Chapter Seven: Aedan

By the time we got to Bitters’ gates, we were dry, but not exactly looking particularly respectable.

Unlike the desert we’d crossed, the land surrounding the town was green and purple, obviously under cultivation. Not exactly lush, but certainly livable.

Purple, puffy critters that Myria called tessa grazed the low bushes, calling to each other with low, echoing sounds.

The road that had run from the glade where poor Dayla had been attacked by that tentacled thing led to a single point.

An arched opening in a high wall with two pairs of liveried guards inspecting each group of travelers.

Myria had been right.

It didn’t look like any single travelers were even trying to get in.

From my perch behind her, I had an unobstructed view of three men and a woman walking behind a cart being pulled by something that was obviously one of Dayla’s relatives.

Yellow and pink stripes showed over its back as it lumbered forwards on six stocky legs, and a hard bony ruff protected its neck with spikes running down its snout.

“Not entirely certain how something like that’s gonna hide from predators,” I muttered, thinking about its slow, heavy movements.

“Zugrin blend in almost perfectly with the grasses in the Pintol swamps,” Myria answered under her breath. “But maybe you shouldn’t ask any questions until we’re sure nobody can overhear and wonder why you don’t know the things that everyone does.”

Right.

Finally it was our turn to be inspected.

An older man, likely the leader of the guards stationed here, stepped forwards and Dayla shied back.

“Do you have a tag for her?” His face twisted into a scowl, and I tensed just a bit. “All torwynn have to pass inspection before they’re allowed access to the city.”

“Sure do, hang on a moment,” Myria answered.

As if sensing my uneasiness at the situation, she patted my leg once, then moved to dismount.

Despite the bandage, the tang of her blood in the air had haunted my senses for the last three hours.

It was going to take more than a quick pat to get me to settle down.

“Stay put,” I grumbled, then leapt down, reaching up to help her.

I might not know what tag she was talking about, but she didn’t need to be climbing up and down that flimsy ladder with her arm injured.

She squeezed my hand, then turned to face the guards, a smile bright on her face.

“Sorry about that, banged my arm up a little, it’s still sore.” A few quick steps and she was between me and the guards.

I didn’t like it.

“Here you go.” She tapped a thin oval plate that had been riveted to Dayla’s harness.

“She was certified city-safe the last time we passed through.” A quick scratch of her muzzle, and Dayla huffed her contentment. “She may back up occasionally, but she’s no clumsier than most of my dancing partners.”

One of the younger guards waggled his eyebrows. “I’m a pretty good dancer, why don’t you come try me out?”

My growl must’ve been louder than I thought because Myria shot me a look, then shooed me to stay behind her.

“I don’t know where we’re performing tonight, but you can certainly look us up,” she said cheerfully.

That wasn’t gonna happen.

And who was the guy in the last town that had hassled her so much she’d had to sneak away in the middle of the night?

Surely I’d have enough time to gather the information Vandalar wanted, get his great-aunt, and come back and destroy that asshole.

Just needed a name.

I came back from my pleasant thoughts to catch the end of the conversation.

“…a little tangle with a Mardor back on the riverbank.”

“Never been one around here,” the older guard scowled. “Not one.”

Myria put her hands on her hips.

“Doesn’t mean there can’t be one now,” she snapped. “And what happens when it comes up closer to the farms and drags some poor little tessa into the water? Or a farmer’s child? Who is going to be responsible for that?”

She held his gaze and finally, the guard backed down.

“Fine, I’ll see that it’s reported.”

“My thanks.” She grabbed Dayla’s harness and started walking through the gate.

The guards stepped forward to block my way. “You’re authorized to enter, but he’s not.”

“What? He’s my apprentice.”

All four of the guards stared at me, probably trying to imagine me with one of those little instruments in my hand.

I didn’t blame them. I’d probably crush it before coaxing a tune from the thing.

I hunched down, tried to look smaller.

I don’t think it worked.

“Fine,” Myria sashayed back through the guards to my side. “We weren’t going to tell anyone yet, because it’s terrible for my act, but we’ve just gotten married.”

