Soolin yawned as she scrolled through the positions vacant yet again. There were two new openings for bodyguards since she last looked, so she fired off an application for each without much hope of getting even an automatic rejection. She'd walked out on the distinctly dicey Dorian job with no notice, after a guest had disappeared without trace and Dorian had suddenly gained the best of glowing health. She had had no intention of being his next vitamin shot so she'd simply left on the next regular shopping run to Onus 2 and since then she hadn't been able to find another place. The bastard had, of course, put out word that she was unreliable which meant no one in the industry would consider her now.
So what else was there in allied jobs? She shuddered; not looking after children at any price—potentially taking blaster fire for someone else was infinitely preferable. She drained the last of the cold coffee from her chipped mug as she considered various other categories: administration, marketing, accounts, sales, computer techs, banking, and a lot of other professions equally lacking in excitement and, frankly, interest. Besides they always demanded experience and references and hers were all in the hired gun area. She'd have to find something soon though, what with only enough money left for a few more weeks in this run-down dump of a hotel.
All right then, what about 'other'? Maybe there'd be something interesting out there on the weird fringes of employment. What the hell was 'gardening'? And someone wanted a mistress? She backtracked to look at that one again, purely because of the archaic term, one she recognised from historical novels.
Billionaire Del Kline seeks beautiful woman for business contract on the luxury planet of Gardenos. Terms: mistress for a month. Salary: one million credits. Training will be given.
She sent a message asking if her travel costs could be paid out of future earnings, then rinsed her mug out and went to bed.
The reply was waiting for her in the morning, just voice without any picture.
I'm happy to pay out of my own pocket as long as you get here in the next week. D V Kline.
At least he didn't sound old.
Kline not only paid for her travel, he booked her a first-class cabin and a piloted flyer from the spaceport to his house. Soolin stepped out of the flyer and sniffed the air appreciatively (clean, fresh, a hint of citrus) while her two bags (one of clothes and personal effects, the other of assorted weapons) were unloaded. Kline's house was a long low modern one on a hill, set among palm trees, with the property running right down to the water. Soolin regarded the jetty and luxury yacht with interest; no matter how unpleasant the rest of the job might be, she'd surely be able to get away at times.
She picked up her bags and walked up the wide steps to the front door. Not very good security, she thought disapprovingly; no walls or fences, open approach, all that glass. She hesitated, then pressed the buzzer.
The door swung open almost immediately. "Hello, you must be Soolin. Well, that's a bit obvious because who else would you be, I mean..."
"Yes, I'm Soolin." That friendly face wasn't what one expected in a butler or whatever he was supposed to be. "I'm here to see Del Kline, but of course you know that too."
"Oh I do, I do. Come in!"
Soolin looked pointedly at her bags.
"Oh, sorry, want me to take one?" He went for the weapons bag, and staggered. "What've you got in this, rocks?"
"Something rather more effective." Soolin bestowed a cool and polite smile on him. "Would you be able to tell Kline that I'm here?"
"Oh, that's easy. That's me."
"You?" She stared at him. Not old, not hideously ugly, in fact he was in his early thirties and not bad looking at all.
"Why d'you look so surprised?"
"You're not exactly what I was expecting."
"Some rich old buffer, you mean? Doesn't make any difference, does it?" He gave her a sudden humorous sideways look that made her smile. "Look, I'll show you your room and you can unpack, then I'll see you at dinner and we can get started on the training in the morning."
Soolin raised her eyebrows. "In the morning?"
"Well, of course. I mean, you must be a bit tired."
Meaning she had to rest up in preparation? What the hell was involved in this 'training', Soolin wondered with considerable concern as she followed Kline.
"Here we are," he said, opening the door to a large and airy room. "Get settled in and I'll see you around seven."
Soolin looked around: pale walls with a couple of Japanese prints, a bed covered in aqua silk, a view of the lake. It was beautiful but didn't look lived in. "This isn't your room?"
He looked surprised. "Nope, all yours. Mine's through that door but you can set the lock code." He looked suddenly shy. "It's just for appearances when the others arrive."
"Friends of mine. That's why I wanted you this week so you're all trained up by the time they get here."
"Now just a minute." Soolin put her hands on her hips (and not far from the small gun concealed in her wide belt). "I didn't sign up for multiples. As far as I'm concerned, the deal's off and you can stuff your one mill—"
"Eh? Oh now look, I didn't mean anything like that! I just meant you should look like you belong here, act like you've been around for a while, you know, that sort of thing."
