The Avadis system wasn’t, at first glance, a particularly interesting place. Its planets had little to mine that couldn’t be found elsewhere—making it an unattractive claim for Trade Barons—and the system sat far enough inside fringe world space that it held little strategic value for the Alliance of Free Worlds or the Radiant Throne. It did, however, have a gas giant that no interstellar power had claimed as its own, and a consortium of concerned interests that were determined to make sure it stayed that way.
Free fuel attracted a lot of interest.
The economy that sprang up around the free fuel depot mostly followed the pitch “as long as you’re here, you might as well buy something.” There was a brisk, thriving trade that focused on the kinds of things people who didn’t like paying for things would buy. Illegal things, in other words: the Avadis black market was so openly displayed it was nearly silver.
“You took me to a pirate system.” Baron Minerva Tyrelos scowled at Grif as she sank as far back into their booth as she could manage.
Grif, sitting across from the baron and peering suspiciously into a glass of dark, murky liquid, waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not a pirate system. A ‘pirate system’ would be a star system where the economy is driven by pirates. Avadis’ economy is driven by fences. There’s a difference.”
Amys sat to the baron’s left, sipping a dull orange liquid from a smoky brown tumbler. Her mouth quirked once, eyes sparkling, then her features smoothed into an emotionless deadpan. “It’s really not much different from a Trade Baron world, if you think about it.”
Baron Tyrelos’ mouth firmed into a disapproving line. “This is nothing like a Trade Baron world.”
Grif glanced at Amys and suppressed a grin. “Sure it is. Buying. Selling. Cheating. Lots of cheating. Granted, the tech in this system is at least fifty years behind Core standards, everything’s on the verge of falling apart, and everything smells like someone mixed up coolant and lubricant and put them in all the wrong places, but conceptually it’s almost exactly the same.”
The baron sighed and half-turned in her seat as she tried to sink even farther into the booth.
This time Grif didn’t bother to hide his grin. “You’re just going to attract more attention that way. Sit up straight and drink your hootch.”
The baron looked at the glass filled nearly to the brim with what appeared to be chalky gray broth. “I’m working up to it. Mind telling me why we’re in this black market paradise? The sooner you get me to Canthus, the sooner you get paid, and the sooner I’m out of your hair.”
“Messhik,” Grif said.
Amys gritted her teeth at the mention of the crime lord. Grif shrugged apologetically. “It was our best option.”
“Still pisses me off,” Amys said.
“Fair enough.” He turned his attention back to the baron. “The prioritized flight plan Messhik gave us took us here, and it came with the name of a contact.”
“The name of a—” The baron’s eyes widened in surprise. “Already? He’s using you already?”
“He’s not known for wasting time,” Grif said. “It doesn’t count as the one job, either. It’s our ‘show of good faith.’”
The baron thought it over, the nodded. “That’s smart. I assume it’s something simple.”
Grif nodded. “Pick something up. Drop it off later. We’ll drop you off first, though.”
Baron Tyrelos nodded absently as she toyed with her drink.
“The good news is that Avadis should be pretty safe,” Grif said. “At least for a while. It’s not exactly in the thick of things. Most of the people who live here don’t give a damn about Trade Baron politics… not even the parts that explode.”
“That’s something,” the baron agreed.
“For as long as it lasts,” Amys added. “Which won’t be too much longer.”
Grif nodded. “Unfortunately true. Assuming he’s not an idiot, it won’t be too much longer before Sonim starts coming after you.”
Baron Tyrelos shook her head. “I’m convinced he thinks I’m dead.”
“Sure,” Grif said. “But that won’t hold up for too much longer.”
“Why wouldn’t it?” The baron asked.
Amys nodded toward a table set next to the front door, where Lieutenant Adyt—out of uniform and sitting with two other members of her guard, also out of uniform—were oh so casually playing a game of cards. “He’s going to notice they’re not showing up for work.”
The baron narrowed her eyes as she worked it through, then closed them, deflating slightly as she sighed. “Right. They’re the ones I always used.”
“Because you trusted them,” Grif said. “It should be easy to verify that they weren’t present during the explosion…”
“…because they secured a warrant to have your ship searched,” she finished. “Which also ties me to you, which I imagine doesn’t thrill you.”
“It means we really have to get you to Canthus before Sonim realizes you’re still alive,” Grif said. “This ‘as long as you’re out, why don’t you pick up a few things for me’ errand Messhik has us on is inconvenient for pretty much everyone.”
