Disreputable Allies

Fates of the Bound #1
Disreputable Allies


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Lila Randolph enjoys fast motorcycles, expensive wine, the occasional cigar, and her day job as a highborn militia chief. She also likes tackling extralegal cases at night. As side jobs go, Lila can’t complain. She’ll do whatever it takes to keep Saxony safe.

Tristan DeLauncey grew up as a slave. Raised with the abusive Holguin family, he hates the highborn and everything they stand for. Regardless, he’ll set aside his feelings and partner with Lila if it helps protect the poor—even if it means using Lila as a distraction for an investigation of his own.

A distraction that allows their newest quarry to discover her extracurricular activities in a government server—an act that could earn her a trial and a hangman’s noose.

Can Lila move past Tristan’s betrayal so they can identify the hacker and save Saxony together?

Or will the pair kill each other first?

Disreputable Allies
Chapter 1


Lila had everything under control.

She padded silently into Senator Edward Serrano’s office, pulling the door closed without a sound. She had not chosen the man or his office randomly. The puffed-up politician favored oversized leather furniture and velvet drapes. Both would provide Lila with plenty of cover if a patrolling guard peeked inside. She wasn’t worried about being found, though. Her partner had carefully timed the men’s paths. According to Tristan, she would have at least twenty minutes to steal the files and withdraw from the Bullstow compound.

Flush with time, Lila raided the senator’s mini-fridge and opened a bottle of Saveur, taking several deep gulps of the expensive beer. It tasted lightly of vanilla and smoke and money. A lot of money. She slid the bottle cap into her trouser pocket and let her fingers skate over the slick wooden box on his desk. She didn’t need to open it to know what was inside, for the mild scent of tobacco drifted throughout the office.

After pocketing a few cigars, she tossed her black peacoat upon the senator’s desk. The heating would not be turned on again for another hour or two, but she was glad to be rid of the coat despite the chill. It was a cover of poverty she was unaccustomed to, a strange weight that barely flowed past her hips.

Shivering, she tossed her frayed newsboy cap and the thermal hood on the desk. In a perfect world, her cheap gray shirt and trousers would come next, followed by her stiff work boots, which had already worn blisters into her heels. She could have done the entire job in her thermal suit. The skintight material kept her from being seen on thermal cameras, but she would be marked as a high-end thief if anyone saw it.

Lila took another swig of Saveur and plucked the senator’s laptop from his desk. Stretching out languidly on the couch, she began her second break-in of the evening.

Tapping quietly on the keys, Lila tried the most common passwords at the login prompt. Breaking into the senator’s laptop was the only part of her plan that she had not accounted for. Perhaps she was getting sloppy, but these jobs had begun to feel too routine, too monotonous, and too easy. Perhaps they didn’t come often enough to counter the drudgery of her day job. Perhaps she’d partnered with Tristan for too long, and his irresponsibility had rubbed off on her.

Yes, she thought, narrowing her brown eyes. It was probably Tristan’s fault in some way.

Lila typed yet another permutation of the word Odin—the most commonly used password by men in politics—into the login screen. She hoped for the sake of her government that Serrano’s password would not be so simple, but those hopes were dashed on her fourth attempt, as was the chance to test her new password-cracking program.

She was in.

Brushing her dark curls from her eyes, Lila scanned the senator’s desktop. She spied a folder entitled Toys, but on this occasion she chose not to trespass against Senator Serrano’s privacy. He had nearly two dozen children, after all, and at this time of the year, it might be nothing more scandalous than a gift list for the Winter Solstice. If it wasn’t so innocent, she knew she didn’t want to see what the folder might contain.

Instead, Lila logged into the senate’s network under Prolix, the username of one of her fake accounts, and transferred a few programs to Serrano’s computer. She depended on such programs to hide her activities and to keep an eye out for snoops, and she updated them often. While they ran, she set the entire BIRD to back up on her star drive, a slice of memory the size of her knuckle. She then leaned back into the cushions of the couch and checked her watch. The guards would not patrol the second floor for another twenty minutes. She still had plenty of time.

A light on her snoop program flashed red.

Lila sat up instantly and put down her beer. She squinted at the snoop’s user ID. Her programs did not recognize it, which meant that the account was fake. If someone had laid a trap, she might have just armed it. She couldn’t be caught in the Bullstow compound, copying files from senate’s network. A conviction for pilfering files from the BIRD would place a hacker’s neck in the hangman’s noose.

