Too much rides on this for me to yield to my impulses, but using my head instead doesn’t come easy. I’m afraid I don’t think fast or clear enough to save March from himself. He’s determined to die a martyr, the son of a bitch. Now I know what it’s like for him when I obsess over when I’ll die in grimspace. I don’t like the taste of my own medicine at all.
“He would do anything to protect me,” I say then.
And I know it’s true. Vel relays my statement.
“A protective deception?” The commander taps his claws against his carapace, thoughtful. “It is an intriguing concept, ambassador, but you might consider this: Only a full confession can trump what has already been said here. Does that mean you wish to make a full confession?”
I should. If we both confess, they can’t convict either of us, can they? A little voice answers, They can call us collaborators, and send us both to the mines. But at least we’d be together . . .
I think while Vel repeats the commander’s words. If it was just me, I would speak without question, but so many people are counting on me. I don’t know if there’s anything that can salvage the situation here, but I can’t give up. Not even to save my lover. The matter has to be put to a vote.
“I wish to make a full confession,” March says.
His dark gaze touches mine. Warmth surges through me, telling me he’s come inside me. It’s all right. Even now, he reassures me. Your mission is bigger than both of us, and we both know this is the only way. Do the right thing, Jax. Live for me.
A sob tries to fight its way out of my throat. Before I can process what’s happened, the soldiers take him. Their captain lingers only long enough to advise us not to go anywhere, but I’m the only human who understands him. Vel hurries after them to assist with translation.
“Well, here’s a bright side,” Jael says. “This shouldn’t stick to the rest of us. If your boy Doc can rig a treatment, and you lot patch Sharis up, that’ll look mighty good for your alliance. Daft of March to go out like that, though, and that’s all I’ll say on it.”
“You have no idea what kind of man he is. So don’t talk about him,” Dina snarls. “Or I will knock your teeth so far down your throat you’ll be picking them out of your shit for a week.”
Jael smiles, but it’s not pretty, doesn’t match his face. “You’d be welcome to try.”
I have no stake in this argument. I don’t much care if they kill each other. Hit can rein them in—or not. Right now it’s a matter of supreme indifference to me.
With a pained sound, I sink to the floor. The tears I’ve been strangling sluice down my cheeks unchecked. Oh, Mary, I’m so lost.
“Both of you shut the hell up.” The pilot sounds almost casual as she kneels beside me.
To my surprise, she wraps her arms around me like Adele might have done. Hit doesn’t offer platitudes. She can’t guarantee it’ll all be fine, but I’m grateful for her warmth. For a killer, she has good people skills; no wonder Dina digs her.
This is not who I am. I don’t do well playing by other people’s rules. This job is killing me. Worse, it’s killing March.
Something’s got to give.
“Right,” Hit says eventually. “I let you grieve, but now it’s time for action. What’re we doing about this, Jax? Clearly this can’t stand.”
Maybe I just needed to hear it. Whatever the case, her positive manner catalyzes me away from looming despair. With an appreciative nod, I sit away from her and push to my feet. Movement always helps me think.
“He’ll buy us some time in custody,” I say slowly. “But we have to make it count. If we take too long, they’ll send him to the mines, and—”
“Then it will be all but impossible to retrieve him,” Vel supplies, returning. “March refuses to accept my advice or assistance.”
“Either he’s ready to die,” I mutter, “or he trusts us to get him out of this.”
Dina scowls. “Let’s assume the latter.”
“Vel?” I turn to the bounty hunter with a question in my eyes. “I need to know the best course here. Is there any way we can secure both the alliance and March’s release at this point?”
He considers. “Unlikely. You will have to choose, Jax. It is possible that the vote would still come in your favor, as you have cooperated fully and made a highly civilized impression by turning over the guilty party.”
I didn’t want to hear that. “So it’s March or failing here, like Fitzwilliam did on Rodeisia. That’s what you’re telling me.”
“I am afraid so.”
March knew that when he confessed. The bastard knew. Ah, damn. Why? Sorrow flashes through me. This Jax is broken and unable to function, so I push her to the back of my brain. It’s time for a new one, canny and ruthless.
Dina brightens when I say, “Then there’s no question of what we’ll do.”
No, there isn’t.
The mechanic rubs her hands together. “So what’s the plan?”
“Call Doc to see if he’s made any progress on a treatment. Vel, get Devri on the comm. Ask him how it looks for the vote.”
Vel complies without question. I don’t know what I did to deserve his loyalty, but I can trust him more than anyone else in my life. The mechanic might well turn on me when she finds out what I intend. The clicks and chitters of his conversation come through in words via the chip, but I can’t tell what Devri is saying, based on Vel’s end of the conversation. It sounds like he’s doing a lot of listening.
