elinwyn

Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter Two

“Xandros, you’re making a mess!” Rhela tried to be stern, but the sight of the outsized puppy, his pale, spotted fur covered in mud from where he’d followed her through sodden gardens all morning, was too much.

She broke into laughter and called him over. “That’s a good boy. You were just trying to help, weren’t you?” The mud had somehow managed to get matted into the shaggy fur. “That’s going to need more than a brushing. You, my friend, are going to have a bath.”

Xandros dropped to his belly, long nose between his paws, and let out a soft whine.

“It’s not that bad. I’ll throw sticks for you later if you’re good.”

With the ears of her shaggy companion perked back up, the two headed out of the small clearing.

An hour later, they sat drying themselves on a large flat rock at the edge of a bend in the stream. “Almost dry, then I’ll go finish pulling those vines,” Rhela murmured, warm and lazy from the sun.

All languor fell away at the sound of rocks striking each other. Once, twice, then in a quick pattern.

Rhela sat up quickly and ran her hands over Xandros’ fur. “Close enough; let’s go!”

She sprang through the trees, braiding her long brown hair as she went, following no visible path.

She stopped at a dense stand of trees and listened carefully.  A woman’s voice came from the other side, humming softly.

Doubts cast aside, Rhela grinned broadly. “You’re here!” she exclaimed and walked through the branches, which seemed to lean away from each other to give her an easy path. “I wasn’t expecting you until winter!”

She flung her arms around the other woman and, happily, was hugged back.

“What on earth are you wearing? And where are your shoes?” the newcomer muttered, still hugging her.

“I was preparing the far garden for fall, but then Xandros decided to help, and it rained so much last night… well, you see.” Rhela waved vaguely, knowing her friend would understand.

Xandros decided it was time for pets and butted between the two women. The woman leaned down to scratch behind his ears, her pale blonde hair falling over her shoulders. “It’s all your fault again, isn’t it?”

The big shaggy head leaned into the woman’s hand, his eyes half closed in bliss. “I haven’t seen you since spring. Keeping our friend out of trouble?”

Rhela laughed again, watching her elegant best friend not mind the dirt sticking to her gown as she continued to pet the shaggy, and honestly still more than a little dirty, puppy.

 “And he’s still growing.” She headed back to the trees, and again they opened for her. “Come on, Phaylle, I want you to see this summer’s additions to the garden.”

***

The garden having been duly toured, the two women sat at the dark wooden table in Rhela’s kitchen, waiting for the water to boil. She ran her hand over the top, the aged surface showing all the nicks and scars of a long life of service in the center of a family.

Despite everything, it had been a happy family. She looked around at Xandros and the two half-wild cats who had followed them into the house and smiled.  And she was happy now, even if it was a different kind of family from what she’d had before.

“I don’t know why you won’t come back with me to the city. This is no place for you to be burying yourself.” Phaylle looked around, and Rhela knew what she saw. To her it was a cozy, comfortable home; she had always been at ease here.

But to Phaylle, she knew, it had always seemed small and cramped.

“You’re not even listening to me, are you?”

With a guilty jolt, Rhela looked across the table at Phaylle, shaking her head, amusement in her lavender eyes. “I’m sorry.” Rhela stood up to get the tea kettle, whistling merrily on the small stove. “I know you think I would be happier if I came with you, but honestly I don’t see why I should. My life is here.”

Phaylle came and stood behind her while she poured the water into the earthenware teapot and silently helped her carry the mugs back to the table.

“Because it’s not safe here,” Phaylle said after a silence so long Rhela thought she had offended her. “I’m always afraid for you out here, a woman alone. You don’t know what can happen, and I would do anything to make sure you never do.”

Rhela remembered back to when she had been small, surely less than ten years old, and her father had carried a bruised and battered young woman into their home. Her hair, now sleek and gleaming, had been snarled and matted; bruises had mottled the now smooth skin.

Rhela reached over and squeezed the hand of the woman who had from that day forward become part of her family. An older sister who fit in as if she’d always been there, except for the odd restlessness that took her for longer and longer spells, until she returned for only a few visits each year.

“I know you worry, but I’m careful. I promise I am.”

Phaylle twisted a lock of her pale hair and bit her lip. “But your promise isn’t enough, is it? I know you’re careful, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe.”

“There’s never been trouble before, and it’s been years and years since we came here. Why should things change?”

“Because things outside have changed, whether you know it or not. There are strangers around, and they’ve brought danger with them.”

Rhela worried her lip between her teeth. Phaylle had always been concerned, even more so since Rhela’s parents had died. Every spring she’d tried to get her to leave, but this intensity was new. Maybe Rhela should consider it.

It didn’t have to be forever, just long enough to put Phaylle’s mind at rest about whatever it was. For a brief moment, her heart lightened. She could go see the town and the shops where Phaylle bought the presents she always brought.

Just for a few days, to see what other people were like. Xandros could come with her, and maybe she could bring some of her roots and herbs to trade.

Glancing around the kitchen, her eye caught the sigil carved into the rock above the hearth, two concentric circles pierced by a long line that ended in a point.

Her heart sank.

No. She could never leave.

Her throat closed with angry tears. “I just can’t come with you. Please don’t ask me.”

Phaylle gave a small smile and shook herself as if to cast her fears behind her. “I know, and I’m sorry. Sometimes the mood just takes me, that’s all. But enough about that.” She reached for her satchel. “Can you guess what I’ve brought you this time?”

She opened the flap with a laugh, but Rhela couldn’t help but notice that her hand trembled.

Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter One

“Dammit, Jormoi, I told you to get out of there.”

Nic’s voice crackled from the comm unit, but Jormoi ignored it.

Again.

The smoke choked him as he crawled under the burning rubble of the collapsed house, picking his way through fallen beams.

Past the smoke, he could make out the faint suggestion of stairs to the second level, the wood smoldering, ready to ignite at any moment. And yes, there it was—a faint cry from somewhere upstairs, weaker now than when he’d first heard it.

Part of the wall caved inward in a shower of sparks as he crept up the stairs through the thickening smoke. The urge to spring up them three at a time clawed through him, but the damaged wood would never withstand the impact. Even the smallest member of the garrison unit was almost too heavy for this work. Almost.

At the top, he sank near the floor again, listening.

Come on, one more time…

To the left, he heard a muffled sob that no human ears would have caught. He eased through the hall towards the only doorway, searching for his quarry, but the room was empty—just a small bed in the corner, a low stool, and a small, mullioned window in the wall across from him. The building groaned and shuddered around him. Time had run out, but damned if he’d…

There. The blue woolen blanket tossed over the bed and hanging to the floor trembled, just slightly out of sync with the rest of the house.

In three quick strides, he crossed the room and knelt down, moving the blanket gently to the side, as if he had all the time in the world.

Two pale faces stared out at him, eyes wide with terror.

