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Mad trudged to the edge of the territory. The city of Orion weaved in and out of the natural fixtures of Guerran, and there were places in the city that looked like wild wastelands. Walk across them, and a man was back in the city in less than an hour.
One of those wastelands bordered Jadirel’s territory. In theory, it belonged to Jadirel, but not even the jealous exile king took time to patrol it closely. Every month or so, he rounded up strangers seeking asylum there and kicked them out or forced them into his territory, depending on his mood.
And for some reason, Jaek had decided it was a nice place to live.
This wilderness was dotted with hills and caves. A man could hide forever in the cave system, and more than a few exiles had unexpectedly met their end in there after getting lost.
Perhaps Jaek wanted to forget civilization all together and this was his best option. Mad had asked him once, a long time ago, but his friend had clammed up.
Mad hadn’t tried to ask again.
He found the entrance to Jaek’s cave, cleverly disguised by some vines. He brushed the vines aside and tested the hidden door. Locked. But Mad was keyed to Jaek’s door, and he placed his palm on the sensor and waited a second until it unlocked.
Theoretically, all of the caves were connected, but Jaek was isolated by fallen rocks that blocked off access to the rest of the cave system and gave him a nice size room to call home.
It was dim, lit only by lights Jaek had installed that were on a motion sensor. It had been dark before Mad walked in.
“Are you home, Jaek? I come in peace!” Jaek had been on Guerran for so long that sometimes he surrendered to the urge to fight, and nothing could stop him from attacking. Mad had long ago learned that announcing his presence, even when he thought the room was empty, was safer than walking around silently.
Jaek didn’t answer back. But there was evidence he’d been home recently. He had a bed in the corner and the blankets were rumpled. There was also a blanket thrown haphazardly along the back of his couch. Some dust had settled on the table, but it had been disturbed, as if Jaek had wiped his fingers across it and made phantom claw marks.
He wasn’t much for dusting.
And he wasn’t here.
Though Mad wanted to see his friend, he was a bit relieved. He could answer Jadirel honestly that he’d sought Jaek out. It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t home.
Mad found a piece of paper and scratched out a note. J is looking for you. Getting insistent.
He couldn’t write out anything more. There was always a chance that one of Jadirel’s spies had followed him here and would search the cave for any sign that Mad or Jaek weren’t as loyal as they should be. But Jaek would get the note. The man wasn’t stupid. He knew a warning when he read one.
Rather than head out, Mad sank back onto Jaek’s couch. “What the…?”
It was actually… comfortable? Mad had sat on that couch a hundred times, and the cushions had been a mere suggestion against the wooden frame. But today the cushions felt stuffed as full as they could be. Mad turned over and examined one. It appeared as if the seams of the cushion had been ripped out and resewn, and a bit of stuffing was caught in the thread.
Mad’s complaining must have finally gotten to Jaek.
He sat back down and decided to enjoy it. Then he took the flyer out of his pocket and studied it harder. This fugitive could be his ticket off of Guerran. Who was the young man? He was younger than Mad. Softer, too. This wasn’t a soldier he was looking at.
But looks could be deceiving. The children who were exiled to Guerran often looked sweet, but they had the same killer instinct as the rest of the survivors on the planet.
The flyer didn’t have any more information. No name. No list of crimes. No known associates. Mad memorized the face and was determined to keep an eye out for the man. He’d think about how he’d catch him later.
The walk home was uneventful, and as soon as Mad walked in the door, he saw his communication screen beeping with a call request.
Only one person in the galaxy tried to call him. Mad accepted the call request and bounced on his feet, waiting for the connection to go through. He smiled broadly when his sister appeared, a three-year-old boy on her shoulder.
Derok’s face lit up with a grin and he waved his pudgy little hand wildly. “Uncle Madn!”
Taiana’s smile wasn’t as big, but it was still there. He’d worry when she didn’t smile at all. “I was worried you’d miss my call.”
“I’m glad I didn’t.” The calls were expensive and the tech sometimes spotty. But Mad would spend all the credits he had to check in on his sister and nephew.
“How are you doing?” she asked, shifting Derok around until he was sitting completely on her lap. The boy picked up a toy after a moment and started playing with it, ignoring the screen.
It made Mad’s heart light to see him. He’d never held the child. Unless he was pardoned, he never would.
The flyer burned a hole in his pocket. He needed to find a way home.
“I’m alright.” He did his best to keep the worst of it from Taiana. She didn’t need to waste her time worrying about him when there was little she could do. Her calls and infrequent care packages were more than he could hope for.
