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Shades of Allegiance (PAPERBACK)

Shades of Allegiance (PAPERBACK)

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Lieutenant Ramie Ashdyn is going homeor rather, to the hellhole that is her home world.

With vengeance driving her, she's intent on tracking down the criminal who can help her unravel the conspiracy that's threatening the Coalition. Unfortunately, old enemies are sabotaging her efforts, jeopardizing the lives of the few people she trusts. To accomplish her mission, she'll need to be cunning and ruthless, and that means scrapping her conscience and burying emotions are adversaries could exploit. 

Of course, being cunning and ruthless would be easier if the Coalition hadn't sent "Rest in Peace" Rykus to retrieve her. Ash is the only person who can detect the telepaths who have infiltrated the government, and Rykus must keep her safe until they can escape the planet. But with secrets between them and Ash determined to contact the Known Universe's most feared crime lord, staying aliveand togethermight be an insurmountable feat.


Chapter One

The Tin ’n’ Tenth hadn’t changed in half a decade. Dark and dank, the crowd of dregs gambled away their credits at ancient data-tables and broken booths draped in shadows. Someone hammered a fist on a table near the back, cracking the already splintered surface. There, the gamblers’ hoods were drawn back, revealing the men’s faces. Ash recognized Kristio—an old acquaintance, not a friend. Friend implied trust, and trusting was the quickest way to get yourself killed on Glory.

Ash noted the faces of the others sitting near him, then scanned the rest of the pub. Like her, most of the occupants wore hoods pulled low over their faces. The Tin ’n’ Tenth was one of the few establishments that didn’t require its patrons to reveal their identities when they entered. That was one of the reasons she’d chosen to come here. That and the hope that she still knew the man who owned the place.

Pulling her longcoat around her, she walked across a floor that was caked with the ever-present mud and muck carried in from the streets outside. The air stank of shit mixed with cheap alcohol. The precinct bosses stayed far away from the filth and stench—another benefit to the secluded pub—and after five years of assignments in cleaner atmospheres, Ash had a hard time not gagging.

Breathing through her mouth, she headed toward the bar and the tall, thin man who stood behind it. She didn’t recognize him. If he was the new owner, entering Brightwater Precinct had been a risky waste of time.

The bartender limped toward her. Definitely not the proprietor. He was too young to own the place. From a distance, his hollow face and height had made him appear older, more world-worn. She’d forgotten how heavy a toll this planet could take on people.

“What do you want?” the kid asked.

“Disruptor with a shot of rom,” she said, taking a seat in the middle of the row of nine stools.

The kid froze. “What?”

She repeated the order.

He glanced over his shoulder to a curtained doorway, and Ash kept her hand close to the weapon hidden under her longcoat.

“Let me check the stock.” The kid limped to the back room.

Her gaze shifted from the curtain to the mirror along the back wall. The center stool gave her a good view of the entrance and the narrow hall that led to the alley. It also kept her close to the counter, which was bullet and heat resistant. She’d learned that little tidbit of information over a decade ago when a very well-planned scheme had gone bad.

She tapped her fingers on the water-stained counter. A minute passed. Then another. Chances were the man she’d known was dead. So many people from her past were.

The curtain moved again, and beneath her hooded longcoat, Ash smiled.

Aksel was a big man. Tall, broad, and ugly as a mottled spaceship. He didn’t walk toward her; he lumbered, a mean-looking beast of a man.

“What did you want?” he demanded.

“A disruptor with a shot of rom.” Her smooth words were a light, whimsical hello.

Aksel stared, undoubtedly trying to make out her features hidden beneath her hood.

“We don’t have rom.” He rested his hand on the bar, thumb and index finger extended, his other three fingers curled under.

“I’ll take a vorix then.”

The code phrase hit him like a shock wave.

“Fuck. Me,” he whispered. Then the biggest grin in Brightwater spread across his pockmarked face.

“Hello, Aksel,” she said.

“You were dead. How in Cast’s name are you here?”

“Keep your voice down.”

Aksel gave one quick nod, then said, “What do you need?”

That quickly, he offered help. It plucked a string of guilt stretched across her chest. She had been good at manipulating people—still was, actually—but she didn’t like the instant loyalty. She should have been greeted with anger and suspicion.

“Who’s the kid?” she asked, sidestepping his question.

The tall boy stood in the doorway, half his body hidden behind the curtain in a way that said he had a weapon held ready to shoot. That was more like it. Either the kid had orders or the kid was smart.

“A project,” Aksel said.

Beneath her hood, her eyebrows rose. Aksel couldn’t see most of her face, but he must have guessed at her expression.

“You aren’t the only one who started new hobbies.”

“Philanthropy.” She sniffed. “You should know better.”

“Some things stuck.” He reached beneath the bar.

Ash had her Covar halfway out of its holster before she froze. So did Aksel. His eye twitched, then slowly he raised his hand and set a bottle of vorix on the counter.

“I wouldn’t betray you,” he rumbled.

She slid the Covar back into place. “Someone did. Only a handful of people were in on the scheme.”

She didn’t have to say which scheme. Aksel had helped her out on more than a few, but it was her last one—the one designed to take down Scius, the strongest and cruelest boss on the planet—that had ended with the deaths of dozens of men and women who’d committed themselves to the fight.

He pushed the vorix toward her. “It wasn’t me.”

She shrugged like it didn’t matter, like she didn’t care, but betrayals had hammered her world, and those craters didn’t heal easily.

She reached for the vorix and thumbed the cap on top. When it loosened, frost coated the outside of the glass, chilling the ale inside.

