“Thank you so much, Elara! I’m thrilled with the bouquet,” chirped another satisfied customer. “I’ll tell all my friends about your fabulous shop!”
“You and your friends are welcome any time,” I replied warmly as I tucked her flowers into one of my special airtight carrying cases, designed to keep the blossoms fresh. She admired the bouquet through the clear lid.
“These containers are so clever,” she remarked, clutching it in her mandible.
“It’ll help the flowers last as long as possible,” I explained.
“That’s exactly why people love your shop. No other florist around here offers anything close to what you do. I hope business is booming for you!”
I laughed softly. “Well, it could always be better, but I’m getting by just fine,” I hedged. For a human eking out a living on Thodos III, ‘fine’ meant not starving or being attacked on a daily basis. We were relegated to the shadows, either hiding to avoid notice or lacking funds to live anywhere better. Most of us bought passage here by signing indentured servitude contracts, sacrificing our freedom for the chance at a new life.
The fact that my particular contract entailed arranging flowers all day rather than performing as a stripper or sex worker made me one of the lucky ones. Celestia knew I had it far better than the majority of humans on Thodos III.
My elusive boss wasn’t completely heartless in his treatment of me. He even let me keep a tiny cut of any legitimate shop profits, paltry as they were. Between that and my meager living quarters tucked away upstairs, I really had little to complain about.
Especially considering the alternative fates that could have easily befallen a newly arrived human woman on Thodos III. I never met him, but I heard Alkard wasn’t known for his generosity. Yet for whatever reason, he showed me mercy. I dared not question his motives, however. Ignorance was bliss when it came to Vinduthi syndicate operations.
The chattering Nazok customer spun around to leave, jolting me from my thoughts. I logged the transaction in my holographic records, tidying up as the portal doors whisked shut behind her.
My gaze drifted over the shop’s simple inventory system. The meager sales I conducted were a far cry from my family’s sprawling greenhouse nurseries back on Earth. But carrying on the floristry tradition gave me purpose, even lightyears away on this cold metal outpost dangling in space.
When Alkard’s enforcers purchased my indenture contract, they came to outline the terms of my new shop’s operations. First rule: ask no questions. Easy enough, I complied without hesitation. Next, they emphasized the criticality of convincingly posing as the face of a legal retail business. For me, that obviously meant floristry.
At first, I thought it was some elaborate trap or scam to extort me. But Alkard upheld his end of the bargain as long as I held up mine. I could hardly protest or make demands in my position. Better to keep my head down and be thankful for each day that went by without incident.
The faint whisper of the front door whisking open snapped me from reminiscing. I glanced up from the counter, expecting to greet another customer. Instead, the imposing figure striding toward me stole the air from my lungs. I clutched the counter edge to keep my legs from buckling outright. Thank the stars my weak knees were hidden from view.
The alien man was tall and athletically built, devastatingly handsome in a crisp gray suit that matched his unique complexion. His bare forearms bore raised scarlet tracings that reminded me of ancient tribal tattoos. Small horns crowned his temples, peeking out from his shortly cropped black hair. Everything about his commanding presence screamed that he was someone important.
He froze momentarily upon seeing me, seemingly surprised to encounter a human proprietor here. While not entirely unheard of, we were still a rarity running independent businesses on Thodos III.
Drawing himself up, he approached with steady, purposeful steps. I tried unsuccessfully to still my hammering heart.
“Good morning, sir,” I managed steadily despite the adrenaline flooding my veins. “How may I help you today?”
Full lips parted in a smile both captivating yet guarded, a man focused on business rather than idle niceties. Still, that restrained smile suited his angular features perfectly.
“I’m doing very well, thank you,” he replied politely. Even his voice was compelling, rich and smooth. “Might I inquire what sorts of services you offer here?”
I gestured broadly around the modest shop. “Anything related to flowers, really. Bouquets for special occasions, arrangements for events and parties. Just name it.”
He clasped his hands behind his back, keen gaze sweeping the inventory. “I see. And might you have a spray on hand that would be appropriate for, say, a lively social gathering?”
I tilted my head, sensing an intriguing opportunity. “Perhaps a centerpiece for a special occasion instead? Those are quite popular for parties these days.”
“A party it is, indeed.” He flashed a knowing grin that made my heart skip. “In fact, I’m interested in commissioning your services for an upcoming gala event at the Black Star Casino.”
My eyes widened in shock. The notorious Black Star, owned by the shadowy Vinduthi syndicate? And he expected me, a lowly human florist squatting in their territory, to decorate their exclusive venue?
“Oh, I’m not sure I could handle an event that large alone,” I blurted uncertainly. It might never have been said outright, but I wasn’t stupid. Alkard owned this shop as one of his fronts, but surely he didn’t want me doing anything to attract that much attention.
“Not to worry, Alkard holds a vested interest in the casino’s success,” the stranger said smoothly, reading my hesitation. “He’ll be pleased with your participation, I assure you.”
I bit my lip, tempted despite myself. It would be thrilling to tackle such a large event, an opportunity unlikely to ever arise again once I returned to the shadows after this odd encounter.
And catering the gala for the notorious casino? Even just getting a glimpse inside would be the most excitement I’d had in years. As a human, I was relegated to the underbelly of Thodos III, virtually barred from such lavish places.
“Well, decorating a big event does sound like it could be fun,” I admitted, unable to suppress a giddy grin.
“Speaking of which, I don’t believe I ever properly introduced myself. I’m Draven, proud owner of the Black Star Casino’s restaurant and entertainment venues.” He extended a large hand.
