Nilo had his own gravity, much like a black hole, and in this, at least, I was smart enough not to be drawn in a third time—no matter how much I was tempted by his charming grin and sly wit. It was a mask, same as mine. I needed to remember we were more alike than either of us would prefer.
I slid my feet into the nude pumps that added several centimeters to my height, putting me over a meter eighty. Height could be a weapon, and today I wielded it with precision. I expected to meet with Besor as soon as I arrived at the hotel, and with my heels, we'd stand eye to eye. The sleeveless midnight-blue sheath dress accentuated my pale skin and chin-length curly blond hair.
It also made me appear unarmed. I wasn't—I had two knives and a small plas blade hidden under the ruched fabric—but appearances were important.
My makeup was subtle and flawless. I looked poised, expensive, and untouchable. I tailored my look to each client, and according to rumor, Besor appreciated beautiful things. And perhaps if he was dazzled by my facade, he wouldn't pay enough attention to our negotiations, netting me a better deal.
The ship settled onto the landing pad with a barely discernible bump. A few minutes later, someone rang the suite's doorbell, and I shored up my mental shields. Most Valoffs were telepathic, and while they generally didn't go poking around in humans' heads for fun, they could.
I refused to have anyone in my head but me.
I opened the door to reveal a young, uniformed Valovian woman. She bowed shallowly, and her pale skin and ash-blond hair contrasted nicely with the deep garnet uniform. Her eyes were light blue, threaded through with streaks of midnight—a common Valovian trait.
"Ms. Stafford, we have arrived at Zenzi," she said, her tone deferential, as if I really 'were' someone important. "If you are ready to disembark, I will show you to your transport."
All of my travel documents and IDs were under the name Alexandra Stafford for this trip, because my real identity—Lexi Bowen—was potentially a little too interesting on Valovia. I didn't know that the empress was on the lookout for me, but I didn't know that she wasn't, either. My last trip hadn't exactly ended in an open invitation to return, so a new identity had been prudent.
I'd been answering to my assumed name for a week, so hearing it now didn't bother me. I picked up my tote, did a final visual check to ensure I hadn't left anything behind, then smiled at the woman. "Lead the way."
She bowed again and then swept an arm to my left. "Please follow me."
This passenger liner was large enough that the first-class cabins had their own level, and even the hallway was wide and well-appointed, with light cream paint, polished gold fixtures, and faux marble floors. It also had an elevator to a private external hatch, so VIPs wouldn't have to rub elbows with the huddled masses in the cheaper cabins.
As we waited for the elevator, two more groups joined us, each being led by a uniformed steward. I subtly eyed them. The two middle-aged men—both Valoff—in expensive, complementary suits were obviously a couple, holding hands and making goo-goo eyes at each other while their steward suppressed a tiny smile and politely ignored them. They were adorable.
The human man and woman were not. They were older, dressed in designer clothes, and angry at everything. The third time the woman snapped at their steward, who was doing his very best to maintain his placid expression in spite of his clenched jaw, I stepped in.
"What brings you to Valovia?" I asked in Common, masking my annoyance at them behind polite small talk. I could speak Valovan well enough to get by, but most humans preferred Common.
The woman ignored me. The man next to her shot me a contemptuous look, then followed it up with a slow, leering glance down my body. After he realized I was attractive, a lascivious smile appeared, though he had to be at least twice my age. "I'm here for business," he drawled, "but I'm hoping to make time for pleasure, too."
The invitation was impossible to miss, but I pretended ignorance.
The man edged closer, his smile still firmly in place. His eyes, however, were cold and covetous. If he put so much as a single finger on me, he'd learn a harsh lesson in why touching someone without consent was a very bad idea. It was a message I'd be happy to deliver on behalf of people everywhere.
He must've read the danger in my expression because he backed off, but to make himself feel better, he muttered an insult under his breath.