Sometimes Finn questioned the sanity of this sword he’d taken.
How else should he explain Kira’s belief Finn would let her go gallivanting off with some mysterious stranger whose face he couldn’t even see? One who’d already made threats against Finn’s life. Not to mention Kira’s.
Did Kira not know him at all by now? Given her propensity for abandoning him whenever she felt his presence inconvenient, he was starting to think that was the case.
“Mea’Ave take me. Is this a punishment for past failures?” Finn asked the clear blue sky.
Harding’s daughter was as stubborn as he’d been. No. She made Harding look downright reasonable by comparison.
It was fitting then that she was his redemption. She’d make him work for every inch he gained. Trust. Reliance. Ha. The words oshota took for granted in those they vowed to protect were anathema to that woman.
He’d be lucky if she even sort of came to see him in that light.
Finn picked up the drink Kira had ordered for him and lifted it to his lips.
Another thing—did humans not teach their young about following strangers into secluded places? How could she just go off alone? Without him.
It was inconceivable.
The taste of the liquid distracted him for half a second. He gave the drink an impressed look. That was better than he’d been expecting. He’d dare say almost delicious. It tasted similar to laug, a popular Tuann beverage that was present on nearly every planet in their territory.
Of course, the Tuann version was better, but for a human drink this wasn’t bad.
He drained the cup and set it on the table. Time was up. He’d entertained this ridiculousness for long enough.
Since Kira wouldn’t allow him to protect her openly, he’d do so in a more clandestine manner. All he had to do was make sure he wasn’t seen. If there was one thing he’d learned from her, it was that sometimes it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
A small hand snagged Finn’s en-blade from its place in his armor. “What’s this?”
Finn froze at the sight of the young girl who’d somehow managed to sneak up on a fully trained oshota. Granted, he’d been distracted about the question of whether he should obey Kira’s order or not, but even then, she should never have been able to get this close without him being aware of it.
She was the same girl who with another boy had stopped Kira on her way to this café to ask for money.
Grace, Finn remembered her being called.
As before her muddy brown eyes took on an amber hue as they nictated. The pupil briefly narrowing to a slit like that of a serpent’s before returning to a normal brown.
Finn didn’t move for long seconds as he studied the girl, processing how much bolder she was now than when he’d first encountered her. That girl had been much shier. Her companion protective.
“Child, that is not a toy.” Finn held a hand in expectation. “Give it back.”
Grace stared at him for half a beat, her gaze more calculative than he’d expect in one so young. An impish grin similar to the one he’d seen on the face of Kira’s niece a handful of times replaced the too mature look.
With a sinking sensation, Finn could guess what the child was about to do even before she bolted away from him.
The tinkling sound of Grace’s laughter trailed behind her as she fled in the opposite direction of the park.
Finn wavered for a split second, torn between his duty to Kira and recovering his en-blade.
The blade was quite literally a symbol of his vow as an oshota and had been a gift from Harding the day Finn joined his service. As such, it was as precious as his life. A memento from a man he’d respected more than any other. A man whose absence all these years later he still felt like a hole in the chest.
With a muttered curse and a last lingering look at the trees in the park, Finn dashed after the child.
Kira had shown him often enough that she was capable of taking care of herself. Besides, an oshota without an en-blade in hand was no more than a pretty ornament.
First, his blade. Then, his charge.
It didn’t take long for Finn to realize how badly he’d underestimated the child. By then, he was deep in the maze of buildings that comprised the human district, getting further and further away from Kira with every step.
The child was clever. She knew every nook and cranny of these alleys. A fact she used to her advantage as she evaded Finn for the third time, disappearing around another corner.
He chased after her, rounding the building in time to see her reaching up to hand the sword to a child crouched above on a ledge.
Grace squeaked at the sight of him. Her companion leaned down and snatched the blade from her hands, rising to sprint along the narrow pathways comprised of balconies, ledges and window flower beds.
Finn paused long enough to ensure Grace’s hand hadn’t been sliced open by the en-blade before putting on a burst of speed to chase after the young child.