“Hi, sweethearts. It’s not safe there, you know?”

The children’s heads shook in unison. Just babies, really, neither more than five years old, if he had to guess.

“We need to go now.”  He reached a hand under the bed, waited for them. “We don’t have a lot of time.” Impatience fought with the smoke to clog his throat. It would be so easy to just toss the bed from over them, grab them and get out. But he didn’t want them fighting him, not when the fire was the real enemy.

One of the children nodded, then took his hand, tiny fingers engulfed in his. “Come on, Kait,” she said as she tugged the smaller child out behind her.

Another groan and crash was the only warning Jormoi got. He braced himself on the bed, arching over the two children, as the ceiling collapsed over them. Whips of flame seared across his back, but he ignored them, listening, waiting for their chance.

He looked down at the terrified children huddled together, pressed against his legs.

“I think we should go. What do you think?”

The smaller child wailed, clutching her friend. “Marka, we can’t get out!”

The falling rubble stopped, but it would be foolish to trust that the building had stabilized. Only one way out now.

Jormoi looked at Marka. “Can you be brave? Brave enough for both of you?  I have a plan, but I need your help.”

She nodded, then pinched Kait. “Pay attention!”

Jormoi grabbed the wool blanket.  “Hold still. This might not be very comfortable, but we’ll be done and out in a minute.”

Sweat dripping down his face from the approaching flames, he wrapped the two girls in the blanket, then pulled the ends around his torso, over one shoulder and tied in back.

“I can’t see,” a muffled voice whimpered.

Jormoi edged towards the small window. “You’ll be out in a minute. Can you sing a song? I’ll bet we’re downstairs before you finish.”

He smashed the window, the flame-heated wires holding the glass tiles giving way with little effort. “Come on, girls, I can’t hear you singing.”

Tuneless nonsense emerged faintly from the blanket, and he grinned, then launched himself through the window frame.

Shards of glass and twisted wire sliced into the arm he held over his face, then there was nothing but the shock of cold night air as he curled himself around the blanket held tightly to his chest.

Spin, spin, and tuck, then a jarring thud as his shoulder hit the cobbled street below and he rolled to his feet, still clinging to the blanket.

He tore the cloth from the children’s faces, their voices stopped in shock.

Marka flung her arms around his neck. “You did it, you saved us!”

“Kait, Marka!” a woman screamed, pulling them from his arms. “Let go of them, you monster!”

Jormoi stiffened as she pulled the children from the sling and hurried them away, cooing over them.

“She didn’t mean it,” Nic muttered. “She’s just scared, like the rest of them.”

Jormoi winced as his commander clapped a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“How much damage did you take?” Nic turned to shout into the night for Adena.

Jormoi shrugged. “It’s minimal. Let her work on the rest of the townspeople.”

Warmth spread through his back, but unlike the teeth-clenching pain of the fire, this soothed.

“They’re fine. They had the sense to leave a burning building.” Nic’s mate’s gentle hands belied her sharp words as Adena eased him to a sitting position. “You did good work, you know.”

“The children?” Jormoi hated to ask, but he hadn’t been able to see much before the woman snatched them away.

“Just a little smoke inhalation, easy fix.”  She moved her hands to his chest, and the tightness in his lungs eased.

Nic stood over them, staring down the street. “What did the Haleru want this time?”

Kennet approached at a jog, soot blurring with the charcoal lines on his skin. “I’ve confirmed with the town council. No one was killed, but three houses were ransacked and torched.”

Adena finished healing Jormoi, and he stood, gingerly stretching. “What about the warehouses by the river?”

“Nothing. They weren’t here for supplies.”

“Why these houses?” Adena wondered.

Jormoi shook his head. Even with a ready supply of water, three infernos over the last month, spread throughout the town, had depleted the town’s resources.

“Someone needs to talk to the families, see what they have in common,” Kennet replied, mostly muttering to himself.

“It’d be a hell of a lot easier if they weren’t all afraid of us,” Jormoi snapped, the woman’s fearful snatching of her children still stinging more than his burns.

Gavin emerged from the night. “Why do we even care what the pattern is?” he grumbled, leaning his bulk against a stone wall. “Find B’tar and kill him. That’s what we’re here for, right?”

Agitation seethed through Jormoi’s blood, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. His jaw ached, and he wondered how long he’d been clenching his teeth. “We’re done here,” he snarled. “Let’s get back to base.”

The startled gazes of his teammates rested on his back, but he shrugged it off. In minutes his battle sled was in the air, circling, waiting for the others. One by one, his brothers joined him above the town, and he headed back home.

To his side he could see Nic pull up level with him, Adena’s small form hooded and cloaked behind him, sheltered from the wind by Nic’s bulk.

Kennet approached from the other side as his voice came from the comm unit. “I’m not entirely certain we should have left yet.”

Jormoi spat his answer, voice rough with smoke and wind. “What else can we do? They didn’t want us, or our help. You’d think after we rescued the women B’tar’s raiding party took, some of them would be ready to cut us a little slack.” He growled, low and frustrated. “Figuring out their mysteries isn’t our problem.”

Nic cut in, his voice angry. “It’s our problem until we can get ahead of the situation.”

“I am still endeavoring to recalibrate our scanners to account for the dust-shielding,” Kennet answered, and Jormoi could almost see his sigh. “I am making progress, but the problem is complex.”

“You’d almost think the Haleru had done it on purpose,” Gavin muttered. “There’s gotta be a way to find their new hideout. We just need to expand our range, get closer on the ground.”

Jormoi tuned the rest of the conversation out.

Over the last two months, he’d heard it over and over, and nothing was ever resolved.

The wind carried his thoughts away, but the agitation remained. The black spires of the garrison ship rose in the distance but did nothing to ease his tension. His cheek twitched, something between a smile and a snarl. Only one thing would help at this point.

He’d already locked the sled when his brothers landed nearby. The wind tossed the treetops near the ship, and the ozone smell of an oncoming storm tempted him. It was time to go.

“Where are you going?” Gavin called.

“We can’t do anything as it is. We need more intel,” he growled over his shoulder.

“But your back…” he heard Adena call, but Nic must have stopped her.

“Check in, or I’ll send Gavin after you,” was his commander’s only comment.

Jormoi waved in acknowledgment, then let the change wash over him, his nerves crackling with energy as his form shifted, the world becoming more alive, details richer.

The scents and sounds through his feline senses almost overpowered his thoughts, and the turf under his paws was wet with dew.

This was what he needed.

He loped towards the tree line and faded into the shadows.

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.

Click subscribe at the top right to make sure you don’t miss an episode!

Chapter Three: Hakon

The little man jerked his hand back as if Yasmin had caught fire.

Good.

I held my hand out to her and waited.

“Shall we?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, instantly ignoring the trio seething at the table behind her.

We passed through the crowd in silence, moving with the ebb and flow of people.

