Fates of the Bound #2
Blurb: Read Below
Lila Randolph hates wearing heels, thick makeup, and a fake smile, just to walk the silver carpet. She’ll brave them and the media, though, all to help free a long-lost prince from the auction house and slavery.
Tristan DeLauncey has never forgotten the day he stood on the auction house stage as a child, nor can he forget the years spent in the abusive household of those who bought him. He would free every slave if he could. Unfortunately, he only has enough time before the bidding starts to free one.
When an assassin interrupts their plan, Lila and Tristan learn of a new threat to Saxony and the oracles. But investigating it means they have less time to find a hacker threatening Lila.
Can they stop both plots before Saxony finds out the truth about Lila?
Or will the unresolved tension between them compromise their work?
The only flaw in Lila’s plan was Tristan.
She cast a not-so careless eye toward the LeBeau militia gathered at the base of the auction house stairs. The dozen women and men tugged at the collars of their formal uniforms, the sweaty fabric chafing in the muggy afternoon. The LeBeau coat of arms, a scorpion with its stinger poised to strike, had been stitched in lavender on the breast of their summer-weight blackcoats, cut in ankle-length cotton rather than leather. The group chugged bottles of ice water, a balm against the late October heat wave, and fanned their coats to reveal tranq guns underneath. One of the militia whispered something. They all chuckled before separating once more to pace.
As the chief of her family’s militia, Lila had been party to such jokes for years. It was likely a barb against the paparazzi, or the so-called press behind the stanchions. Microphones in hand and cameras at the ready, they stood at attention while their flashing bulbs captured the scene. Of course, the joke might have been aimed at the heirs who flowed up the silver-carpeted stairs toward the auction house, wilting under their finery.
Predictably, the highborn had ignored the weather. The heirs wore their autumn dresses and well-tailored long coats while the men panted in their vests and coats and breeches, their cravats tied and pinned at their necks. Everyone wore their family colors. The highborn sparkled with jewels and sweat as they ran the gauntlet of press and photographers, vainly dabbing at their foreheads between photos and interviews, desperate to enter the cool lobby and the ballroom beyond.
And they all suffered.
All except Lila. She’d visited the family tailors, insisting they alter a dress from the year before. Obligingly, they’d scissored off half the blood-red fabric and dyed a pair of gloves to match. After all, she had to hide the stitches and bandages that crisscrossed her palms. She’d earned them the weekend before when she’d been trapped in the middle of a riot. Of course, few people knew the real story. She’d told everyone she’d been in a motorcycle accident. So far, everyone believed her.
The other highborn stared at her dress, half jealous, half grumbling that her clothes too closely resembled last year’s fashions. Her tailors had been clever, though, expertly tying together the trends. The bodice of her backless dress hardly covered her breasts, and the silken skirts barely brushed her skin. The slit had been cut as high as was proper, allowing for a delightful breeze between her legs. She’d balked at the matching gossamer coat, but it might have been woven by magical spiders, for it didn’t stifle her in the slightest.
With her dark hair set in tumbling waves and her makeup perfectly applied, she looked a great deal less like a militia chief and more like the eldest heir to one of the richest and most powerful families in New Bristol, and perhaps all of Saxony.
Which she was. Sort of. Only fifteen women in each generation could call themselves heirs in each family, all standing in line to become the next chairwoman. The current matron’s eldest daughter stood first among them. Despite being the prime heir by birthright, Lila had traded away her spot a decade ago in order to join the Randolph militia. She shouldn’t have been allowed on the silver carpet at all. Instead of an heir, she should only rank as a highborn.
Her mother would never suffer such an outrage, though. The Randolph family had only fourteen official heirs, but everyone understood who held the fifteenth spot, no matter how often Lila resisted the implication. And under the pretense of sparing her younger sister Jewel from failure on the New Bristol High Council of Judges, her mother had declared Lila the family’s emissary, forcing her to sit on a council made up of matrons and prime heirs.
The fact that Lila had never officially accepted her position as heir rankled the others.
The fact that everyone accepted it for her rankled Lila.
