Forged Absolution

Fates of the Bound #4
Forged Absolution

forged absolution

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As a spoiled highborn, Lila Randolph has never gone hungry. But when a newspaper leaks her extralegal activities, she must escape the city without a credit to her name. At least until the oracle finds her and requests her assistance, forcing Lila to choose between sanctuary and partnering with her ex’s brother.

Tristan DeLauncey has moved on with his life after splitting up with Lila. But after his brother brings her back to their apartment, old feelings and annoyances return, especially after she and Dixon begin investigating a case for the New Bristol oracle.

A case that should have remained with him and his brother.

A case that has pushed Lila and Dixon far too close for comfort.

Can the group put away their differences to save the oracle children from a mole? Or will their issues condemn the oracle and kickstart a war?

Forged Absolution
Chapter 1


Lila stretched on a private dock several kilometers from the Masson vineyard. Her brown curls and stiff back rested against the warped boards, and her bare toes skated across the surface of the swollen, frigid lake below. The overcast sky promised a Tuesday filled with damp and fog. A mid-December wind bit at her cheeks and ears and eyes, pawing at the skin underneath her sweater. Her boots and socks sat beside her in a pile. One scarred palm rested upon page twenty-five of a promising adventure novel.

Lila ignored the novel.

She couldn’t seem to care. Then again, she couldn’t care about much these days.

Soft footfalls padded across the opposite end of the dock, interrupting the grating call of the grackles nearby. Lila slid her hand toward her holster, cradled the tranq gun at her hip, and tilted her neck backward.

A dark-haired woman approached, early thirties, clad in thick lilac robes and a black fur coat, both reaching her ankles. The color was out of place amid the brown grass, foggy lake, and faded, one-room cottage a hundred meters away.

Lila turned her head back to the ink-filled sky.

“What? No hello?”

The woman sat next to her and removed her fur-lined boots before dipping a toe into the water. She hissed as it slipped below the surface. “You’re insane,” she muttered, pulling her foot back to the dock and drying it with a corner of her robe. “If I asked you to put on your boots, would you listen?”

Lila shrugged.

“Not speaking? Not even to an old woman?”

“You’re not old.” Lila cringed at her hoarse voice. Though her throat had healed since her fight with Senator La Roux, she hadn’t spoken to anyone since fleeing from New Bristol several weeks before.

There were consequences to everything.

Lila was quite tired of feeling the brunt of them.

“It’s not cold enough for fur,” Lila said.

“So? It’s tradition,” the oracle replied. “I’m glad you decided to speak. I prefer conversations to monologues.”

“How’d you find me?” Lila sat up. If the oracle had managed to track her, then perhaps she hadn’t hidden as well as she’d thought. The press and the Bullstow militia had spent the last few weeks searching for her. She’d rented the dilapidated cottage under an alias, paying cash after doctoring her face with rubber latex and makeup.

Back then, a month by the lake had seemed like ages. She’d thought it would be plenty of time for her father, the prime minister, to straighten out the charges and the warrant against her. She’d earned them for hacking into BullNet, but it didn’t seem as though he’d intervened at all. Chief Shaw, the head of the Bullstow militia, had not dropped the charges against her either. And that annoyed her, since both men had asked her to break into BullNet in the first place.

Perhaps she should have been more worried. Had things deteriorated so much that she could not even trust her own father?

Could she trust the oracle?

Lila scanned the dock, the worn cottage, and the tufts of knee-high brown weeds between them. She found no one waiting to arrest her, though. Beside her black Cruz sedan, she saw the oracle’s gray electric car.

Two dark shadows sat inside. She couldn’t make out their faces.

“I can always find you, Ms. Randolph. I do have a direct line to the gods. As I’ve told you before, you are important to us.” The oracle stared out over the choppy, muddy lake. “I will admit that it would have been nice if they’d shown me your location a bit sooner.”

Lila reached for her rolled-up socks.

She had to leave. The oracle might have been followed. She would have liked to spend one more night in a bed, even a lumpy one, but that would only postpone the inevitable. Her rent was due in the morning.

