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Prized by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter One

Landri

“In conclusion,” Tonzul said. “Quarterly profits are up, and as long as the guild’s expenses remain stable, we can anticipate a respectable two percent growth year-over-year.”

His proclamation was met with dumb silence.

Or rather, a long, drawn out sound that may have been a snore from Khenja.

I elbowed the other Mtoain. He snorted and came alert again, discreetly wiping away a drop of drool from the corner of his mouth.

“What was that? I missed the question.”

“He’s done,” I said.

“Oh?” Khenja squinted at Tonzul who looked a little disgruntled that no one had been held rapt at his budgeting presentation. “What’s the bad news?”

“Profits are up,” I said. “As long as we don’t do anything stupid.”

“Oh,” Khenja said again. He glanced at the timepiece sitting at the end of the desk. “How’d it possibly take an hour to say that?”

Tonzul huffed and straightened the thin plexi-film he’d written out the details on the report.

At his side, Amy snickered. “I told you you should just give him the CliffNotes.”

“It’s my duty to report and to give a full summary of all of my findings,” Tonzul said with a surprising amount of dignity. “It’s not my fault our so-called guild leaders would rather chase slavers than attend to the paperwork of their own guild.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I’m up to my neck in paperwork most days.”

“And still you fall behind,” Tonzul said a little snappily. “I keep telling you, you need to streamline your process.”

Part of me wanted to snap at the more junior Mtoain, the other part appreciated the fact that Tonzul had finally grown comfortable enough within our presence to speak his mind. He was a talented administrator in his own right, though most of his extra time was spent out in the field along with his mate, chasing down slavers.

Tonzul had been a logistics planner and glorified accountant for the seedy underbelly of the galaxy for years before he realized he was only helping a system that subjugated others. Finding his human mate — who was also an ex-slave— surely helped with that process.

Over the last few months of his employment within my bounty hunter guild, he’d proven himself time and time again out in the field. In his extra time, he worked as an assistant administrator for me.

But his quarterly reports were thorough to the point of absolute tedium.

Khenja must have thought so as well. “Well, that’s great news. Thank you for your… Attention to the many details, Tonzul,” he said, standing quickly up from his desk. “Now that’s over with, don’t you have a bounty to get to?”

Amy, who sat by Tonzul’s side, and unlike us, had listened with rapt attention — I suspected she only found him interesting because they were mates. She stood as well, giving Khenja an arched look.

“Actually, this was the last project Tonzul had to complete before we started our honeymoon.”

“Your what?” I asked.

But Khenja understood. “It is a human thing; to celebrate being newlyweds,” he told me.

I shook my head. As the only Mtoain in the room without a human mate, I got lost in many of the human colloquialisms.

I never said as much, but the frequency in which it happened stung my pride a little. I sometimes felt as if I were being left behind within my own organization. It wasn’t pleasant.

Still, I kept my professional face on as I walked Amy and Tonzul out of the office. Tonzul slipped me a copy of the reports, which we both knew I’d skim and then file into some dark abyss, never to be seen again.

Once the two of them were safely walking down the next corridor, Khenja turned to me.

“Paper pushers,” he growled.

“He does more in an hour than you get done in a week,” I told him, sticking up for my fellow paper pusher.

“You two are all work and no play,” Khenja said. “Speaking of that, I know your name day is coming up soon.”

I froze for a moment, then looked at the calendar and counted backward in my head, swiftly converting galactic dates with Mtoain dates.

Khenja liked to give off the impression like he didn’t pay attention to events going on around him unless there was violence needed, but in this case, he was absolutely right.

“Don’t tell me you forgot,” Khenja said, watching me.

I shrugged. “It’s not a date I find much celebration for.”

He nodded. From what I understood, named days — or birthdays as the human women insisted on calling them— were a major milestone within their lives.

For us Mtoain, it was simply a reminder we’d never truly return to our home planet.

“How long has it been?” Khenja asked.

That answer, I had on the tip of my tongue. A part of me was always aware of it — the length of time it’d last been since I’d left my planet. “Twenty years have passed since I went on my pilgrimage and became nywosi.”

Khenja nodded once. “That does pose an interesting question, does it not”?”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “As nywosi, we can only participate in one formal hunt back on our planet. And yet, I can name four of us, myself included, who’ve met their human female mates outside of a formal hunt.” He paused for a significant moment as if to let that sink in. “And all of these are true mates. That is not supposed to happen.”

“I doubt the ancient elders took other species into consideration when the rituals and traditions were first established,” I said dryly. The parameters for an official hunt for a mate had been well established before our people had made the first contact with the wider universe.

“That is true,” Khenja said. “So, what’s stopping you?”

I paused in my reordering of the reports and stared at him. “Excuse me?”

Me and Khenja had worked as Guild partners successfully for a couple of Galactic years now, and we’d been good friends for over a decade before that.

But we were also Mtoain males. We didn’t come to one another to discuss our… feelings.

Khenja, however, neither backed up nor looked away. “The Guild is doing well. Even Tonzul the stickler thinks so. You know I can handle whatever is thrown our way. Why don’t you take a break and go on the hunt, or try to find a mate elsewhere?”

“I can hardly travel back to Mtoain —”

Khenja raised his voice to override me. “Then perhaps you should look on Station Four. There are plenty of available females here of all species, including our own. And yet, for the last few years, you’ve sat back and watched your own Guild members find their love — their mates — one by one without doing the same for yourself.” He looked at me seriously, and for the first time, I saw real concern on his face. “What’s stopping you, my friend?”

“I…”

Several answers floated on the tip of my tongue. I was busy, first and foremost. Establishing my own Guild had run me ragged, and it only seemed like I was getting ahead of the workload now, with Tonzul’s help. But Khenja was my business partner. He had just as much work ahead of him, and yet he’d managed to find himself a mate.

He had even started a family with his human, Deanna. From what I understood, she had no complaints about his long hours because when he was at home in their shared residence, he was completely present for her and their offspring.

I found I had no satisfactory answer at all.

Thankfully, I was saved a moment later by an urgent chirp from the message system.

With relief, I turned to it. I read the header on the message and then frowned.

“What is it?” Khenja asked.

“It’s a data drop from Yndon,” I said, quickly transferring the file to the general screen so we could both read through it.

“Isn’t he currently working on several bounty leads in Sector Ten?” Khenja asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve gotten an earful from his human mate, Rene. She wants him to be at home at the station more often, but the work he’s doing out there is valuable.”

I shook my head. Mates — true mates especially — were a gift from the universe, but all these mated pairs could be a pain to manage.

“So, what has the kid found this time?” Khenja asked.

I fell silent as I read through the message.

Then, as I got to the bottom, I cursed.

“He’s tracking down a group of Mtoain slavers.”

Khenja swore and then spat on the ground in disgust. I felt the same way. Our people were warriors, and for the most part, we tried to lead lives of honor. However, some exiles from our home planet turned to criminal activities to survive. The worst of which was slavery.

“It gets worse,” I said. “It seems many of these slavers have united and are planning a major raid.”

“Of course, they are,” Khenja muttered. Over the last few months, our guild and Phoenix Incorporated, with whom we were partnered with, had taken major bites out of several slave rings. We’d freed over a hundred men and women — mostly women. The slavers were slowly starving out, and it wasn’t much of a surprise to see them hungry for new blood.

“Which planet is the target?” Khenja asked, but from the tone of his voice, I suspected he already knew.

I turned to him. “Mtoain.”

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