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They entered the estate, navigating hallways as lavish as the garden outside. Jeth had been here often enough that he found it easy not to gawk at the floor-to-ceiling paintings and row upon row of ancient First-Earth vases stuffed full of fresh flowers. Plush, indigo-colored carpet covered the floor.

Sergei led him past two Malleus Guards standing watch outside a large sitting room. Jeth didn’t have to see the clear implants on the backs of the men’s heads to know they were Guard. The vacant, frozen expressions on their faces, like upright corpses, were enough.

“We wait,” Sergei said as they stepped inside.

Shrugging, Jeth sat down in one of the chairs. In moments, the steady tick-tick-tick of the antique grandfather clock in the corner began to grate on his nerves. He focused on other sounds, and slowly became aware of raised voices beyond the door opposite him. He couldn’t make out any words, but the tone was hostile.

A short while later, the door slid open and a man emerged, a glower on his face. He too wore a black implant, marking him a Brethren. But unlike Sergei and most of the other Brethren Jeth knew, this man was smaller of build, less daunting. The moment he spotted Sergei and Jeth his scowl vanished, replaced by an easy grin. Jeth did a double take. He’d never seen any Brethren grin before. Ever.

The man winked at Sergei. “Good to see you, Serge.”

“Dax,” Sergei said, not returning the friendliness.

Jeth’s eyes went wide as he realized who the man was—Daxton Price. Jeth had never met him before, but everyone associated with Hammer’s operation knew him by reputation. Dax worked as a tracker for Hammer, and the stories about him were nothing short of legendary. They said he could find anyone anywhere in the known universe no matter how cold the trail, and that he could shoot straight down the barrel of an opponent’s gun before the person had time to take aim.

Dax turned his gaze to Jeth. He had black hair and caramel-colored eyes, with a long, straight nose and broad chin. “And you must be Jeth Seagrave, the latest test baby. Heard a lot about you.”

Jeth frowned, unsure how to respond. On the one hand, having a guy like Dax know who he was felt like a compliment. On the other hand, he didn’t like the phrase “test baby” or the derisive undertone he sensed. He didn’t exactly understand the term either, although he figured Dax was referring to Hammer’s infamous aptitude tests. All the kids who lived and attended school at Peltraz were required to take them. Hammer’s way of keeping inventory of potential resources. Though Hammer had zeroed in on Jeth long before any test results.

“Same here,” Jeth said at last.

Dax pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the door. “If you’re going in there, Golden Boy, I would step careful. The big man’s in a fiery mood tonight.”

“Right,” Jeth said, his stomach giving a nasty lurch. “Thanks.”

Dax winked again and then swept past them, leaving the room without another word.

“Go on.” Sergei motioned toward the door.

Jeth gritted his teeth, then forced himself to relax. He needed to appear calm, like he didn’t have a reason in the world to be afraid of Hammer. Hammer was a ruthless tyrant, but he didn’t tolerate groveling or cowardice. He detested any sign of weakness. If Jeth went in there looking guilty, Hammer would devour him whole.

Jeth stepped inside, closing the door behind him. A large dining table made from some dark wood filled most of the room. More wood covered the floor. It was so highly polished Jeth could see his blurred reflection in the soft glow of faux torches hung at intervals around the walls.

Hammer sat at the head of the table, but he didn’t look up at Jeth’s entrance. He kept his attention focused on a plate overflowing with what looked like a slab of real steak. The smell of it filled the room, making Jeth’s stomach rumble. Real meat was a delicacy at spaceports. Most of the stores and restaurants couldn’t afford the extra import costs and relied instead on synthesized imitations. The imitations weren’t bad, but nothing beat the real thing. He closed his eyes, reveling in the scent and the memories it invoked from when he was a kid, living planetside and having meat whenever he wanted.

Yet Jeth’s appetite vanished as quickly as it had come as he remembered the starving man and the way the bones in his chest had stuck out like a mountain range beneath his skin, and how he had pleaded for food. The longer Jeth stood there waiting to be acknowledged, the more volatile his hatred for Hammer became.

Having no desire to watch Hammer eat, Jeth locked his gaze on the foot of the table, but it was impossible to ignore the squishing sounds issuing from Hammer’s mouth as he chewed.

When Hammer finally finished eating, he set his utensils aside and said, “So I hear the Montrose job didn’t go as smoothly as planned.”

Jeth blinked in surprise at Hammer’s casual tone. He couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t in trouble. Hammer’s reactions might be unpredictable, but Jeth could read his moods well enough. This was not an angry Hammer, not the ruthless tyrant ready to condemn a man to slow death by starvation. This was Hammer, the politician. The only time he was ever diplomatic was when he wanted something without having to use force.

But what does he want from me? Right away, Jeth’s thoughts turned to the lost ship. Was recovering it important enough to stay Hammer’s wrath at how badly things had gone at Kordan? Hammer was cruel, but not stupid. He knew when to use the carrot and when the stick. Such instincts were one of the reasons he was so successful.

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