Setting the scene:
NarrAy Jorlan is on the planet Kelthia, in Miraj City. She's about to meet with Luc Saint-Cyr (AKA the Harbinger) and the young thief she's hired. Waiting in a nightclub called The Ghost, she bides her time while her security staff keeps watch among the crush of dancers and hangers-on in the club.
Captain NarrAy Jorlan of the All People's Liberation Army leaned against the third-floor balcony railing, counting her blessings that she stood far above the dance floor. Lieutenant Broxus, her human assistant and security escort, had worn appropriate party clothes to the Ghost, but when NarrAy appeared, the staid officer had gone googly-eyed and started stammering.
Maybe this low-cut red party dress wasn't the best choice.
The noise level where she stood felt merely painful rather than deafening. She resisted the urge to plug a finger into each ear. Her other aide, Encie Falehla, moved around down there, lost among the heaving bodies. Encie liked this sort of place. Noisy, jam-packed with people.
More like with sweating males. What's with Kin and the smell of sweat anyway?
Two Betters posed at the bar and surveyed the crowd. Her kind hid as well as the sun on a clear day. Perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect bodies. Perfectly lonely lives. Everyone wanted the pheromone-induced lust a Better could provide. Few desired their addictive nature. And since enactment, the Better Laws ensured even fewer dared taste the exquisite pleasure.
Just down from the Betters, Encie turned from the bar to flirt with someone in the crowd.
Please, not another HalfKin. Another disappearance ranked high on NarrAy's avoid-at-all-costs list. The APLA might shelter thieves, ruffians, and even cold-blooded assassins, but not suspected serial killers. Even knowing the truth, NarrAy had sworn she'd fire Encie if it happened again. The fragile state of the fledgling rebellion warranted all due care.
After turning from the railing, she moved back into the room where the Harbinger had agreed to meet. Her aide came to attention.
"Any word, Brox?"
He touched one ear, listening to his comm. "Not yet, ma'am." Broxus refused to meet her gaze.
This dress was a mistake. Too revealing, too short, too red. She suppressed a sigh. "Tell me about the Harbinger."
He glanced toward her feet. "Didn't you meet him, ma'am?"
NarrAy rubbed her arms and shivered.
"I see you did." Broxus flipped open his notereader and tapped the screen. "Luc Saint-Cyr's reputation is more chilling than his eyes. He's been tied to everything but prostitution and homicide, but never arrested. Ops says folks around here won't talk about him. No one even says his name, and they flinch when an outsider does. Creeped me out doing background research, tell you that. I got the impression he's some kind of father figure to a lot of young men, though."
She snorted a laugh. "I have a little trouble picturing him as the daddy type."
"From what we can tell, he looks out for his people. There's no crime in his territory. One thing's for sure"-Broxus turned off the notereader and tucked it into his pocket-"no one crosses him. Police can't get a snitch anywhere close."
"And Senthys Antonello? Anything on him?"
"No, ma'am. The name's known, but that's all. No arrests. No warrants. Rumors indicate he's young, but nobody talks except to say he's the best. Trained by Saint-Cyr himself. Thieves' Guild ranking is advanced interior security, level nineteen, which means he can break into government holding areas."
"That's exactly what we need."
Brox folded his arms across a wide chest. He filled out that plain suit as well as he did his usual uniform. "You know, they say the Thieves' Guild adopts toddlers and rears them to be thieves."
"Well, unless Senthys is underage, I don't care how old he is."
Head tilted, Broxus lifted two fingers to his ear. He nodded to NarrAy, then motioned with his fingers toward the door.
NarrAy turned, tugging the skirt of the tight dress down a bit more. She held herself more erect. After two knocks, the door opened.
The Harbinger stepped inside, another person behind him.
"Ms. Jorlan." Saint-Cyr made a slight bow.
She clenched her teeth behind her returned smile. The man's whiteless eyes made it impossible to see where he looked.
