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Finally, it was Jeth’s turn. He climbed inside the last barrel and then stared up at Danforth, who’d come into the back to put on the lid for him.

For the first time since Danforth’s unexpected arrival, Jeth noticed how awful he looked, worse than he’d ever seen him—and that was saying something given the way his brown hair had always hung like rags around his face, the grease so thick even a strong breeze wouldn’t ruffle it, or how his skin always looked patched and crumpled like an apple left out to rot in the sun. Now his thinness bordered on emaciation, his skin drawn and brittle over his skull. Red veins wove thick webs through the whites of his eyes. Jeth wondered what kind of work he’d been doing for Hammer since his time with the Shades had ended.

“Promise you’ll keep Lizzie in line?” Jeth said, a tremor of genuine fear sliding through his belly and down his thighs. Letting her stay might have been the most practical decision, but his big-brother side didn’t particularly care.

“Sure I will. She’ll be fine. It’ll be easy.”

Jeth nodded, reminding himself that Danforth had guided him safely through his first couple of jobs, with only a few exceptions that—if Jeth were willing to admit it—had mostly been his fault for not listening. Then he remembered how Lizzie was just like him. “Don’t trust her to do anything on her own. She likes to get creative.”

Danforth smiled. “Understood.”

Jeth nodded again, and was about to tell Danforth he was glad he was here when he noticed a thin membranous line of black liquid trickle out of Danforth’s left nostril.

Danforth wiped it away at once. “Shit, sorry about that. I’ve been getting these damn nosebleeds lately.”

“Why?” Jeth asked, his heartbeat quickening. It hadn’t looked like blood, at least not the normal, oxygenated kind. That black liquid looked like burner blood, one of the signs of Odyssey abuse. But that was impossible. How would Danforth have gotten his hands on the drug? Even Hammer, who had virtually no morals to speak of, refused to deal in Odyssey. Known by a slew of street names—Black, Flyboys, ZXMP—it was the most addictive drug in the galaxy.

“Hammer’s had me working a job on Gallant Prime for the past couple of months,” Danforth said, meeting Jeth’s gaze. “That’s one of those coal mining planets. The stuff gets everywhere. Dries you out. I’ve been getting these bleeds ever since I came back.”

“Okay.” The word choked Jeth’s throat, like icy air.

With an effort, he shook the feeling off. Worry for Lizzie was making him paranoid. One little flash of a dark liquid did not make Danforth a drug addict. He seemed coherent and functional, his old tech ops magician self. And if he had been stuck in a mine on Gallant Prime, that would explain the degradation in his appearance as well. Those who spent most of their time in the treated air of spaceships and ports often struggled with breathing the real thing.

Just do the job and get out, Jeth reminded himself. Play it safe. No tricks. No mischief. But the resolution didn’t make him feel any better as Danforth slid the lid into place, sealing Jeth in darkness.

CHAPTER 03

BY THE TIME THEY ARRIVED ON THE PALACE GROUNDS, Jeth had forgotten about his paranoia. The job demanded all his attention and focus. They had made it past the security checkpoints without problems, and Shady and Danforth had let the others out the moment they’d finished unloading the first round of barrels for the party.

Soon after, Celeste assumed her role as servant with remarkable ease, managing to get all the relays for the master control hub and comm into place. The role allowed her to come and go from the palace without passing through the metal detectors. All servants were supposed to have gone through a physical security check at the gate.

Once the unit was up and running, Danforth and Lizzie hacked into the palace’s security system, Lizzie radiating eagerness like some kind of electrical current. Flynn’s and Shady’s parts would come later.

Now it was Jeth’s turn to get into place. He approached the long flight of wide marble steps that led up to the massive pavilion lining the front of the emperor’s palace. A row of white pillars, carved in the likenesses of warrior men and women wearing fitted helmets and armor, held up the pavilion’s roof like priests in a religious ritual. The main doors to the palace stood open, with lines of armed sentries sporting the red uniform of the emperor’s personal guard flanking both sides of the doors.

At the sight of them, Jeth reached up and scratched behind his ear, surreptitiously pressing the communicator patch affixed to his skin. “Heading in. Turning you off,” he whispered.

“Gotcha, Longshot,” Lizzie’s voice echoed inside his ear a second later. The sound of it made him stumble in shock.

“What are you doing on the line?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it covered. Just call me Little Hawk.”

Jeth grimaced. His little sister, first-time criminal.

Shoving the thought away before one of the guards noticed the grim look on his face, Jeth pressed the patch again, holding it long enough to terminate the connection completely.

He willed a confident smile as he stepped into the line for the security check. When he reached the front, he slid his counterfeit invitation out of his back pocket and handed it to a gray-haired man. The man’s bored expression remained in place as he slid the invitation through the scanner. The red light on the scanner turned green at once with an audible beep.

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