Forty-nine

“Use him, but don’t trust him.”

Rachel snorted a laugh at Sergei’s words as he pressed a mug of coffee into her hands. The former Speaker’s cottage was comfortable, compact and snug, tucked into the edge of the words with raspberry bushes growing in a wild tangle in his shady yard. The old man had raised his children there, and it was there that he intended to live out the rest of his days in quiet obscurity, enjoying his grandchildren and old friends.

“I don’t have use for him, Sergei, if I can’t trust the information he gives me.” She sat down on his overstuffed couch and rested the mug against her knee. “Especially not when I have other options to fill his role.”

Sergei settled into an armchair, looking at her curiously. “Dare I ask who?”

“Freder Rose for one,” Rachel said, taking a sip of coffee. “Alana Chase.”

“And Brendan Cho, I imagine.” Sergei leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment.

“To a lesser degree,” Rachel said. “Brendan’s too honest, in some ways. Too noble.” For all that he knows, he’s unsuited to being a spymaster.

“The same could be said of Rose.”

“Freder knows where the bodies are buried,” Rachel said. He knows how to cut losses when it’s necessary. “He may be noble and honest, but he’s far from innocent and he knows the game. It almost got him killed.” She sighed. “I won’t take my chances with D’Arcy, Sergei. You’re braver than I am. I don’t trust him and I know he has an agenda—I just haven’t sorted out what it is yet. Whatever he’s playing at, though—Sergei, I know it’s not good for us.”

“Not good for the Guard refugees or not good for the Foundation?”

“Not good for anyone living here that doesn’t care for the methods the congloms employ or the Commonwealth’s handling of just about anything.” A shiver shot through her. “He has too many contacts there.”

“So does Rose. So do you.”

“We were born out there,” Rachel countered. “His family has been here for, what, five generations? It’s an unfair comparison.”

“Perhaps,” Sergei said. “But because his family—”

“I know.” Rachel leaned back, covering her eyes with her free hand. “I can’t move without proof—not to oust him outright, anyway, not to fire him. I have to be smart about this.”

“So you’ll use Chase and Rose informally.”

“Freder Rose will be my spymaster in all but name,” Rachel confirmed. “At least until I’ve got something to use against D’Arcy. As for the level of autonomy he’s been enjoying, though—that’s coming to an abrupt end. I need oversight in that department, regardless of whether I’ll be using what he tells me or not. I don’t care if he realizes that I don’t trust him. Maybe he’ll think twice before stabbing me in the back if he knows I’m wise to his games.”

Sergei arched a brow, sitting forward and leaning his elbows against his knees. “And who will you be saddling with the thankless task of spying on him and his operation?”

“I haven’t decided yet, but Alana is a likely candidate,” Rachel said. “Though I don’t know that he’d stand for it. For her, I mean. Possibly not even the oversight.”

“It strikes me that you don’t quite care what he’ll stand for, Rachel.”

“Maybe not, but I need him to play ball to some degree.” She sighed. “I’ll sleep on it and talk to Adam. Maybe he’ll have some ideas.”

“Likely,” Sergei said. “I’m sorry that I’ve put you in this spot, Rachel. There wasn’t much choice.”

“It’s water under the bridge, Sergei. Don’t worry about it.” She gave him a brave smile. “I’ll do the job.”

Or I’ll die trying.

•   •    •

Her arm ached with a dull, faint throb, heralding the need to return home soon for another dose of pain medication and a request to Ezra to check on the progress of her recovery. As far as she could tell, her arm seemed to be getting better, stronger, but it was hard to judge. He was the expert. She still wore the sling and it still hurt, but she could move her fingers without pain most of the time, and she was able to feel sensations through them—definitely an improvement.

Alana sighed, turning away from the water. She’d come down to the shore for some air, to get away from the house and clinic where worry practically oozed from her lover’s every pore—worry for her, worry for the Commonwealth inspector under his care, worried for everyone in the damned Foundation. She loved him for his compassion, but right now it was in overdrive and suffocating her. She’d needed to escape.

