An honest living is hard to come by. Is it easier to cheat? Well, not necessarily.
Palisade guards are stationed at every corner, plasma canons cradled in their arms, parading around in their shiny silver armor, spit-polished until you can see your face in it, the terror in your eyes mirrored back at you ten-fold. They're always eager to imprison anyone for the slightest trace of insubordination.
But if you don't cheat or steal or lie, you end up like the rest of us. Starving. Scared. And more than likely imprisoned anyway, destined for death row. If you're lucky, you might be sent to a mining camp where you'll live out the rest of your short, miserable days hacking up blood from the moon dust in your lungs until you can't breathe and you die.
To hell with an honest living.
Veshi market was churning with beings from all over the Bullet Belt, and guards. Vendors hawked their wares, getting louder and louder in an attempt to out-bid each other and gain the public's attention—wilting fruits, poorly assembled ray guns, crocatta squid smothered in sauces, oils, and herbs to hide the stench of rot.
I threaded through the crowded, twisting streets, elbows tucked close to my body, not to make myself small but to protect my ribs and my pockets. I knew all too well how many pick-pockets milled around these parts. I had been one of them for many years until I graduated to the gambling tables.
With one final glance over my shoulder to make sure no guards were following me, I ducked into a nearby stall filled with spare parts from ships, cruisers, land rovers. The smell of grease and engine oil, coupled with the sharp, acrid scent of energy burners filled the room. Every spare inch of space was utilized, crammed with pieces that weren't likely to sell but they sat there anyway in the hopes that some gullible fool would pay for faulty parts.
That's what it came down to in the end. The lords and ladies of the Suns sat pretty in their seats of government, clad in silks and gold, while the rest of us poor sods scrambled for whatever sorins we could rob from each other.
I rapped my knuckles on the metal doorway in the back of the shop. Three times. Pause. Once.
The door opened to reveal a tall, broad female Krevlaa. Her skin was deep purple, accenting her gold eyes and her head had been shaved smooth to reveal the tattoos that wreathed her forehead like a crown.
"Business?" she said in a deep bass tone.
"Good evening, Lila. It's always a pleasure to see your lovely, smiling face."
She sighed. "Come on. Just say it and be done."
"May the Suns be blessed with the beauty of a supernova in the not too distant future."
Lila grunted and shifted her massive frame aside, allowing me to pass through. I stepped into the hallway, dimly lit by an eerie green glow from the slug lamp overhead. I held my arms out to either side and waited as Lila patted me down, searching for weapons. I handed over my bag without being prompted to, knowing the whole ordeal by rote. She rummaged through it and handed it back, bored. Any idiot who was obviously packing a weapon to an Unauri game had a death wish.
I kept my switchblade tucked into the sole of my boot where no one would feel it or see it if I was patted down. An even bigger fool would show up to an Unauri game unarmed.
"The door on the left," Lila said, nodding down the hall. "The game is about to start so you'd better hurry up."
I nudged the strap of my pack a little higher on my shoulder and pushed the door open.
A round table had been set up in the back room with five beings surrounding it, hands placed flat on the surface to show there was nothing up their sleeves, though there usually was. But no one was sitting.
That was the thing about a game of Unauri. It was so tense—and so illegal—that no one dared to sit down for fear of losing or getting caught. Losers tended to get upset about the massive amounts of money they were forced to part with, taking out their frustration in gruesome ways. And no one reported the countless ugly murders that had occurred over the game since Unauri wasn't supposed to happen in the first place.
So it was easier to remain standing, light on your feet in case guards showed up and it was time to run. Or a sore loser decided they wanted your blood.
"Ladies," I said with a nod. "Gentlemen. Others."
I recognized only one participant at the table—the keeper of the den, Zeen Markle, a human male with long dark hair swept back tightly, bound up in a black silk wrap, tied off with a sorin coin to signify he was so wealthy he could wear it instead of scrape by like everyone else.
Zeen wasn't much older than me. I was seventeen, he was twenty, but he had made a name for himself in the gambling world already, a better cheat than I could ever hope to be.
Not that I—or anyone for that matter—could prove it. Even if I could, it wouldn't make much of a difference. Reporting him to the Palisade would only bring grief down on my head when he gave the word to his cronies to come after me. I'd be sliced up into teeny tiny pieces, never heard from again.
All I could do was beat him at his own game.
"Sinon Le Doux," Zeen said. He didn't smile so much as bared his teeth and stopped short of growling. Despite Zeen's reputation as the best Unauri player in the Bullet Belt, I was gaining on him. And he didn't like it.
"I told you," I said. "We've been seeing each other around here for so long, you might as well call me Sin like my friends do."
Friends. I didn't have any. Friends were dangerous luxuries I couldn't afford, not in my line of work. But no one needed to know that. Besides, I rather enjoyed seeing the pissed off look on Zeen's face when I was casual and he was…seething.
"Enough with the pleasantries," he said. "I thought we might up the stakes tonight."