Some dressed in the gray overalls that seemed to be the station uniform, but more people had changed into casual clothes, or seemed dressed for a party, silk and sequins flashing everywhere.

I glanced down at Yasmin. Her breathing was even, only the slight flare of her nostrils a clue as to her emotions within.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I don’t often come out this way.”

There was a story there, but I could let it wait until later.

“You can pay me back by being my guide. Alcyon got a ping to go help Commander Serrup with some crisis and had to abandon me.”

She bit her lip but said nothing.

“I had the feeling it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence,” I continued, waiting for a response. From the moment I’d seen her, I knew this woman had secrets.

And secrets were what I was searching for here.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” she glanced up at me, deliberately fluttering her long dark lashes. “I’m only a lowly fabrication technician. It would be impossible for me to hear the gossip is about how incompetent our station commander is.” Another flutter of lashes. “Completely, absolutely impossible.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “But seems like a lot of people for someone with, shall we say leadership challenges, to be in charge of.”

We had reached the far side of the open space, another cluster of replicators and beverage dispensers surrounded by high tables, filled with laughing, drinking, workers.

“It helps that expectations are low,” she said, a wry smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “Besides, we’re all pretty motivated to get our hours in. Or at least, those of us that want to get off of this place.”

I watched the groups of the table around us. Behind the laughter, more than a few had a hollow, desperate look about the eyes.

“Why would that be difficult?” I asked.

But before she could respond, her stomach growled and her cheeks burned crimson.

“Let’s get some dinner and you can tell me all about it.”

She shook her head quickly. “I’m fine, really.” She waved at the replicators. “I can pick up something later, closer to my quarters.”

“Well, I’m hungry,” I said, walking over to see what was on offer. It wouldn’t be the same as what was offered on the Kodo Ragir, but honestly, I wasn’t used to such rich food anyway. “ I can’t imagine you’d make me eat alone, would you?” I teased.

She sighed, and showed me how the replicators were set up. Fairly close to Imperial standard, slight differences in the options.

Not surprisingly, there were a number of dishes that I didn’t recognize. I started to click one of each.

At the end, Yasmin moved her thumb to the small block square and I caught her hand. “I’m hungry, I’m paying.”

“I doubt if you’re set up in the system,” she argued. “Did they take your print?”

I fought back a grimace, started deleting food from the order. There was no reason for her to pay for my curiosity or my appetite.

“But,” she continued, tilting her head to the side. “They may have set up credits on your card. Can I see it?”

After a moment, I realized what she meant, and pulled out the access card Serrup had handed me. She waved it above the screen and the total zeroed out, blinking green.

“Perfect,” she breathed. For a moment the intensity in her eyes took me aback, but then she blinked, and the strange look was gone. “Here, let me show you what’s good. If you’re still hungry, you can try the rest of it.” She shook her head. “If you really want to.”

“I should probably take that back,” I said, and slipped the card back in my pocket.

In the end, I ordered anything that made her eyes light up. Not exactly as much as the previous order had been, but maybe I didn’t really want a double order of perrs rado, given the way Yasmin’s nose wrinkled at the thought.

The replicator dinged and slid open to reveal a tray filled bowls of steaming… something.

“I’ll get this,” I grabbed it. “You lead on, find a table in this mess.”

All we could find was an unoccupied booth in the corner under one of the arches.

“Will your legs fit under the table?” she asked, running her eyes up and down my frame.

“Probably,” I grumbled, wedging myself in. “If not, I’ll find someone to volunteer theirs.”

I took a bite of everything, but made sure to push the small bowls back closer to her side of the table. If my food was free, I’d bet her’s wasn’t.

“So how come so many people are here? Shouldn’t they be working or something?”

Yasmin shrugged, swallowed another bite of the spicy vegetables. “Shifts run around the clock,” she answered. “A lot of people do their minimum hours, then don’t worry about it. Not my style, but I don’t have to worry about anyone but me. I want to get my hours in, take on as few debits against them as possible, and get out of here.”

Interesting. I thought about it. Not exactly slaves, more like indentured contracts, with the odds stacked high against ever completing them..

That was more than Alcyon would have told me.

“There’s got to be more to the station then fabrication labs and this.”

She leaned back, hands over her stomach. “For that meal, I’ll even show you my favorite place on the station.” She gathered empty bowls onto the tray, waited for me. “Come on, I think you’ll like it.”

In the lift I took a moment to study her. She was  interesting. Obviously smart or she wouldn’t have caught the design defect I’d deliberately introduced into the file.

But there was something hidden behind that careful smile.

The lift paused in its glide, changing directions from horizontal to vertical as it carried us through the station.

I shifted my weight as the faint scent of pholla trees filled the lift.

“Anything wrong?” she asked, a slight crease between her dark brows.

“Nothing at all.” Must have been something else. I’d only seen pholla trees on one mission, about as far from the Areitis Sector as I could imagine.

It’s been years ago, but the sweet, clean scent was unmistakable.

And impossible.

The minutes ticked by in the lift. “Where are we going?” I asked. “Seems like there shouldn’t be much this far from the central Hub.”

“All the way to the bottom,” she said. “Are you afraid of heights?”

Definitely interesting.

 The door slid open and we approached a heavily secured hatch. “Through there?”

“Not a chance,” she answered. “Secondary control room. I’m not even certain your card would get you inside.”  Her eyes flicked to the card reader, considering. “No, the observation dome is just this way.”

As we walked I could feel the slightest pressure in my inner ear as the deck’s artificial gravity adjusted to keep us upright, even though from my memory of what the hub had looked like, we were pointed down.

Relatively.

“Here we are,” she said and swiped open a door with her own card.

The dome before us was clear plexi, filled with the swirling muted pastels of the gas giant below.

Chairs were scattered through the room, all turned to face the breathtaking spectacle.

But no one was there but us.

Yasmin stood still, transfixed by the sight. “That’s Tocarth 5. No matter how many times I’ve come down here, watched it, I’ve never understood why they put this here,” she finally said, voice soft and wondering. “It doesn’t do anyone any good, doesn’t make a profit.” She shrugged, rubbing her upper arm. “Maybe the station architect decided there should be one thing of beauty in this place.”

She stepped closer to the plexi, and I watched her, as curious about her as I was about the station I’d been sent to investigate, then she wrapped her arms around her torso and shivered.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

She glanced over her shoulder at me. “I know it’s silly, station temperature is constant no matter where you are. But there’s something about looking into the Void that always chills me, just a bit.”

“Here.” I shrugged out of my jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. It swallowed her, hanging almost to her knees.

“Thanks.” She walked up to the edge of the plex and pointed. “Do you see here? That swirl of purple and red?”

I stepped closer, watching the planet below, wondering what I was looking at.

“It’s a storm that’s raged for thousands of years, with no signs of slowing down. Everything we do, everything the corps have ever done, is a flicker of time as far as that storm is concerned.” She laughed quietly. “Well, if the storm was aware of anything.”

