Excerpt: The Valmont Contingency

Chapter One

“I was right about you. I will never again break bread with a port rat who learned how to steer a barge.”

The oversized door slammed, echoing off the sandstone porte cochere holding the Ocasek armored groundcar.

Tasha adjusted the hem of her skimpy blue kimono, tugging it a few millimeters farther down her thigh, and concentrated on not biting the carefully painted red stain off her lips. She had kept the china doll–white maiko mask in place for over two years; it would be foolish to let it slip now. There were razzi outside the ben Khalid estate’s gates.

“Baby-eating, mother-whoring stump of a camel do—” Hiron Ocasek grunted as he hit the leather seat, cutting off the stream of invective, and reached to shut the door before the driver could get to it.

Tasha sat in silence, her ankles crossed and her hands folded in demure obedience, not even a tremor of her fury and shame leaking through. She couldn’t remember a more humiliating evening, but after going over the events again, she concluded that there really wasn’t any way her father could blame this on her. All of the other “introductions” had at least turned up to see if the stories about her were true.

He had reached too high for this one. The ben Khalids were the definition of Republic society. Ster ben Khalid had served in the cabinet years ago, and Madame ben Khalid had argued cases in front of the Supreme Court. Tasha’s stepmother hadn’t even been invited to the dinner, which implied that they had wanted the fewest Ocaseks under their roof as possible.

She kept her posture rigidly straight as the car started moving, its electric motors no competition for her father’s heavy breaths. It lurched as it exited the ben Khalid security perimeter and triggered a supernova of camera flashes and vidcam glows, allowing her to sneak a look at her father without being noticed. His expression was like a bad infection. Black and red, swollen with irritation and filled with metaphorical pus. It was obvious that he wasn’t happy, but not to what degree, and that was worrying.

Tasha looked out the nearest window at the passing scenery, mostly security walls and gated entrances. “Marie Valmont” had received her test scores that morning, with an accompanying text from the board congratulating her on achieving medical technologist certification. In two weeks, maybe three, she could lance the pustule and drain the Ocasek infection from her life. Then Tasha Ocasek, Ice Princess of the bloid media, would cease to exist and a medtech who never wore makeup or high heels and never even considered showing cleavage—let alone portions of her crotch—in public would come into being. If there was a god. She took a deep breath and let it out as slowly as possible, careful not to show anything on the outside.

She would be able to shed the icy persona with the makeup and stop guarding every breath. The freedom of just the thought was intoxicating.

“Ripping aristocrats. Think their blood is purer than everybody else’s just because their credits are older,” wafted across the passenger compartment with the acidic scent of nervous sweat. Her father often muttered politically incorrect statements when he was upset, and she often wondered if she should point out that it hurt business when he did so.

But if she did point anything out, her father’s weakness would be her fault.

His comm went off and she nearly jumped out of her skin. He’d left it turned on during a dinner party hosted by the ben Khalid of ben Khalid Industries? Was he insane?

He pulled it out of his jacket and frowned at the display, then answered with his characteristic bark. “Ocasek.”

Tasha tried to stop listening, but whoever was on the other end didn’t say whatever he wanted to hear, because the frown creased further, into a scowl.

“Who is this, and how did you get this ident?” His voice hadn’t gotten any louder, which could be good or bad. Several seconds of silence passed. “And how did you know about that?” Her father’s voice relaxed back to the oily conversational tone he used when trying to ingratiate himself. He must be talking to someone important, perhaps someone like Rafael ben Khalid.

Tasha bowed her head and bit her lip to control the sudden burst of apprehension. The man couldn’t have changed his mind after the argument, after her father stormed out in a snit. Could he? One thing she had learned in the last two years was that cartel people could overlook almost any kind of insult if the profit margin was high enough.

“What, only shipping outside the Republic? Do you know how much administrative crap that entails? Of course not. What about Ocasek carrying a minimum percentage of all your product?”

The ben Khalid cartel didn’t need anyone to ship their product; they built ships—military ships, pleasure yachts, freighters. If a transport carried people or goods from ground to vacuum or back, ben Khalid had a hand in it and a credit from its sale. The caller couldn’t be ben Khalid. She felt almost dizzy because it meant she still had a chance at freedom.

“All right, I think we have a deal.”

