As Senth approached, the beefy Kin bouncer at the Ghost put out a hand. "Hold up, kid." She nodded approval at his brother with no more than a glance. Khyff waited while she motioned Senth aside. "You got ID?"
Senth opened his cloak, revealing the unmistakable insignia of the Thieves' Guild, a skeleton key inside a slashed circle, on the lining. No key required. He gave his Sen'dai's hand sign.
"Ffffftt!" The bouncer held up both hands and made an apologetic nod. "Sorry. Why didn't you say you were his right up front?"
"His shouldn't have to." He brushed a hand down the front of the cloak. "And I'm no kid."
"Sorry, sir." She opened the door for both of them and bowed.
Smiling with envious pride, Khyff chuckled and shook his head. He held out one palm, and Senth slid his down it, hooked his fingers as Khyff did, and with hands clasped, gave one downward shake. "C'mon, Bro." Khyff led the way past the darkened foyer.
Inside, music pulsed like a living entity. The throbbing bass tickled Senth's chest, and he coughed. Drums pounded. Colored lights swept the cavernous room. Strobes flashed across the congested dance floor, highlighting bobbing heads and upflung arms. Light glinted off human bodies slick with sweat. Bared and damp Kin furskin stuck out in points, laden with glitter.
"Stay close," Khyff shouted over the pounding music, standing next to Senth. He headed for the rear and left no chance to argue. They skirted around the crammed dance area. Senth liberated a few loose credit stubs clipped carelessly to belts and stuffed them into the pockets of his cloak.
Senth tried not to stare at the slakes along the wall, but their clothing and attitude declared their availability. He stopped to watch a pair of bare-assed male and female slakes bent over a low railing. Androgs handled their bodies like merchandise.
Khyff laid a hand on Senth's shoulder and nudged his chin toward the Androgs. "Comparison shoppers."
Senth frowned up at him. "That's not funny."
"Especially when it's you hanging over the damned railing." Khyff jerked his head to one side. "Come on."
Other than Kin, no one in the place wore leather clothing except Khyff. Kin had a proverb, "To wear an animal's skin, you must take its soul yourself." No one challenged his brother.
Females ruled on the home planet Felidae, and the majority who visited the Ghost had more than one male in their company. A single Kin female at the bar turned and looked Senth over from head to foot. Tall and slender, she wore brown leather the same color as her hair. She slid her tongue seductively across her upper teeth, back and forth between her fangs, and wiggled her cute feline nose. Then she twitched her pointed ears toward Senth.
Khyff grabbed him. "Stay away from her! She'll take you to bed and then eat you for breakfast. And that's not a figure of speech. HalfKin who leave with her aren't seen again."
The female crooked a finger at him. Senth turned and fled after Khyff.
Two female Betters conversed with each other, ignoring the human males chained to their wrists like pets. The men wore pants, boots, and chain harnesses across their chests.
Enhanced humans with every sense fine-tuned, Betters were bred for intelligence, leadership, beauty, and lust. Khyff had told him they went into heat like animals, and that once you'd had a Better in heat, you couldn't be satisfied with a normal human ever again. To curb potential problems, Betters were not permitted to hire slakes or enter slakehouses. Ever.
Senth walked into a solid wall of muscle, and backed up. "Oh kkkhh!" He flinched, ready to duck.
Khyff glared down at him, arms folded. "You better be glad it was me." His brother grabbed him by the arm and shouldered through the throng with him in tow. "Quit hawkin', Sen." He glanced back. "You want talons in your eyes?"
The noise level lowered when they rounded a corner. To the left, wide marble stairs wound upward. Bouncers stood guard on the first landing, weapons cradled in their arms. Beside them, arrowed signs pointed in different directions. HOTEL. CASHIER CAGE. EXIT TO SLAKEHOUSE.
Senth took one step up and felt a tug on his cloak. He turned and looked straight into Khyff's eyes.
"I can't go any farther than this." Khyff set one foot on the bottom stair. "There's only one place they'd let me go up there." His glance moved left. "My master's here, by the way. I saw him when we came in." Holding a wad of soft money, Khyff moved his hand between himself and Senth. "Take this. He'll pat me down before he puts me to work."
Senth hid the cash in a pocket. For eighteen years he hadn't known he even had family. In the tradestandard month since he'd discovered he had a human half brother, he'd bargained everything short of his soul to buy Khyff's slave contract so they could be together. Leaving his brother, even for a few days, left a gaping, lonely hole in his heart.
"Please." Khyff's misery-hardened eyes implored. "Stay safe. After all these years of not knowing you were even alive--"
"Hey!" He forced himself to focus on the job at hand. "You think you can shirk my cozy without a drip? Man, Bro, yo' cover is for gloom." He stuck up a thumb. "I got you happy." You can't get rid of me that easy. No one watches your back better than I do.
Khyff grinned, shaking his head. "Go to work." He turned and shouldered his way back into the crowded club.
On the hotel level, six of his Sen'dai's private, no-nonsense goons in dark suits and dark glasses blocked the hallway he approached. Senth flashed his Sen'dai's hand signal. With a grudging nod of respect, one of the men opened a door for him and then shut it behind him with a click. Background noise ceased.