I watched it for a moment, streaks of what looked like white clouds swirling and crashing, with the violence of an alien ocean.

The silence grew between us and I glanced down to find her stifling a yawn.

“You said everybody worked around the clock here?” I carefully placed one hand on her shoulder. “When did your shift start?”

“More hours ago that I’d like to think,” she admitted. “But there are more places I could show you.”

“No, I’ll have my official guide do that.” If he’s ever off babysitting duty, I thought. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see the workers’ quarters, then we’ll call it a night.”

She tilted her head, eyes narrowed. “I’ll show you the outside of my quarters,” she said dryly. “But that’s it.”

My face burned as I realized how she must’ve interpreted my words. “No!” I blurted. “I mean yes. The outside! That’s all I meant.”

She laughed, handing me my jacket as we left the observation dome and reentered the lift.

Moments later the door slid open and she bowed forward, arm waving in front of her in a grand gesture. “Our final stop of the tour will be the capsule section D4.”

Both walls of the hallway were divided into a grid, each square a little over a meter on a side, stretching on until the corridor curved out of sight.

A few steps from the lift, Yasmin rested her hand on the wall, and I realized the slight indentations in the surface that ran vertically between each column were a series of ladders.

I glanced down the hall again, calculating.

“These are all micro capsules? How many workers does the station hold?”

“Only a few thousand,” she said, shrugging “It’s not that there’s so many on the station, they just don’t have much space to allocate for workers quarters.”

That was interesting.

On a station this size?

They could have raw materials and fabricators stacked in a dozen cargo bays and still have plenty of room left over.

What did they need the extra space for?

Chapter Two: Yasmin

“Killing yourself over that schematic isn’t going to get you out of here any sooner, kiddo,” Tinon said, stretching at his barely touched work station.

Theoretically my supervisor, it seemed like most of his time was spent telling me how *not* to do things.

Specifically, not to work so hard.

Probably because it made him look bad.

I glanced at my station timer.

5018 hours left.

“It might. If I can adjust this part of the mold just a bit, it’ll save me on the material fee.” I pulled up the diagram on the tablet, rotated it, tweaked it again. “See?”

He rolled his stool over, bleary eyes almost clear enough to feigning interest. “That’s clever,” he admitted. “But you know…”

I chimed in with him. “The company always gets you in the end.” Crossing my fingers, I sent the part to print.

He leaned back, pulled up the next job in his queue, started poking at it half-heartedly. “Running late with a project will wipe out any bonus you get for using less materials.”

“I know,” I muttered, pulling on the microgoggles as the printer beeped. “That’s why I’m trying to focus on it.” Zooming all the way in, I checked the thickness of each section of the finished sample.

The part wasn’t anything special, as far as I could tell just a redesigned particle flow distributor for long haul engines.

I’d done a dozen projects like it in the months since I’d accepted a contract on Station 112.

But none of them had landed in my queue with an urgent tag before.

“You hear more gossip than I do,” I said, still examining the part. “Any noise on the wheel as to why Serrup is all hot and bothered about this gig?”

Tinon snorted. “Potential new client, maybe a big one.” He spun out the program to replicate his parts, sent it to the fabricator without checking anything, and shut down his bench again. “Though I can’t imagine where in the sector they found a poor slob desperate enough to do business with Desyk.”

With a loud whoosh the door to the lab slid open.

Startled, I fumbled the sample, then stared up at the mountain of a man standing before me, who had caught it before it hit the hard floor.

“That’s likely be me,” the man said mildly, looking around.

He couldn’t have been answering Tinon.

For one thing, the labs were sound proofed.

For another, I couldn’t imagine anyone further than a desperate slob than the man who now stood in the middle of the room, filling it with his presence.

It almost looked like he was wearing an exoskelton, except that obviously he wasn’t.  He just was naturally taller and broader at the shoulder than anyone I’d ever seen. Black, ragged cut hair and dark eyes that I’d bet didn’t miss much.

And right now those eyes were fixed on my sample as he rotated it slowly in his massive hands.

“Can I have that back?” 

He turned it over again. “You modified the spec,” he rumbled. “Why?”

Alcon stepped beside him, scowling. “We’ll have her compensation docked, and another tech assigned to the project.”

The giant held up his hand. “Nope. Not until I have an answer.”

I shoved the goggles back, snarling a little as they caught in my hair. “Because the original design was flawed, that’s why.” I pulled up the specs, then my modifications. “Look at this. Your output valve was far too large to have any sort of control. You would have flooded the fuel chamber in minutes if you’d installed these as is.”

When he smiled, his entire face changed. Scary became stunning. “Good catch.”

I rocked back, studied him. Charcoal gray pants tucked into boots, khaki shirt under a black jacket. Didn’t look like an engineer, but there was something about his tone of voice.

“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” I spun back to my work bench, flipped through his specs again. “What sort of maniac sends deliberately flawed specs?”

“Apparently this kind of maniac,” he grinned, and tossed the sample back to me.

And at that moment, I saw something interesting enough to forget my annoyance.

In the breast pocket of his jacket a thick plastic card. Just enough showing for me to see the red stripe, running down the edge.

“Insulting important clients is a fast way to get your hours docked, Miss Joi,” Alcyon stated. “You may want to proceed carefully.”

Gripping the edge of the bench, I forced myself not to snap back. There were more important things to think about now.

The giant raised his eyebrows, watching me, but I stayed silent.

“If we’re done here Mr. Hakon,” Alcyon said, let’s continue on our way. We’ll start with the hub, the center of the worker’s social life around here.”

“I’d be happy to give you a tour, if you’d like,” I offered in my best perky voice. “Give you an actual workers point of view of things.”

Tinon looked shocked but didn’t say anything.

Smart man.

“That will be quite fine Ms. Joi,” Alcyon barked. 

The two walked out the door.

I braided and re-braided the end of my hair, thinking, finally throwing it back over my shoulder as I got back to work.

Fingers flying, I punched in the commands to start mass fabrication of the flow distributor.

I hadn’t found a flaw, the client hadn’t found a flaw, good enough.

I stood up and tossed the micro goggles on the bench.

“I think I’m calling it a day,” I announced.

“You never leave early,” Tinon said, eyes wide with confusion. “You’re always telling me the only way to get out of here is to take as many gigs as a possible, get as many hours stacked up as you can.”

“Maybe I’m listening to your advice for a change,” I said, shrugging. “You’re always telling me the company wins anyway, so why work so hard?”

He didn’t look convinced, but I didn’t really care.

Halfway to the hub I stopped the lift, glanced down at my coarse gray coveralls.

Standard wear for the station, all through the fab labs.

I hadn’t thought about bothering with anything nicer since getting here.

But maybe it was time to be a little more strategic.