"Mr. Saint-Cyr." She interwove her fingers behind her hips. The customary handshake of greeting wasn't an option because the Better Laws forbade unnecessary touching.
"May I present my Deshai-that's protégé in the guild-Senthys Antonello." The Harbinger gestured to the dark-haired, handsome youth with him. "Senthys, Ms. NarrAy Jorlan."
"Ms. Jorlan." Senth extended a hand. To his credit, his blue-eyed gaze never strayed.
NarrAy ignored his hand.
"My apologies, ma'am." The Harbinger nudged Senth. "Betters don't touch others, son."
The boy glanced up at him with clear surprise. NarrAy had the impression he reacted to the title "son" rather than the belated instruction.
"Yes, sir." He ducked his head. "My apologies, ma'am. I didn't know."
"Quite all right." She motioned to Lieutenant Broxus. "Please show Mr. Saint-Cyr and his Deshai to the door."
Broxus did not hesitate. "This way, sir."
"Ms. Jorlan?" The Harbinger turned his head from her to Broxus and then back. "Is something wrong?"
"I contracted with you for a professional, not a child. He can't be a day over fourteen."
Senthys grunted with exasperation and threw up his hands. "I am not a kid!" He turned to the Harbinger. "Sen'dai, please tell her my qualifications and how old I am." He turned toward NarrAy and clasped his hands behind his back, his shoulders straight.
"My Deshai has more credentials and experience than three-fourths of his peers-of any age, and as for his youth?" Saint-Cyr shrugged. "He has a baby face. He's eighteen."
NarrAy scrutinized the Harbinger. Had she just seen him obey an order? There's more to this boy than I thought.
Senth took a step forward. "Believe me, Ms. Jorlan, I can accomplish whatever your contract requires. I've spent the last fifteen years learning my craft. How many years have you studied yours, whatever it is?"
With a smile, NarrAy nodded. "Point well taken." She made a slow perusal down his lean yet muscular frame. Huge, pale eyes the color of a dawn sky, with the feline pupils of a Kin. Nothing else catlike about--Ooh, look at those irresistible little fangs.
A riot of loose, dark curls fell to Senth's shoulders, the way she preferred. He had dusky skin and symmetrical features not unlike a Better's, yet muted. With his young face, his masculine beauty seemed gentle, but she sensed an inner and physical strength she hadn't noticed at first. A physical presence and leashed energy.
And he doesn't fear Betters. Well, well.
"Come, Senthys." Saint-Cyr touched the youth's arm. "Ms. Jorlan does not--"
"Wait." NarrAy spoke to Senthys. "Do you have gloves?"
"Yes, ma'am." Senthys started to pull them on.
Broxus lurched forward, but NarrAy stopped him with a lifted hand.
Saint-Cyr stretched out a hand to stop Senth. "I don't think that's a good idea, son. It's against the law to touch a Better."
Again NarrAy caught Senth's faint look of surprise. She flashed a look of irritation at Broxus, who backed away.
The young thief smiled widely. "The law's never stopped us before, Sen'dai."
Saint-Cyr frowned but moved aside.
NarrAy offered her hand. She'd practiced this with her father as a girl. "A gentleman doesn't try to overpower a lady's hand, NarrAy. But he isn't afraid to be firm either."
She held his gloved hand between both of hers. "I can see you're a gentleman, Mr. Antonello."
His cheeks reddened. "Just Senth, ma'am."
"Senth it is, and I'm NarrAy. Never Ms. Jorlan, nor ma'am. Not on this job." She gave his hand a squeeze. "Understood?"
He met her gaze. "Does that mean you want me?" He blushed again and glanced down at their still-joined hands. "For the job, I mean."
She bit back a laugh. What a little innocent you are. "So long as we're clear on who's in charge."
"When it comes to theft, I am. For everything else, you are, in every way."
You have no idea. She grinned at him. He had never once tried to look at her body. Maybe this dress will be okay after all.
"Come sit." She gestured toward an adjacent room. "Let's talk business."