But Elizabeth Victoria Lemaire-Randolph—once prime of the Randolph family, once one of the richest heirs in all of Saxony, once chief to one of the largest private militias in the country—had no money to pay it. Her mother had raided her accounts and taken every credit, even pilfering from her secret account in Burgundy.

Lila wasn’t sure how the chairwoman had managed that. The little country had always been notoriously deaf to the whims of the Allied matrons and the Roman emperor.

Perhaps her mother had hired a hacker.

How ironic.

The oracle grasped her hand gently. “I know.”

Lila pulled away and tugged on her socks. “What do you know?”

Her stomach growled loudly, spoiling her annoyance. What a find time for her belly to weigh in. It had been growling a lot lately. As if she could just stumble into the cottage, open a few cupboards, and choose from the fare inside. Unfortunately, she’d only bought enough food for two weeks when she first hid out in the country, and she’d had to ration it after her credits disappeared.

The last of her food had run out three days ago.

“I know enough,” the oracle said.

“I’m guessing you had a vision.”

“Yes, thank the gods. You’re a hard person to find. I couldn’t risk sending him. I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”

“Him?”

Had Tristan come?

The oracle whistled sharply. The passenger door opened, and a man exited her car, dressed in a dark purple coat. Lila dimly remembered seeing him several months ago. His shoulders stretched so wide that he could barely fit in the small car, much less in his purplecoat and the gray uniform underneath, both indicative of the oracles’ militia. His arms and legs dwarfed several tree trunks near the cottage. Two guns rested on each hip, one not fit for tranqs. Purplecoats carried guns with bullets and, if the rumors were true, knives in their boots and poison in their rings. They were trained to kill, unapologetically keeping to the old ways.

This one seemed too beautiful to be deadly, but a warning had been written into every muscle.

A second man disembarked from the car’s back seat and closed the door gently, his head shaved close to the scalp. He wore no hat to stop the wind. A purple scarf wrapped around his neck, and his brown coat caught the wind, whipping it about his legs. His blood-red boots crunched across the weeds toward the dock.

The oracle had not called upon Tristan, then. She’d sent for his half-brother instead.

Lila slipped on her boots. “I have to go.”

“Tristan isn’t with us.”

“Tristan isn’t the problem. How do I know you didn’t bring Bullstow along?”

“You know me.”

“No, I don’t, and you didn’t answer the question.”

“You don’t trust me. I suspect I wouldn’t trust anyone if I were in your shoes, either.” The oracle cocked her head. “Chef Ana came to see me. She told me everything she knew.”

“I didn’t take her for a traitor.”

“A traitor? You disappeared. She was worried.”

“So worried that she hasn’t tried to get in touch with me?”

“What do you call this? A candygram?”

“Did you bring chocolate?”

“No.”

“Then this is a crap Candygram,” Lila said, snatching up her novel. “Bullstow might have followed you. I have to go.”

“I wasn’t followed. Give me more credit than that.” The oracle turned and jutted her chin toward the massive purplecoat. “That’s Connell. He’s the chief of my militia. He’s—”

“Sloppy. Or at least he could be. I don’t know him well enough to trust that he’s competent.”

“You know that I am. I think I’ve proven it. If you challenge me again, then I’ll have Connell toss you into the lake. Do you want to go for a swim?”

“I have tranqs.”

“Fine. I’ll push you in myself. I enjoy getting my hands dirty from time to time.”

“You think I won’t shoot an oracle?”

“I wouldn’t put it past you,” she said. “Chef Ana isn’t the only one who’s worried, you know. Dixon and Tristan are worried too, though Tristan has too much pride to say so. You two broke up, I see.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Lila stood up and tucked her novel into her coat pocket.

“Maybe we should.”

“Why? There’s nothing to tell. Don’t let the newspapers fool you.” Lila’s throat closed at the truth of it. When she’d left her mother’s compound, she’d intended on confessing her feelings to Tristan, to beg for his forgiveness, to admit that she loved him even though she’d realized it too late.

She’d been ready to lay out her feelings and have a real conversation, rather than push him away. She’d even been ready to succumb to his terms, to vow that she’d never take another lover if that was what he wished.