Zeen raised his hand with a lazy flick of his wrist. One of his bodyguards stepped forward and placed a steel box on the table, turned it over. Dominions spilled out, glittering red like blood.
Silence descended on the table.
Where sorins were hard to come by, dominions were even more rare in these parts. Especially in this quantity.
A Tinga man shook his head, muttering in Tinganese under his breath. He held up his four hands, palms out.
"Too much," he said. "I'm done."
A flicker of a smile teased at Zeen's mouth. He surveyed the other members at the table but they didn't meet his gaze and they didn't bow out. He waited until the Tinga man had left the room before he gestured to the table.
"Don't be shy," he said. "Add your own contribution."
More dominions flooded the center of the table. I waited until I was the last one and withdrew a handful of dominions from my pocket. I couldn't afford to part with them but that was the trick to cheating. It was still a gamble. I had to bet a little in order to gain a lot. And I wasn't planning on losing tonight.
Zeen already had more money than all of us put together. Why was he placing so much on the table now? Was it for show? Surely, he wasn't gambling with all of it. Zeen wasn't stupid, at least not like that. But if this wasn't all of it…he had more somewhere.
"Buying your way into the Palisade, are you?" I goaded.
Zeen didn't take the bait. No one bought a seat in the Palisade government. Palisade rule was inherited only, passed from one spoiled rich brat to another. But flash enough cash around and you might be able to buy favors, gain a little influence, bend the ear of the right lord or lady dazzled by the shiny promise of even more dominions to line their already flush pockets.
That was the last thing I needed. Zeen Markle rubbing elbows with a Palisade lord or lady, whispering all manner of devilish things to them about me. Guards would crack down on me even harder until I couldn't move a muscle without staring down the barrel of a plasma canon.
Zeen focused on dealing. I watched his spidery fingers darting over the cards. I knew he cheated, knew he had multiple cards tucked away on his person, knew he would pull from the bottom of the deck, but I could never catch him at it. He was too fast, too smooth.
"Let's begin," Zeen said with a flourish to the table.
I picked up my cards and surveyed them, calculating. Not even close to winning. Zeen would, no doubt, be in the lead. He was, after all, the keeper of the den. Cheating came with the territory. Cheating helped him save face. He might lose one or two games, for appearances' sake, but never so much that it would put him in the black.
I flicked two cards on the table. "Deal two."
Zeen smirked and slid replacement cards towards me. There. A repeat of the same card I had just rejected. He was gloating now, showing off that he could get away with pulling the wool over everyone's eyes while I had to be subtle about it if I wished to leave here alive without a set of Palisade bracelets cuffed around my wrists.
That was fine. If he wanted to play that way, I would happily accommodate him.
I didn't fidget or make a big show of distracting Zeen's attention where I didn't want him to look. It just required a little sleight of hand.
My fingers ducked into the small pocket sewn inside the hem of my jacket. My thumb brushed the edge of a card carefully rendered to look exactly like Zeen's deck. I had spent hours studying his cards, painting each duplicate by hand until no one, not even Zeen himself, could tell them apart.
But before I could get rid of a single offending card and replace it with a studious copy, one of Zeen's bodyguards caught my wrist.
"Miss Le Doux," Zeen said without looking up from his cards. "Do you know what I do with cheats?"
"Put them in time out and scold them for being naughty?" I replied.
I should have known better.
Zeen clenched his teeth and dipped his head once. The bodyguard holding my wrist backhanded me so hard, I spat blood onto the floor.
"Try again," Zeen said. "Less sarcasm this time if you don't mind. What do I do with cheats?"
I ran my tongue along my split lip. Nothing I hadn't been through before. Although if I wasn't careful, Zeen could do worse.
"Cut off their hands," I said.
"And?" Zeen prompted.
"String the severed hands around their neck and leave the cheat for the Palisade to find with a detailed account of their crimes. You're a fine, upstanding citizen, Markle. I'll give you that. The Palisade will be happy to have you as their little lapdog."
I raised my head and smiled at him, a grim, red smile. I was riding a fine line, flirting with earning myself another slap. But I didn't care. Let him rough me up all he liked. Let him think he was winning.
"There's only one thing I despise more than a cheat," Zeen said, studying his fingernails. "And that's a smart-mouth. I've wanted to have you arrested since the moment I met you, Le Doux. Thank the stars my dream has finally come true."
Lila shoved the door open.
"The Palisade is coming," she said. "We've been made."
The members of the table scattered.
But it was too late.
Within seconds, Palisade guards poured into the room. Taking advantage of the chaos, I swept an armload of dominions into my pack. Then I hooked an arm around the neck of the bodyguard holding me. I swung myself up, kicked out, and shattered the glass of the nearest window.
The last thing I saw was Zeen standing calmly at the table, his hands in the air, doing his best to explain the situation despite the muzzle of a plasma canon pressed to the back of his neck.
"Get the girl." He pointed at me where I crouched on the window ledge. "Sinon Le Doux. She's the one you want."
I blew him a kiss before I dropped out of sight and vanished into the crowded market.