“Capsule level D4,” I commanded the lift, bracing for the tiny lurches as it shifted direction, away from the hub and towards the personnel levels, such as they were.

After the door slid open on my level I went to the communal replicator, then stopped cold, lost in the options.

I’ve been away from high society for far too long. Had barely been interested before everything in my life turned upside down.

But I still would bet from the way Alcyon was happy to take time out of his schedule to escort the newcomer around the station, he was someone important.

An important meant money. Always did.

I flipped through clothing options, wincing at the prices.

Like everything else here, I’d pay for it in hours deducted from my total.

But it couldn’t be helped.

I flipped past screen after screen of short, shimmery dresses.

Not my thing. Besides, the giant, Mr. Hakon someone or other, would have seen plenty of skin before.

And to be honest, mine wasn’t anything special.

The next set of screens showed more dresses, but this time with bows and ribbons and poofs.

If that was his style, I was out of luck.

‘Cause I sure wasn’t wearing it.

Not even for a handsome man like that.

Ooh.

That would do.

I pressed my thumb to the pad to finalize the transaction and in minutes gathered my new outfit to my chest, climbed the short ladder to my capsule one-handed and crawled in.

A meter and half square and two meters deep, a shelf bed ran down the length of the wall with storage beneath.

Not exactly the most comfortable of homes, but it was expected you pretty much would be working or in the Hub. The capsules were just for sleeping, maybe watching a vid. Nothing else.

Quickly I unbraided my hair, smoothing it back and banding it, then wiggled into the long black pants. The silky, flowing fabric strangely soft against my legs.

The sapphire blue top wrapped in the front making a v-neck, not too low, just enough to be suggestive, and belted with a wide black sash. Best of all, the draping sleeves had just enough of a fold to make a perfect tiny pocket.

Once upon a time I might have outlined my eyes in gold shimmer, put more gold on my lips.

But there were only so many hours I was willing to burn on this little project.

Grabbing the last item from my nearly empty storage bin, I hurried back down the ladder.

Back in the turbo lift I braced myself.

The noise and clutter of the hub grated on my — both my ears and my nerves.

Always had.

But if that’s where Alcyon was taking the stranger, that’s where I needed to go.

Stepping out of the lift I surveyed the crowded space. Even in the dim light, surely the giant would be easy to find. He’d stand head and shoulders over everyone here.

But I didn’t see him. Not by the tables clustered around the arches of greenery, not by the booths dispensing whatever kind of relaxer you had a taste for.

Maybe they’d moved on to the games.

It seemed unlikely Hakon would want a tour of the private booths… and if so, I was out of luck.

Heading deeper into the swarm of people, my stomach growled at the enticing smells.

I didn’t spend much time here. The replicator on the capsule floor was programmed for basic dishes. They were cheaper, and nobody expected you to be social.

But they certainly weren’t good by any definition.

Suddenly a meaty hand grabbed my left upper arm. I spun, pulling away from the balding, beady-eyed man blocking my way.

“Hey pretty lady, haven’t seen you here before,” he said, leering at my cleavage. “New to the station? I’d be happy to give you a personal tour.”

The gods of irony were apparently making an appearance tonight.

“She’s not new, Urtu,” a woman’s nasal laugh cut through the air.

Maybe irony wasn’t the right word. Petty annoyance?

Irritation?

Could I make a sacrifice of someone to them?

“Hello, Grilla,” I smiled, making an effort for it not to be a mere bearing of the teeth. “How are you doing tonight?”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “You’d know if you ever hung out with anyone. But not, you’re too good for the rest of us drones.” She leaned back against the chest of the man she was obviously with. He didn’t seem to be following the conversation, too focused on what her hands were doing in his lap.

“I have never said that,” I countered.

Sure, thought it plenty of times. But never said it.

At least, I didn’t think so.

“I’m just trying to get my hours in, same as everyone else. Hours in, contract worked off, back home. That’s the deal, right?”

Urtu’s hand tightened on my arm, tugging me towards the table. “Looks like you’re taking the night off. Why don’t you spend some time with us?”

Right hand fisted in the folds of my pants, I braced, ready to strike.

Then a shadow loomed over the table.

“I don’t think she wants to join you,” my missing giant said mildly. “And I really think you should let go of her arm.”

He paused, and even Grilla’s hands stopped moving.

“Now.”

Chapter One: Hakon

“I cannot imagine what the Emperor was thinking, sending someone like you on such a delicate mission.”

Ambassador Thalcorr sniffed and took a small, disapproving sip of his tea.

Everything he did was disapproving so I didn’t take it personally.

“It may not be our place to understand,” I answered mildly. “All you have to know is that we’ve both been assigned to go to this Station 112 and make contact. You’ll talk to the corporate envoy, and I’ll follow-up on the manufacturing order.” I grinned, happy to know the sight of my teeth made him nervous. “Speculating on more than that doesn’t do either of us any good.”

Of course, I’d done plenty of speculating on my own.

Quinn and Torik’s foray into the Areitis Sector hadn’t gone unnoticed by Vandalar.

As Emperor, he had other Imperial fish to fry, but I was certain that as soon as he had the time, he’d be redirecting his attention, and troops, towards reestablishing control in the sector.

“Why do we even need to make an order from a second rate corporate manufacturing facility?” Thalcorr demanded.

Again.

I fought back a sigh, instead taking a sip of my own drink.

It definitely wasn’t tea.

“It’s not so much that we need it,” I explained. Again. “Any of the Imperial manufacturing facilities could provide the same part. Think of it is a good-faith order. A test.”

And it worried me more than a bit that the ambassador couldn’t understand such a basic opening gambit.

I’d asked Quinn to do a little poking around. It didn’t look like Thalcorr had done much more than attend parties for the last few decades.

Maybe Vandalar was trying to reward him with an actual assignment.

Or, more likely, punish him for some political infraction I didn’t want to know about.

“I’m not here to get in your way. I’m just along to make sure everything is built to spec.”

And to ensure that Desyk Consolidated Systems was at least slightly legitimate.

Lorcan and Cintha’s little adventure into the world of coerced and kidnapped workers had us all on alert.

So when our friends from Heladae had sent out a message on the dark boards of Areitis, just to see who might be willing to open talks with the Empire, it was just our luck that the one nibble we had so far was from a corp that didn’t have the cleanest reputation.

Vandalar had limits.

Nice change from the usual political nonsense.

“I have served the Empire for my entire career,” Thalcorr started up again.

I didn’t doubt it. Every inch of Ambassador Rix Thalcorr looked like a patrician, Hub-born fop.

Silvered hair carefully swept back at the temples, smooth, perfectly regular features, tall but not too tall. Thin but not scrawny.

I’d lay good credits the man had never missed a meal in his life, or used his muscles in anything other than a sculpting pod.

I pushed away from the table and got to my feet, anxious to interrupt him before the spiel picked up speed.