“I read an article about conditions on Guerran. Is it true? A star storm killed thirty people?” She was aghast.
Mad shrugged. A star storm was the least of his worries. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard about that.”
“I—” She looked away from the screen for a moment and made a face. Then she looked back at Mad. “I’ll be right back. Derok’s tutor needs to speak with us. Keep the call open. I promise I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be here.” He stared at her empty chair and tried not to look further into the home she shared with her husband. He didn’t need the reminders of all the comforts of Krudare.
Then Arbyn slid into the chair, and it took all of Mad’s control not to scowl. He and his brother-in-law didn’t speak. The only credit Mad would give the man was that he’d purchased a state of the art communication system so that Mad and Taiana could speak to one another.
“You look well, Madn,” Arbyn greeted with his political smile.
“Hello.” Mad couldn’t disconnect the call with the promise of Taiana and Derok coming back. But he wanted to. Or he wanted to invent a technology that would allow him to slap that smile off of Arbyn’s face.
Arbyn looked away from the screen, craning his neck as if checking something in his house. Then he turned back to Mad, smile gone. “The moment we disconnect this session, Taiana is going to adjourn to her room and cry for the rest of the day. Derok will ask me why he can’t meet his favorite uncle. And I will be left here to piece my family back together.”
It was a stab in the heart. Mad didn’t have a response. He lived for these calls. He’d go insane without them. But the thought that he was hurting his sister made him die inside. “Speak clearly. You know I don’t play your games.”
Arbyn scowled, but the expression was gone as quickly as it came. “Perhaps if you did, you wouldn’t be in this predicament.”
“So I should have allowed a slaughter?” It came out a snarl, and Mad could picture the dead bodies littered on the ground, people he couldn’t save.
“It’s a soldier’s duty to follow orders.”
“You’ve never been a soldier. Don’t tell me my duty.” He could reach forward and end the call with a press of a button. But Taiana would be back soon.
“You are impossible.” Arbyn took a deep breath and re-centered himself. “You are a risk to this family. Derok will begin to attend school soon. What do you think will happen when your name comes up?”
Mad stayed silent. When he thought about it, it kept him up at night. But the horrors of Guerran were enough that he could normally ignore the troubles back home.
“I’ve found a way to get you off Guerran.” It was barely more than a whisper, as if Arbyn feared being overheard.
“A pardon?” Mad sat up straighter. If Arbyn could manage that, Mad would forget every bad thing he’d ever thought about the man.
Arbyn scoffed. “You think highly of yourself. The king handed out twelve pardons last year. Don’t be stupid. There’s a ship captain that owes me a favor. He’ll be in orbit for the next month. I’ve relayed his information to you. Put out that call and he’ll pluck you from Guerran and give you a job. I can funnel enough credits to you so you’ll have a month’s wages. This captain knows of another planet where exiles make their home. It has an energy signature similar to Krudare. It’s not the Fount, but it’s better than Guerran.”
“You bastard.” Mad’s hands curled into fists, and it took all of his discipline not to punch the video display. “If I leave Guerran, I’ll be excised from the family completely. I’ll never be able to return to Krudare.”
“I’m trying to help you, you thick-skulled idiot. You harm this family just by existing. Leave Guerran. Make a life for yourself. And leave us alone.”
“Does Taiana know about this?” If she did, if she approved, Mad would go. For her.
But Arbyn’s face gave it away. “I love my wife. I won’t ask her to make this choice. Make the break easier for her. Derok’s still young. He may forget you ever existed. It’s for the best.”
“I’m not leaving.” Not while there was any hope he might be reunited with his family one day.
“If you’re not on that ship by the end of the month, I personally guarantee you will never be pardoned.” His face shifted, and suddenly there was a bright smile as he rose from his chair. “My darling, is all well with the tutor?”
Taiana sat with a roll of her eyes. “A simple misunderstanding. I’m not sure why she was so urgent. She seemed to think I wanted to talk to her. Never mind. Thanks for entertaining Mad. Derok wanted to show you his new project. He’s waiting in your office.”
Arbyn bent down and kissed Taiana before giving Mad a brief nod and walking away.
“Did you find something to talk about?” Taiana asked. “Or did he make you sit quietly and wait for me to return?”
She couldn’t know. If she believed Mad, her heart would break. And if she thought he was lying… Mad couldn’t risk it.
“You know me and Arbyn. We always manage to say something.”
Taiana laughed. “I wish you could come home. I think you’d like him better these days. He’s half-civilized.”
Mad faked a smile. “I wish I was there.”
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