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Staked: Chapter Four

Without warning, he grabbed me from behind, pulling me tightly to his front. The hand which had been stroking the bra now kneaded my breast through the lace, while his other hand reached between my legs, rubbing my mound through the silky covering.

“Getting wet, Ani?” He breathed in my ear.

His fingers slipped inside the fabric, brushed my opening, and I jerked back. His hips ground against my ass, trapping me between his hand and his hardened need.

His teeth grazed my neck, and I bucked against him. Teased by his fingers and seeking hands, I desperately needed to touch him. I struggled in his arms, trying to reach him.

Instantly, his arms clamped around me. “You have two options. Are you going to let me do as I wish, or do I need to restrain you?”

I fought for my voice. “I honor my bets.” My voice shook.

He turned me to face him, running his hands over my breasts. My nipples stood out clearly through the thin fabric. He reached around to unclasp the bra and my breasts fell free. He lifted one as if weighing it in the palm of his hand, considering, then released the breast, and took the thin cord at the side of the sodden panties in both hands.

“Oh, I know you do.”

With a quick motion he tore the cord, throwing the fabric to the side. “But I think I’ll hold you down anyway. Watching you struggle as I control your body, control your pleasure, has been on the list for a long time.”

He pushed me back onto the bed, then reached into a side table and brought out a dark brown blob of gel, and raised one of my wrists above my head. Stunned, I could only watch as his eyes grew darker. The substance oozed over my wrist, holding it firm. I gave an experimental tug. No movement. He brought the other wrist up, and it slid into the restraint. The device held at a constant ten centimeters above my head.

“Something else we can bring to the Star. But tonight, there’s only you and me.” He stretched out next to me and ran a line of kisses down the side of my neck, feather light.

“Roll over.”

I tensed.

He raised an eyebrow. “Roll over.” His voice brooked no argument.

The device allowed slight movement, but kept my hands fixed over my head as I rolled onto my belly, my nerves tight as a drum. I could hear movement behind me and glanced over my left arm to see him step away from the bed. He slowly removed his shirt, exposing his broad, tanned chest.

I whimpered, deep in my throat.

He frowned. “Ani, I’m not going to hurt you. You should know that.”

His gaze ran over me stretched out before him. “Only in good ways.” He tossed his shirt to the side, then climbed onto the bed, straddling my ass. “Just relax.”

His hands began to rub in circles across my shoulders, digging deeper. With each stroke, he moved lower on my back.

I moaned into the comforter, eased by the movements. “I don’t know where you’ve been, but you’ve picked up some good skills along the way.”

“I wish you weren’t always so tense.” I jumped as he reached down and slapped my bare ass. “Less talking now.”

He dug into a knot in my lower back, and I groaned. “That’s an acceptable sound.” As he worked his way back up from my lower back to shoulders, he stretched out over me.

A hard length rubbed between my ass cheeks through the fabric of his pants, and I bucked in realization.

“Kier—”

Two fingers thrust into my mouth silenced me. “Suck,” he whispered. He rocked back and forth against my ass. The sensation of the smooth fabric as it slid against me drove the pressure building between my legs.

I turned my attention to Kieran’s fingers, sucking them, swirling my tongue over his rough pads, easing him deeper into my throat.

He groaned and ground harder against me. His breathing roughened. “Kneel.” He pulled his fingers from my mouth so suddenly I blinked.

The growing need between my legs combined with his intensity blurred my thoughts.

He sat back, freeing my legs from between his and dragged my ass backwards and up into the air. “Spread further.” He didn’t wait, but moved my knees further apart with his own, as far as my hips would stretch while I supported my weight on my elbows.

“Oh, Ani.” The raw need in his voice dug into me. He traced a line up the inside of my thigh, almost brushing my slick folds, but stopping short of where I wanted, where I needed him to be.

I moaned in frustration.

“Not yet, honey. It’s a long list.” He positioned himself between my knees, stroking my thighs, my ass, my back. Overstimulated, every touch felt like he ran fire across my skin.

I jumped as he reached around me to grab one of my breasts, squeezing to the point of delicious agony. He pressed against my ass again as he reached to the other side, kneading both in his hands, rubbing against me.

I moaned and ground back into his hips. “Please, Kieran …” I whispered.

He leaned over to kiss the nape of my back and I spasmed under him at the brush of his lips.

He hummed in pleasure. “Well, that’s interesting. A little wound up?”

I could only shudder as he moved one hand back to run along my spine, following it with feather light kisses and tentative licks.

He sat up behind me and caressed the outside of my legs while my breathing evened. I’d never experienced anything like that before, as if the entirety of my back was another sexual organ for him to play.