It also made everything about her annoyingly fuzzy—except her place in the auction house line. Only matrons and primes could skip them at highborn functions. As an heir, even an unofficial one, she had to wait, just like the others.
But waiting in line had been part of Lila’s plan, for it allowed her to study the LeBeau militia. She counted six blackcoats on the roof while another half-dozen kept the front secure. Lila couldn’t tell if the LeBeau chief had reinforced the alley, but Shirley watched from a neighboring building. The old woman had a keen eye, and an even keener mind for trouble. She’d let Tristan know the moment she found it.
Toxic would too. Lila had hacked the auction house security cameras. Toxic now watched every feed, including the ones Lila had looped and fed back to the LeBeau militia. Unfortunately, Lila couldn’t check them herself. She’d hidden her palm computer in her clutch, and she couldn’t remove the device while she tarried in line. Not around the nosy highborn heirs.
With the way the afternoon had unfolded, the heist might be over before she even got into position. Too many heirs had shown up later than usual to escape the heat, tying her up outside when she should already be inside.
Until then, Tristan and his people were on their own, and that was never a good idea.
“Chief Randolph?” came an overly cheery voice on the opposite side of the stanchions. The voice belonged to a pale, slender blonde in an off-the-rack dress, holding a worn palm.
Lila tried not to frown. Every heir knew Marion Carpenter, a leading journalist for the New Bristol Times, and every journalist knew that Lila Randolph didn’t give interviews. Giving one meant that Lila had officially taken up her role as heir, and, more importantly, it meant any news outlet could run her photo without consequence. Lila enjoyed her anonymity far too much to destroy it. She also enjoyed the gaping loophole it created. The Randolph militia chief was completely off-limits to the press. No photos. No videos. Not even a sound bite.
“An unofficial word,” Ms. Carpenter pleaded.
Lila gripped her clutch tighter and motioned her forward. It was good for the Randolphs to court the local press, officially or unofficially.
Ms. Carpenter hopped the rope and rushed over. “You look quite healthy, chief.”
“I feel healthy.”
“So there’s no truth to the rumor that Peter Kruger shot you in the chest last Friday?”
“I’m wearing a backless dress, Ms. Carpenter. I think you’d notice the bullet hole.”
The journalist’s gaze dipped to the low bodice of Lila’s gown. “There were reports you were taken to Randolph General.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, conflicting reports. I heard you were shot. I also heard you were in a motorcycle accident. Care to elaborate?”
“Perhaps it was both. Perhaps I’m a fast healer.” Lila smirked, glad it had only been a tranq that had felled her, rather than a bullet. “Perhaps you rely too heavily on your sources.”
Ms. Carpenter bit her lip. “How does it feel to acquire the Wilson estate so early? Unofficially, of course.”
Lila recalled the exact words her mother had beaten into her head at breakfast. “While the Randolphs obviously regret the fall of any highborn family, on occasion, one must step aside so that another can join our ranks.”
“You feel regret for the Wilson family? The same Wilsons who rioted throughout the family’s compound the night Celeste Wilson and her son were taken into custody? The same family who killed a Bullstow militiaman during their tantrum?” Ms. Carpenter crinkled her nose. The highborn did not express violence; it just wasn’t done. Even the poorer classes avoided it like a young child copying its elders. “The woman defrauded her own family and tried to do business with our enemies. Her son tried to make a deal with the Roman Emperor, promising to return his long-lost nephew for a pile of riches and safe haven. They rioted and killed for that, yet you feel regret?”
“I sincerely hope that the men of Bullstow will see justice for their fallen brother,” Lila said carefully. “I also feel pity for anyone betrayed by Celeste and Patrick Wilson, regardless of their bloodline. I hope the next matron will not be so careless with the futures of her family and those who serve it.”
“You sit on the New Bristol High Council. The rumor is you’ll discuss candidates for the next matron soon. Which lowborn family will you support?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Bullshit. You could. You just won’t. Give me a name, chief. Will it be the Parks? Everyone says it will be the Parks. Just confirm it for me. Unofficially.”
