, a clear sign she’d been up to something. “What are you doing here?”

Capri’s mind was racing. She could go through the kitchen rather than the stairwell. With that option came the risk of being seen in a state of distress by several workers, who would likely call the guards. With that option came the risk of her whole plan failing and Brody dying.

He knew who she was—or at least what she was—and she knew what he’d ask in return for silence. It would be the only commodity she possessed. But she dragged her eyes back to his tiny blue ones. He’d have to say it.

“Decided to take a little tour of the warehouse, huh?” he asked, sneering. Again, she didn’t speak, and his eyes narrowed to slits. “Guards won’t like that, but I can make sure they don’t find out.”

He looked pointedly at her breasts. Capri thought he might start drooling on the spot. She slipped her hand into her pocket and felt the comforting weight of the stun gun.

“Let’s go, then.”

He moved forward, and she took a step back, trying to hide her sudden burst of fear. She shook her head, relying on his eagerness to control him, to make him go elsewhere.

“I’ll take you to my room. You’ll want the full experience of bedding a beauty.”

He paused, and she could see his tiny mind working. He’d have an even better story to tell his friends if he did as she suggested. He nodded, and she led him to the stairs. She paused at the second floor landing, and he looked at her with suspicion.

“We’ll take the far elevator,” she said. “But I need you to distract the guard.”

He nodded and went through the door ahead of her. She couldn’t hear what he said to him, but when he beckoned her through, the guard was gone. One obstacle down.

On their left was the entrance to the botanical gardens, and another guard stood stationed outside of the doors, too far off for facial recognition. She walked a few paces and then ducked suddenly behind a pillar, feigning a sudden change of heart.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I can’t.”

“Oh, you’re gonna,” he growled, and he leaned forward, threatening with all of his body language to take her then and there.

She jammed the stun gun into his groin and let him drop into the hallway. The guard’s hurried footsteps approached, and she snuck around the pillar, hurried down the hall, and entered the gardens.

The locket was buried in a hidden grove that was popular for meditation and yoga. She dug it up quickly and slipped it around her neck. Relief made her knees weak, but she stayed standing. To anyone who was tracking her, it would look as if she’d had an extended stay in the gardens.

Now that she was safely back in the palace and the locket was around her neck once more, she let her focus shift to the information she’d discovered at the bar. She balled her hands into fists and went back to the elevators, ignoring the medical team crouching over the fallen cook. She got off on the fourth floor and headed straight for Briony’s door.

She knocked sharply. There was no answer. Her former attendant was probably sleeping, but Capri knocked on the door again, demanding her attention. After a few moments, it slid open, just a little. Briony’s expression changed from one of annoyance to one of surprise—and guilt. Capri recognized it now. But even as her cheeks turned pink, her mouth formed a thin line of resolve.

“It’s not a good time, Capri. The memorial is in just two days, and we—”

“I know what you’ve been hiding from me.”

Briony’s eyes widened, and she opened her mouth as if to protest.

“Don’t,” Capri said. She couldn’t stand it if her friend lied to her again.

Briony’s shoulders slumped, and she opened the door all the way. Capri entered and dropped into the familiar sofa near Briony’s digital window. It was raining against the pretend pane; the sound of it floated from speakers nearby and the air smelled of it.

She found herself wondering what real rain was like. She wasn’t sure she remembered. Snow, wind, sleet—she wanted to know all of it now. The desire for freedom was a hunger pain, gnawing and insistent.

“How did you find out?” Briony asked, sitting down on the other end of the sofa.

“You knew I would eventually.”

“I knew it would upset you.”

“I was more upset when I believed my only friend wanted nothing to do with me.”

“Oh, Capri.” Briony moved closer and reached out to squeeze her hand. “I’m sorry.”

“He’s gone too far,” Capri said, looking down at their still-joined hands.

The blond’s brow furrowed, and she lifted Capri’s fingers to examine them more closely. There was dirt from the garden beneath her nails, and she pulled away before Briony could begin asking questions.

“What does Gina think of all this?” she asked, keeping the subject away from herself.

Briony shrugged. “She’s only had one Victor so far, and she wasn’t…traumatized beforehand, as you were. She’s doing the King a service, and he’s rewarding her well.”

“I don’t understand it. She was the new favorite. If it hadn’t been for the shooting…She was supposed to usurp Marianne that night.”

“He did have her first, shortly after I was appointed her lady. It’s part of what’s kept her…so agreeable, I think.” She lifted her eyes to Capri’s. “She’s always been properly infatuated with him. You never were.”

“So she’s easier to control,” Capri gleaned.

Briony looked away again, and Capri suppressed a feeling of rage. “He can’t keep doing this. Having his ‘collection’ is bad enough, but this…The United Nations can’t possibly support turning the palace into a brothel.”

“I doubt they know anything about it. The Prize’s identity is anonymous to outsiders, so even if they caught wind of the auction they wouldn’t know it was someone different, and they won’t make a fuss over one girl. Anyone who knows the truth won’t report it. They’d risk the same fate as Alexander or your Brody.”

Pain lanced through Capri, but she forced it back with a grimace. “He’s not ‘my Brody’.”

“You know what I mean.” Briony’s voice softened. “I can’t say I thought I was doing the right thing by not telling you. I was waiting for the right moment, for a sign, for something. It never came. I should have been braver. I’m sorry.”

A knock sounded on the door then, and the two women glanced at each other. Most people were in bed at this hour. Capri was reminded of her recent, unauthorized outing. What if Haddaway had been lying? What if there were cameras after all? A second tracking device? What if the cook had opened his mouth, or the guard from the docks?

If Briony noticed her anxiety, she said nothing. She opened the door to find a guard standing on the other side. Capri held her breath, and then he held out a folded note with a familiar seal. It was for her. She squeezed her hands into fists a couple of times to stop them from trembling, and she took the note with a nod of thanks.

She read through it and breathed a sigh of relief. It had nothing to do with her.

“I have to go,” she told Briony. “We’ll talk later?”

Her friend nodded. “Of course.”

Capri nodded in return and left to go back to her own small apartment. She was still hurt, but at least they were on their way to mending.

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