ʞ / fiction / Spirals / Empire /


from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

“She — she stabbed you? In the chest? Was she trying to kill you?”


“Sparrowhawk, why did she try to kill you?”

“Not in the mood for this, Wren.”

Wren darts in front of me, grabbing me by the shoulders. “No! Stop, stop right here. You just got in a — in a gunfight and you’re not even going to tell me why?”

I take her wrists firmly and pull her hands away from my shoulders. Her eyes widen as she realizes just how much stronger I am than her. “First off, it’s not much of a firefight if it’s just one idiot shooting at walls. Second, Wren, let me make something absolutely fucking clear.” I tighten my grip on her wrists. “You’re on my crew, and I take that deadly serious. As long as I draw breath, I will not let harm come to you. But that goes two ways. I am your captain, and when I tell you do something, you will obey me. Got it?”

She looks down, refusing to meet my eyes. “I — yes, Sparrowhawk.”

“Good.” I release her wrists. “Because you just met the last crewwoman I had. So you can maybe see why I’m not wholly enthused about this arrangement.”

“She — Hawk was on your crew?”

“The first person I trusted in a long time. And the last, too.”

“Did she betray you?”


“You didn’t give me an order!”


“You just said you weren’t in the mood. You didn’t order me not to ask you about her!”

“Ashes, is that how specific I need to be?” I sigh. “Okay then. Wren, do not ask me about Hawk again, and that’s an order.

She pouts. “Fine.”

“Oh no. If you’re going to make me act all official to get you to behave, you’re gonna do it too.” I fold my arms. “So what do you have to say to your captain?”

Wren glares at me. “...yes, ma’am.”

I click my tongue disapprovingly. “I didn’t see a salute, cadet.”

“You’re gonna make me salute you?”

“If you’re gonna make me give you orders.” I raise my eyebrows. “Come on, you know how, right?”

Wren flushes, and holds a hand to her brow. “Aye-aye, captain! There! Is that good enough for you, you—”

I close my hand over hers. “You salute with your forefinger and middle finger straight,” I correct her gently. “Fold the rest to your palm, like this. See?” I made the same motion. “If you use your whole hand, it’s an insult. Like how Hawk did, yeah?”

“Oh. I didn’t know—”

“Of course you didn’t, you’ve never been trained.” I slap her on the shoulder. “But don’t worry, we’ll get that fixed. I’ll make an ensign out of you yet. Now come on, let’s find you some cl—”

“The Army. That’s what you ran away to join, right? That’s where you learned this.”

“Huh? Yeah.”

“So Hawk knew that would insult you. That’s why she saluted that way.” Wren narrows her eyes. “You trained together, didn’t you?”

I stare at her for a moment. Little goody-two-shoes Wren, always so easy to underestimate. “It’s scary how sharp you are sometimes.”

The look on her face in nothing short of gleeful. “So I was right?”

Despite myself, I smile. Wren’s been a mess since we met up, and it’s good to see a flash of her old self. “Do you know what the punishment is for disobeying a direct order, Wren Skybreaker?”


“If you’re on your best behavior for the rest of this trip, maybe you won’t have to find out.” I take her by the shoulder and steer her towards the clothing racks. “Now come on. I got money I’m fixing to spend on you.”

Wren giggles. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Oh, sure, soon as there’s money involved, you’re a good little cadet, I see how it goes.”

“Ooh! Can we get that one? It’s pink!”

I snag the ţu tiau off the rack. “Here, go make sure it fits.” I point at the changing rooms. “That way.”


Wren launches herself in the direction of the changing rooms. I poke at some of the shirts on display. They’re not really my style. Nothing here would show off my abs at all. Or my tits, for that matter—

“Ferret,” I say out loud. “I thought I smelled something sleazy and dishonest in here.”

“Sparrowhawk!” The little man pokes his head past a rack, and grins at me. “I was wondering when you’d do me the courtesy.”