“Shouldn’t we be getting our gear?” Dina looks puzzled. She really doesn’t realize that I’ve made the hard choice. “A few days ago, we managed to scavenge some good stuff and hide it nearby. We need to find out their patrol schedules, then work out a battle plan. It won’t be easy getting off world, but—” When she sees me shaking my head, she slams a fist into my mouth.
My head rocks back, and I can taste blood from my split lips, but I don’t take a swing at her. Inside, I feel those layers of ice gaining power. Hit grabs Dina’s arms and holds her while she struggles.
Dina curses me in at least four languages. “How could you? Heartless bitch!”
“If we save him, it won’t be with guns and bloodshed,” I counter.
Her words burn me with their scorn—and their truth. “You don’t even want to try! Just like you almost left him on Hon’s Kingdom. Somebody gets to be too big a burden, you walk away.”
Sickness spirals through me. She’s right. I considered leaving March behind when I thought he was too injured to move. Just for a few seconds, and Loras—the comm officer we lost—served as my conscience. March always said it doesn’t matter what you almost do. He understood then, and he will now, too.
I steel myself with the surety that I’m not the same person I was then. “Right now, the alliance has to be our first priority. We’ll take care of him after we complete our primary objective. But March is a soldier,” I tell her quietly. “He understands the risks. Soldiers die in wartime. You know that. And you know him. Tell me he’d be okay with condemning thousands of innocent civilians so he could walk free. Tell me he wouldn’t hate that more than dying with honor.” I step forward, holding her green gaze with mine. “Go on. If you can say it, I’ll change course right now.”
But she can’t. Her lashes sweep down, shielding her damp eyes. “Not like this,” she whispers. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
My heart should be breaking, too, but there comes a point when you’re so inured to loss that you no longer feel the lash. Hit wraps her arms around Dina from behind, and I hug her straight on, letting her head drop to my shoulder. Her tears drip against my neck. I feel immovable like a stone.
In the background, I can hear Jael talking to someone. I’d have to turn around to see what’s up, and that can wait. If I lose Dina here, too, I don’t know what I’ll do. I stroke her hair, marveling at her intensity.
“You have my word,” I murmur. “I will continue my own investigation, now that the Ithtorians are placated. And if I find out one of our own is responsible, I will peel his skin from his living body and feed it to him.”
“I want to be there.” Dina gets herself under control and steps back. I stifle a smile at how Hit knows exactly when to let go. They’re really good together.
“That’s a promise. If it’s one of the Ithtorians, though, we may never see justice. You understand that?”
She nods. “Good of the many outweighs the good of the few. I have a diplomatic background, Jax. I understand strategic sacrifice. Just . . . not March. He’s given enough. You know?”
Yeah, I get that. He’s earned a lifetime of peace and happiness, but some people never get what they deserve. That’s why there are saints in gutters and sadists in palaces.
“I have a bit of good news,” Jael puts in. “While you ladies were being emotional, I checked in with Doc. He’s sorted something out. He wants us to swing by the ship. We’re not still under house arrest, are we?”
“Let’s find out.” I head for the door.
No sensors go off; no alarms ring. There doesn’t even seem to be a guard nearby. That means they believe in March’s guilt. Now that they have him in custody, there’s no reason to watch the lot of us.
En masse, we head for the underground. First stop is the spaceport. Doc will need our help getting to the hospital. Of us all, only Vel is supposed to understand the mass transit system.
Thankfully, when we arrive, Doc is too distracted to ask about March. I don’t think I could face telling him right now. Instead, he’s all enthused about testing his treatment. Sometimes I forget how much of a mad scientist he is—in the best possible way.
“Great work,” I greet him. “I can’t stress how important this is. Are you sure it will work?”
Doc frowns. “As sure as I can be from running simulations.”
Rose pins me with a hard look as we go. “Don’t let anything happen to him.”
Or you’ll hunt me down and kill me. Got it. The implied threat doesn’t faze me; to do me bodily harm, she’ll need to join the queue.
She’s been his lover for many years. From Mair’s journals, I know Rose fought for him when he first arrived from the commune on Saleris, answering the advert for someone willing to train as a geneticist to aid the clans. The other men found him weak and laughable because he wouldn’t fight back. They aren’t married, but she loves him fiercely. The woman clearly doesn’t like him disembarking, but we need him to explain what effect the regimen will have. Likely their physicians will want to test it to prevent further harm, but I have high hopes.
If one of ours can help him recover, it will help the alliance immeasurably. And after March’s sacrifice, I can’t fail here. I have to make it worthwhile.