Chosen by the Rakian Commander: Part One

Chapter One

“Lady Mother,” Adena whispered, lips barely moving. “I don’t think I can do this.” She knelt in front of the wooden altar set into the long wall of the parlor, the cold creeping in through her thin shift. Her gaze passed the blocky form of the All Father, and she rested her eyes and hopes on the slender figure of the Lady. “Let there be another option. And please, while I’m away, take care of Matilde. Don’t let—”

The door exploded inward, and her eyes flew open as her cousin Matilde shrieked in surprise.

“They’re here!” The baker’s son, Brant, small and slight for his ten years, stood at the door. Shock paled his face; his breathing came in gasps, his eyes staring. 

Adena hurried over to him. “Sit down. Put your head between your knees and take deep breaths.” 

She guided the child to a stool by the stout oak table, avoiding her cousin’s eyes. She didn’t want to see the worry she knew would be there, the fear reflecting her own heart. She sent a healing wave through her hand into the boy’s chest, doing little more than comforting, easing his lungs. The boy took three gasping breaths then sat up, his eyes focused now. “On the hill to the north of town… the old pasture we cleared…” 

Matilde poured the boy a glass of water from the stoneware pitcher. “The strangers arrived? Wasn’t that what we’d expected?” 

Adena shot her a sharp glance. For all her cousin’s mild manner and cheerful disposition, she held precious little patience for people repeating the obvious, even when badly frightened. “Expecting it and seeing it are two different things.”

The boy shook his head. “It’s… I don’t know what it is. We placed that box that arrived from the capital in the middle of the field yesterday and stayed all night to make sure to keep the sheep far back. This morning… it was there.” He stared at Adena. “Is everything like that away from Crucible? Are they really demons?” 

Adena forced a smile. “I don’t think the council would have asked for help from demons, do you?” She ruffled his hair, glad to see the color returning to his cheeks. “They’re different from us, that’s all. We’ll keep to our ways, and they’ll be gone and away soon enough.” 

Matilde rested her hand on Adena’s shoulder. “Speaking of gone and away…” 

Adena closed her eyes. “Let’s start getting me ready.” 

They sent the boy back to his mother with an apple, and began the process of dressing. A long white chemise with lace at the cuffs and around the gathered neckline was covered by a full, deep blue skirt of fine wool. Adena began lacing the front of the bodice, but curls of black hair escaped her braid to twist through the laces. 

Matilde laughed and took over. “How are you going to manage on your own?” Her fingers stopped their work, and she gazed straight into Adena’s eyes. “You should take me with you.” 

Adena’s heart ached. To have her cousin and closest friend with her would make anything bearable. Except they’d both be there. With them.

She shook her head. “I need you here, safe. Besides, your father would never allow it.” 

Matilde pressed her lips together. “I’m not so sure.” 

Adena squeezed her cousin’s hand. It was true. Beric had changed over the last year. He’d always been a proud man, but now it seemed his ambitions grew with no thought of the consequences. And both she and Matilde knew where to lay the blame. 

As if summoned by their thoughts, Phaylle drifted in. She was a rare beauty with her long, pale hair and violet eyes, but the effect was spoiled by the petulant set of her mouth. Two years ago, the young widow had arrived in town and quickly set her cap at the newly widowed mayor.

Neither Matilde nor Adena had known more than a few moments of peace since. 

“Aren’t you ready yet?” 

Adena kept her face carefully neutral as Phaylle wandered through the room, picking up and putting down small items.

She returned to the door, not bothering to help Matilde and Adena as they tugged sleeves on over the chemise and tied them to the bodice at the shoulders. 

“You don’t have to do this,” Matilde whispered fiercely. “We can go to Aunt Vania’s. She’ll take us in.” 

Adena shook her head. They’d been over this so many times; there was no need for words. Their mothers’ eldest sister had trained as a healer and was well respected in her own village, a day’s walk to the east. But Beric had more influence with the council. Involving Vania would only prolong the inevitable and get more people hurt. 

Matilde smoothed her hair back. “You tell those people I’ll kill them if they hurt you.” 

Adena smiled at the thought of her small sparrow of a cousin flying against the warriors from the stars. Demons. 

“Love you.” She rested her forehead against Matilde’s. 

A deep sigh from the door pushed them apart. “I’m waiting.” 

Adena stooped to pick up her bag, moving the ginger tomcat who claimed it as his napping spot. She scratched behind his ears. “You take care of her, hear me?” 

On the threshold, Adena looked back at Matilde, who was clutching the cat to her chest and silently crying. 

I won’t let this happen to you. No matter what.

Chapter Two

 “I wish I had better news.”

The viewscreen flickered, but not enough for Commander Nic Vistuv to miss the worry that flashed across the red, pebbled skin of his friend’s broad face.

“There’s not much you can do. Either they’ll decide to proceed with the court martial…” Nic’s throat tightened, the shame and disgust burning in his stomach.

“Or they’ll pull their heads out of their asses and see what a cluster that entire siege was,” Skran offered.