And with that, she leaned forward on her toes and twined her arms around my neck.

Her lips brushed mine.

“Sorry about this,” she whispered.

Then she kissed me.

And there was nothing for her to be sorry for.

I pulled her closer to me, lifting her from the ground, desperate for more of the sweet taste of her.

Her lips parted as she gasped and my tongue plundered her mouth, twining with her own as her fingers somehow worked through my hair.

And everything was lost.

The mission, the Empire, all of it vanished into that one point.

The soft, clever woman in my arms.

The guard’s whistle broke through the moment, and I let her down gently so that I could quickly kill the asshole.

“Honey, that’s enough,” Myria said, cheeks flaming as she grabbed my arm.

Not looking at the guards, I lifted her into the saddle and swung up behind her.

With the click of Myria’s tongue, Dayla moved through the gate and this time, no one stopped us, just handed up a piece of paper.

“Don’t lose your entry document,” the older guard said. “Either you, or your husband.”

“Sorry about that,” she said when we were out of earshot. “I guess I got carried away and–”

“Where are we heading?” I cut her off.

She wasn’t the only one who’d gotten carried away.

I didn’t want to think about it.

Not now.

“Right.” A woman pushing a handcart cut us off, and Myria bent forward to stroke Dayla’s neck.

I muffled a groan.

She’d been doing that all afternoon and every time, it pushed the lush curves of her ass tight against me.

Maybe she couldn’t tell through those coarsely woven leggings that she wore, but if she kept it up, it would be impossible to hide the results.

She coaxed Dayla through the surprisingly busy traffic, carts pulled by zugrin and their relatives, pushcarts with produce and goods of all kinds, a few torwynn and their riders.

“The market isn’t for a few days yet,” Myria commented. “We should still be able to get a room at the Fox and Cub, unless somebody else has already taken up residence. They’ll be happy to have some entertainment.”

I didn’t say anything, busy watching the crowded streets.

Watching her.

She confidently guided Dayla through smaller streets until she found a tall, half-timbered building with a swinging sign out front.

The sign displayed a spotted beast of some kind leaning against a tree.

“You can’t tell me that whatever the Void that creature is called is perfectly camouflaged in its native habitat,” I said as I lifted her down.

“I really can get off and on by myself,” she muttered. Then Dayla nuzzled Myria’s wounded arm and she winced. “Probably.” Glancing at the sign, a wicked grin lit her face. “And yes, actually, I could tell you about that ‘creature’, as you call it. But I won’t, so you’ll just have to wonder where such a place would be.”

Leading Dayla to the back of the building, she gave instructions for her care and feeding, then together we went inside the inn.

A tall man with burly arms was lifting a table, while another who might have been his twin, scrubbed the exposed floor.

“Brom! Edrel!” Myria called out. “Are you working your way out of trouble, or earning up points for a favor with the old man?”

With a booming laugh, the floor scrubber tossed down his mop and picked up Myria, swinging her around.

It was harder than it should have been to stay still and let him touch her.

“Look who’s here, Dad,” he shouted to the back of the room. “Myria, my love!” an elderly man with a shock of salt and pepper hair sticking out from his head like a slightly tarnished halo emerged. 

Once he came out from the bar, I could see that his odd gait was from where he leaned heavily on a crutch, swinging it with every step.

“I thought it was about time for you to make your way to us, but I expected you closer to market day.”

Myria tossed her head. “I couldn’t wait a moment longer to see you, Narvin.” She smiled up at me and batted her eyelashes outrageously. “But you might have to share my affections.”

Sharp eyes turned to me. “And who’s this, then?”

A pause.

We could say anything.

But if someone checked that document…

“Well,” Myria started, “a lot’s happened since I was through last time.” She tucked her arm into mine. “He’s my husband, Aedan.”

“Oh, lovely, lovely, lovely,” the old man crowed, then his eyes narrowed. “But he’s not taking very good care of you, not like a mate should.”

Brom and Edrel turned towards me, expressions carefully blank.

“Narvin!” Myria’s outraged voice rang through the room. “He’s fine!”

“If that’s the case, how’d you get hurt? I can see the edge of a bandage poking out from your sleeve clear across the room, girl.”