“A pleasure to meet you,” I replied, clasping his hand. His warm, firm grip sent a tingle up my arm. Our handshake lingered perhaps a beat longer than appropriate before I reclaimed my hand, hoping my flustered state wasn’t obvious.
Clearing my throat, I met his mesmerizing amber eyes. “So, you really think I can handle decorating your gala?”
“I have every confidence in your abilities,” Draven assured me with a devastating smile. “Now, shall we discuss the details?”
Within minutes, we stood inside the lavish casino. I gaped in awe, having only ever glimpsed its exterior before. Gleaming rows of slot machines and gaming tables stretched as far as I could see. I didn’t miss how the staff straightened respectfully at Draven’s entrance, doubly so when his intense gaze settled on them.
“Now, we’ll have some of your arrangements displayed here in the casino and restaurant wings,” Draven explained, guiding me through the crowds. “But the majority will be in our ballroom for the gala.”
I gave him an incredulous look. “There’s a ballroom, too?”
He chuckled, steering me toward a nondescript side door veiled by a curtain. “Indeed, it’s used mainly for private events. I think you’ll be impressed with the space available for your floral masterpieces.”
Draven whisked back the curtain with a flourish, ushering me into a positively cavernous room beyond. My jaw dropped as I took in the soaring ceilings and expansive dance floor. Floor-to-ceiling viewscreens lined the far walls, currently displaying hypnotic nebulae swirling through space. For a moment, I almost imagined we were adrift among the stars.
Workers milling about prepping the space jumped to attention at our entrance, industry doubling under Draven’s watchful eye. The ballroom was in a state of controlled chaos, tools and boxes of decor everywhere. But I already envisioned the huge surfaces available to decorate however I pleased.
“As you can see, you’ll have no shortage of space to highlight your work,” Draven commented, clearly pleased with my reaction so far.
I laughed giddily. “I just hope my arrangements can live up to the grandeur of this place!”
He led me over to a sad discarded pile of flowers, handing me a limp bloom. Our fingers brushed, sending a spark up my arm. I prayed my blush wasn’t visible through my freckles.
“Our previous supplier was clearly inadequate.” Draven’s lip curled derisively. “This one’s nearly dead already.”
I examined the wan, wilted petals critically. “Yes, it has only hours left at most. With proper care though, blossoms can make all the difference.”
Draven nodded decisively. “I’ll be frank, Elara. For this gala, I expect only the finest, most elegant arrangements money can buy.”
His praise made my heart flutter, but the intensity of his gaze was almost overwhelming. I wondered briefly if his charming demeanor hid something more dangerous beneath the surface. He clearly wielded immense influence here, more than just a restaurant owner…
Banishing my doubts, I met his stare evenly. “I promise you’ll have the most stunning decor ever seen on Thodos III.”
A hint of surprise flickered in Draven’s eyes, followed by a crooked smile that made my knees weak all over again.
“Of that, I have no doubt. Now,” he purred, “show me what you’ve got.”
With the ballroom staff’s help, Draven projected my portfolio across a large floating holographic screen. While he reviewed my work, I tried unsuccessfully to rein in my soaring excitement. I still couldn’t believe this tremendous opportunity fell into my lap.
“As you can see, I’ve worked mainly smaller events before—birthdays, memorials, some business openings,” I explained as Draven scrutinized the images. “The restaurant across from my shop was the largest project so far.”
“These flowers are remarkable. Some I’ve never even seen on Thodos III,” he mused. His penetrating gaze met mine. “You clearly know your trade exceedingly well, Elara.”
Heat rose to my cheeks at his praise. I smoothed back an errant curl self-consciously. “Well, what can I say? Flowers are my passion.”
Draven’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “Admirable to see someone who appreciates flowers seriously. This casino is my greatest creation, so naturally every detail of the gala must be flawless.”
I smiled in understanding. “Of course. I assure you I’ll do everything possible to fulfill your vision.”
For a long moment, his piercing eyes searched mine intently. I held my breath, pulse racing. Everything about this fascinating man left me captivated.
“I must say, I’ve never worked directly with a human before,” Draven remarked. “You’re quite delightful to collaborate with.”
I exhaled in relief, touched by his words. “Well, I find I can talk to almost anyone who’s friendly.”
“In that case, there’s something I want you to know.” Draven moved closer, voice dipping low. I leaned in, pulse quickening. What secrets might he divulge?
“This event holds special meaning for me beyond business,” he confessed. “It’s a celebration of lifelong brotherhood amongst my inner circle, my most trusted compatriots.”
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. I wouldn’t have guessed someone in Draven’s powerful position would use his venue to selflessly honor friends. It hinted at a depth I didn’t expect.
“That’s really thoughtful of you,” I said sincerely.
Draven cleared his throat gruffly. “Well then, shall we make this partnership official?”
He extended a large hand. I clasped it without hesitation, electricity shooting up my arm at the contact. The deal was struck.
I bid Draven farewell outside the casino sometime later, disappointed our encounter ended so quickly. But I was eager to begin crafting arrangements worthy of the gorgeous ballroom.
As I strolled off, I pinched my arm just to ensure this hadn’t all been an elaborate daydream. But the lingering tingle where Draven’s hand enveloped mine was real enough. Despite the unanswered questions surrounding Draven and his intentions, one truth was undeniable: this commission was the most exciting thing to happen in my dreary existence since arriving on Thodos III. And I couldn’t wait to make the Black Star Gala bloom.