Lila stood up and paced back and forth while the database copied. When the screen flashed green, she dove back to it at once and brought up her programs.

Save data on snoop: Zephyr?

The cursor blinked on and off.

“Of course,” she muttered, hitting enter, watching lines of numbers and letters blur across the screen. “What kind of name is Zephyr?”

Data copied.

Delete all logs and programs?

The cursor blinked again, waiting for approval.

Lila slammed the enter key once more and ripped the star drive from the laptop. The computer’s fan whirled as she twisted the memory stick into a pendant and hung it on the little gold chain around her neck. She frowned as the laptop worked. She had never been caught by a snoop before, and though she was confident in her programs’ ability to keep her hidden, she didn’t want to remain in the office one second longer than she had to.

She crouched over the laptop once again, holding her finger over the shutdown menu.

A loud screech pierced the air.

Lila startled, nearly shutting down the computer before it had finished. Every fire alarm in the building shrieked with the volume and shrillness of a thousand distressed toddlers.

Covering her ears, Lila madly sniffed the air.

She smelled nothing but the muted, stale scent of cigars.

Had Tristan hit the alarm as a warning? Were guards surging upstairs ready to capture her? Was it another mistake? If he had bungled things again, she would kill him. What would be the excuse this time? How hard was it to relax in the shadows, waiting to intervene only if the militia pinched her?

Sometimes it seemed like Tristan wanted her to get caught.

“Hurry up!” Lila hissed at the senator’s laptop.

As if it understood her, the computer finally shut down. Lila slammed the lid closed and returned it to Serrano’s desk, exactly as she found it.

Slipping on her coat, Lila broke for the window and yanked back the velvet drapes. She pulled her thermal hood over her curls and thrust her newsboy cap into her pocket, thumbing the coin-sized pendant inside. The jammer would scramble any cameras nearby.

Tugging her thermal gloves higher on her wrist, she snatched up the bottle of Saveur, opened the senator’s window with a dull creak, and crawled onto the second-story ledge. She took care to replace the drapes behind her so that they hung straight once more and then closed the window. It sealed electronically behind her with a little beep.

Luckily, Bullstow did not keep logs of such things. Not yet.

Lila dangled her legs over the granite ledge and pressed her back into the glass. The stone leeched heat from her body, causing another shiver to flow up her spine. Her breath smoked in the cold autumn darkness. The floodlights on the roof flashed across the compound, highlighting the garden and marble statuary below.

Lila squinted through the patchy fog. The boys’ school buildings and university, the private cafés and restaurants, the government buildings full of administrators, social workers, and the militia, all hid from her sight. Even Falcon Home and the stone wall surrounding the compound played coy, hidden by swirls of gray.

Lila drained the rest of her beer and scanned the area for a means of escape. The searchlights should have been on a program. Tristan had captured their movements on camera days ago. The program was supposed to make it impossible to avoid detection, but Lila had found a way. Unfortunately, the fire alarm had kicked the beams off their program. Guards now aimed them manually, swinging the beams so erratically that she could hardly find a pattern at all. What should have been easy had turned into a tripwire attached to a thousand kilograms of dynamite.

Lila stowed the empty bottle of Saveur in her coat pocket and lowered herself off the ledge. Swinging her body away from the first-floor window, she dropped to the cement below, stamping loudly as her boots hit. The impact jarred the knife she kept inside.

Crouching behind a shrub, Lila tensed to sprint away.

She heard voices around the corner of the building.

Lila circled behind the nearest marble statue and peeked around its pedestal, narrowly avoiding the domain of a floodlight that butted up against the back of the building.

Two men appeared, clad in the gray and black uniforms of Bullstow security. Their leather blackcoats had been hemmed only a dozen centimeters above the ground. The golden piping on their uniforms matched the rose stitched on their breast. The cut and style would have been at home in the Allied Lands three hundred years before: the style of Britain, Spain, Portugal, and France before the alliance. A Weberly revolver hung on their right hips. On their left, the hilt of a short sword peeked out. A German Shepherd trotted beside them, unfazed by the floodlights, the fire alarm, and the shouts of its masters.

“I’m telling you, this is a test,” the shorter guard hollered over the alarm, his voice imbued with a nasal tone. He scanned the statuary as if they might suddenly hop off their marble bases and run away. “Sergeant Bates told me all about them. Someone’s out here, Nic. Someone sneaking around.”

Lila ducked down, making herself as small as possible.

“Sergeant Bates is an idiot. ’Bout time you learned that. The fire department never shows up at tests. Chief Shaw always warns them.”