“It’s not my job to confirm things. You’ll have to wait until the council announces its decision. Good day, Ms. Carpenter.” Lila stepped forward in line, finding herself before the auction house sign. LeBeau’s had been scrawled in an artsy cursive script. The branding served as a backdrop for photo ops during the event.
Ms. Carpenter made the poor choice of stepping with her, blocking the view of the press behind the stanchions.
“Madam, we need the shot!” a member of the paparazzi yelled, already snapping photos of the pair, not realizing which heir he’d captured on film. “Get out of the way!”
Others clamored at the ropes, shouting at the journalist to move aside. Bright lights flashed around the pair, searing Lila’s eyes. She lifted her hand to block them. Light-shadows danced in her vision.
Ms. Carpenter turned at their continued boos and jeers. “Unless you want a slave’s term and a lifetime suspension of your license, I’d suggest you put down your cameras.”
The paparazzi snuck a peek at Lila, faces falling as they marked her blood-red dress. Most deleted her photos immediately, scared they might post one by accident.
Ms. Carpenter swiveled back to Lila. “My sources tell me that you were instrumental in the capture of Celeste and Patrick Wilson. Is that true?”
“Your sources have interesting imaginations.” Lila didn’t know where the rumor had come from, but it spurred a sense of unease and apprehension among the highborn. Lila enjoyed keeping the matrons and primes on their toes.
“Do you plan on attending their executions?”
Lila steeled her face. Patrick might have hired Peter Kruger to kill her, but he was her best friend’s little brother. “It’s a bit early to talk of executions. The High Council has not even confirmed the sentence yet. If you’ll excuse me, I have my mother’s auction to attend.”
Before Lila turned away, Ms. Carpenter blurted out a last question. “Are you still friends with Alexandra Craft-Wilson? Have you two spoken since her family’s fall?”
The journalist scanned Lila’s face, then smiled at the expression she found.
Lila cleared her throat. “My feelings for Ms. Wilson have never wavered.”
“Have Ms. Wilson’s? After all, it is her mother and brother who will be executed, some say due to your own maneuvering.”
“You’d have to ask Ms. Wilson that, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve tried to get an interview with Ms. Wilson all week. Your matron has denied it time and time again. I—”
Lila’s jaw locked. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You want an interview with Alex.”
Ms. Carpenter took a step back.
The auction house door opened. A short, chubby woman appeared at the top of the stairs, wearing a long silvercoat and a formfitting green dress. Her gaze lingered over the line of highborns, landing on Lila.
“Ah, there you are, Chief Randolph,” Chairwoman Masson called out, crooking her finger. Though only a dozen years Lila’s senior, the chairwoman had dyed her hair silver, coloring it in stages over the years to attain the much-desired look of wisdom, maturity, and experience. Today it hung in thick curls around her calm, serene face.
A little too serene, actually. Lila sometimes wondered if she smoked just enough weed to render her unflappable. It had always been impossible to ruffle the elegant woman, not that Lila hadn’t tried.
“Come,” the matron said, ignoring the journalist. “We have council business to discuss.”
Lila stifled her grin and jogged upstairs in her heels. The heirs on the silver carpet stared at her jealously as she passed, but no one said a word. Grace Masson was a matron, after all.
“I owe you,” Lila whispered as the chairwoman clasped her arm.
“Yes, you do. I thought you might pull a tranq gun from gods know where and shoot her. Not that I would have minded. Dreadful woman, that one.”
“Dreadful is too polite a word.”
“Well, you may pay me back for my kindness this very afternoon. Take my son for the season. He’s beautiful, sweet, and in need of a good match.”
“He’s very beautiful and very sweet, and also barely twenty.”
“Twenty and twenty-eight aren’t that far off. Besides, younger is better. You get stronger genes that way. You’ll care about these things soon.” The chairwoman eyed Lila’s face and broke out into a wide grin. “A mother has to try. I promised. You’ll tell him so?”
“I will tell him you gave it your very best shot.”