Unfortunately, she’d never had the chance. The day after the New Bristol Times broke her story online, they’d published two more in the print version. One story gave an in-depth account of how she’d pilfered information from BullNet, located on page two. But on the first page, Heartbroken Heir Runs Away from Home had been written in bold font. A picture of the grinning Senator La Roux lay underneath. The gossip columnists had kept up the romance angle all month until her arrest warrant had become a side story. They claimed that she’d fled because of La Roux’s death and her sorrow over it, rather than the charges against her and her arrest warrant. The daily barrage must have slapped Tristan every time he opened the paper.

Her father had likely planted the stories while he parlayed with the senate disciplinary committee, trying to get her sentence reduced or lifted.

“The heartbroken heir,” the oracle said, standing. “I like it better than the hanged heir, don’t you?”

“Heartbroken? I hardly knew Senator La Roux.”

“That’s not what I read. You’d been friends for years, and he died the night after you finally consummated your relationship. How tragic.”

Lila stuffed her hands into her pockets.

“Of course, I also read that you and Senator La Roux had been secret lovers for years, which is why he rarely took other partners. You were a rare love match among the highborn. Another said you’d both had plans to elope. It’s a tragedy that Senator La Roux died so suddenly, but you’ve become quite the sympathetic figure.”

“Yes, my father’s been hard at work.”

“Your father?”

Lila shrugged uncertainly. “Or my mother. She had to explain my absence somehow. Matrons don’t look too kindly upon those who steal from Bullstow. They look even less kindly on those who run from a warrant. Luckily, she returned my mark before I ran. It looks good for her. It makes it look like she figured out what I’d done and kicked me out of the family, just as a matron should.”

“Your parents didn’t place those stories, and you know it. I have many contacts, Ms. Randolph, and I’ve used those contacts to good advantage. I needed time to find you, and I didn’t want competition. No one wants to cash in a bounty on a tragic figure. They’d be in the papers for all the wrong reasons.”

“You don’t get into that line of work because you care about things like that.”

“I thinned the competition, then.”

“Spoken like a matron. Why bother helping me?”

“I told you before that you’re important to us. Your upcoming trial hasn’t changed that.”

“That upcoming trial begins tomorrow,” Lila reminded her as Dixon and the purplecoat joined them. A scar ran across the purplecoat’s throat. He hadn’t gotten it by digging out a slave’s chip before his sentence ended, like Dixon. Dixon’s scar was tidy and medical and rested on the side of his throat. The purplecoat’s scar was messy and full of intention.

Lila wondered how he’d earned it.

“Yes, and those stories have muffled a great deal of the outrage against you,” the oracle said. “If you attend your trial—”

“If I attend? I’m a highborn. We don’t run from our duty, no matter how unpleasant it might be. Neither does the disciplinary committee. Put away your childish ideas, oracle. Public perception does not sway the will of Bullstow. Senators aren’t so preoccupied with romance and love matches. Only the poorer classes can afford such whimsy.”

Dixon hugged Lila, squeezing her tightly. His cold leather coat sucked the heat from her chin.

She wondered if he and Tristan believed the stories in the news. The pictures would have dug under his skin, regardless of whether or not she’d had had some torrid romance with Senator La Roux. She’d told Tristan that her family needed an heir, which was the only reason why she and La Roux had spent a night together in the first place. It hadn’t mattered to Tristan, though. It wouldn’t matter that she’d called out Tristan’s name the entire time. It wouldn’t matter that she’d not realized her true feelings about him until that night.

It wouldn’t matter to Tristan that La Roux had turned violent, punching her in the ribs and stomach, strangling her so fiercely that she could not breathe. It wouldn’t matter to him that La Roux had been the source of the Great Purge, a source who had destroyed her life.

Tristan would probably think she deserved it.

Perhaps she did.

“Intervening in my affairs must have cost you,” Lila said after she and Dixon broke apart. “What exactly do you want?”

“I want you to live. The oracles need you to live. Ten hackers have earned the hangman’s noose so far, and fifteen highborn have earned a lifetime of slavery for hiring them. No one has escaped with a day of freedom. The source of the Great Purge had quite the file on each of them.”

“I know. I’ve kept up with the trials.”

