Prologue: Blood is Thicker
By Ulla Susimetsä
Annora ran. The darkness swallowed her, suffocated her. It's all in your mind.
Wouldn't be, if they caught her. They'd send her down to the caverns, the narrow, twisting darkness. Nothing there but death.
Her mother's face, ravaged by illness, swam before her eyes. She choked on her sobs, stumbled.
A city had sprouted near the caverns, sprawling and poisonous like a fungus growth in the rocky depths. Arantilae slum was a harsh place to live... too big a word, living. It was all about surviving.
But Annora wasn't driven only by her need to survive. She had a plan, a cause, her every action controlled by her hunger for vengeance. The Duvals wouldn't set foot on a piece of filth that was Arantilae – to exact her revenge, she had to get out. Once she scraped together a bit of credits, she offered to take a tiny wreck of a ship off the hands of its owner. Didn't cost much; she pretended to know what she was doing, 'Flying that piece of scrap would be a suicide.' The name stuck.
She found an ex-pilot, kicked out of the Imperial navy – more eager to grasp a bottle than a ship's controls – and bribed him to give her flying lessons. The manoeuvres she acquired were fitting for piloting a ship named Suicide. She also learned a thing or two about how Imperial pilots handled their ships. Wouldn't hurt when the time came to fight or flight.
'Of course, sir.' Grus handed over his dataslate, the records opened for inspection.
The man took it, flicked his fingers in what seemed like a search command. The hard, grey eyes skimmed the records.
The annual inspection of the ambrosia cup caverns was something Grus, the overseer, knew to expect. This man was not. They always sent a bureaucrat, dry, precise, bored.
This man was precise, but bored? Keen and steely as a knife. What was Admiral Duval doing here, in CT Tucanae, inspecting the caverns where slaves harvested ambrosia cup? Grus would never know. You didn't ask questions from the Emperor's nephew.
'This is all?'
'Of course, sir.' Did he think Grus was hiding something? From the man called The Hunter?
'Always, sir,' Grus shrugged. 'The last page.'
A long list of names there. The Admiral stared, didn't so much as blink. 'Runaways?'
'They don't dare. Where'd they go? Ah,' he said, as if he'd only just remembered, 'one brat fled after her mother's death. Scrawny little thing, perfect for the caverns.' Grus had reserved the girl for other use, but knew better than to say it. A slave who worked in his bed didn't work in the caverns. No profit in that. A satisfied overseer might be more dedicated to his job, but that didn't matter to the Duvals.
'Did you look for her?'
'Try finding someone in that slum! Sir. Might not be there anymore, always bragging about getting out of here.' He sniggered. Slaves and their big dreams! Though there was something about the girl, a bitter, bloody-minded passion... and undying hatred against Admiral Duval and everything his kind represented.
'Very good.' The Admiral handed back the dataslate.
Grus had expected to be admonished, perhaps punished, for his sloppiness. The Duvals were unforgiving, full of their imperial selves. But the Admiral... a chill rippled through Grus. Looking at him was like looking into space, cold, empty.