“Look, we don’t have to like each other. To be honest, I doubt if we ever will.” A raised eyebrow confirmed his agreement on that point at least. “But you need to trust that Van knew what he was doing when he sent me on this mission.”

“That’s a level of faith that I’m struggling with,” Thalcorr muttered under his breath.

“And, whether I like it or not, I have to trust that he has some belief that you’re minimally competent. At least, I’m crossing my fingers.”

And with that I took my beverage and headed back to my room.

It actually been a pleasant hour in the lounge before Ambassador stick-up-his-ass had found me, complaining, for the six time in six days about the mission.

I swiped my hand over the palm lock of the door and went into my cabin, twirled the chair around and plopped down, pulling up our progress on my own tablet.

Two hours left and then I could actually get out of the ship and do my job.

I made another tally mark in a private document.

One more time I’d managed not to throw the arrogant prick out an airlock.

It was the little victories that counted, right?

***

We are approaching Station 112. Please prepare for docking.

 Finally.  No one who’d ever traveled on the Queen could say the Imperial ship Denora was cramped. But any more time cooped up with Thalcorr, even on something the size of a dozen residential hives was going to end up with Vandalar short one ambassador.

I pulled up the exterior cameras on my tablet, threw the visuals to the wall screen, and winced.

Station 112 had seen better days.

A long, bulbous spindle held most of the vital machinery, and a habwheel extended from the most central bulge.

The ‘foot’ of the spindle flared into another disk, with radiating ports for docking. Below the docks the station continued for another several meters of deck which finally curved into a dome.

Zooming in, the metal looked scarred and pitted, and far too many lights blinked erratically.

“What the hell have you gotten us into, your Imperial highness?” I grumbled.

But I shouldn’t complain. I’d volunteered to head out on this sideways scouting mission.

Getting Orem Station back into shape after Granny Z had taken it back had been a long, slow job.

Sure, securing our home base was important, especially after what had happened to the Daedalus…but it’d been too long since I’d been in the field.

And it had to be said — the company might suck, but the food on an Imperial ship couldn’t be beat.

A gentle shudder through the hull told me we’d docked. Time to see if this little gamble was worth the roll.

At the airlock, Thalcorr preened, chin raised, foot tapping impatiently waiting for the atmosphere to cycle.

I stayed back, just in case any last minute urges came over me.

Finally the door unsealed and irised open, the short shielded walkway leading into the station before us.

“After you,” I waved. If there was paperwork, he was welcome to it.

And there was always paperwork.  At least, if you came in through the front door.

This time, Void help us, there was an actual welcoming committee.

“Ambassador Thalcorr!” The portly young man actually bowed, still bouncing on his toes in excitement. “I can’t tell you how much your visit means to me, and to Desyk Consolidated Systems!”

Thalcorr shot me a smug smile before returning his attention to the official. “On behalf of his Imperial Majesty, let me say how pleased I am to make your acquaintance. Mr…”

The official kept grinning, curly brown hair in disarray around his round face. The older man behind him rolled his eyes, but stayed quiet.

Thalcorr coughed gently. “My tablet must have had an error. I don’t have your name, Mr…”

“Oh!” the poor man flushed but recovered his balance quickly. “Commander Serrup, leader of Station 112, at your service.” He fumbled in his pockets, and then handed each of us a plastic card. “You’ll need these.”

“How very nice, Commander Serrup,” Thalcorr oozed without bothering to ask what he’d just taken. “I’m so anxious to see your facility. Perhaps you could take me on a tour?”

“Of course, of course!” Serrup burbled. He glanced at me. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Actually, I’d like to see where our parts are being manufactured.”

His eyes widened. “But the order is almost completed.” He looked at the man behind him, and got a quick nod of confirmation. “There’s not much to see.”

“Still. That’s where I’ll start. I can find my own way.

“I suppose,” he said doubtfully, but before long he and Thalcorr headed towards the main axis of the station, ready to see whatever sights there were.

The second man stayed behind, watching me with cautious eyes, expression carefully blank.

“Please tell me you’re actually in charge here, and not that idiot,” I said.

Chapter Fifteen: Aedan

 “Aedan!”

At Myria’s shout, ice-cold panic ran through me.

Battling through the crowd of little pink monsters, I’d found myself with one of the shattered stone blocks between us.

I raced towards her, kicking the biting, clawing things out of the way.

But they were fine.

If I didn’t know better, I would say that Dayla was actually watching Myria’s back.

Maybe not doing the best job, but she swiped and snapped at anything within reach, keeping one beady black eye on the movement behind them, while Myria did her best to keep the ground clear in the front.

Her pants leg had been torn, an ugly gash bleeding freely. The brightly colored scarf around her neck only made her face look grayer.

She waved off my concern. “I have a plan, but I need to know what you can do.” She looked steadily at me. “What you can really do.”

“Well, um, you know, I’m a reasonably good fighter and… this wasn’t really the moment I’d expected to get into this.”

“No,” she argued. “I’m not stupid, and I’m not going to freak out, but I need the truth.”

Myria pointed to the gap in the broken arch above us. “Can you jump that length?”

“Yes,” I answered flatly.

And once I did, it would be over between us.

No fully human man could make that jump.

And Myria had made it clear how she felt about genetic modifications when we’d fought the creature in the river.

“Good.” She nodded. “Can you jump it while carrying me?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t go anywhere without you.” I smiled and tried to keep my voice light, but I knew that my answer meant it was over between us.

“Perfect.”

I thought for a moment, estimating tonnage. “I don’t think I could take Dayla, though, but I could try.”

Finally, Myria looked shocked. “I wasn’t going to ask you to. Dayla can take care of herself. I just need to get her pointed in the right direction.”

Myria took the makeshift reins from Sweetie’s hands and pulled them over the torwynn’s head. “Just hold tight right here,” she instructed as she wrapped the tiny fingers around one of the spines.

Sweetie had stopped calling the pink monsters pretty, but she didn’t seem to be overly worried about the entire situation. I didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing.

“Come on, Dayla, this way,” Myria said. “Aedan, can you do something about these?” she waved her free hand at the crowd of not-tessa between her and the base of the bridge.

Happily.

I might not understand exactly what the plan was, but I could keep those things away from Myria and Dayla as they picked their way across the cavern.

“Up you go, girl.” Myria walked backward onto the bridge, still leading Dayla, who seemed to look at the whole thing as an interesting trick she was being asked to perform.

A sudden thought struck me. “Are you sure the arch will bear her weight?”

Myria’s face paled. “I hadn’t thought of that. It’ll have to hold her. I don’t think there’s another way out of this.”

I hated to admit it, but I agreed with her.

Our options were limited, and dwindling.

Quickly, Myria took the remaining braided rope and fastened Sweetie as securely as possible to Dayla’s back.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Slowly, the four of us made our way up the bridge.

“We need to stop here,” I said as we approached the gap. “Even I need a little bit of a running start.”