“Good, then you know they have a file on you, too. I don’t have to tell you what is plain. No one knows how the committee will rule on your case, but neither punishment works for me and mine. Nor will it work for you. We need you alive, Lila, and we need you free.”

Lila shuffled her boots on the dock. The oracle had never used her first name before. It was a bit presumptuous, but perhaps after Lila’s help six weeks ago, formality had flown out the window. “I think you need my assistance for something now, not for some opaque task in the future.”

“And you’ll need a place to stay, a place where Bullstow can’t touch you.”

“You want to hide a criminal?”

“I want to shelter a friend. A friend who can help us. A friend who, I’m guessing, has done nothing to warrant the trouble she finds herself in.”

“You want to strike a bargain, is that it? I help you, and you’ll help me?”

“No, I’ll help you regardless, and I hope you’ll be bored enough to help me.”

Lila licked her lips. The simple path seemed so easy.

Too easy.

It wasn’t just duty that kept her from running from her trial. If she didn’t go, the committee would condemn her anyway. They’d sentence her to hang, and her father and Chief Shaw would confess their role in her activities, all to save her life. Their testimony would probably reduce the charges against her, but their necks would most likely be forfeit for granting a highborn full access to BullNet. Two would die to protect one. The math didn’t add up.

She’d only run to give them more time to work behind the scenes, and only because her father had ordered it.

She hoped she’d given them enough.

“My matron doesn’t have to force me to attend my trial. I won’t run from it.”

“Fine. Go see what they have to say.”

“You say that like you have a few senators in your pocket.”

The oracle led her down the dock. Dixon and Connell followed along behind them. “I’m afraid I don’t. The fools on the disciplinary committee do not believe in the gods, just like you. Even the lowborn senators don’t. My influence can’t save you, but my people can. They’re already making plans to break you out of Bullstow’s holding cells and deposit you at my gate. I have sovereignty. Bullstow’s laws mean nothing inside my compound.”

Lila paused. If the oracle could do what she said, it might give her father and Shaw a way out. If the hangman’s noose no longer threatened, if her only punishment would be a lifetime spent among the oracle children, then perhaps their part in her troubles could remain hidden.

Unfortunately, running and hiding would harm the Randolphs, crashing the family’s stock. Thousands of people could be affected, highborn and workborn alike.

It might even force her mother to call for her blood squad, cleaning the stain from her family’s honor.

“Do you really want to test that?” Lila asked. “I can’t recall the oracles taking in a highborn criminal, not in a hundred years.”

“I don’t want to, but I will. As I said, the oracles need you if we are to survive.”

“Why do you need me this time?”

The oracle folded her palms behind her back and stepped off the dock, leading the group across a path of beaten weeds, a path Lila had created over the last month. A dozen grackles quieted as they approached, the blue-black birds flapping away from a tree limb nearby. One iridescent feather fell like a leaf in their wake.

The naked trees rustled overhead, filling the quiet.

“My people and I have spent the last six weeks interrogating the Italian mercs you and your friends subdued in the warehouse. You’d think sixteen mercs would provide a great deal of information. Let me assure you. They did not.”

Lila recalled more than sixteen mercs at the warehouse, but not all had made it out alive. She’d killed. She’d ended souls. Being tried for sneaking into a government database seemed so small in comparison. It didn’t matter that she’d acted in self-defense, that it had been the first battle in a resurgence of war, that two young oracles as well as Oskar and Maria Kruger had been saved.

She had still killed.

She still had dreams.

But at least the math had worked out okay.

“We’ve interrogated them with truth serum as often as Dr. McCrae allows,” the oracle explained. “They knew far too much about us, and they didn’t learn what they knew by bugging a few offices.”

“Where did it come from then?”

“Headquarters. I haven’t gotten any more than that.”

“So they don’t know, and you suspect a mole.”

The oracle jammed her hands into her coat pockets. “Yes, and on my compound.”

“An Italian mole inside an oracle’s compound?” Lila shook her head. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”

“Nor with me,” Connell growled.

“I need to find the mole now before they do more damage than they already have,” the oracle said. “My people have not been able to get any further in the investigation. You already know what the Italians have been up to, and you have the skillset to find them. More importantly, I trust you.”