“Here to hound me about your package?”

“Can’t a man come to call on his dear, dear friends?” Three “Ferret” Skylark looks genuinely hurt. If I didn’t know him, I might actually believe it.

Ferret isn’t physically imposing. He’s not much taller than me, slim with a mussy, unkempt head of hair, dressed in a cheap knockoff of a much more expensive suit, and carrying a shockprod with a retractible blade convincingly disguised as a walking stick in the crook of his arm. His features are so feminine he could almost pass for a woman if he tried, which probably has something to do with why he’s the only man on Lotus with any real power. There’s not many men can make a street name stick, and he’s one of them.

“Sure, sure,” I reply. I lift up a blouse from the rack and hold it flat against my chest. “Tell me, do you think the mesh look works for me? I’m thinking of branching out, maybe trading up for something more scandalous.”

“M’dear, when you wear it, it’s not the clothes as cause scandals.” He bows and kisses the back of my hand. “Speakin’ on that, was quite the dust-up you had with your old girlfriend out there, eh?”

“Is that why you’re here? Don’t tell me you’re in bed with the Syndicate now too.”

“Nah! Nah, you know me, Sparrowhawk. Proudly independent, as always.” Ferret grins. “I did figure I was like to find you when I heard guns goin’ off. Came by your ship not ten minutes ago.”

“You’re sure eager to get your hands on your haul.” I examine my reflection in a nearby mirror. “Either that or you’re here to play dress-up.”

“What can I say, I’m a busy man.” Ferret lights a cigar. “How much for the girl, incident’ly? I know folks as’d pay top credit for her.”

“Ferret, it’s almost like you want me to cut on you.”

“Aw, not for sale, eh?” Ferret shakes his head. “Right shame. You’ve got my cargo, aye?”

“I have twenty kilos of opium,” I say. “Fresh off a subsistence world. They’re not yours until I hear the sweet clink of clean coins.”

“That’s all I needed to know.” Tiny lights dance across the screen in his contact lenses as he updates his ledger, and he tosses me a purse. “Delivery at the usual location.”

I unzip the purse and glance inside. It’s filled with platinum. “You’re not even asking to see the goods first? I’m touched.”

“Sparrow, when have you ever told a lie?” Ferret slaps me on the back. “Be seein‘ you ’round. And if you change your mind about the girl, my finder’s fee—”

“Tell me, now I have your money, what’s to keep me from dumping your ass out the nearest airlock?”

“That’s what we all love about you, Sparrow; your impeccable sense of humor.” Ferret waves jauntily. “Honor and grace!” With that, he slips out into the causeway.

“Who was that?” asks Wren, emerging from the changing room.

“A grease stain shaped like a man. We do business sometimes. How’s the bodywarmer?”

“It’s — I don’t know, it’s comfortable, but it’s a little snug?”

“It’s got to be. Baggy clothes don’t work well when you got no gravity to hold them down, and they’re a risk around machinery. Now let’s find you a few pairs of tights.”

“Actually I was hoping — could I get some skirts instead?”

“Wren, hon, do you want all and sundry seeing your undergarments?”

Wren turns beet red. “I — no! Why do you — oh.”

“Yeah. Out here, people are gonna see you from all kinds of angles. Dresses and skirts are for dirtlubbers, not void birds. Up here we got different ways to be sexy.”

Wren points at my half-bare midriff. “Like that? Sparrowhawk, we’re not all out to get naked in front of the galaxy.”

“Like I’d let you crib my style anyway.” I pull a few more outfits off the racks. “You can wrap a jin around your breasts to keep ’em locked down” — I indicate mine with a thumb — “and wear a normal tunic on top of that if you don’t want to bear your midriff, but see this fancy thing?” I hold up a different tunic. “The chest is reinforced; it’s like a jin built right into your tunic so you don’t need two layers.” I touch the fabric to her arm. “Feels great on the tits, too — no seams, no rough bits; makes you feel almost naked it’s so slick and soft.”