Myria checked Sweetie’s harness. “You stay here with Dayla. In a minute, Aedan will be back to get you, alright?”

Myria turned back to me. “And once Sweetie is over, I can call for Dayla, and we’ll all be on the other side. Easy.”

But her eyes were wide, as if she was still convincing herself this was a good idea.

“Sure,” I said, “but what happens when we get there?”

“For a start, we won’t be swarmed by the not-tessas.”

“That’s a good point,” I conceded. “Fine, let’s go.”

She gave a little gasp as I lifted her into my arms.

The not-tessas swarmed at the base of the bridge as if not entirely sure how to start the ascent.

I took a moment to breathe deeply of her hair, taking in the scent of her.

If I was right, this would be the last time I would touch her like this, hold her in my arms.

“Hold tight,” I said.

And we were off.

My feet pounded on the stone surface, and suddenly, we were in midair.

Myria’s shriek barely had time to leave her lips before we were safely on the other side.

I set her down gently, then turned to make the return trip for Sweetie.

“No!” Myria screamed.

For Dayla, faithful torwynn that she was, had decided not to wait.

She charged up the arch of the bridge, aiming straight towards us, either undeterred or spurred on by Sweetie’s howls of delight.

And then she jumped.

“Oh no oh no oh no oh no,” Myria chanted.

“BACK UP!” I shouted, grabbing her, pulling her with me as we retreated deeper into the tunnel.

Because Myria had been right. There was no need to worry about Dayla’s jumping ability.

And given the delighted grin on Sweetie’s face, we’d have trouble convincing the two of them not to do it again.

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?”

Chapter Six: Myria

“You said merchants, farmers, and musicians,” the giant behind me growled.

With that voice, he’d make a fabulous singer.

Pity he didn’t seem to be much of a people person.

“I don’t see much up here in goods that you’re looking to trade,” he continued. “And you don’t look like a farmer.”

“Never can tell,” I interrupted him. “I was, once.”

“That means you’re not anymore.”

We moved through the scrubland as the suns rose higher. With luck, we’d be under the shade of the ferum trees soon and could take a break.

“Nope,” I sighed, and leaned back to think about the past.

Immediately, I shot forward again.

I’d forgotten he was quite so close behind me.

His broad chest was a comfortable, but somehow unsettling, backrest.

I chattered for a moment to get over the embarrassment. “When an older bard passed through our hamlet ten years ago, I took a chance and apprenticed to him.”

For a moment the landscape changed, became the deep greens of my childhood.

“Seems a chancy way out,” the stranger commented. “Did you even know the guy?”

“About as well as I know you,” I shot back.

And it hadn’t mattered. Not really.

Because other than signing up as a foot soldier in one of the warlords’ armies, there was no other way off the farm.

And I had to go.

But while I’d always been open, talking to crowds about anything and everything, apparently I felt a little differently talking about my own past.

“Might’ve been safer to stay home,” he muttered, and I could feel him pivot slightly as he scanned the landscape for enemies.

“You might think so, but you’d be wrong.”

I thought of my sister, the beauty of the family.

She hadn’t been safe at all.

“Tell me about this place we’re heading to,” he ordered.

“Are you sure? I thought you didn’t really need a guide,” I couldn’t help teasing.

He was just so stuffy.

“Yes, I’m sure. I’m taking your advice to not be stupid.”

“Bitters has a proper wall,” I started, wondering how much information he really needed. “Tewke does a good job of maintaining it, keeping the infrastructure functioning.”

“Another one of your warlords?”

I absently clucked to Dayla. We were getting into enough foliage that she was sure something here must be tasty.

Soon we’d need to stop and get out of the heat.

“Not exactly. He took the city from the previous holder about, oh, five years ago, maybe six. He’s held it pretty well ever since.”

“Sounds to me like what a warlord would do.”

“Trust me on this, he’s nothing like the old warlords.” I shuddered, remembering my grandmother’s stories about the war. “They weren’t exactly known for trying to build things up.”

I felt him shrug behind me and twisted to turn back towards him. “And while we’re on the matter of trust, I really do think you should do something about your clothing as quickly as possible.”

He glanced down, obviously reluctant. “I’m not sure what you think is going to make things less ‘off-worlder’ but still fit me.”

I snorted, turned away. “I’m not the only person who’s heard of a ship landing in Lukin, you know.”

He sat still as stone.

“Look,” I sighed. “Wouldn’t it be helpful if you told me what you were actually here for?”

He was rigid and silent.

Finally a murmur, almost a growl.

“Should’ve sent Geir or Lorcan, dammit. This is their sort of thing. But no, they had to spend time with their mates,” he muttered under his breath.

“Look, I’ll help you out with the trust thing,” I said. “I saw what you did back there, right?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

I snorted. “I don’t know your name, where you’re from, or what you’re doing here. I do know you could kill me, but still, you’re sitting behind me.”

I’d been aware of him the entire day, the massiveness of his body. Suddenly, every strong muscle that brushed against me seemed to stand in sharp relief.

“Why did you trust me, then?” he asked, and for the first time, his voice didn’t sound abrupt, but actually curious.

I leaned forward to stroke Dayla’s neck.

“Dayla seems to like you. And since I’ve gotten pretty far on her trusting me, I figured I would trust you, as well.”

“Aedan,” he grunted after a long moment of silence.

“What?”

“It’s my name.”

Well, that was a start.

“Alright, Aedan. As soon as we get to that stand of trees, we’re going to have to stop for a bit to let Dayla rest and get a snack.”

I pushed back the hair that had fallen out of my braid. “And I wouldn’t mind getting out of the sun for a while.”

I looked longingly at the shade in the distance. I could almost imagine the cool brook that ran through it.

We’d be there soon enough, but I wished I’d stayed in Trandor long enough to earn a few more coins, maybe replaced my old, battered scarves.

Aedan drummed his fingers on his thigh.

But “How long will she need to rest?” was all he asked.

“Not long, and we could use the break, too.” I glanced over my shoulder at him. The suns’ heat didn’t seem to be bothering him in the slightest.

“At least, I do. We’ll be in Bitters long before nightfall.”

“Once we’re there, I’ll look for a caravan, something that’s traveling to Lukin. There’s no need for you to be involved anymore.”

Oh.

“Glad I could get you out of the desert and on your way,” I said.

Not really in the mood to talk anymore, I reached for the bag at my side, carefully sliding the retrew out of its carrying case.

“What’s that?

I ran my hand down the long neck, checking the strings.

“It’s a retrew. It’s how I make my living.”

I didn’t feel like offering up any more information, not if he was being a jerk about things.

I strummed a few chords and adjusted the strings again.

The wild swings of temperature in the desert always wreaked havoc on my tunings.

“What are you doing?”

“Practicing,” I answered shortly and started softly singing.

At least he didn’t interrupt.

Maybe he was working on that ‘don’t be an idiot’ thing.