“What about Tristan and Dixon?” Lila asked.

“They’ve tried, but it’s been a month with no results. My sisters and I are in danger, and the truth serum cannot tell me what the Italians don’t know. I need you to tell me who I’m trusting wrongly.”

“You haven’t had a vision of your betrayer?”

“I’m not magic. I can’t just close my eyes and force myself to dream of whatever I wish. I’m subject to the will of the gods, and right now their will is for us to focus on larger issues. Perhaps they believe we other have methods of sorting this out, and I’m inclined to agree. After all, they did lead me to your location.”

“They can’t just pop a picture of the mole inside your head?”

The oracle snorted. “That would be convenient, but I suspect they have other motives for getting you involved and keeping you close.”

“What motives?”

The oracle did not answer.

“Now look who’s quiet.”

She shrugged. “I live to serve the whim of the gods.”

“An inconvenient whim at an inconvenient time,” Lila said as the group stopped before the oracle’s car. “You do understand that I can’t help you. I can’t even help myself right now.”

“Don’t wallow. It doesn’t suit you.”

Dixon and the purplecoat chuckled.

Lila shot them both a look. “If I’m found guilty, what do you intend to do? Break me out of my holding cell?”

“We need you alive.”

“Slaves are alive.”

“Do you believe that you’ve earned a lifetime of slavery?”

“Scrubbing a few pots is the least of my problems.”

“Worse will happen if you’re condemned, Lila. I don’t know much, but I know that. Hanging, slavery, it’s all the same to me. I won’t let either happen.”

“What if I don’t go with your people?”

“You’d stay if they decided to hang you?” The oracle studied Lila’s face. “No, not hanging. You’re hoping for slavery, aren’t you? You’re wishing for it.”

“I’d rather be free, but that’s not going to happen.”

“It could,” the oracle said. “If I were in your shoes, I’d accept my offer. But if I felt that I couldn’t, then I’d wish for death. I know what your kind do to one another after you fall. Some rival of your mother will buy you and trot you out the same night as your auction, all for her amusement and the amusement of her dinner guests. You’ll be taken out at every highborn party after that, forced into the worst sorts of humiliation. You’ll bleed whenever she thinks she can get away with it, no matter what the law decrees. That’s not slavery. That’s torture.”

Lila knew the oracle spoke the truth, but it hardly mattered. “That depends on who buys me. The Randolphs have many allies.”

“And many enemies with deep pockets. The Holguíns, for instance.”

Dixon shifted uncomfortably.

“And what about your matron? One word from her, and it won’t matter if you’re bought by friend or foe. The outcome will be whatever she wishes. If she wishes pain, you’ll receive it.”

“It is what it is,” Lila said. “What happens if I don’t go with your people?”

“You will. You don’t want the empire inside my compound any more than I do.”

“You are not my primary concern. There are things I don’t want to see more.”

“I suppose there are. My vision didn’t tell me what those things are, nor did it tell me what will happen to you in that courtroom tomorrow. Perhaps you’ll be given a slave’s term. Perhaps you’ll be condemned to death. Too many who will decide your fate have not made their choices, I suppose. Everything is blurry surrounding you. It’s always blurry.”

The woman opened her driver’s-side door. “No matter what happens, Lila, we are going to save you, whether you want us to or not. Go with my people quietly and spare yourself the tranq hangover. I hear it’s quite vicious.”

“Don’t. People could die,” Lila said. “Bullstow will hang anyone who breaks me out.”

“That’s not your concern.”

“It damn sure is,” she snapped.

“Then go with them. I already know you’ll be at my gate soon, Lila. I just don’t know how it happens or how many lives it might cost.”

Lila looked back at her sedan, parked and waiting as if it wanted to go for a ride.

If the oracle’s vision was true, then perhaps the disciplinary committee would dismiss her charges with the first few moments of the meeting. Perhaps her father had figured out a way to save her.

Or perhaps he and Shaw would stand trial in her place. She had no idea what to expect, for her father hadn’t told her anything. He’d only sent a few lines each week, urging patience, telling her to stay away and give him time.

But time had run out.

The oracle let out a heavy sigh. “Don’t make me beg. We need your help, chief.”