As my breathing slowed, his caresses moved to the inside of my thighs, each stroke reaching higher. He traced a finger along my folds and I trembled, my own need taking over thought.

“Is that good, Ani?” he murmured.

I couldn’t get my tongue to work; I lay panting under his touch.

A sharp slap on my ass took my breath away. It somehow melded with the sensations of him playing with the edge of my pussy. “Answer me, honey.”

“Yes, Kieran,” I gasped.

He moved his attention to my mound, rubbing my clit in circles with his palm. “And this, is it good?”

“Kieran,” was all I could moan, my voice pleading for more. I wantonly tried to press against his hand, but he held me firm.

“Oh no, Ani. We’re going to go at my speed.”

I let out a sob of frustration.

“But don’t worry, there’s plenty of time.” He dipped a finger between my pussy lips and I cried out.

He slid it deeper inside me, working it back and forth. “I do believe you’re enjoying this, Ani.”

A second, then a third finger slipped inside me, and I shook as he began to rotate them with every thrust, brushing my throbbing clit. I squirmed against his hand, desire making me shameless.

The pressure built with each thrust, and I strained against the device, knowing it was useless, but needing release.

“There’s no place to go, Ani. Just you and me.” He switched his attention back to my clit, rubbing in tight circles, then rocked back to press again. It slid in, a tiny bit, and I squirmed, my nerves on fire.

The muscles in my legs shook, threatening to collapse under me.

He flicked his fingers over my clit, sending waves of sensation spiraling through me.

“Kieran,” I sobbed. “Please…” My back arched as he grabbed my hips with both hands, grinding me against him. Even through the fabric of his pants, I could feel him, hot and ready.

Suddenly, he pushed me to my side, the damn device still keeping my hands fixed above my head. I lay curled, a shuddering wreck, and stared at him.

He stood before me at the edge of the bed, his broad chest rising and falling with breaths as uneven as my own. He raked my flushed body with his eyes. “I’m going to watch your face as you come.”

He undid his pants and stepped out of them. My eyes widened as his cock sprung free, long, and thick. “I’m going to hold you so I feel every twitch, every shudder.”

He lay down on his side facing me and eased me onto my back. His hand kneaded my breasts, switching from one to the other, each grasp a bit harder, more demanding.

I arched my back, pressing myself into his hands. He rolled one swollen nub between his fingers and bent his head to suckle at the other, his hair falling to brush against my chest.

His sucking started gently, and I sighed as he became more insistent, light nibbles alternating with the barest touch of his lips.

At my groan, the kisses turned rough, all gentleness gone. One arm wrapped under my shoulders to keep me pressed against him, while his leg covered my knee, forcing me open and exposed.

His hand replaced where his mouth had been minutes before, stroking my thigh, teasing with the lightest of touches, circling nearer and nearer.

He broke away from my mouth to travel down my neck, licking and sucking, as his fingers rubbed across the top of my mound, grazing the hood of my clit. My eyes fell closed, lost in the sensations.

He paused, and I blinked my eyes open, my heated body hazing my brain. “Eyes open, Ani.” He brushed my lips with his, fixing me with his stare as his hand resumed.

I panted as his fingers circled my clit, getting closer and closer. His face was so close all I could see was his eyes. I was burning in the blue of his eyes, melted by his heat.

The palm of his hand pressed into my clit while his fingers danced over my opening, sending spasms through me.

He pulled me into his chest and groaned, his fingers never stopping. “I love how you feel. I love knowing I made you feel this way.”

His voice, his words pushed me closer to the edge, while his fingers impaled me. The sensations overwhelmed me, sucked me in, and I felt myself slipping. The arm around my shoulders squeezed tighter, and I shattered, twitching and jerking beyond my control, held tight in his arms.

My eyes fluttered open. I sat cradled in Kieran’s lap. He stroked my hair and looked a bit concerned. “Everything all right?”

I shrugged, then realized the device was missing from my wrists.

He must have seen the question in my eyes. “Break time.” He grinned roguishly. “And who knows what I’ll pull out of my bag of tricks for next round.”

My heart beat faster. My throat was dry, but I forced the words out. “Next round?”

“Oh, yes. A full rotation worth of rounds.”

He stroked my breast, then groaned as I squirmed in his lap. I felt his answering twitch, the hard length pressed against my back.

My own heat began to build anew, but first, I had to understand.

“Why are you doing this, Kieran?”

He didn’t answer, but I pushed away the inferno building inside me. I had to know. I cupped his face with my hand, waited for him to meet my eyes.

