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The Golden Bridle

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"You're not doing this out of consideration for my safety," Keylinn had said when Tal told her to stay in the ship. There was no hint of petulance or injury in her voice, the way there would have been with Adrian or even Spider. Concern, yes, but only in a professional sense. Working with a Greykey had its benefits.

"Of course not," Tal agreed as he made his preparations: the hidden weapons and components of weapons next to his skin, the sleek drab clothes, the contact lenses.

"Not bad," Keylinn said, watching him impassively.

Tal raised an eyebrow. "If I missed some obvious precaution, I'd love to hear about it now."

Someone who didn't know Keylinn--or Greykeys--better wouldn't have realized that she was moving so as to keep her hands always in sight, accommodating the line of his gaze and the wider field of his peripheral vision. "May I--"

"I wouldn't have asked if it didn't imply permission."

The thinnest of smiles stretched her mouth. "Indeed." Deft fingers poked here, prodded there, readjusted straps and sheaths to her liking. "I do question the wisdom of going into the maw of Bellerophon's skyworld without an fleet and a half for backup."

"I can only sneak so many ships away from the City of Diamond under the excuse of training maneuvers and trade," Tal pointed out. And--let's see if he could pull off human levity for once--"Plausible deniability."

"You're on Adrian's council."

Tal's eyes were dark and cynical. "Which changes according to the whims of those who hold power. Adrian is a good friend, if you count these things. But friends turn upon themselves, purposefully or no, and he has that trait most dangerous to a working ruler: sincerity."

She nodded curtly. He'd never asked her opinion of Adrian Mercati. Probably didn't want it. Greykey logic applied to that erratic soul? The man must be giving her conniptions.

"If I don't come back," Tal said, averting his gaze slightly without letting her face and hands leave his field of vision, "take the ship and get the hell out of here. It's yours and I'm sure your contract has some contingency for it."

"As you say." Keylinn's eyes flashed with sudden grim amusement. Tal didn't ask her to explain. "But you'll come back."

"I didn't know you were superstitious," Tal said, halfway between amusement and annoyance.

Her brows drew down together. "Oh, no. I just know how to figure odds."

===

Tal had not expected any of his weapons to survive the checkpoint. As a matter of paranoia and good procedure, Bellerophon's guards confiscated everything except for the contacts. Their pity for his need to disguise himself bothered him not in the least. You did what you did to, including giving up some extremely high-grade personal arms for the sole psychological reason of convincing your opponent that she has the upper hand.

He didn't expect that to work either, not on someone who had survived as long as Bellerophon allegedly had. But he would have been remiss not to try.

His guides had led him in complete darkness--no blindfolds, no light to see by. Possibly a slip, because if the route could be memorized by humans then it could certainly be memorized by a determined Aphean. He dedicated himself to cataloging the oddly muffled sound their shoes made against the floor, the turns, the unpredictable inclines.

The moment the guides paused, Tal tensed. Light flooded the corridor and traced the insignia on the closed door: a swan-winged horse in flight. No bridle.

"Go in," the guides said roughly, as if he could possibly forget that they had weapons trained on him and a purpose to carry out.

Just as the door swished open, a serene female voice said, "It was about time for us to meet, Tayel Shuan."

Tal stepped in, not slowly but not quickly either, careful of where he placed his feet. The room he had entered was lavishly appointed and kaleidoscopic in the interests in revealed: curved daggers and golden seals from dead nations, surgical tools that would have been illegal almost everywhere that Tal had visited, tapestries of silk and optic fibers, chipped vases, polished gleaming pebbles. Tal bet everything was genuine and ludicrously collectible.

Bellerophon herself sat straight-backed in an iridescent metal chair, sheathed in a dark coat and a pearly blouse and neatly cut slacks. She had dark hair gathered in an uneven knot curling around her left shoulder and a pale, dangling jewel hanging from her right ear. She wore no contacts.

"I was thinking of having you killed," Bellerophon said. She didn't study her fingernails idly, or smile, none of the stupid manipulative human mannerisms that got Tal in trouble so often.

It was a relief to speak plainly without assuming that anything so naive as trust was involved. "What changed your mind?"

"Because I looked at the data and realized you were already doing something useful to me." Bellerophon leaned back. Her expression was entirely serious.

"I don't suppose I can convince you to tell me what you're doing."

She actually smiled. "Since you're here, why not? The information won't do you any good anywhere else. I capture demons. In the bowels of this skyworld is a research facility devoted specifically to exploring Apheans' moral limitations and--you'll laugh at this, I'm sure--making them 'safe' for interaction within human societies."

Tal took that in. "Who better to manipulate Apheans than another Aphean?"

Or, of course, to carry out experiments that humans had no stomach for.

"That's correct."

Bellerophon and Tal looked at each other consideringly for a long moment.

"Was it the Sawyer Crown?" he said after a while.

Bellerophon didn't blink. "The Curosa are of no interest to me. No; it's your connection with the Greykey."

Ah, he thought. "You're waiting to see how we handle the end of our contract."

"It could prove instructive."

"And after that?"

She stood and paced a precise half-circle that ended aslant him. "Tch. You're asking for a guarantee about an uncertain circumstance."

"It must be all that living among humans," Tal said dryly. "They break contracts all the time. Unless they're Greykeys." He shifted his weight slightly, making sure not to get any closer to Bellerophon. "Was there anything else you wanted to arrange for me to find out?"

She shook her head. Probably lying, but there was probably also no way for him to trick the truth out of her.

Tal bowed slightly. "I had better stop wasting your time."

"Oh, time with you is never going to be wasted, Tayel." Bellerophon smiled again. "If you survive the end of the Greykey's service, come see me again. I think we'll be able to come to a mutually beneficial agreement."

Bellerophon snapped her fingers. The door snicked open and the guides led Tal back into the darkness. This time he knew every step of the way by heart.