“If it’s really a fire, why hasn’t anyone seen or smelled any smoke, huh? Sergeant Bates says if we catch the snoop, we get the bonus.”

“I’m going to bonus your face in a minute, rookie. We just had a test this summer. Mark my words, it’s the wiring.”

“No one caught the snoop. We’re having another test.”

Lila rolled her eyes. It would be two men who shouted privileged information to anyone who might be near.

Sloppy. Very sloppy.

When the voices finally disappeared around the corner, Lila didn’t pause to check the searchlights. She merely sprinted toward the tree line as soon as the beams turned away, and hoped for the best.

One of the beams swung around instantly.

Lila sprinted faster, adrenaline taking over where her natural speed left off. Her worn boots scraped at her blistered heels until the sting shot throughout her body.

The beam edged closer, gaining, as if it spurred her toward the park.

It caught up before Lila reached the tree line. As it nudged against her heels, she launched herself the last few meters into the trees and dove behind a marble bench.

Lila froze where she landed, hissing as the beam lit up her boot. She didn’t move, not to scratch her wrist, not to settle into a more comfortable position, not even to hide herself more completely. Movement would only attract the attention of whomever aimed the light and squinted at where it was pointed. There was still a chance they had not yet noticed the outline of her boot.

The night was foggy, after all.

Lila panted, waiting. The lights would have blinded her if her head and torso hadn’t been hidden behind the bench. But she didn’t hear any voices. She didn’t hear any boots squelching in the mud, either. She didn’t even hear the expected croaks and chirps within the trees. The entire park listened, frightened at the light.

Still the beam did not move. The guards on the roof might have stopped to pick their noses, to sip chocolate, to talk, to take a piss off the side of the building. They might have radioed for a patrol to investigate the bench. On the other hand, their superior might have ordered them to check thermal imaging.

Lila breathed heavily in the darkness, hoping for the latter. She would be invisible over thermal, and the searchlight would move on.

After several moments, the light whipped back to the grounds, crossing with another beam over the statuary.

Thanking her luck, Lila crawled across the soggy ground and progressed deeper into the trees. When she thought she had gone far enough, she hopped to her feet and slipped from trunk to trunk, coming closer to the stone wall that enclosed Bullstow.

A boot squelched in the mud behind her.

A flashlight beam lit up the area.

Lila spun behind a tree.

“Told you it was a snoop,” came a triumphant, nasal shout. The shorter guard sprinted toward her, cocked his gun, and aimed a flashlight at the tree. Nic huffed along behind him, clutching his side.

Lila’s hand flew to her hip with a practiced movement. She drew her gun and crouched low to the ground, wincing at the metal in her grip and the thoughts in her mind. Firing her gun would complicate matters significantly, but she had no other choice.

She was no fighter.

Swinging from behind the tree, she aimed her Colt at the rookie’s neck.

His flashlight swung up at the same time, blinding her.

The tranq dart hit the rookie’s forehead instead.

“Son of a…” The blackcoat lurched stiffly. His flashlight slipped from his grasp and struck a rock as he tumbled to the ground, struggling to brush away the dart.

The bulb shattered.

The rookie landed beside it with a fart-like splat.

“Rookie?” Nic called out, wheezing beside his partner.

The guard peered into the trees. Lila didn’t have time for her eyes to adjust to the dark, but neither did he. Groping wildly, she sprinted deeper into the park, shoulders smacking into limbs, face smarting from the occasional whack of a branch. She could only hope that her eyes would recover first.

She heard a whoosh of air.

Something grazed her sleeve.

Lila whipped behind a tree and brushed her arm where the phantom touch had landed. Her cheap woolen peacoat had caught Nic’s dart, and she flicked it away with gloved fingers.

Then she gripped her Colt and fell onto the soggy grass with a thud.

The blackcoat advanced slowly, his outline coming into clearer focus with every step. Towering over her, he nudged her with his boot. When she did not move, he turned his head toward a radio perched on his shoulder. “Nichols to base. I’m in quadrant two. Send a med team. I caught the snoop, and my rookie is down, over.”

Static erupted from the radio.

Nic winced and turned his head away, rubbing his ear.

With the blackcoat distracted, Lila drew her Colt and fired in one quiet, crisp movement.

This time the dart hit its mark perfectly.

The tranq overwhelmed Nic more quickly than his partner. He fell atop her, pinning her shoulder and her Colt to the ground. The man’s heavy chest crushed her fingers inside the trigger guard, and she barely kept herself from crying out.

