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But the idea of flying Avalon for the first time in years made those worries seem like pale shadows in strong light. Maybe, just maybe, if he played it right, he might soon get to fly her forever.

Chapter 06

SILENCE GREETED JETH AS HE STEPPED ONTO AVALON. He wasn’t surprised to see that none of the others had made it back yet. He went to the galley and quickly gathered some food, stowing it in a small satchel. Then he returned to the recessed bench.

The beggar was gone. Jeth wondered if the Brethren had discovered him after all. He doubted the man had been strong enough to leave on his own.

Jeth returned to Avalon, his heart heavy with regret. Not that he could’ve done anything differently to help the man, but the truth offered poor consolation.

Soon, he thought. Soon I will be someone else, living a different life from this one. He paused in front of the door into Avalon and placed his hand against the cool, smooth metal of the ship’s hull. His journey into that new life would start tomorrow. No matter what Hammer planned.

With his determination solidifying inside him, Jeth stepped aboard Avalon.

Dim lights lining the corridor floor punctuated the darkness as Jeth passed the row of crew cabins on the way to his own. When he saw that the door to Milton’s cabin was open, Jeth stopped and looked inside. It was never a good sign to see the door open. Most nights, his uncle locked himself in as a way to guarantee that no one would bother him until he was ready to be up. He was so serious about this he would fasten an actual metal lock on the door’s handle when he turned in.

But tonight Milton was lying in an awkward heap on the bed. Jeth reckoned he had probably passed out, given all the empty bottles lying around. Milton’s drinking always worsened whenever Jeth and the others were away on a job. Milton might be his guardian legally, but in reality it was more the other way around. Ever since Jeth’s mother had died, Milton had stopped caring about everything except drinking, and for a time, when he could still afford it, gambling. Jeth’s mom had been Milton’s younger sister, although a good twenty years separated them. Still, every time Jeth looked at him, he couldn’t help but remember the uncle from before, the man who wasn’t broken, but who laughed often and handed out sweets and who always had time to play with his niece and nephew.

Sighing, Jeth stepped into the room and rearranged Milton’s limbs into a more comfortable position. He needed his uncle sober and in as good a mood as possible tomorrow morning when he broached the subject of the Belgrave job. Milton’s presence would make the crew happier. They respected him in a way they probably never respected their own parents. Milton never told them what to do or tried to get them to behave in any particular way. But Jeth knew his uncle could easily opt to stay on Peltraz, checking into a comfortable hotel while they were away.

When he finished, Jeth tossed a sheet over Milton and closed the door. Then he went to his cabin, where he spent the rest of the night in fitful sleep, his unconscious mind alive with dreams about what the future would hold.

As Jeth emerged from his room the next morning and made his way down to the galley, he heard the happy sounds of chatter and plates clanging. He grinned at his luck. It seemed everybody was home and in a good mood. It would make getting them to swallow the news about the Belgrave job easier. He suspected at least some of them might not have made it to bed yet. Quickening his pace, Jeth trotted down the steps from the passenger deck to the common area below.

Something yellow and furry scurried into his path. He lurched sideways to avoid it, but the furry thing hissed as Jeth stepped on its tail. He lost his balance and skidded down the last few steps on his bottom, taking the creature with him as he flung out an arm to brace himself. It dug its claws into his hand as they came to a stop, and then it scurried up the stairs and disappeared around the corner.

“Lizzie!” Jeth yelled, picking himself up. He glanced down at his stinging right hand and the three shallow—though still blood-speckled—claw marks running down from his knuckles.

The noise in the galley ceased, and Lizzie’s face appeared in the doorway. “Problem, Jethro?”

“Yes, there’s a problem,” he said, striding into the common room. “Why the hell is there some animal running loose on my ship?”

Lizzie grinned. “You met Viggo already?”

Dear God, she’s already named it. “Who is Viggo?”

Her grin broadened, and she began twirling the end of her brassy-brown hair around a finger. “Just a kitty I picked up last night off One-Eyed Johnson.”

Jeth closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was going to kill her. “You went to One-Eye’s last night? Wait, don’t answer that.” He took another breath and focused on the worst of her offenses. “You brought home a cat?”

“No, I brought home a kitty.” She strolled through the galley door and walked over, stopping right in front of Jeth. She stared up at him, her green eyes wide and her enthusiasm electrifying. “A really cute, fuzzy, adorable kitty, who’ll bring us lots of laughs and fun and love and will really brighten up the place.”

Jeth’s lips twitched as he held back a smile. Lizzie knew how to play the adorable card. “Oh sure, fun and lovable.” He waved his injured hand in front of her face. “I thought I told you no pets.”

Completely unconcerned about the scratches, she feigned surprise. “Did you? I sure don’t remember you saying that.”

“Uh-huh. Well, now I’m saying that if you brought a cat on board, you need to keep the mangy thing confined to your cabin.”