"And be your lover," Soolin said after a slightly puzzled pause. "Which I thought was the main requirement."
"Oh no, well, if things turn out that way…" he trailed off. "I did put quotes round 'mistress'. Weren't they there?"
"I imagine they removed them under the assumption that you were using them for emphasis, as so many people erroneously do."
"Oh! That explains some of the applicants, then. Interesting but not really the type I was looking for."
"Nice-looking girl who can learn to show some realistic-looking affection while my guests are here?" he said tentatively.
Soolin shook her head and sat down on the bed. "Isn't a million rather a lot for that?"
"Easy come, easy go. Finding someone to like me, or look as if they do, is a lot harder."
Why in the galaxy would an attractive guy with such nice brown eyes think he was unlikeable? Ah. It must be the money; he assumed his wealth was the major draw. "All right." Soolin smiled at him and got a relieved grin back. "I suppose I'd better call you Del, then."
"I don't go by that—bit common really with so many people and planets called that. Use my middle name: Vila."
That seemed vaguely familiar in a niggling way.
"Right, I'll be off to set the perimeter security and organise dinner."
Dinner (tiny spicy falafels, lake fish steamed with ginger and chili, crème brulee) was delicious, all the more so now that Soolin knew how little was required of her for that million. It was cooked and served by a large, middle-aged, apple-cheeked woman whom Vila introduced as his cook and housekeeper. "So," said Soolin over the dessert wine. "Tell me about these people you want to impress."
"Ex-crewmates. I used to be on the weapons station on a spaceship, till they replaced me, that is."
Soolin's professional interest was sparked. "What sort of weapons?"
"Neutron blasters. I was pretty good with them, too."
"So you made your money in piracy?"
"Didn't make anything, not unless you count the five mill I won in Freedom City."
"So what did you do?"
"Oh, this and that." Vila waved his hands vaguely. "Went here and there."
Soolin abandoned that line of questioning; bodyguards learned discretion early. "So how did you make your money, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Acquisitions. I acquire things that people want and can't get hold of otherwise." Vila leaned back, his eyes twinkling over his wineglass.
Soolin laughed. "You're a thief!"
"And a very good one!"
"Those prints on the walls: they aren't, are they?"
"Nope, all originals. Sometimes I keep something I especially like for myself."
"Like those jade figurines on the sideboard? You do well out of acquisition."
"Plus I charge working expenses and a percentage of the value."
"Honestly, I have no idea why you'd want to impress anyone; all this is surely enough."
"Nah, owning valuable stuff is one thing, being valued is another. Look, I can be frank with you since this is a business arrangement, right? Avon and that lot always thought I was useless, a spare part. I just want them to think I matter to someone."
"Even if it isn't true?"
Vila winced. "Course it's not true, I'm used to that, but I don't see why I can't put one over them."
That name Avon; suddenly it all fell into place. "You were one of Blake's people! You're Restal!"
"Yeah, well, part of the million is keeping that to yourself. Of course I'd have to tell you sometime."
"Why did you leave?"
"Apart from the general contempt, you ask? It was all right when Blake was still around. He was tough and more than a bit obsessed, but he always gave credit where it was due. But when that bastard Tarrant threatened to throw me off the ship and sold me to Bayban the Butcher, that was the last straw. I just disappeared next planet we got to."
Like she had with Dorian. "It's always good to know when to cut your losses. So why are they coming here if they care so little about you?"
"They need a bolthole for a while, and I doubt it would occur to Servalan to look for them on Gardenos. That plastic rat Orac managed to track me down. An AI with a bad attitude," Vila explained in response to Soolin's puzzled look.
There were a lot of other places they could go; Soolin thought; there had to be more to it than that.
The 'mistress' training started the next morning after breakfast on the terrace and consisted of learning the layout of the house, the local area, and Vila's likes and dislikes. He was a pesco-ovo-vegetarian, hated personal violence, wouldn't shoot at anyone he could actually see ("Far too personal."), enjoyed historical, fantasy, and science fiction vids and novels, and afternoon naps.
Then they moved onto the public displays of affection. "Nothing much, just a casual kiss now and then, tousle my hair when you go past, you know the sort of thing."
Soolin didn't, not personally, but her parents had been like that. "I think I can simulate it."
One morning they went out on the lake so that Soolin was familiar with the boat's controls; in the afternoon they took the flyer to the local town and some of the local attractions like the Rainbow Falls (where the water was coloured by minerals in the water) and the rather tame 'wildlife' park.
By the time the Liberator established orbit and the crew teleported down, Soolin was very much the mistress of the house and, seemingly, Vila.