She looked up to find her father smiling at her. Hiron Ocasek didn’t look good when he smiled. In fact, he looked more than a little like a Terran toad. Her stomach cramped. Things always got worse when he smiled, much worse. “I’ll send the transport just as soon as the contracts hit my In Docs queue. It’s a pleasure doing business with you.” He ended the call and pursed his lips.

Tasha’s chest tightened until it was difficult to breathe without gasping. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
“Tasha, when we get home, pack your…shite.” He waved vaguely at her torso. “You’re moving in the morning at oh nine hundred.”

She blinked at him, not quite able to comprehend what he meant. He couldn’t have sold her for a cartel contract—human trafficking was a felony. “I beg your pardon?”

The question earned her a glare. “I said pack. As of tomorrow, you’re Ari Blaine’s problem.”

Ari Blaine. Tasha bit the inside of her cheek to keep the hysterical giggle from getting out, her emotions ratcheted down too far for the full-throated scream that would be appropriate. She nodded a response and turned to look out the window, the picture of placid acceptance. Ari Blaine was not entirely sane. He liked to wear nail extensions that sliced people’s wrists when he shook hands with them. He always had at least two women on his arms at any social function, but everyone knew they were drugged to the roots of their hair. Tasha had personally seen him inject one of his companions in the carotid after she’d correctly pronounced a three-syllable word.

In short, Ari Blaine was her worst nightmare, worse than What’s-His-Name ben Khalid, spoiled and overprivileged engineering genius, who couldn’t even be bothered to show up. And Ari was always watching her, almost as if waiting for her to run, so he could pounce. If she ever ended up under his roof… That particular source of fear burned into anger almost immediately.

“I see.” Some kind of anthropological miracle kept the horror out of her voice. “And what, exactly, comprises my ‘shite?’”

The glare took on a confused cast. “You know, clothes, makeup…shite. Like your samisen. I’ve been listening to you twang on that thing for twenty years too long.”

As usual, he exaggerated. Tasha had been in his house for eighteen years, not twenty. And he had rarely heard her practice, since she’d been banished to the service wing the instant her stepmother had seen her.

“Books?” she asked, careful not to bring up jewelry. If it was worth anything, she knew the answer already, but her father had never cared about the visual word unless it was in contracts.

He snorted. “You don’t have any books.”

Actually she did, but he didn’t know about the reader she kept hidden under her menstrual supplies. She would need to take that. But not to Ari Blaine’s.

“You didn’t go cheap, if that makes you feel better. Ocasek will be contracted for fifteen percent of Blaine pharmaceuticals both in and outside the Republic as soon as you take up residence in Ari’s bed. He didn’t even try to jex me around with a marriage contract.”

She would need to get out of these ridiculous clothes, to wash off the Ice Princess mask. To make a plan. She frowned at the window glass, now dark since they had outpaced their razzi escort. An official identity change could take a couple of months, but she had to be off Dorrigan before 0900 in the morning. Before dawn would be better. That meant a hack for her wrist chip. Tasha wouldn’t be getting off-world in a legal berth, complete with ticket and exit visa. Her available credits simply wouldn’t cover both.

She could sell her earrings. Almost unconsciously, she fingered the fiery indigo stud in her left ear. They weren’t worth much, but her mother had given them to her and she didn’t want to part with even one of them unless she absolutely had to.

Neither she nor her father said another word until they got back to his house.

“Tasha,” her father called as she started toward her room.

She paused and turned obediently.

“Don’t even think about trying to run away. This deal is worth a lot of credit. It could make us part of a cartel, which would set this family for generations.” He glared at her. “I will take steps to ensure that tomorrow goes as planned.”

She smiled the maiko’s smile her mother had taught her how to perfect all those years ago and bowed to the man who had snatched her away from that mother for the purpose of using her to make life better for his real children, those born of a political marriage.

It was easy, because she knew things about his household he didn’t. Like which security sensors weren’t working and which ones the security staff routinely ignored. Who on his staff hated him almost as much as she did—the sort of things a useless shirttail relative learned from the staff who raised her. Things like how easy it had been to routinely sneak out to go to classes or work for the last year and a half, at least with her face blessedly normal looking.

Tomorrow was going to go as planned all right, but it wouldn’t be his plan.

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