“Excellent. That is payback enough.” The chairwoman squeezed Lila’s arm and led her into the blessed coolness of the lobby. The room stood as a monument to marble, gold trim, and Renaissance paintings. The line outside continued inside, stretching to the ballroom’s entrance. Each heir waited impatiently to be announced.
“Such a horrid line in horrid weather. Why didn’t you come earlier?”
“Work,” Lila fibbed.
“You should take a vacation, darling. You look tired.” The chairwoman led her to the front of the line as if she were prime once more and gave her a quick wink. “Once you’re announced, we’ll talk about tomorrow’s council meeting. I’ll find you in the ballroom directly.”
Lila watched Chairwoman Masson walk away, years of ballet training in every step.
The rest of the heirs looked at Lila as though she’d cheated at cards.
Lila ignored them.
The teenage boy standing at the ballroom door turned to face Lila, his back straight, his chest open. “Elizabeth Victoria Lemaire-Randolph,” he announced over the tittering in the ballroom and the clinking of champagne glasses. Though the boy’s breeches, tailored jacket, and accent placed him in the upper echelons of highborn society, the tremble in his voice betrayed his true class, marking him as far too overwhelmed with the crowd around him.
A well-trained and beautiful lowborn, then, putting on airs.
Lila couldn’t blame him for being overwhelmed. The crowd in the ballroom might have been composed of vultures, glamoured by Puck himself for his own amusement. Every heir within two hundred kilometers had assembled, all to bid on items the Randolphs had seized from the Wilson compound. LeBeau’s staff hadn’t even placed chairs inside the ballroom, knowing all too well the whims and the fancy of their kind. It wasn’t often the heirs had a chance to gather en masse outside of the season.
The fall of the Wilson family had brought them all out for business with a side of gossip. The sea of whitecoats and silvercoats and bold family colors churned like a raging sea, with groups breaking away to join other groups that then broke apart again, a shifting foam of rich indigos, bold blues, hunter greens, and monarch oranges. The matrons and their daughters bid with upraised paddles or discussed business amongst themselves in the lull between items. Designer dresses marched back and forth over the polished oak floor, whisked back and forth on missions of scandalous importance. The occasional male from the great families dotted the crowd, whispering in hushed tones, smoothing over proposals, or laying the groundwork for new deals, hopeful to bring his matron another for consideration.
Of course, wherever highborn women ventured, the senators congregated as well. New Bristol and Saxony senators alike had crowded into the ballroom. The New Bristol senators wore their silver city medallions with pride, puffing out their chests in their tailored burgundy coats, black breeches, and black boots, the last polished to a fine gleam. Not to be outdone, the Saxony senators wore their hard-won black coats and gray vests, prowling around the ballroom as kings on a hunt. Both groups of men had likely arrived early, all to flirt for as long as possible with the heirs, all under the pretense of legislation and society, all trying to make a match before the season had even begun.
It was not a vain hope. A man did not attain a position in the capitol by accident. These were among the most beautiful, charming, intelligent, and well-spoken senators in the state.
And many of them had shifted to their gaze to Lila the moment she’d been announced.
“That’s Chief Elizabeth Victoria Lemaire-Randolph,” Lila corrected, a note of annoyance entering her voice. Introducing her incorrectly was not only a snub, but it might make the senators inside overeager. A few jaws had already dropped at her dress and family colors. Hope strained in their breeches that perhaps tonight, Lila Randolph would retire from the militia and take her place as prime and president of Wolf Industries, elbowing her baby sister out of the way at last. Perhaps tonight the childless heir would select a senator for the season, intent on providing Chairwoman Randolph with her first granddaughter and carrying on the Randolph legacy to another generation.
Whoever seeded such an heir would have his career handed to him on a silver platter, propelling him all the way to the Saxony senate or perhaps to the nation’s capital.
All on the strength of his cock.
And should Lila have a boy, the senator responsible would retain full custody of the child, for the firstborn sons of heirs became the sons of Bullstow.
But Lila’s plans didn’t include any of that. She didn’t want a place at Wolf Industries, she didn’t want a senator for the season, and she sure didn’t want a child.
