Fourteen years ago the Intel igence soldiers had led her away from her mother's apartment.

"Do you regret it?" Claire asked.

"No. If I went down that road, I wouldn't be the person I'm today. I'm not indebted to anyone. I own my business, I own this building, many people feed their families because I provide them with jobs. I got there on my own. Nobody tel s me what to do."

"Except Lienne."

Ven grinned. "Except her. She never lets me forget that I have family obligations. The other day she actual y sent a pulse through the building looking for me. It's a kind of psycher wake-up cal ."

Yes, I know, it gave me a headache. Claire bit her tongue.

"Besides, I'd have to be married to Castil a." He grimaced.

Claire sipped her wine, feeling the pleasant heat slide down her throat. "Why aren't you married, Ven?"

He shrugged. "I work. A lot. Psychers aren't exactly a commo n kinsman variant and dating non-psychers is difficult." His face slid into a suave expression. "Hel o there," he said in a smooth bedroom voice. "My name is Venturo Escana. I can read your mind!"

Claire laughed.

"I can tel when you're lying and I can discover all your secrets. I'll know when you fake it in bed, I'll know when you cheat, I'll know when you spend too much. I'll know what you real y think about me. Don't you want to marry me?"

She finished off her glass and squinted at him from above the rim. "Would you read your wife's mind? You don't read our minds at work."

"Probably not," he said. "But there is always the possibility that I could and that's enough. Your turn to tel me about yourself."

"It's not that interesting," she said.

"I'm interested. I'm dying to know how you ended up on that planet."

She sighed. "Very well. Melko and Brodwyn are actual y large mining conglomerates. Both of them owned mining fleets and they strip-mined asteroids for years. It takes a lot of skil ed workers to run mining operations on that scale. Mining fleets always attract weird people, individuals who don't fit anywhere else, and the employees of both conglomerates had pretty varied histories.

"Then Brodwyn scouts discovered Uley, which is basical y a mineral treasure trove covered with a thin layer of rock. The scouts came back but somehow Melko found out about the find. The official Brodwyn version is that one of the scouts was captured and Melko tortured the information out of her, but official versions are usual y untrustworthy. The Melko fleet was more mobile at the time, so they wrapped up their operation and landed on Uley, on the Eastern Continent. It took Brodwyn almost three years to untangle themselves from their trade agreements and then they landed on the Western Continent."

"And the arms race began," Ven said.

She nodded. "The resources were severely limited so both Melko and Brodwyn adopted no-waste policies and encouraged population growth to build their armies. There was only one city on each continent and they looked exactly the same: picture a hive of uniform rectangular buildings about half-kilometer tal . The buildings were so large, each one was like a vil age ran by a Building Association. You would be born, live, work, and die in the same building sometimes."

"It sounds bleak."

"It was. On most worlds when a war breaks out, both sides have access to prior culture, to art, to pre-war luxuries such as gardens, clothes, entertainment. We didn't. Most clothes were standard issue and un-dyed. We had one solid meal a day, usual y a meat block and some sort of grain, the rest of the time we had nutrient paste." Claire hesitated, not sure how much to share. "When I fourteen, I was taken away from my mother."

"What do you mean, taken away?" He refil ed her glass and emptied the rest of the wine into his.

"It was decided that I should become a part of the military support staff, so some soldiers came and took me away from my mother. I was given new rooms in a Military building and I had to live there. My father had died years ago, and my mother was sick with Meteor Shower Virus. A lot of mining people get it - it looks like black burn marks on your skin. Nobody knows why it flares up, but the outbreaks will spark and die out on their own. The MSV is incurable. It attacks the nervous system and it's a very slow kil er. The victim becomes weaker and weaker, until they lose the ability to walk and then fade into death. all you can do is make the person comfortable."

She took a swal ow of her wine.

"Normal y a child of my age would be working and would be expected to take care of their parent, but I wasn't all owed to do that. The Building Association stepped forward. The Elder, Doreem Nagi, apparently said that nobody in his building would die a slow death alone. The Elder has the legal powers of magistrate: he can marry people, divorce them, he acts as civil judge and so when he made that decision, people listened, and the building col ectively took care of her. There were about three thousand people signed in the building, but toward the end with the war and all only about seven hundred residents remained and every day someone watched my mother and made sure that she had food, was clean, and took her pain kil ers. I owe them a debt I may never get an opportunity to repay."

"I take back my sad story," Ven said. "Yours is worse."

She shrugged. "There isn't much more to tel . I would wake up, go to work, come home, fal asleep. I did this for fourteen years. And then suddenly the war was over. We didn't even know. They told us we were winning until the very end."

She sensed discomfort emanating from him. Her story affected him, but he wasn't sure how to respond without offending her. Mighty Venturo Escana, lost for words.

"Well, that part of my life is over. Now I'm here," Claire said. "Drinking pink wine and enjoying good company.

"And eating meat cooked by a barbaric user of fossil fuels," Ven said.

"I love the food here," she confessed. "I don't know what most of things are, so I just order at random."

"New Delphi is the culinary capital of the South. Or it claims to be. Truth is, everyone in the Provinces is expected to learn to cook whether we like it or not."


"Oh yes. In the Provinces, if a woman is a bad cook, people make jokes." He leaned closer. "Mina, Lienne's daughter? Can't cook at all. Everything she makes tastes awful."

Claire smiled. "I'm sure anything I made would be awful as well. Sometimes when I taste food, my mouth feels overwhelmed. This whole planet is overwhelming: the clothes, the colors, the people..."

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kinsmen Science Fiction
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