It began with crimson petals, threaded white, and ended with a black, black heart. Like mine. Since she’d taken Queensland half a turn ago, she had perfected the art of how much a captive could take before he broke. Some men ate agony like candy, while others were fragile as a bird’s bones.

Dred watched as her men carved lines into the intruder’s skin. “It doesn’t have to go down like this, Eli. Tell me why you’re really here. Then defect from Grigor, swear to me, and I’ll let you serve.”

That was bullshit. Since they were all liars, murderers, and thieves, it wasn’t as if she could trust Eli’s word should he give it. She might convince him of her sincerity, however, and learn something about her enemies’ intentions. The deception didn’t trouble her. For all she knew, this man’s mission was to stick a silent knife in her kidney.

“Never,” Eli gasped, red-tinged sweat dripping down his arms. “You don’t understand. Grigor will kill me. He’ll hunt me down.”

She leapt down from the throne cobbled together from scrap metal and rusty chains. It was an affectation, but one that amused her. Between the braids, the tattoos, and the leather rumored to be human skin, men found it hard to meet her gaze. Eli was no exception; Tameron had sold her legend completely. Some of it was bullshit, of course.

“You can’t keep me safe,” he whispered. “Grigor has eyes everywhere.”

“That’s impressive cowardice.” When she got within kicking distance, Eli flinched and shielded his face. Dred laughed softly. “You think I can’t break your teeth through those arms?”

“I know you can,” he whispered.

“Good. Now tell me why you’re inside my border.”

“I was scavenging on Grigor’s orders. I didn’t know I’d crossed!”

Since there were checkpoints and sentries posted anywhere territories overlapped, that was impossible. The only way Eli could be here was if he’d intentionally come through the ducts or sought some other secret way through her security. And there was no innocent reason he’d have done that, especially not on Grigor’s orders.

“Keep lying to me, and you won’t last the hour.”

The man holding the prisoner’s right arm was a tall, muscular blond with hair that looked like he hacked it off with a rusty knife. Scars covered Einar from head to toe; his lip pulled sideways from a nasty slash to his face, and he was a missing an earlobe. Since he bathed, Einar was also one of the best catches in Perdition, their private name for the hellhole the Conglomerate had chosen to house its worst offenders.

Dred circled thoughtfully. Each time she gave the order, it got easier, like she lost a little more of her soul. She couldn’t have him learning her defensive strategies or finding her hidden weapons caches, then reporting to Grigor. Each time there was an incursion, she had to assume the worst and react accordingly. Things had been unsettled lately, and both Grigor and Priest were daring more, pressing harder from each side.

“No, pl—” The giant snapped the prisoner’s neck before he finished begging for his life.

“I suspect he was a spy,” Tameron said. “You couldn’t let him live.”

Tam was a slight, dark-skinned male, younger than Dred, but it was impossible to say how much. She didn’t ask people how old they were, where they were from, or what they’d done to get tossed in here. None of that mattered inside Perdition. It only mattered how hard you’d fight to stay alive. He was also invaluable in keeping her regime on track; he supplied insights about her enemies and quiet information about the mood in Queensland, which was what the men called her territory.

The prison ship was the brainchild of some bright-eyed Conglomerate drone. Take one of the old deep-space asteroid refinery ships and retrofit it for incarceration. We clean out overcrowded prisoners, and we can focus on those offenders who have a legitimate chance at rehabilitation. Back when they first commissioned the prison ship, she’d heard the rationale on the bounce, like everyone else. Turns later, they had a floating city full of criminals, its orbit fixed in the middle of nowhere.

Never dreamed I’d end up here. But then, who does?

“Send the body for processing,” she told Einar.

With a nod, the giant hoisted the corpse to his shoulder and headed for the chute where they deposited all organic waste. It would be processed and converted into fertilizer for use in the hydroponics gardens, which didn’t work as well as they were supposed to. Half the lights had burned out, and it wasn’t like they could requisition new ones. Occasionally, supplies came in with a load of prisoners and a unit of new Peacemakers. None of the fish ever went after a one-ton machine armed with laser cannons, disruptors, and shredders, fortified with heavy armor. Plus, it was impossible to get to the docking bay. Every emergency door on Perdition went into lockdown, and energy fields came up when a ship arrived, sealing off the area completely. Only after the ship departed did the fail-safe kick off, leaving the fish to make their own way and avoid agitating the droids.

Usually that meant joining with whatever territory you found yourself in. Sometimes, when numbers got low, due to violent death or illness, sectors sent recruiters to wait outside the first set of emergency doors. Though Perdition had four would-be kings, it only had two queens, and Dred was the only one they called so. The other female leader, Silence, didn’t seem to be looking to build an empire; she just enjoyed the art of death. Dred had been around enough to know that Silence had a gift because the other woman did it so quietly, so cleanly, you’d almost fail to note she’d garroted clean through your throat. She didn’t often mess with Silence, who killed for pleasure, not defense, not to keep people out of her territory. And there was no predicting the behavior of someone like that.

She felt cold eyes on her. Spinning, she saw Lecass watching with a small group of his followers. He had been part of Artan’s regime, but so far, he hadn’t made a move. The man’s inaction troubled her as much as a challenge would. Deliberately, Lecass stared until she gave him her back, a calculated insult. One of these days, he would tire of the quiet drama and step things up. Dred would be ready.

Up until half a turn ago, Artan ran Queensland, though it was called Artania, then. He had been a raving narcissist with periodic fits of utter egomania, and from what Dred had been able to tell, he’d suffered from delusions of grandeur, which complemented his persecution complex. Consequently, his favorites didn’t usually last more than a few months. Until me. She didn’t know if that spoke well of her survival instincts or if it branded her a masochist.