[October 1859 – 1.5 years ago]
The study room in the library was quiet and nearly empty, but Ren couldn’t concentrate. As it happened, his textbook on administrative law was probably the worst reading of his academic career, and his attention was fading in and out like a poorly-tuned radio.
It didn’t help that she was sitting across from him.
So it wasn’t the best date idea he’d ever come up with, he thought, as he looked up and frowned at Leta, who was buried in a book herself. No, meeting to study together wasn’t exactly the stuff of epic romance, but he had the sense she didn’t really mind.
It was bewildering, having this new female company. They’d first met (of all cliche places) in a bar along the harbor. His brother had arranged an evening out and invited a whole slew of people. Among the crowd was a young woman that Ren was, according to his brother’s expertise, destined to hit it off with: one of Leta’s friends.
The small talk had been stiff and awkward until Leta introduced herself. She’d brought over drinks, smiled kindly and extended her hand across the table. Probably she’d been sent over to rescue her friend from the disaster of a set up. Probably she had not expected to sit at the table with him until 3 a.m., drinking and talking long after her friends and everyone else had left.
Now, after only three real dates, they were spending all possible time together: he walked her home after her late shifts at the hospital; she dropped him off dinner when he stayed at the library; they went grocery shopping once, milling around the aisles as she bossily told him what to buy. In his twenty-three years of life, grocery shopping had always been a solo endeavor.
Half the time he felt like a nauseous idiot around her. Like he was sixteen again. But somehow, far beyond his understanding, it was going well.
Which was precisely why he broke the silence and announced, “It’s break time,” and slammed his book closed. Across the table, Leta only shook her head, not removing her eyes from the page. But he did see a small smile pull across her lips.
Trying to catch her eye, he leaned himself over the table and whispered loudly, “Am I allowed to speak yet?” She didn’t look up, but her mouth twitched in amusement. So he went on, “So can I ask you something?”
Finally, heaving a sigh, Leta looked up. Her green eyes glinted. “You already asked me out,” she reminded testily, “and I already said yes.”
“Reluctantly,” Ren pointed out. “But actually, this time I was going to ask about your tattoo.” Playfully, he tapped his pen against her forearm. “When’d you get this?”
She glanced down at the symbol, then up at him; clearly, she did not find this topic as interesting as he did. “Two months ago. About. Why?”
“It’s the Society librera, yeah? I’m seeing them all over the place lately.”
“Yeah, it is. My whole team got them for the induction ceremony, I told you about that.”
“Ah, right.” He nodded, tapping his pen against his lips thoughtfully. “You like working for the Society?”
“Well, our research team is pretty isolated from what people consider the main branches of the Society. And I haven’t done much yet, our project is barely off the ground. But so far I do. All their research projects are well-funded.”
Of course they were, thought Ren at once. If the rumors were to be believed, the Society would never be strapped for funding: extortion paid well.
Carefully, hoping this wasn’t too offensive, he ventured, “Less corruption in the science branches, then?” Fortunately, Leta laughed: so she knew of the Society’s patchy records, too.
“They’ve got a powerful reputation,” she acknowledged fairly, closing her book with one hand and leaning back. “Not really a clean one, I know. And they’re really starting to build something on Vescent. My dad’s done communication and public relations for them for years now.”
Surprised, he pulled the pen out of his mouth. “Oh yeah? Your mom too? Before she died,” he added quickly.
“Oh, no. Actually, from what I remember, she was always urging my dad to leave. I think he was always planning to, but then she passed away and he stayed on. With no signs of quitting now,” she muttered dryly.
Well that was interesting, he thought. If anyone knew how the Society was spreading its power across Vescent, it would have been her father. But all he said was, “Huh.”
“So is that why you asked me out?” said Leta, starting to smile as she pushed her books aside. “To get the details of my research project? Because that’s strictly classified.”
“No,” said Ren honestly, laughing in surprise. “The actual reason I asked you out — actually, no, you don’t want me to answer that. However, the second reason I asked you out is, I’m pretty sure you think you’re smarter than I am — “
“I am smarter than you,” said Leta without a trace of hesitation.
” — and I’ve set out to prove you wrong.”
Leta blinked her eyes slowly, as if impressed. But she never was actually impressed. “Oh?”
He winced, as if the task pained him. “So I guess,” he sighed, burdened, “I guess I’ll be around awhile longer then.”
This time, Leta’s expression shifted from her usual mischief. She hesitated, then softened. “Yeah,” she agreed, in a voice quite unlike her usual self. “Yeah. So do I.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The bustling square of Tarin was unlike any Leta had ever seen. The markets were vibrant, colorful, and crowded with vendors and carts. Through the sea of people, Leta navigated alongside Corra down the cobblestone street, wishing she had another pair of eyes to take it all in. When she awoke that morning, she certainly hadn’t been in any mood for a shopping adventure, but now, she was rather glad to have a look around the new planet.
A week had passed since the failed job on Archeti. She’d cleaned and re-dressed Fiearius’ wound, and somehow he’d managed to secure fuel reserves as well as a job that would supposedly get the ship moving again, but he still wouldn’t entertain her requests about Ren when she cornered him. I told you I’d think about it. I’ll think about it. But not right now, he growled before elbowing past her.
But now it’d been another week without her fiance, another week with him locked somewhere in a cell. How long was she supposed to be on this ship? Was Fiearius just toying with her? Each morning, she awoke torn between anger and worry, wondering how long it would be until she got to wake up beside Ren.
But, to her surprise, she found a feeble ray of light in her current mess. She couldn’t understand when or why, but suddenly, Cyrus and Corra were just — there. In a flash, Leta went from being an outsider observing the crew in their natural habitat to, instead, a new participant: sharing drinks (all of which were much better the Dionysian Fire Bomb) and swapping stories (after a bottle of wine, she found it much easier to talk about Ren). One afternoon, they’d practiced shooting in the armory again, and a few evenings Corra dragged Leta to the engine room to bother Cyrus while he worked (although Leta was quite sure Cyrus didn’t actually mind).
So it seemed she had friends now, to her surprise. Her friends on Vescent had drifted away once she’d started her campaign for Ren. But perhaps there were a few events — gunfire, poisoning and barfights — that simply brought people together.
In any case, as her new unexpected friend, Corra already read her mood quite well. “You look down, chika,” she’d noticed at breakfast that morning, a look of pity in her eyes. It probably hadn’t helped that she’d gotten an earful of Leta’s lovelorn tale the night previous. “Missin’ your man, I bet?” She sighed sadly, but shook her head and plastered a genuine smile on her face. “Don’t you worry. If there’s any place’ll heal your woes, it’s Tarin. And I know just the place to go.”
And that was how Leta found herself, an hour later, in the brightly colored Tarin marketplace. In lighter spirits, she curiously picked through a bin of discarded — art? Disfigured sculptures?