“In all the years we’ve served as enforcers, how often have we seen that particular miracle?” Nic grinned at Skran. Leaders of different units, created from the genetic material of different races, they’d been designed for the same thing—to fight the battles of the Fifth Great Rakian Alliance.

Nic remembered the first time they had teamed their units in battle, over a standard decade ago. And to have it end like this…

Nic’s commlink chimed. “Gotta go, briefing.”

“You going to tell them?”

Nic shook his head. “There’s enough for everyone to deal with now. New day, new mission.”

Skran looked doubtful. “Your unit, but be careful.”

“Aren’t we always?”

Skran laughed. “No, we’re enforcers. Careful wasn’t part of the design, was it?” He punched out, and the viewscreen disappeared.

Nic looked around his quarters. Plain, gray, quiet. A place to sleep, to file reports, to plan. A row of carved figures no larger than his fist lined the back of his desk. Each one a memory, an assignment, a battlefield, a planet. Talin-4. Braktos’ second moon. His eyes fell on a half-finished piece, the shell of the transor carved, but the rest of the body still hidden by the wood. Carthak. His bile rose, and when the chime came again, he turned away from the desk gladly.

The knot in his stomach had only tightened during the trip down the transport to the ready room.

The rest of the unit had already assembled. Designed by a single team of engineers and grown from the same batch, they had been crafted with different abilities and different appearances.  Kennet had pulled up a number of screens and flicked through them. Thin and tall, the dark charcoal streaks on the sides of his face and down his arms on his gray skin elongated him further. His white hair was pulled back at the nape of his neck, spilling over the collar of his shirt. Kennet looked engrossed in his work, but Nic had a suspicion the pale analyst was trying to ignore the berserker sprawled in the giant chair beside him.

As tall as Kennet and with shoulders almost twice his width, Gavin’s copper skin and tawny hair eclipsed his surroundings.

Next to the bulk of Gavin, Jormoi’s slight frame appeared deceptively small. Close-cut auburn hair revealed bright blue eyes. Nic shook his head. From the look on Jormoi’s face, he was planning something. Gavin was the usual target of his humor, and Nic normally wouldn’t care, but today wasn’t the time.

Nic took his own seat. “We dematerialize in less than an hour. Kennet, what do the latest scans show?”

“That this is still a stupid assignment,” Gavin joked.

“What, exactly, is your problem?” Nic gritted his teeth. Too many balls in the air for Gavin to have a tantrum. More like, too many bombs.

Gavin shrugged. “Some religious fanatics can’t run their colony—what does that have to do with us?”

Kennet cut in. “It’s our assignment. That’s what it has to do with us. And it may be more interesting than that.” He snapped one of the scans to the center of the table, where it expanded to fill the center of the desk. They all leaned in.

“Look at that mountain range on the largest continent.” The map zoomed in. “The colonists settled to the south, where the soil was better for farming.”

Jormoi uncurled. “They’re neo-Zorians, right? No replicators. No tech at all, to speak of. They’d care about soil.”

Nic pulled his own records. “The government suspects some of their people have gone rogue, are hiding in the mountains.”

“And that’s the problem.” Kennet panned the area. “That range, and the lands to the north, are rich in acetanium.”

Gavin grinned. “So that’s why we’re here.”

Nic nodded. “The Rakian Alliance wouldn’t mind getting their hands on that.”

“Of course. A new source of a stable element that can be converted to a fuel source with minimal processing? They’d be desperate for it.” Kennet dropped the map. “However, it does make it difficult to get valid readings in that area.”

Jormoi stretched. “So I’ll be busy. I’m fine with that.”

Nic rose. “This should be simple. Get in, figure out what’s going on, and reopen this planet for assimilation by the Alliance.”

And hope by Xantar’s Rings a successful mission is enough to save our skins, he thought.

Chapter Three

Adena didn’t look behind her, didn’t look at Phaylle as she crossed the threshold of the house she’d visited for her entire life and lived in for the last three years. While Matilde’s mother had been alive, love and laughter filled the house. No more.

She climbed into the cart next to Beric, put her bag at her feet and, stared ahead, saying nothing as he clicked to start the team. The silence continued as the mules trudged through the edge of town. Tidy whitewashed homes, thatched roofs, and gardens out front—so normal for such an abnormal day. Children’s faces peered at her from windows, only to be snatched away by mothers worried that her fate could somehow be catching.

“This didn’t have to be the way things went. It’s your own fault you’re not in your own home and married.” He didn’t turn towards her as he spoke. She looked at him from the corner of her eye. Straight brown hair, sun-reddened skin showing from behind a full beard. For years, she’d thought she loved him, been a part of his home.

She looked away. “I was heartbroken when Kaylyn died, was glad to come home and help Matilde keep house. I missed you all so much. I trusted you.” A slow drizzle started, seeping into her cloak, chilling her to the bone.

He snorted. “You were a jumped-up little miss, overfilled with your own importance. Needed to be taken in hand.”