She’d gone two steps when she spotted the slim figure not a dozen yards from her and she cursed.

If D’Arcy Morgause had meant to kill you today, you’d be dead. You’re getting soft in your retirement.

I won’t be letting that snake sneak up on me twice.

He stood watching her intently—intently enough that it set her skin to crawling—and was dressed in casual clothing, his hands empty and arms crossed against his chest. Alana frowned.

What’s he doing here?

“D’Arcy,” she greeted, her words clipped.

“I apologize,” he said. “I’ve startled you.”

“What do you want?” She shifted her jacket slightly, her good hand itching to be filled by a knife’s handle, a gun’s grip—something. Sadly, she’d left her weapons at home—a choice he was suddenly regretting now.

His brows went up. “Why would you think that I wanted something?”

Alana barely suppressed an annoyed sigh. “Because I’m not an idiot, D’Arcy. What do you want?”

“Chinasia’s offered a very handsome sum for Brendan Cho.”

Is that some kind of threat? Her eyes narrowed. “He’s not property and neither am I.”

“I didn’t mean to imply you were,” D’Arcy said mildly. “But I know you’re smart enough to recognize an opportunity when it arises.”

Alana killed the urge to try to cross her arms—that would only end in pain from her shoulder to her fingertips and right now she needed all of her faculties focused on the spymaster’s little game of intrigue. Her heart started to beat a little faster, her stomach going sour. “What opportunity do you assume I’m seeing here?”

“It’s no secret you don’t like him.”

She stared at him. “He’s Lindsay’s husband.”

“Yes, he is Bonded to the vaunted Oracle.”

“You’re suggesting I hand someone mentally linked to my cousin over to a conglomerate that tortured her mother-one that will probably take Commander Cho apart just to see what makes him tick. Psychics don’t fly for Chinasia.”

“I’m aware of that,” D’Arcy said, a coldness in his eyes even as his expression remained impassive.

“Why would I do that? Never mind the fact that it would absolutely destroy Lindsay to lose him—that more than anything else would stay my hand in this because I love my cousin even if I don’t love the choices she makes—but I’ve seen what that kind of torture can be like and I wouldn’t condemn anyone to it.” Alana sucked in a sharp breath. “What are you thinking, D’Arcy? What you’re suggesting is monstrous.”

“I’m trying to think of the Foundation above all,” the spymaster said, his tone vaguely annoyed. “You know that they won’t stop and we can’t stand against them if they turn the full might of their military on us. All of this will disappear and we’ll end up crushed under their boot. What’s one man’s life measured against that?”

Your math sucks, Morgause. Alana shook her head. “It’s more than one man—much more than one man. Lindsay’s pregnant with his child. What’s to stop Chinasia from demanding the child as well? Or demanding that we give America Farragut back to them? They held her prisoner for a lot of years. Don’t forget, too, that the Compact wants me and wants Grant Channing so badly I can taste it from here and I haven’t served them since I as a bleeding teenager—and they have a blood claim on both of us, exactly like Chinasia has on Brendan. Then there’s all the refugees that have found their way here over the last ten years. Don’t you see how wide you’re trying to kick this door with what you’re suggesting? It’s borderline treason.”

“There’s nothing treasonous about this conversation,” D’Arcy said. “I haven’t suggested that you actually do anything. You’re the one that’s making some rather rash assumptions of my meaning here. Call it a warning. Call it a friendly service.” He smiled a snake’s smile at her, one that reminded her of a viper about to strike. “Watch your step, Chase. I doubt you’ll be protected forever, and that prevaricating mind of yours could get you into a great deal of trouble, I’m afraid.”

“You’re a monster,” Alana whispered, almost too quiet to be heard.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” she said. “We’re done here. Stay away from Lindsay. Stay the hell away from Lindsay.”

Feeling sick to her stomach, Alana squared her shoulders, straightened her spine, and marched past D’Arcy Morgause, headed toward home.

She didn’t start running until she was out of his sight.

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