Lila didn’t just shoot the overeager senators a look of daggers—she shot them a look of scissors snipping off their precious, sperm-giving balls.
The men looked away. Quickly.
So did the boy at the door, who gulped when Lila’s gaze turned back to him. He turned his head to Ms. Olivia LeBeau and helplessly looked for guidance. Like the boy, she’d been coiffed far above her station, a fine lavender dress covering a highborn who strained at the fringes of high society, forever wanting more.
Unfortunately for Lila, Olivia ran the auction house. This woman, one of her oldest friends from university.
Olivia grinned, showing her teeth.
Oldest friend did not mean current.
“Try not to confuse the boy needlessly, Lila,” Olivia drawled, raising a brow. “It’s not his fault that you insist on slumming it up as a militia chief. You were born the prime heir, for oracle’s sake. Don’t you have any pride?”
Lila narrowed her eyes and returned the woman’s smile, glad that Olivia’s auction house had been selected for the heist. The fallout from this break-in would pay her back for…
For what? Lila couldn’t even remember why they’d become cross with one another. Knowing Olivia, it had been about a boy. Olivia was territorial about men, which was an awful trait for a highborn. Of course, that wouldn’t matter much after the night was over. Olivia would never bed another highborn again, not unless she found a rare love match. The family’s precious little auction house might never recover after the heist, and her matron would make her suffer for it.
It was Olivia’s own fault, really. If security had been tighter, Lila and Tristan never would found a way in. The LeBeaus, and Olivia in particular, had no business running an auction house. They should have stuck with groceries and meat and mines.
“I could say the same about you, Olivia, slipping into the Wabash fundraiser.”
“I was a guest of Senator Cole.” She sniffed. “Why are you even here? I thought you were too good for these things.”
“I’m serving as my matron’s escort.”
Olivia’s gaze slid into the ballroom. “Yes, I see how well you are escorting her. You do realize she hasn’t yet arrived?”
“I’m checking the place out first, you ignorant twat.” Lila didn’t even bother to give Olivia a second glance before plunging into the room.
Opening her clutch, she retrieved her palm computer, glad she wasn’t escorting her mother after all. The chairwoman hadn’t even bothered to arrive on time for her own auction. After recovering the relatively few antiques and art pieces that Celeste Wilson hadn’t already sold, her mother had taken what she wanted, then put up the rest for auction throughout the Allied Lands. She’d strategically placed each item where it would fetch the best price or draw the most attention. Some things she’d chosen to sell in New Bristol, mostly for the show of it, mostly for the excuse of having the event. Mostly to demand that Lila join the festivities, to prove to the other families and the press that she wasn’t dead.
The Randolphs also had several dozen highborn to sell, Wilson highborn, who hadn’t had the funds to rebuy their marks from the Randolphs. It had prompted quite a bit of talk in the press about the rumored Slave Bill. If the legislation actually existed and passed the senate, then highborn from fallen houses would no longer be sold into slavery if they didn’t have enough money to purchase their mark. Failed business owners wouldn’t automatically lose their marks, either.
Lila knew such legislation wouldn’t pass, though. The highborn enjoyed the embarrassment and the shame and the show too much.
Leaning against the wall, she positioned herself near the ballroom’s entrance, turning so she had a clear view of the pacing militia outside. She then slipped in an earpiece and tousled her hair over it, dipping her gaze to her palm. The thin, flexible device had much the same computing power as her desktop, though in a much smaller package. Tapping and swiping, she hurriedly pulled up the security feeds while heirs bid on a Rembrandt. A stooped auctioneer in a navy coat tossed out number after number onstage, his words blurring together.
He ended on a number that seemed much too high. Lila glanced up at the painting on display, a painting she’d seen often on the Wilson estate during highborn parties, a ship braving a storm on choppy seas. No doubt everyone else in the room had seen it as well. No doubt that was the very reason her mother had chosen to sell it in New Bristol. The Weberlys and Holguíns would want a token to remember their ally; the Wilson family’s rivals would want a souvenir from her fall.
