Trying to keep the group focused on their mission, Zia decided, was akin to herding a cell of particularly petulant Flerkens.
Thor had been complaining loudly since the start of the Asgardian exhibit, pointing out every pilfered trinket, while an increasingly surly Loki threatened to abandon them all in the armory. Horangi grumbled at both of them.
Skarra, meanwhile, had grown increasingly distracted. She had never been prone to daydreaming—she was quiet, yes, but she had always seemed intently focused—but now she hardly seemed aware of her surroundings, muttering agitatedly as Zia steered her around glass display cases.
It had become increasingly clear that Loki had no actual idea where they were going. The crown was stored adjacent to the Asgardian wing—they had learned as much from Zel before the librarian had left them to their own devices—but the wing itself was enormous and labyrinthine, and more than once, Zia had caught Loki leading them in circles.
The blinding flash of light caught them completely off guard.
Zia thought at first that one of their number must have triggered the security systems. But instead of sirens or shouts from guards, what they heard as they blinked away the spots swimming before their eyes was a stream of colorful profanity, accompanied by twin gasps from the gods in front of them.
Thor and Loki had been at each other’s throats since their fateful reunion at Morg’s. Now, the brothers drew their blades as one and lunged like twin blurs at a third figure, which seemed oblivious to the imminent assault as it leaned heavily on a bank of cabinets and continued to curse the Kree, their grandmothers, and their grandmothers’ sausage pies, in half a dozen languages.
Zia struggled to focus past the tracers still floating in front of their eyes until they could finally make out more details of the intruder: a wiry woman in jeans and a utility belt. She was wearing a black leather jacket over a ripped Dazzler t-shirt. Even with Loki yanking back her hair and Thor’s blade dancing half an inch from her throat, she glanced over at Zia from beneath jagged black bangs and grinned. “Fancy meeting you here, Captain.”
It was a grin that Zia had first seen decades years ago, in Shi’ar space. They had been running weapons to the rebels, while Lila robbed her way across the royal houses of Chandilar.
Zia hadn’t known anything about Lila then—just the instructions for the rendezvous and a gaudy holo-pass Corsair had slipped them during their last meeting. The pass was a black disk the size of a dime; when Zia squeezed it between thumb and forefinger, it had projected the words LILA CHENEY LIVE: ALL ACCESS in shimmering letters, followed by a date and the name of one of the more upscale clubs in the sector.
The opener had been an Aladran band: twee, inoffensive, and acutely forgettable. Zia had been unprepared for what followed: the electric guitars that had howled into the darkness as the lights slowly strobed to life, revealing first the band and then Lila herself. Zia had never imagined that such a small person could command a stage so utterly. The woman in black strolled up to the mic, gripped it in one delicate hand, and sang with a throaty growl that ran down Zia’s spine like lightning. Afterward, Zia had staggered to the stage door feeling half-drunk, Lila’s encore still echoing in their head: “For the edge the best ones live on—”
Since then, Lila had meandered in and out of Zia’s life like the wandering thread in a tapestry. Once, they had spent a week squirreled away in the cargo hold of a Skrull cruiser, sharing dwindling rations and swapping secrets. A few times, the Orlando had taken Lila and her band on tour, but such extended encounters were rare—as often, they went years without seeing each other, only to find themselves back to back in a barroom brawl in a smugglers’ dive on YRZT.
Afterwards, Lila would ’port out to her next gig—musical or larcenous––and Zia would be left with only a motley flotsam of empty bottles and hand-labeled mix tapes with snatches of Terran radio between the songs.
“It’s all right,” Zia told the Asgardians. “She’s a friend.”
Loki shifted his glare from Lila to Zia. “She was certainly friendly back at the Hammersmith, wasn’t she?”
“Oh, for the love of—” Zia pushed Thor’s sword to the side just as Lila stomped on Loki’s foot with the heel of her boot. Loki yelped in pain and surprise, letting go of Lila’s hair.
“She is no friend of mine,” said Thor, raising his blade again. “She is a thief and a villain. You will lead us to the crown, thief, or we shall see if your appetite for...