“You made it off-planet,” Aksel said. “You’d been erased. Not a sign of you left behind. Everyone thinks you’re dead. Why would you come back?”

She took a casual sip of the vorix. “I need to contact Neilan Tahn.”

His expression hardened back into that killer-beast look that said get the fuck out of my bar.

“If you’re suicidal, there are quicker ways to get dead.”

He spun away and stalked to the other end of the bar to serve the woman seated there. Ash waited, knowing Aksel would make his way back. He always did. This was their old routine, her devising reckless schemes, him trying to talk sense into her. He would refuse to help at first. Then, when he saw she would go through with her plan anyway, he’d pitch in at the last minute, saying somebody had to save her ass.

She was perfectly capable of saving her own ass, but it never hurt to have a backup plan.

He straightened a few bottles on the back wall before he returned to her.

“You hear about the clinic?” he asked.

She rested her arms on the counter and nodded. He needed time to mull things over. He’d always been the cautious type.

“I assume that was your doing.” He took out another vorix and triggered the top.

“Burning it to the ground? No.”

He shook his head. “You kept it up and running. Kept her alive. Hired the mercs.”

Ah. That. Yes. She had bought protection for Mira and the clinic. Mira was a doctor sent by UniCorps, an interstellar aid organization that, in Ash’s opinion, was wasting its time and resources on Glory. That hadn’t stopped Mira from doing everything she could to help the dregs of society. It hadn’t stopped her from helping Ash.

“It would have been razed five years ago if I hadn’t,” she said.

Aksel studied her. “Mercenaries are expensive. Where did you get that kind of credit?”

“Here and there.” She took another sip of her drink and looked to the mirror when the front door scraped open. Three men strode in.

A shot of warm, rain-moistened air followed them through the pub. Their hoods were thrown back, revealing their faces, which made them either brazen or stupid. Wearing hoods reduced the risk of assassination by twenty, maybe thirty percent. Even the lowest of Glory’s dregs knew better than to attack someone they hadn’t ID’d. Mess with the wrong person and the bosses would put credits on your head, and surviving a kill decree was never very easy or very fun.

A frown crossed the middle man’s face when he spotted her at the bar. She didn’t know him, and he couldn’t know her. She’d been careful to keep her face hidden.

The trio approached. The two thugs-in-training took up position behind her while the middle man slipped to her left. His face twitched when she didn’t swivel the barstool to look at him.

“That’s my seat,” he said.

“Best seat in the house.” Ash toyed with her bottle on the counter, smearing its water ring.

The man leaned in until his face almost touched the side of her hood. “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Ash said, “but I assume you think you’re important.”

The mirror on the wall practically shook with his fury.

“Get out of my fucking seat.”

“Rhoth,” Aksel said, a very obvious warning in his voice. “Find somewhere else to sit.”

“When I’m here, this seat’s mine.” Spittle went flying.

“Not today,” Aksel said.

Rhoth straightened. “Watch yourself, old man.”

“He’s not that old.” Ash cocked her head. “You’re what? Fifty? Fifty-two years standard?”

She didn’t think the dreg could sneer any harder. His face twisted into an animalistic rage, and he seized her hood.

Ash swept his feet out from under him, then slammed his face into the bar. A yank backward on his longcoat sent him crashing into one of his comrades. Ash side-kicked the third thug in the groin. He hit the floor hard and curled into a fetal position.

So easy, and fighting felt good. She’d stayed in the shadows the past three days, taking inventory of who had died, who had compromised, and who had snaked their way into positions of influence. She’d wanted to slice a knife across the throats of most of the dregs she stalked, but she hadn’t been ready.

She was ready now.

Rhoth pushed himself upright, then wiped the back of his hand across his bloodied nose. “You’ll regret that.”

“She won’t.” Aksel’s voice boomed behind her. She didn’t have to turn to know he had a weapon trained on Rhoth. Two other dregs did as well: Kristio, who’d abandoned his gambling at the back of the room, and another hooded individual who stood near the pub’s entrance.

“You want them dead?” Aksel asked.

A flick of her hand and three lives would end. Five years ago, she wouldn’t have hesitated.

“No,” she said. She’d killed more people than she could count in order to survive Glory. She’d killed even more as a soldier, but she wasn’t serving the Coalition now. This would be cold-blooded murder and she… Well, she wasn’t that person anymore, and these dregs weren’t yet on her kill list.

Rhoth spit blood to the mud-covered floor.

“Who are you?” His tone had changed. Not that stupid after all then. He knew Aksel wouldn’t have intervened in ninety-nine percent of the brawls that happened in his pub. That made Ash special.

Aksel stepped to her side.

More blood poured over Rhoth’s mouth when his nostrils flared. He studied her with eyes as dark as the muck clinging to his boots. Memorizing her face. She couldn’t blame him. She would have slaughtered him had their positions been reversed.

Not looking away, he leaned down and pulled one of his dregs to his feet.

“Keep your hood up,” Rhoth warned. “Next time I see your face, one of us dies.”

Ash snorted. He honestly thought it would be her.

Aksel made a discreet hand signal, and Kristio lowered his weapon. Rhoth and his dregs strode toward the door, passing the hooded newcomer who hadn’t yet holstered his Secca Nine.

“New security?” Ash asked when the door scraped shut.

“That one is.” Aksel nodded toward Kristio, then shifted his aim to the hooded dreg. “That one isn’t.”

The newcomer lowered his Secca Nine, then made it disappear beneath his cloak.

“About fucking time,” the man said.

Ash let a grin spread across her face. “Chace. Always showing up at the last minute, pretending to save the day.”

“It’s my specialty.”
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