It seemed the rivals had won this particular round. Chairwoman Hardwicke lifted her paddle in triumph. The painting would likely be hung in her office by Monday, money traded for sentimentality and ego.
Lila turned her gaze back to the security feeds, stopping on one in particular that she’d looped and hidden from the militia. Two men stood in front of the LeBeau holding cells, both working on separate doors, both dressed in black t-shirts, matching trousers, and work boots. Knitted balaclavas covered everything but their eyes, though Lila hardly needed to see their faces to tell them apart.
The smaller, rangier man gripped his blowtorch and started severing the last bar that would free the fifteen-year-old boy inside.
The boy was not Oskar Kruger, the boy Tristan had actually gone to rescue, but Phillip Wilson. Phillip’s scowl betrayed his conflicted feelings. On one hand, some petty thief from the poorer classes might save him from many years of slavery. On the other, his rescuer was some petty thief from the poorer classes.
Leave it to a Wilson to find fault with his rescuer.
“Stop it,” Lila whispered, unmuting her mic. Only Tristan could hear her words, for he was the only one on his team who knew her identity. “There’s barely enough time to free Oskar.”
“He’s being seen to,” Tristan growled, his vowels long and rolling with a Bordeaux accent. “I’m not going to leave a child behind.”
“What will you do with him after the auction? Take him back to the shop?”
“I don’t know. Stop nagging me.”
“Then stop being stupid. Get the one you came for and get out now. You’re lucky you haven’t been caught already, what with the—”
An alarm blinked on her palm.
“You’re too late. The militia has caught on to the loop. Leave now.”
“We don’t have—”
“Get out now!” Lila opened her clutch and slipped in a second earpiece, tuned to the LeBeau militia’s audio feed.
“Baxter to Wendy, over?”
Lila held her breath.
“Wendy? Who tranqed that one?” Toxic snickered in her other ear. The young woman pumped the militia’s audio through their earpieces, audio Lila had captured before the auction.
“I think I did,” Fry grunted, not turning away from his work. Tristan broke away from Phillip’s cell and joined him. He pointed his blowtorch toward the last steel bar holding the slave inside.
“Baxter to Wendy?” the man asked again impatiently. After a slight pause, he tried again. “Baxter to Thomas?”
“I believe our fearless leader got Thomas.”
“Baxter to Lewis?” the man pleaded, naming another downed blackcoat. Frustration replaced panic when no one answered. “Doesn’t anyone have their damn radios on down there?”
“Ah, Hood tranqed Lewis. That guy really needed a bath.”
“So everyone got a point?” Toxic asked.
“It’s generally not good to get a point. It means someone found you when they shouldn’t have. It means we’re out of time.”
“Natasha to Baxter, what seems to be the problem?” Another voice had broken in on the militia’s channel.
“We’re being robbed, that’s the problem. Go check on the art.”
Lila flicked to the relevant security footage, watching a capable-looking blackcoat in a hallway near the basement. Upon her whistle, a half-dozen blackcoats trotted to her position and fell in line. “Switch to the emergency frequency,” she ordered Baxter. “Someone might be listening in.”
“I’m on it!” Toxic squeaked, all humor gone from her voice.
“Abort now,” Lila hissed at Tristan as the militia’s audio fell silent. “You have one minute before they realize you’re not here for the art. Maybe less if they get the basement cameras back up.”
“Not yet. We just need more time.”
“There is no more time! Get out, and get out now!”
Tristan turned off his blowtorch.
The small-framed teen inside the holding cell stepped forward, his cheap trousers and gray t-shirt too big and too new.
“Please,” Oskar wailed, tears running down his cheek. Once again, freedom had slipped through his fingers. He shook the last steel bar madly as though he might be able to break it. “Don’t leave me, please. I’ll do anything!”
Tristan hesitated before the red-faced, crying boy.
“We’ll fetch him later,” Fry promised, shoving his boss toward the hole in the floor, a hole Dice had cut while the others had worked on the bars. “Hood, if you’re still there, we need you. Tell the boss what the militia is doing.”
Lila looked up to check.
A well-manicured hand snatched her palm.