Without moving, he sized up the room. High ceilings, subdued lighting, heavy furniture, marble-topped tables. No paintings. Two statues, obvious fakes. Dense drapes, deep carpet, wood-paneled walls. The positions of the door and windows, plus the spacing of the panels, meant a hidden safe. No visible security, but nowhere the guild set up a meet lacked it.
A door opened, and though Senth could not see the Harbinger, he felt the man's presence. A native-born Kelthian, Luc Saint-Cyr's dark chocolate skin and habitual black attire made it possible for him to disappear into the shadows.
Though the Harbinger had personally sent for him, his presence was the last thing Senth expected. If his Sen'dai was on Kelthia, this was not the usual grab and go. The man moved one hand into the light and gestured Senth closer.
"Sen'dai." He stepped forward and bowed. Like most people, he avoided looking directly into Luc Saint-Cyr's eyes. The man wore contact lenses that turned his eyes completely black. Raven's eyes, peering, intent. Predatory.
"With me, Senthys." Saint-Cyr led him through the darkened room to a hidden flight of stairs. He paused with one hand on the railing. "How much was it?"
Senth lifted his head. "Sir?"
"Khyffen's tip tonight. How much?"
He cast about in his mind how his Sen'dai knew.
"Of course I know what Khyffen's up to." The Harbinger tucked a finger under Senth's chin and smiled down at him. "You're the finest Deshai I've ever trained. Nothing that affects you escapes my attention. You're too important." He started up the steps and halted so quickly, Senth bumped into him.
"Well, Senthys? How much?"
He held his Sen'dai's gaze, focusing on the centers of the solid black orbs. "A thousand, sir."
"Good." One corner of his mouth lifted. "I told Liu to take care of him."
"Liu's one of yours?" They continued up the stairs.
"Mmm. You know your brother's master and I are old...friends." His emphasis on the last word sent a chill up Senth's spine. "I want to help Khyffen. He'd be an exceptional asset to my face business."
For Women Only, Saint-Cyr's private security company and one of the faces for his true business. It offered premium protection services to celebrity female clientele.
"Thank you, sir."
"You offered once to bargain for his freedom." Saint-Cyr stopped, and then turned back. "Are you still open to that?"
Senth leaned forward. "Yes, sir! Whatever it takes."
Saint-Cyr shook a finger at him. "What have I told you about being too eager?"
"Sorry, Sen'dai." He hung back. "You surprised me."
"Bargains are always a surprise. Keep that in mind."
"Sen'dai." He lowered his head in respect.
"Senthys, you'll be free in two years. Khyffen still has eight. Suppose I were to guarantee his freedom in less than a week?"
Senth tried not to show his glee, but a smile pasted itself across his face anyway.
The Harbinger closed his solid black eyes, head shaking in a way that said, What am I to do with you?
"I'm sorry, sir! You've never lied to me. I trust your word."
The black-skinned man gazed down at him for a silent moment. He nodded and laid a hand on Senth's shoulder. "And well you should."
"What do I have to do, sir, for Khyff's freedom?"
"The job we're meeting about tonight will bring in a fortune for us, but it holds extreme risk for you. I don't usually give you a choice, but this time I'm going to because of the job's importance. I'm also offering to buy Khyffen and free him. In return, I want a few promises."
"You know I want this, sir. I'll do whatever it takes."
The Harbinger's mouth lifted at one side. "Never admit that to anyone either."
"Senthys, you understand why I've kept you on Shackle?"
While Khyff's master had addicted him to Thrust, which put his sex drive into overload, Shackle did the opposite to Senth. From puberty forward, he'd never known life without it. The drug also controlled aggression.
"Yes, Sen'dai," he answered swiftly. "I never want that to happen again."
"Good." The Harbinger tapped a knuckle against his mouth, frowning at him. "You know what they'd do to you if it did, don't you? Where they'd take you?"
"Yes, sir." He stiffened. "I don't want that."
"No, of course not. After five days without Shackle, you'll start withdrawal. Your heart will pound. Your head will feel like it's splitting apart. And for several days, you'll have a semipermanent erection. You understand what that means?"
"Yes, Sen'dai. I'd be as high and strung out as Khyff is on weekends."
"Well put. There's a possibility of stroke if you quit cold. It's extremely dangerous. You must taper off the drug. Do you understand?"
He nodded. "I do, sir."
"This job should take four days, so it's important that you return as soon as it's over."
"I'll dose you before you leave to ensure you have the full five-day effect."
"Thank you, sir."
"The reason I've told you all this is because you'll be working side by side with a Better."
Senth opened his mouth, shut it again, and then mouthed, Better?
"Listen to me, my young Deshai. Despite the romantic nonsense you've heard about Betters being extraordinary lovers, their kisses can poison you. If her saliva mixes with yours, she can control your mind. The touch of her hands will drive you insane. There are ancient myths about sirens, women who used their voices to lure men and then slay them. Betters aren't mythical. They're real. If she subjects you to her passion, you'll be at the mercy of her pleasure forever."