The word rocked her. She knew no matter how her trial played out, no one would ever call her that again. “It’s low, calling me that.”

“I’m appealing to your sense of duty, or at least I’m trying to.” The oracle’s gaze passed to Connell. “It usually works on him.”

“No, it doesn’t,” the purplecoat replied.

“Yes, it does.”

“Don’t bait me, woman. It’s a long ride back, and there are only so many radio stations that don’t annoy you.”

“Fine,” Lila said. “I’ll give you today. I can’t promise any more than that. Send me a list of everyone who has had access to your compound for the last ten years. I’ll see what I can find in the data.”

“Ten years?”

“I cast a wide net. And when I say I want everyone on the list, I mean everyone. Even you should be on the list. Even newborns.”

“You’re nothing if not thorough.”

“How long will it take for you to get such a list together?”

“I’ll have it ready within the hour,” Connell vowed. “The militia keeps a guest log and residency list on file. We just have to concatenate the data.” From his pocket, he pulled out his palm, a flexible piece of plastic and metal the size of his fist. He tapped and swiped upon the device with practiced ease.

“I know the charges against you are baseless,” the oracle said. “Whatever you did, you had reasons. Good reasons. You should come clean with them tomorrow.”

“That’s not possible.”

The oracle raised a brow. “You’re protecting your father, aren’t you? He’s not much of one if he lets you take the blame.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It never is.” The oracle slipped behind the wheel and started the engine. She left the door ajar, and a series of high-pitched dings cut through the air.

Connell shoved his palm into his pocket and got in on the passenger side. The car rocked under his weight as he settled.

“Get in. You can stay at my compound. My people will drive you to Bullstow tomorrow morning if you still want to go.”

Lila shook her head. “It wouldn’t look good for you to hide me before the trial. Bullstow would get nervous.”

“I don’t really care what makes Bullstow nervous.”

“You should. If nothing else, they’ll start watching you and your people more carefully.”

“She’s got a point,” Connell said, fastening his seatbelt. The strap barely fit over his wide chest.

The oracle tapped on the steering wheel. “Fine. Stay with Dixon. You’ve worked with him before. Work with him one last time.”

Lila frowned. Where would they work?

The shop?

“Don’t make a face. It’s only for a night.” The oracle slammed her car door shut, and the high-pitched ding finally cut out. She then backed the electric car from its spot, turned in the driveway, and headed down the jagged, rocky lane to the main road.

Dixon pulled his notepad from his pocket. Get your things, he wrote. I’ll order lunch on the drive back into town.

Her stomach growled at the mention of food.

Begrudgingly, she entered the cabin, her eyes lighting over the mess inside: empty cabinets cocked, kitchen drawers opened, clothes dangling from her wardrobe. The only spotless part of the cottage was the sink and counters. She’d put away every dish, clean and useless.

Her stomach growled again as she folded her clothes and tossed them into a canvas bag, a bag she had to turn inside out again, stuffing the lining back into the pockets.

“I’m not used to picking up after myself,” she said.

No. That’s not it. You were hungry. You went through everything, looking for food.

Lila tossed a sweater into her canvas bag. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Holguíns didn’t always feed me when I became a slave. I remember what it’s like.

“I just haven’t had time to go to the store.”

Your pride will be the first thing they take.

Lila looked up. “You’d rather I become the oracle’s lackey?”

He nodded.

“Too bad,” she said, opening the dresser’s bottom drawer. “Tell me about this mole. Surely you’ve found something.”

While Lila cleaned out the drawer, Dixon scribbled his answer. We skimmed through the videos of every interrogation between the purplecoats and the Italian mercs. We dug through the bios of the oracle’s inner circle, spending quite a few weeks and a great deal of manpower following them, but we saw nothing suspicious. Toxic even reviewed the logs from ONet, the oracle’s network. She found nothing unusual in the last two months. We have no leads.

“Where will we work?”

My apartment.

“It’s not just yours, and I don’t think Tristan will approve.”

I really don’t care what Tristan will or won’t approve of. Your stomach hasn’t stopped growling since we showed up. My first concern is getting you something to eat.

It rumbled again as if in confirmation.

Lila was too hungry to say no.