I'd sworn I would never set foot on Valovia again, but I was about to prove myself a liar. That fact had never been in question, but I tried to keep the promises I made to myself. The screen in my cabin gently mocked me, displaying a green-and-brown close-up of the planet while the atmosphere buffeting the ship's hull grew denser as we sank toward the surface.
Valovia had burned me twice already. I usually learned from my mistakes, but once again the promise of money had overridden my good sense. I winced. My former captain, Octavia Zarola, would be so disappointed in me. Tavi had a strict moral compass. Mine was a lot more flexible.
And a lot more lucrative.
Case in point: the sumptuous first-class cabin surrounding me, paid for by Besor Edfo, my contact and potential employer on Valovia. It was an obvious ploy for him to demonstrate that he had money to spare, since I hadn't agreed to take the job yet, only to meet, but it was a nice touch. As was the prepaid first-class return ticket.
Besor had offered me a truly ridiculous amount of money to recover a stolen figurine for him. Apparently, he and a rival had been feuding over the piece of art for close to a decade, and it had switched hands a dozen times thanks to the efforts of a few recovery specialists.
Officially, recovery specialists were experts at tracking down items that had gone missing, whether through negligence or theft. But in reality, we were often the reason items went missing.
The latest theft of the figurine had stymied Besor's longtime specialist, so he'd put out a call for an expert.
An expert like myself.
I'd never been able to resist a puzzle, so despite my vow never to return, I was minutes away from touching down on Valovia once again. I just hoped that my curiosity-and greed-wouldn't bite me in the ass.
The ship picked up a subtle vibration as the atmosphere thickened. I checked the suite one last time. The porters had already picked up the trunk containing my clothes and other basics. It would be transferred directly to my hotel by the ship's staff. The trunk's locks were second to none, but I'd placed the few things I didn't want a stranger snooping through into an oversize tote I would personally carry.
Everything else I might need, assuming I accepted the job or at least wanted to research it further, was in a crate I'd shipped before I'd left Fed space—and by shipped, I meant smuggled. Travel between the Federated Human Planets and the Valovian Empire was allowed, but only under a very strict set of rules and regulations. Crossing the border with a whole lot of illegal tech wasn't something either side appreciated. But if everything had gone according to plan, the crate would be waiting for pickup in a warehouse at the edge of the city.
If not, well, it couldn't be tracked to me. The loss would be a financial hit, but such losses were a part of doing business, which is one of the reasons experienced recovery specialists charged such an exorbitant amount for their services.
Zenzi, Valovia's capital city, grew larger on the screen. I'd tried to move our meeting to one of the other cities on the planet, but Besor was based in the capital, and he'd been reluctant to relocate. That meant I was returning to the very city where I'd spent my previous two disastrous visits.
The same city where I'd met Nilo Shoren-Valoff, hand-to-hand specialist, teleporter, liar.
The first time we'd met, he'd flirted with me for a few days then left me waiting for him in a hotel bar like a dumbass while he'd stolen my job. The second time, Tavi had expressly forbidden me from stabbing him, which had saved him a limb or two. After that, we'd settled into a wary detente because rescuing a child had been more important than our petty squabble.
But a mix of anger, embarrassment, and disappointment still burned under my skin. I'd liked Nilo, right up until he'd humiliated me, which made the pain extra sharp, like sand in an open wound.
I was traveling under a false name, so even if he was on the lookout for me—which I very much doubted, my hubris wasn't that high—he wouldn't know I was back on Valovia.And Zenzi's population was over two million, so the odds that we would accidentally meet were incredibly slim.
Still, I crossed my fingers to ward off bad luck.