She fingers the tunic curiously. “It’s so thin. This isn’t cotton or wool.”

“It’s a real special fabric, imported all the way from the League. Can’t rightly figure how it must work but it’ll keep heat in as long as you’re at a safe temperature, and radiate it out if you start getting too hot. Expensive shit, but if you want surface comfort in the void, you won’t find better.”

Wren’s glaring at me when she comes back out of the changing room. “You just want to see how my bottom looks in these, don’t you.”

“Your present getup isn’t doing your ass any favors,” I reply levelly.

“I tried these on, and they made me look — look —”

“Fashion-forward and desirable as all getout?”

Wren bites her lip. “These pants — they’re really tight across my — my pelvis —”

Oh, Wren. So innocent and naïve. It’s kind of adorable. “Exercise is hard work, darling; you need all the encouragement you can get,” I tell her with a snicker.

“...you are really enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Sure am.”

“I’m— do people really wear things like this?” Her cheeks are burning. “Ugh, God. Where do they keep the normal leggings?”

I snicker. “Those are normal, honey.”

“They are not!” She points at her loose, ratty old pants. “This is normal.”

That is barbaric,” I return calmly. “We dress like civilized people up here.”

“I think you mean ‘oversexed,’ not ‘civilized,’” she grouses. “Look, can’t I please just get something that doesn’t— doesn’t—”

“Nope. Ain’t no market for it; no one wants uncomfortable clothes.”

Her face twists in humiliation. “But this is really distracting—” she tries, to no avail.

“And the sooner you learn to like it, the better,” I return calmly. “Ain’t nothing sillier than being scared of pleasure. Civilized women understand that. If you’re gonna have tits and a clit, you oughta treat ’em right.”

She glowers. “Is this my punishment for disobeying you?”

I laugh. “This is your reward for falling in line so quick.”

Wren pales, and darts back into the changing room.

Belatedly, I think to check my pockets to make sure Hawk didn’t steal anything. Amazingly, all my things are still there, even the keys to Chrysanthemum. Not that that they’d do her much good anymore. The drive won’t operate anymore without a special key sequence — I had Daisy work Chrys over good and proper after last time. That girl is one sneaky pagan, let me tell you — anyone tries to break into the cargo hold is in for a nasty surprise, keys or no.

Wren comes out of the changing room again, holding a stack of clothes. “Okay. I guess this’ll have to do.”

“Attagirl.” I wave to a clerk, and he drifts over. “We’re ready to check out.”

“Excellent.” He smiles at Wren. “Authentic Carnelian fashion, this jin. You’ve expensive tastes, ma’am.”

“Oh!” Wren looks at me in alarm. “Is that okay? I—”

“Only the best for my crew.”

“That’ll be… four sovereigns and nine talents,” the clerk interjects. Wren blanches at the mere mention of so much money.

I flip open my North Coast credit booklet and write in the amount on a slip. I touch my small sapphire signet to the inkpad and press it carefully over the number before tearing out the slip. The clerk inspects the paper with the air of someone used to spotting forgeries, then slips it into a binder and smiles at me. “Very good. You are all set, respected mistresses.” He bows, one arm behind his back, a hand to his heart. “Go forth in honor and grace.”

I nod to him. “Glory light your way,” I respond as we turn to go.

“Thank you,” Wren says as we leave the shop. “I mean, you were being horrible, but—”

“But you liked it, and I spent money on you.” I ruffle her hair. “You are very welcome. It’s nice to have someone to spoil sometimes.”

She makes a face. “I didn’t like it!”

“Whatever you say, cadet.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“‘Stop calling me that, ma’am.’”

Wren folds her arms. “You know what, Sparrowhawk?” She takes a deep breath. “Fuck you.”

I grin, and put my arm around her shoulder. “Spoken like a true void bird. Now let’s go save your planet.”