Chapter Five: Aedan

I’d been on this rock for less than a day and I already hated it.

The metadata on the ransom comm had placed Princess Eladia’s kidnapper in one of the larger settlements to the East.

It was tempting to have the Queen drop me in the middle of the town square, storm the castle, rescue the princess, and be out before anyone knew what happened.

In theory that shouldn’t start a war, right?

But even in a crappy mood I knew how to do my job.

So the Queen landed me in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night, while Vandalar sent an ongoing stream of messages to this Flame person.

Group.

Whatever.

Everything I had on me was as low-tech as possible. A knife, a set of clothes that matched the images of the last visitors Kerrind had sent to court and a sack of coins Vandalar swore would be taken as currency.

Not even a commtab, just a burst comm to trigger once I’d found the hostage,

And if I didn’t trigger it in time, well, Vandalar or his grandfather would come for her anyway.

I didn’t mind being planet-side as much as some of my brothers did. And it’d been a while since I’d really been able to let myself run.

And then the suns had come up, and shortly afterwards these jokers decided I looked like an easy target.

Not really a bad thing.

While running had been good to stretch my legs, I’d never argue with the chance to hit someone who deserved it.

And from the way the men swarmed out of the rocks surrounding the trail, it was a safe bet they weren’t exactly offering honorable combat to passersby.

The last of them lay in the filthy bloody heap at my feet when the whirring hum of a projectile caught my attention.

Diving to the side I rolled, scanning to see what threat I’d missed.

With a hoarse yell another of the bandits fell from a rocky outcropping right over where I’d been.

The sneak landed with a thud and didn’t move.

Striding over to him, I yanked the arrow out and stared at the newcomer.

Actually, first I stared at her mount.

She was riding a dinosaur.

Or something close enough that it didn’t matter.

Giant lizards, alternate evolutionary paths of different planets, Doc had us watch all the vids.

She figured that especially with our…interesting…natures, we should understand how things like that worked.

Yet still, I’d never really expected to come face-to-face with a woman perched on the back of what looked like a pint-size Tyrannosaurus rex.

But there she was.

Dark skin and straight black hair coming loose from a long braid that poked out from a long wrapped scarf. Comfortably holding the bow that I had no doubt had sent the arrow into the attacker.

She waited, watching.

“My thanks,” I called out. “But there’s no need to get involved.”

“Next time I’ll let him get the drop on you,” she answered, voice low and rich. “Mind giving me my arrow back?”

I walked up to her mount which shied back.

Void. Not a surprise, altogether.

Some animals seemed to react badly to our scent.

Somehow I guessed none of us had ever interacted with something like whatever this thing was.

“Easy Dayla,” the woman crooned, leaning forward to scratch her monstrous mount’s head.

This close, I could see the differences from the dinosaurs in the old vids.

The flat teeth were obviously not meant for the rending and shearing of flesh, rather for chewing leaves. Or entire branches.

Maybe trees.

Not that I’d seen too many trees here.

“Sorry,” the woman said. “Dayla’s not always good with strangers, and the sound of the fight startled her. She should be fine now.”

“Not a problem,” I said. Warily I reached up, around those teeth, and the woman bent down from her high perch to take the arrow from me.

The wind shifted and for just a moment I caught her scent.

Springtime, cool water and fresh flowers, all ran together here in this dusty desert.

I stepped away.

No time for that.

I’ll be going now.

She cocked an eyebrow.

“Are you sure? Traveling on your own, on foot isn’t really the best way to cross the desert.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” I turned around, kept heading towards the next town.

It would take a couple hours, but by then I’d have learned more about this world.

Talked to some people, gathered intel.

Maybe find a band of travelers to infiltrate, use them as cover to … nope. Not happening.

Not her.

Someone else would come along.

“That’s not exactly a great idea,” she said from behind me as I walked away. “That won’t be the only band of outlaws out here.”

I started walking faster, moving into a light jog that I could keep up for hours.

Her beast just increased its stride, staying right next to me.

“She thinks you’re playing with her,” the woman said dryly.

A huff of hot breath washed over me.

“Dayla! Stop it!”

I picked up the pace, only to be lovingly nudged by a muzzle the size of my torso.

“I’m Myria,” the woman said, smothering a grin that I didn’t need to see to sense. “And I really think you could use a guide.”