By the time we reached the shade, my fingers were limbered up, but I was ready to stop.

We moved into the treeline until Dayla stopped in a cool glade, surrounded by dark purple shrubs and shaded by the spreading branches far above. Somewhere close I could hear a small stream splashing over rocks.

Perfect.

“You’ll have to climb down first,” but before the words were fully out of my mouth, he sprung down, not even waiting for the ladder to unroll.

“Well then, that must be handy.”

After I climbed down, I unhooked my bow, set it and the retrew carefully to the side, and opened one of the saddlebags.

It was thinner than I would’ve liked, but I pulled out a loaf of bread. It wasn’t nearly as good as it had been fresh.

Hours of traveling under a hot sun had probably served as a second round of baking.

I ripped it in two and handed half to Aedan.

“Sorry, I didn’t really have much of a chance to stock up before I left. We can get more food in Bitters.”

I checked myself. Well, I would.

He could do whatever the hell he wanted.

He took the bread, tore off a piece, and handed the rest back to me. “I’ll be fine until we get to town.”

I shrugged, then took a bite of bread and focused on getting Dayla’s saddle off.

Every time she was free of the harness, she gave a little shimmy, as if happy to be out of its confines.

I tried to think.

Had she been doing that more often?

“Why did you leave without proper supplies? That doesn’t seem to fit in with your whole don’t-be-an-idiot plan.”

“There was a guy.”

I patted Dayla’s flank and she headed off deeper into the trees in search of her own meal.

I watched her, hoping she’d come back.

Wouldn’t be much to do about it if she didn’t.

“What guy?” Aedan persisted.

I took another bite of bread and studied him.

He really always did look angry, didn’t he?

“A guy in a tavern. Don’t worry about it, I handled things.” I stretched out under a tree, glad for its shade. “You’re not the only jerk out here, you know?”

Aedan glared, a muscle in his jaw jumping.

“I’m going to check the perimeter. You’re far too casual about security.”

I listened to the splash of the stream next to us and slipped into a light doze, more than eager to make up for the short night.

Suddenly, a terrified shriek ripped through the quiet glade.

I sprang to my feet, running towards the sound.

Aedan was at my side immediately. “What was that?” he snapped.

“Dayla!” I answered.

We burst from the trees, tearing up the bank of the creek to where Dayla had been grazing.

And a thing from nightmares had caught her.

Sickly gray tendrils flailed, rising from the water, pulling her from the bank into the fast current.

“What the hell is that?” Aedan barked.

“Mardor,” I gasped. “But I’ve never seen one this far south.”

“Well, it’s here now.”

Springing forward, he unsheathed the knife at his side while I raced to Dayla’s head.

The razor-sharp claws on her short forearms did her no good as she swiped and thrashed at the mass of tentacles.

“Easy, girl,” I crooned. “Steady.”

Aedan charged into the water, knife slashing at anything that got in his way.

“Hold her still!” he shouted.

“I’m trying,” I snapped, terror making my words harsh.

Dayla was a vegetarian, sure, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t bite my arm off in her panic.

“It’s going to be okay,” I promised her, hoping I wasn’t lying. “We’re working to get you out.”

Slowly, her thrashing stopped and she fixed me with a blank gaze.

“That’s my girl.” I couldn’t look away from her, afraid to break whatever daze she was in.

But she was pulled further into the water with a jolt and she began to thrash once more.

“How’s it going back there?” I called, deciding that I could learn to play a retrew one-armed if necessary as I reached for her head.

Her talons raked my shoulder, not deep but enough to draw blood.

I gritted my teeth against the pain, and held onto her muzzle, keeping her focus on me.

“Almost,” Aedan called out, and with a final splash and squeal from Dayla, the tentacles shuddered and fell limply into the water.

Free, Dayla charged forward, knocking me to the side onto the muddy bank.

I raised myself on one elbow, blinking, then laughed at the sight before me.

“Well, we don’t have to worry about your clothes being too noticeable anymore.”

Aedan looked at himself and shrugged.

“Not the first time. Not even the first time today.”

The fit was still perfect, but you couldn’t really tell under the mud and the rips.

His gaze narrowed.

“What happened,” he demanded, and before I caught his movement, he was kneeling by my side.

“Dayla just scratched me a bit. She was scared.” I brushed away his hands. “It wasn’t her fault.”

He scowled. “I don’t suppose you’ve got medical supplies in that saddlebag.”

“Actually, that is part of my don’t-be-an-idiot plan.”

I stood up and winced.

The river was brown, muddy from the fight.

“Once the water clears, I wouldn’t mind a rinse, as long as that thing is dead.”

“I’m good at making things dead,” Aedan said. He didn’t look like he was joking.

That was…somewhere between comforting and disturbing.

I’d figure it out later.

Except there wasn’t going to be a later.

I looked away quickly. “This will stop bleeding soon enough. I’ll rinse it, then take care of it. No point in putting a clean bandage over mud.”

“You know,” Aedan started as we trudged back to where I had left the saddle, to find Dayla happily grazing as if none of the previous minutes of terror had ever happened, “telling me it was a Mardor doesn’t help much.”

“Yeah, but there wasn’t a lot of time for detailed explanations.”

I started checking over Dayla, but other than the mud around her haunches, she seemed unharmed.

“One of the reasons the pact outlawed anything hi-tech,” I finally continued. “The warlords were making things like that, weapons that couldn’t be controlled.”

Aedan froze. “That’s… a good reason.” I guessed wherever he was from didn’t have terrors like that.

“When we get to Bitters, I’ll have to let them know that one of those monstrosities is so close to town. They’ll send a contingent of guards to patrol the riverway, see if anything else is in the area.”

After I cleaned off, I gingerly bandaged the cut down my upper arm.

 “I can’t believe she panicked like that and hurt you. I thought she liked you,” Aedan said as I pulled the sleeve of my overshirt back down to cover the  bandage.

“And that’s the other reason I knew you weren’t from around here,” I said as I gathered our things together, patted Dayla’s side, and moved towards the saddle.

“I’ll get that,” Aedan interrupted.

I watched as he hefted it over her back as easily as I carried my retrew.

Apparently he had been paying attention, closely too.

As he finished tightening the straps, I continued. “Every kid dreams of finding their own torwynn, riding off, having adventures. It’s part of all the songs.”

I squeezed another stream of water out of my braid. “You just don’t get the chance very often. And not for long. Sure, Dayla likes me well enough,” I said, stroking her muzzle, “but she’s not really tamed. She’s on her own adventure and when she’s done, she’ll go back to her herd.”

He carefully helped me into the saddle, arranged my bags, then swung up behind me.

“Sounds like it’ll be lonely.”

I clicked, and Dayla headed back to the edge of the trees, striding away towards town.

“Might be. But it’s worth it.”

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.

Subscribe to my Update List!

Powered by EmailOctopus