Digging her arm into the man’s side, she worked herself free and gingerly stretched her fingers. Nothing seemed broken.

“Idiot.”

A loud snore erupted, calling out their location like an overpowered homing beacon.

“I pity your lover.” Lila turned the man onto his stomach to stop the bulk of the noise. She ran her fingers along Nic’s neck and retrieved her dart, then ran quickly to the rookie to do the same.

The job had gotten far too hot. With nothing stolen and no other crimes evident, the first thing Bullstow would consider was the security of its computer network. Even if Lila didn’t get caught, she might never work again after such a mess.

Neither would Tristan, if she had anything to do with it.

Lila stowed the darts in her pocket and sprinted toward the stone wall at the edge of the compound. She ran up the side and stretched toward the top, lifting her head over the cold stone, mentally cataloging all the ways she could torture her partner with an expensive beer bottle and a few used sleep darts.

Luckily, the searchlights on the street still had a rhythm to them, not thrown off by the blaring alarms or the fire truck hurtling closer to Bullstow’s front gate. Since she could predict the beams again, she could avoid both the light and the blackcoats who patrolled the front gate.

After the fire truck wailed past her position, she scrambled over the wall and dropped onto the street, littered with wads of trash and grime. She skirted the domain of the floodlights and peered at the guard post a block away. A herd of blackcoats shouted back and forth to the driver of the fire truck, surrounding it in a press of skittish eyes and cocked revolvers.

Lila removed her thermal hood and cast about the streets, settling her newsboy cap over her curls once more. She thrust the hood into her pocket, waited for the correct pattern in the search lights, then crossed the street toward a lowborn perfumery. The clash of a hundred floral scents invaded her nose, fighting for control of her stomach.

Holding her breath, Lila walked steadily toward the alleyway next to the shop. From now on, she was nothing more than a citizen of New Bristol out for an early morning stroll.

“Halt!” someone shouted down the street. The group of blackcoats sprinted away from the fire truck in a swirl of confusion. Their boots clomped against the asphalt, disturbing bits of paper and shopping bags that dotted the street.

Lila kept walking despite their presence. A cackling radio struggled against her jammer and called out the location of the perfumery. She slipped her hands inside her pockets and thumbed off the device.

Instantly, the static disappeared.

“Halt, under order of Governor Lecomte!” one of the guards called out again, Weberly revolver drawn and pointed at her chest.

Lila turned slowly, a practiced look of innocence pressed into her features. She did not look directly at the men. Instead, she scanned the streets for Tristan and his people. At any moment, they would appear and provide a distraction so that she could run away.

The guards formed a ring around her, guns swaying in the air. Guards, she couldn’t help but notice, who were unmolested by a roaring swarm of criminals.

“Hands up,” another guard ordered, punching the space between them with the butt of his gun.

Lila was too shocked to comply immediately. Her eyes danced across the rooftops, peered into alleys, and even squinted hard at the guard post. But the man behind the glass was far too young and far too plump to be confused with Tristan.

“The man asked you to put your hands up. I think you should comply, madam.” The leader of the guards marched closer, a swagger heavy in his gait, a gun held tightly at his thigh. He was smaller and leaner than the others. He’d pressed his uniform just a bit sharper, and polished his boots to a brighter shine. The stars pinned to his collar revealed his rank as sergeant, and if Lila had to put money on it, he’d been a sergeant just long enough to become antsy for his next promotion. A deep scar ran across his cheek, marring an otherwise average face. Any doctor could have tended such a wound. Any half-decent plastic surgeon could have corrected the scar it had left behind, and Bullstow contracted with the best plastic surgeons in the world.

“What did I tell you, boys?” the sergeant called out to his brethren as Lila finally raised her hands. He dug into her pockets, ignoring the cigars and beer bottle in favor of the thermal hood and tranq gun. He held them up as trophies, neglecting to pat down her boots.

Sloppy.

“If you turn on the thermal camera on nights like these, you never know what you might find. A bodiless head floating down the street, for instance.” He snickered. “My man behind the thermal camera nearly soiled himself thinking we had some sort of ghost on our hands. Congratulations for that.”

Lila cursed under her breath as he studied her hood. “Using thermal imaging on the streets of New Bristol is against regulations, even for the mighty Bullstow.” She dropped her hands and pitched her voice deeper, the change straining her throat. “Do what you want within your compound but not outside. The city doesn’t take kindly to perverts peeking into their homes and businesses.”