“Is that why we’re here?” The baron asked. “Are we waiting to meet his contact?”
“No,” Grif said. “Cyrus and Ktk are taking care of that. I just wanted something to drink.”
Baron Tyrelos looked at the still-full glass of dark murky liquid sitting in front of him. “Seems like you’re about as enthusiastic as I am.”
Grif scowled at his glass. “I think it has nuts in it, or something? I keep seeing all these floaty bits…”
Amys laughed. “This coming from a man who drinks alcoholic hair gel.”
“Hey!” Grif protested. “I would never put Stellis in my hair.”
“Trade you,” the baron said.
Grif looked from his glass to hers, weighing dark and murkey against chalk gray. Then he shrugged, reached across the table, and lifted the baron’s glass into an impromptu toast.
“Clear skies,” he said, and downed the drink. He grimaced, blinked twice, then frowned thoughtfully.
“Well?” The baron prompted.
“The gray conceals a myriad sins,” Grif said. “I wouldn’t mind another.”
Amys, slightly amused, slid Grif’s glass across the table to the baron. “Your turn.”
Baron Tyrelos sighed. “I suppose it is.” She took the glass and held it aloft. “To the Baron’s health.”
She didn’t bother trying to down the entire glass, but she took a respectable swig. Grif and Amys watched her closely.
“Huh,” she said. “There are nuts in it.”
Grif made a face.
“Hair gel,” Amys said.
“It’s not terrible,” the baron continued, “but it isn’t exactly good.” She took another drink. “Strong, though.”
She took another drink.
“I think it’s growing on me.”
Grif slid out of the booth and got to his feet. “I’m going to get more of the gray stuff. Amys? Anything?”
Amys shook her head.
Grif looked at the baron. “Refill?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said.
“All right then.” Grif wandered over to the bar and struck up a conversation with an alien that looked like a cross between a turtle and a sentient mop.
An awkward silence fell over the booth. The baron continued to drink the murky concoction in her glass. Amys kept an eye on the front door.
The baron sighed. “We should probably try to get past this awkward hostility.”
Amys thought it over. “No, I’m OK with it.”
The baron laughed. “I’m not so bad.”
Amys shrugged. “So what? You’re too rich. You’re too powerful—even now, you’re too powerful. And you’re making my life infinitely more complicated than I like. It’s not your fault, not entirely, but we’re still screwed.”
“Not necessarily.” Baron Tyrelos stared at Amys, studying her closely. “I can and will pay. And I won’t forget any of this.”
“That’s part of the problem,” Amys said. “Money’s nice, but when it comes with a leash it loses a lot of its charm.”
“I’m not trying to put any of you on a leash,” the baron protested.
Amys narrowed her eyes. “You don’t have to try. It’s what you do. People who manage resources view everything as a resource, and it’s either your resource or someone else’s.”
The baron nodded once. “There’s some truth to that. It’s not the whole truth, though.”
“I’m not really interested in minutiae,” Amys said. “At the end of the day, the finer points are lost on the neck you’re stepping on.”
“I’m not—” The baron cut off what she was going to say as Grif slid back into his booth.
“The gray stuff is called ‘sulk,’ which I think is hilarious,” Grif said, setting a fresh glass of the chalky gray concoction down in front of him. “The barkeep described it to me, and it’s amazingly vile.”
He frowned slightly, gaze shifting from Baron Tyrelos to Amys, then back to the baron. He shook his head.
“You tried to make friends?”
Neither said anything.
“I thought you read people better than that,” Grif said.
The baron’s mouth tightened into a slight frown as Amys suppressed a smile.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter right now. Amys, there’s a thing.”
“Is there?” Amys leaned back, looking for all the world as if she were simply settling into her spot, as her hands slid smoothly underneath the table.
“Yeah, so I was talking to the barkeep quite a bit, and it seems that this bar is a popular with bounty hunters.”
Amys grinned as if she were listening to an amusing story. “Oh really?”
Grif grinned back. “Yeah.”
Her grin froze in place for a second, becoming more of a grimace. “Shit.” Then it smoothed out, and she laughed. “How bad?”
Grif shrugged. “You know that thing I do, where you ask me if anything’s wrong and I tell you everything’s fine because I don’t want to admit that I really don’t like the odds?”
“Yeah,” Amys said. “I know that thing. I really hate that thing.”
“I know,” Grif said. “So, basically, everything’s fine.”
Amys managed to flip the table on its side just before the shooting started.