Adena shook her head. Those were Phaylle’s poisoned words, whispered over and over into Beric’s ears until he thought them his own. The road grew steeper as they turned to go through the woods.

“What will you do to Matilde?”

He frowned. “Why should anything happen to her? She’s a good girl, does as she’s told.”

The forest fell quiet around them. “If…” she swallowed. “If she can’t stay at home, for whatever reason, please send her to Vania. Please. You promised if I did this, didn’t argue, you’d leave her alone.”

“None of your concern. If you wanted to stay a part of her life, you should have taken the path you were offered.”

Offered. She closed her eyes and shuddered. She snapped them open at his gasp. They’d broken clear of the trees, and for the first time she could see what had so terrified the boy.

The high, broad hill had been burned bare, as instructed. Nothing remained. And now, out of nowhere, against all reason, a black mountain appeared, tall and gleaming like a gash of night against the sky.

Adena shivered with more than the cold as she imagined what lay ahead for her.

***

“Nic.” His commlink crackled with Kennet’s voice. “You’d better get down here.”

“Do we have a problem?” Nic glared at the silver cuff that housed the commlink. Another difficulty was the last thing he needed.

“Not at all. Just some honored guests.” Nic narrowed his eyes. Kennet sounded amused, and chances were good whatever it was that had caught his fancy would end up being trouble.

The door slid closed behind him as he strode down the hall. Warm wood textures paneled the hallways in this section of the ship. For men who would live most of their lives shipboard, a cold, sterile environment was detrimental to their health and happiness. With everything else the Rakian Alliance demanded of them, comfortable living quarters were a minor consideration.

The elevator swiftly lowered him to the main deck, opening into the reception hall. Here, nothing was warm or cozy. A vast room, cold and black, forged out of material that kept the glossy sheen of space. No furniture, no visible light sources, the room was designed to make an impression on anyone brave enough to enter the garrison ship. Few returned for a second visit.

Kennet towered over two people near the front entrance, a stocky, bearded man and a shorter figure wrapped in a hooded cloak.

“No matter what they told you at Raccelton, you will really need to come to me for information on this region,” the man said as Nic reached the threesome. “I’m sure they think they’ve got the latest reports down in the capital, but you’ve got to be on the scene to have a true understanding of the area, don’t you think?” The man trailed off, looking at Kennet’s still, pale face.

Nic gave an internal sigh. Dealing with natives was not one of Kennet’s strong points. He’d planned to go on reconnaissance patrol today anyway, may as well start gathering intel now.

He nodded to the man, then turned to Kennet. “Who are our guests?”

The bearded man jumped back. The “reception hall” held a certain disorienting influence over those unprepared for it. Evidently the man hadn’t heard his approach. His eyes whipped back and forth between Kennet and Nic, his lips pursed. Nic had seen it before on planets with minimal outside contact. People could accept a certain amount of different, of strangeness, then the mind stopped and needed to catch up. Nic waited.

Kennet extended a hand towards the man. “This is Councilman Beric. He came to offer his services to get us up to speed on the local situation.” Nic hoped to hell that Beric didn’t catch the note of laughter in Kennet’s voice. The last thing they needed was to get on the wrong side of the local official, even if he was a puffed-up ass.

Kennet continued. “I’m afraid I haven’t been introduced to the lady.”

Nic examined the smaller figure. Now that he wasn’t focused on the man, the curves of her figure stood out, even through the bulky fabric. The hood covered her head and most of her face, but he could see a pair of ruby lips against olive skin, a round chin with a hint of a dimple.

He looked again at the man, who hadn’t taken Kennet’s hint, and instead stood gawking at the deep blackness of the hall. Nic couldn’t decide if it was a deliberate insult, or just stupidity.

“And this would be…” Nic growled, no longer terribly interested in playing nice.

With a snap the man brought his attention back.

“Right.” He chuckled and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. She flinched, almost imperceptibly, but Nic’s muscles tensed in response. “Wanted to show how much I appreciate your help with the attacks.” He pulled the hood down, and Nic found himself trapped in a pair of eyes open wide with terror. “She’s a pretty thing but takes strong handling. Figured you men would be up to the task.” Beric pushed the woman towards Nic, but she stumbled, her legs twisted in the wet cloak.

Battle-honed reflexes kicked in and Nic caught the woman before she hit the floor. He didn’t look at her, didn’t need to. He could smell her fear and anger, her body tight and stiff in his arms. He glanced down at the wild black tangle of curls, and his blood rushed through him, hot and angry.

“Kennet!” he snapped.

Kennet stood stock still, careful gray eyes all that revealed his awareness of his brother’s rage.

“Take our…” Nic fought for control of his voice, “guest to a meeting room, confirm our intel on all border activity for the last year, add anything new. Find variables, patterns, anything we can work with. Report when you’re done.”

Kennet nodded and took the man’s elbow, guiding him to a side room.

Nic spun on his heel, back the way he’d come. He could hear the man blustering and Kennet’s cool voice behind him, but all he cared about was the frail bundle in his arms who set every nerve in his body on fire.

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