“My unit does not suffer perverts. I would not allow it.” The sergeant’s focus drifted from her hood. “Keep your hands up, madam.”

“There’s always a pervert or two. Perhaps in this unit you’re the pervert, since you wanted to use the thermal cameras so badly.”

“Madam, I’m a sergeant in the government militia. I—”

“Yes. I can see that from all those pretty little stars on your collar.”

Several of the men chuckled.

The sergeant clenched his jaw and shoved Lila’s possessions into the chest of a subordinate. “Hands,” he growled, stepping closer toward her, withdrawing a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “Under the authority of Governor—”

“Yes, I’ll be sure to note your adherence to proper procedure. Of course, I will have to inform Chief Shaw that you only caught me because you used thermal imaging. Illegally, I might add. The bonus will go unclaimed this season. Again.”

The guards around her fidgeted, and the barrels of their guns dipped slightly. Here and there, the men took their eyes off her, too engrossed in silent conversations with one another to watch her carefully.

The sergeant frowned at Lila. “This isn’t a test, madam. We already had one—”

“Yes, this summer. You’ve done little better since my last visit, boy.”

One of the men whistled at the jab.

The sergeant’s lip curled. He clasped her wrists and shoved her back across the street, slamming her into the stone wall around the compound. “I take my reprimands from Chief Shaw, not a hireling thief he may or may not have hired to poke at our defenses.”

Lila wiggled in the sergeant’s grasp.

The man cursed as his handcuffs clattered at his feet. He shoved his body against hers, pressing her into the wall.

The beer bottle in her pocket pressed into her ribs. She worried it might shatter.

“Be still, you filthy workborn, else you might get hurt.”

“I’m—”

“A very good liar,” he finished for her, shoving her into the wall even harder.

The men circled around them, mouths open wide. Lila had riled their sergeant too much for him to keep his anger in check. Only the lowest workborn displayed such violence. It reflected poorly on his men and all of Bullstow that his temper broke now.

“So you’re a pervert, after all? Do you have mommy issues? Is that why you took offense when I called you boy?”

The sergeant trapped her wrists with his right hand. With his left, he removed a pen from his lapel. He dug the tip into her neck, and she felt a needle pierce her skin.

Lila yipped at the bite. With that one little prick, she knew that everything was over. In less than ten minutes, the pen would transmit her DNA profile across the Bullstow network, directly into Chief Shaw’s office. Within the hour, the sample would be run against the public database, matched, and saved to her government file. She might have altered the shape of her nose and chin with a bit of rubber prosthetics, she might have changed the color of her eyes with contacts and modified the sound of her voice, but she couldn’t change the truth in her blood.

Given the sergeant’s disposition, he might not even wait until she was arrested before he dosed her with truth serum and began an interrogation. She would confess everything and break the encryption on her star drive, and she would do it with a drunken smile on her face.

The media vans would line up outside Bullstow, the journalists frothing at the faintest whisper of a treason charge, long before Chief Shaw even stumbled into work. She’d be on the news and plastered all over the net before the citizens of New Bristol sat down to breakfast.

Why hadn’t Tristan come to her aid?

Had he set her up?

“My cuffs.” The sergeant snapped his fingers.

The guard holding her possessions retrieved the handcuffs from the sidewalk and handed them over, sliding back before the sergeant’s temper could pass to him.

Lila stopped struggling against the officer’s body. There was really no point anymore. She leaned her forehead against the cool stone of the wall. Things were about to get complicated enough without her panicking or wasting her energy.

That was the last thought Lila had before the ground shook under her feet. The sergeant slammed into her once more, pinning her against the stone, crushing her ribs into the bottle of Saveur. But it wasn’t just her chest this time that threatened to break. Her fingers and toes and forehead all pressed into the wall as well.

A terrible boom erupted behind her, slapping against her eardrums as though the sergeant had driven a DNA pen into both her ears.

The world muted. She no longer heard the blackcoats’ radios, the fire truck’s wailing siren, the still-screaming alarm. Even the crickets and frogs on the other side of the wall went silent.

The night erupted into yellow and orange flames behind her. The air smelled of gasoline and smoke. The worst of it retreated so quickly that nothing caught fire, like a welder who turned his blowtorch on and off for a lark. Lila slid her fingers to her side as chunks of stone and wood and plaster hurtled through space, battering the wall around her in one last, rumbling barrage.

Dust and soot covered the wall, her clothes, and even her tongue.

Through the grit, Lila tasted blood.

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