"Welcome to Gardenos," she said, indicating the selection of wines and fruit juices and the glasses she'd set out on the table. "Do help yourselves."
The oldest of them—Avon or Tarrant?—raised an eyebrow. "And who are you?"
"Soolin." She hooked her arm through Vila's and gave him a practised affectionate glance.
"Don't worry, Avon," Vila said, returning it. "Soolin is a model of discretion."
"Or just a model, knowing you, Vila," the dark-skinned young woman muttered.
"You're Dayna, right?" Soolin said, keeping her smile going, though at a lower wattage. "You're the one Vila said replaced him on the neutron blasters. You're welcome to join me in small arms practice later. Vila let me set up my own firing range and did lots of clever electronics with the interactive targets."
"Really." Dayna looked impressed. "I didn't know he had it in him."
"Such a pity you never thought to find out."
Cally—she must be Cally the Auron—compressed her lips as if to hide a smile.
"And how long has … Soolin been with you, Vila?" Avon asked, the pause before her name a calculated insult.
"On the contrary," Soolin said, giving Vila's arm a squeeze. "Nowhere near long enough."
Avon, looking slightly sickened, wandered over to look at the paintings and jade collection. "You seem to be doing quite well, Vila, going by the value of these pieces. Am I to ascribe them to Soolin's taste, you never having had any?"
Vila opened his mouth to reply but Soolin get there first. "All Vila's. In fact he designed the whole house. Would you like me to show you around?"
"Not now. I need to speak to Vila."
"In other words you'd like me to go away?" Soolin sat down in an armchair and crossed her legs. "Consider me Vila's crew."
Avon looked down at her, then abruptly dismissed her. "Vila, I need you back."
Ah, so here it comes. Soolin watched Vila, hoping that he wouldn't give in.
"Why? You haven't needed my skills since Blake left. You want me to do a job for you, then you can hire me and pay me expenses and a cut like anyone else."
"I want you back on the crew," Avon said tightly; Soolin thought it must be a hard thing for such a proud man to admit.
"What for? Wasn't I the spare part you told Dayna and Tarrant I was?"
Tarrant grinned dazzlingly. "Absolutely right: spare pilot, spare weapons. We could do with you."
"Oh, could you? Take a look around. I'm happy here and I intend to stay."
Cally stepped forward. "Aren't you interested in the cause, Vila? After all the Federation did to you?"
"Course I am, but we haven't really been rebels for a while, have we. Chasing Soprons and trying to hijack kairopan and all that. Look, you go your way and I'll go mine."
"That's very selfish and short-sighted."
"Tell that to your fearless and aimless leader. Actually, since you didn't ask, it's not just artwork and other valuables I steal, you know. I've done more than one gratis job for Avalon."
"Two, you mean," Avon said sourly.
"Several, I mean. As I said, I can probably work you in for the right pay if it's just nicking stuff, or do a couple of mates' rates if you want to get at Servalan."
Soolin sat, quietly smiling to herself; go, Vila! It was surprising how much self-confidence he had gained in the last week.
Avon stared at him with narrowed eyes. "Very well," he said finally.
Soolin stood up. "I'll show you to your rooms," she said sweetly.
They left a few days later, teleporting in a flash of light. Soolin, who had been standing with Vila, arm entwined with his, remained there enjoying the warmth of his body. "I can see why you wanted some support, but you actually did very well."
"Thanks." Vila gently disentangled himself to Soolin's regret. "I'm not sure I could have done it without you. It really helped having someone on my side."
"It was a pleasure." And that, Soolin realised, was true.
"I wasn't sure how long they'd be here so I said a month." Vila looked away and continued in a strained, husky voice. "You can leave whenever you want to. You'll still get the million."
His back was rigid as if steeling himself for a blow. "What if I don't," Soolin said. "I could do another few months for a reduced rate." Or longer, come to that.
Vila swung round, his face incredulous. "You mean you want to stay?"
"You really have to acquire some self-esteem, you know." Soolin pulled him towards her and kissed him soundly. "That one was entirely free. Future ones could, of course, be mates' rates." She grinned. "For varying values of 'mate'."
"Oh!" Vila touched her cheek with a wondering finger. "You… you really mean that?"
"Well, of course we could do a fifty-fifty split. Would that suit you?"
Soolin tousled his hair. "Perfectly. After all, we'll be partners. It strikes me that you'd need a bodyguard in your line of work."
"For varying values of 'partners'?"
Soolin took his hand. "Come on, show me your room."