This ended now.
Finn surged up the side of the building, landing on a set of pipes right in front of Grace’s companion. A young boy with curly red hair who was missing his two front teeth.
Finn held out his hand in silent demand, his expression severe.
Reluctantly, the boy placed the en-blade in Finn’s palm.
“Good.” Finn stepped forward, scooping the boy into his arms and jumping to the ground below.
Once there, he set the boy down.
“In future, beware of strangers,” he told the boy and Grace. “Not everyone will be as gentle as I am should you take their things.”
The children looked at each other and then up at Finn in bafflement.
Finn sighed internally. Really, what were these people teaching their young? Had they been Tuann they would have learned to be suspicious of anyone not of their House from the moment they could walk.
Instead of harping on the point, Finn gestured for Grace to lift her arm. When she delayed, he reached out and lifted it for her, tapping his forearm against hers in the process to transfer credits.
“That should be enough to keep you in treats for a while. I don’t want to see you begging on the streets again. It’s too dangerous,” Finn informed them as he straightened and turned back the way he’d come.
He waved one last time at the children before he set off at a jog, backtracking the way he’d come.
When he finally reached the café, it was to hear the sounds of fighting taking place from the park where Kira had gone.
A growl left him.
Every. Single. Time.
Tommy watched the oshota stalk into the park’s forest as he grumbled to himself about stubborn swords and his mistake of answering the call from the emperor’s face.
Grace appeared from an alleyway before making her way to Tommy’s side. “Was that distraction enough?”
Tommy patted Grace on the head, letting her lean into his side with a look of comfort.
Like all of Selene’s orphans, Grace’s experience with affection was limited—and recent. Until she’d come here, every touch she’d received had been one of violence or clinical detachment.
The humans’ books on child development said how critical receiving loving gestures could be on their future growth. That such things were a sign of affection and trust.
As such, Tommy made it his mission to impart the things he learned to the rest of the orphans. Accustomed to violence as he was, it had taken some effort to figure out how to be the big brother to the younger kids.
“You did perfect,” Tommy told her.
Grace grinned and danced out of reach before darting back into the alley.
Tommy waited until she was out of hearing range before addressing the person who had joined him.
“I did what you asked,” Tommy told the person. “Are you going to explain why I put my friend in harm’s way like that?”
Their game of keep-away with the oshota’s en-blade had been a risk. One Tommy was only willing to take because Kira had vouched for him.
Their savior was more suspicious and paranoid than even Selene—and that was saying something. If she felt he was trustworthy enough to bring here, it was unlikely he’d cause any true harm to them.
“There was something I needed to confirm,” the person told Tommy.
“And did you?”
The person finally looked Tommy’s way with a smile that was as deceptive as it was beautiful. “Yes.”
Tommy narrowed his eyes at the person. That told him nothing.
“What did you think of the Phoenix’s companion?” the person asked.
Far kinder than Tommy had expected.
He’d made sure Simon reached the ground safely and even given Grace money for treats with nothing more than a warning against approaching strangers.
Tommy had spent enough time on the streets to be able to recognize the good from the bad—and that man was about as good as they came.
The person’s smile widened, finally reaching their eyes. “I agree.”
Tommy gave them a grumpy look that did nothing to hide his wariness. The things he did for his family.
“Don’t worry, young one. I hold no bad intentions toward Kira or her companion. This exercise was simply to confirm he was who I thought he was.”
And that was the only reason Tommy had gone along with this cockamamie idea.
“Does this mean you’ll leave Selene and Elena alone now?” Tommy asked.
The person inclined their head. “As is our agreement.”
Tommy grunted. Good. He’d hate to have to activate any of Selene’s contacts. The older children who’d aged out of her protection were a dangerous lot and not to be trifled with lightly. If he could, he’d like to avoid that scenario.
When he looked up, it was to find the person gone.
Tommy sighed and shook his head as he turned to make his way toward home. “Good luck, Phoenix.”
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