“I don’t need one,” I said, insisting again, doing my best to calmly remove myself from Dayla’s side.

Apparently, she had only worried about the fact that I was new.

My scent didn’t bother her at all.

And to top it all off, she thought my hair was some sort of new tasty, exciting, plant.

“I’m sorry, but could you keep your whatever-the-hell-that-thing-is in order?” I snapped

She shook her head, “I was pretty sure you were from off-world before. Now I know it.”

Void.

“That’s ridiculous,” I snapped. “Of course I’m not from off world. How would that even happen?”

Myria laughed, the low smoky sound dancing down my spine like caressing fingers.

“For one thing, your clothes. You stand out, but they scream it. They’re all too new, they fit you too well. None of it looks like it was woven here.”

Myria gasped and I whirled, ready for another threat.

All was well, but her eyes were wide as she said with awe “Don’t tell me those are from a replicator?”

Somehow this hadn’t been in my field notes for the mission.

“Of course not,” I answered quickly and turned around to keep walking. “Who would have a replicator here?”

“No one,” she answered. “That’s the point. Your clothes are too perfect. Nothing with our current level of tech would look that pristine.”

“Maybe I’m just tidy.”

“Besides, you don’t even know what Dayla is, do you?”

I stayed silent, jogging along, hoping she’d get bored.

Or angry.

Anything other than the vague amusement and interest.

Or that at least the wind would change, quit teasing me with her scent.

“You know, if you were smart, you’d get some clothes off those guys back there.”

I didn’t have to look to know she was gesturing towards the pile of corpses we’d left behind us.

“Not really high on my list,” I answered. “Besides, I doubt if any of their stuff would fit me.”

And it was likely covered with bugs.

And fairly bloody.

“You’ve got a point there,” she conceded. “But still, you need to do something or every person you meet is going to want those clothes. The fabric itself would be worth a pile.”

Dayla increased her pace and Myria looked down, sizing me up.

It was… uncomfortable.

“Maybe not the boots,” she added. “But everything else could be cut down.”

Slowly the terrain shifted, more grey-green brush breaking up the rocks, less sand.

“That’s the other thing.”

God she wouldn’t stop talking.

“Maybe it’s different where you’re from, but we don’t have a whole lot of folks of your size here.”

“My whole family is built big,” I answered, absently reaching up to scratch Dayla’s cheek where she rubbed it against my shoulder.

It was surprisingly soft.

I’d expected it to feel course, scratchy.

“That might be the case,” Myria continued, “but if you’d quit flirting with Dayla enough to think about it, you’d realize that whatever you’re here for, you’re not going to get. Not working alone.”

I glared up at her. “What exactly do you know about it,” I snapped.

She shrugged. “I don’t know anything about what you’re doing, but I travel this route pretty often. The first town up ahead is Bitters. Farmers with passes for market day, licensed merchants and bards are the only ones that have the freedom of the gates.”

With the click of her tongue she urged Dayla on, passing me.

“So if that’s where you’re going you may want to think about it. Otherwise they’re going to assume you’re an outlaw. And Tewke’s men feel pretty strongly about that since the last round of attacks.”

Grumbling under my breath I lengthened my stride till I caught up.

“What do you mean?”

“There’s been too much trouble with outlaws, men like those back there.” Her voice was tight, strained. “They prey on traders’ caravans, make it difficult for goods to travel from one city to the next.”

“Hasn’t it always been like that? It’s not like you’re a hub of commerce here.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” she snapped. “We know what the rest of the universe is like. Just because we can’t have it doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten.”

A hot flush of shame burned my cheeks.

“I’m sorry, that was stupid of me.”

“Well, try harder not to be stupid,” Myria grumbled. “Are you going to Bitters or not?”

Try not to be stupid.

That wasn’t a bad plan.

And whether I wanted her help or not, I clearly could use a guide.

“That’s my first stop, yes.”

“You need a guide, even if you don’t realize it,” she smiled as she unrolled a short rope ladder from the side of the oddly shaped saddle.

I swung up behind her on the narrow perch, far too close.

Her scent overwhelmed me, blinded me to everything for a moment, deafened me so I almost lost her next words.

“My rates are cheap.”

Somehow, I doubted that.

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