“Even as big as he is,” Myria admitted, “he can’t be on both sides of Dayla at the same time.” Her face sobered. “There was a Mardor. It tried to drag Dayla in. He saved us.”

“Well, I’ll get the word out, then,” Narvin said. “Make sure folks keep watch.”

“We already told the guards,” I said, not really wanting the old man and his sons to be any further involved in our affairs than they already seemed to be.

He snorted. “Like they’re going to do anything. Trust me, I can get the word out a lot more efficiently than those buffoons.”

Narvin turned, more agile on the crutch that I would have expected. “Boy!” he shouted to the back of the room.

“Come get singer Myria’s bags, take them upstairs to the third room, in the back. Nice and quiet. Let you rest.” He grinned wickedly. “If rest is what you’re after.”

Blushing, Myria stepped away from me. “So while we’re here, I was thinking about changing my set. Let me know what you think.”

While the two of them talked, I slipped outside to get a better feel of the town.

From up on Dayla’s back, it had been too hard to get a sense of what was going on.

Men and women passed by, most of them looking tough.

Tired.

I wandered out into the larger street, watching the foot traffic. Tidy whitewashed buildings were mixed with those made of stone.

Muddy streets brought a low level of grime to everything, despite obvious attempts to keep things clean.

Couldn’t be avoided.

No one would ever call me Vandalar’s biggest fan. But maybe I could convince him to get here sooner rather than later.

It wasn’t right that this planet had been abandoned like this.

And then I remembered the look on Myria’s face when she talked about the monsters that had been created in the war.

What would she think if she realized her traveling companion, her ‘husband’, was kindred to it, both in design and purpose.

I snorted. At least not in appearance.

That would make it hard to do the job.

I scouted a little further, down a block and then another, watching.

In the hustle and bustle of merchants getting ready for the market, this might be a good time to leave, find another traveler, or head out on my own.

Surely not every town was so tightly guarded.

Something twisted in my gut.

It insisted that the practical decision would be to stay with Myria.

She had the perfect opportunity to travel, to talk to people, to get the information I needed.

I’d be smart to stay with her, have her tell me more about the situation on the planet, make sure I was prepared to deal with Flame.

But I could still taste her on my lips.

Smart or not, I had to stay away from her.

I searched through the streets, marked a couple likely looking places to meet up with another caravan, then headed back to the inn.

Even if I was leaving, I wouldn’t do it without saying goodbye.

I might be a jerk, but Doc had insisted that we had some manners.

I headed upstairs, following her scent.

If the old man hadn’t already made her change that bandage, I was going to insist on it before I left.

Who knew what sort of infection she could pick up from the mud she’d fallen in?

And then to rinse it in a stream.

An open stream with who knew what swimming in it.

Madness.

Working myself up to images of gangrene, I flung open the door to the room. “Don’t tell me they don’t even have healing wands on this –”

I froze, mouth agape.

Myria sat in a hip bath, eyes wide as she looked over her shoulder at me.

All I could see was the smooth line of her back through the steam.

“Well, come in and close the door,” she hissed. “We’re supposed to be married, right? You’ve seen it all before.”

There was nothing to say to that.

There were lots of things I wanted to say to that.

But I didn’t.

I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me, then carefully looked away.

Void.

Who put a mirror there?

I turned again, searching for something safe to look at.

“So, what’s the plan?” I asked, voice perfectly normal.

Perfectly.

She splashed as she scrubbed.

“I’m going to play for the evening, hopefully picking up enough coins and information to make it all worthwhile. I’ll stay through the market fair, unless…”

She trailed off. “What’s your plan?” she asked quietly.

What was my plan?

Thinking, I caught another glimpse of her back in the mirror.

She was too thin, but her lean curves were still beautiful, still called to me.

I thought about someone in this town hassling her, driving her away before she earned enough coin, ate enough food.

Rage washed through me, but then a cold voice from the back of my mind answered.

What are you going to do about it?

You’re going to leave, now or later.

True.

But.

I already knew her.

Already trusted her.

“How do you feel about leaving sooner than that?”

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