“You remember my dad, right, Ani?”

I nodded, fighting down my shudder. The man had been an animal. Drunk, abusive. My father had banned him from his place, as had most every other saloon owner, but it didn’t matter. The man lived to be high or wasted. And to hurt people.

Kieran’s arms tightened around me. For my protection, for his comfort, I couldn’t tell. “The day I left, he…” his voice tightened. I looked up to find his gaze locked onto a memory far away. I reached up to stroke the side of his face. He looked down, caught his breath. “He beat me pretty bad. I didn’t even want to go to your dad. I was fifteen. Shouldn’t I have been able to take care of myself?”

I started to speak, but he laid a finger over my mouth. “I know better now. But I didn’t then. I went to the dock to watch the ships.”

We’d done that often as kids, snuck down to the smaller ring mounted at the base of the spindle. They weren’t pretty, shiny space ships—pleasure boats and personal craft usually went to the upper dock. Battered old cargo ships, refugee transports were what landed. Still, it was magic to us.

“People got on and off, men and women with perfectly normal lives, able to do anything they wanted.” He shrugged. “At least I thought so. I guess my view of being an adult was over simplified.”

I snorted.

“And I realized that if I stayed here, stayed with my father, nothing would ever change. Except maybe, one day, he’d kill me. And I didn’t want to give the bastard that pleasure. I had found my way into a loading dock as the crates were being loaded up. I wasn’t going to stow away.” His grip around me tightened again. “I thought if I could hide long enough, I could float away with them when they departed. That it would be over.”

My stomach went cold. I’d been angry with him for a decade for leaving me, for disappearing. I’d worried that his father had actually killed him.

But I’d never realized how lost he had been. He idly stroked my arm, caught up in the telling.

“I ducked between two crates, pressed into a niche in the wall. No one would find me. They took the crates, everyone loaded the ship, then … nothing.”

“The sensors,” I guessed.

He nodded. “How stupid could I get? Of course the bay sensors registered a life form, and the airlock wouldn’t release. I didn’t know any of that. I just wished they’d hurry up and go before I changed my mind. I’d squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the vacuum to hit. Which is why I didn’t see him coming.”

He grinned, just a little. “I heard boots on the steel, heavy, heading right towards me. But there was nowhere to go. I just pressed back into my niche, hoping they wouldn’t find me. Hair cut short, older than your dad, but he had the same tough look to him. He told me I made a lousy stowaway, then lifted me up from the floor. I thought that was it; I’d be sent back, given to the guards.”

“But the light hit my face, and he saw the bruising. I’d been hiding for an hour or so, so they’d developed pretty well, I guess. He asked if I wanted to come along; could I obey orders. Did I want a life of hard work, possible death, but wonder and mystery? And away we went.”

Kieran stroked my hair. “There’s so much out there, Ani. So many worlds, colonies, each going their own way, making discoveries, learning. So many things to explore.” The roguish grin was back. “And trade for. With smart connections and planning, the Captain put a tidy sum aside. Three years into my time, he and most of the old crew retired. He said there gets to be a point when the risk to get more outweighs what you’ve already got. I bought the ship from him with my share, and have been working my way back up ever since.”

I looked around the opulent apartment. How far up had he gotten? And what, exactly, was he trading? Most captains I knew from the bar didn’t seem to have this sort of money.

Kieran kissed my forehead. “I always meant to contact you. But … at first I thought you’d be angry I’d left without telling you. Then, before I knew it, it had been so long I didn’t know what to say.” He pushed a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “But I always thought of you. What you’d think of a new flower, or food. How much you’d love the adventure. You were the only one who believed in me, you know.”

I shook my head. “My father believed in you too.”

He grinned wolfishly, and I shivered a little in his lap. “That’s true, but I never wanted to do this to your father.” He brushed his thumb over the top of my breast and I moaned.

His eyes gleamed with heat, and I could feel him hardening beneath me. He reached for the device, once again a glob of jelly.

I kissed his shoulder. “Are you sure you need that?”

He held my wrist. “Seeing you tied up, open to anything. Ani, you don’t know what that does to me.”

I reached between our tangled legs with my free hand and caressed the velvet skin of his hard length. “I think I can guess.”

He lost focus as I stroked him, from the thick base to the bulbous head. I could feel his pulse as he panted. Without losing my rhythm, I squirmed until I faced him on the bed, legs wrapped around his torso, enough room between us to maintain my attention to him.

My fingers wrapped around him, pumping faster.

He grunted, eyes beginning to roll up, his chest shuddering from shallow breaths. “Oh, no, honey.” He snapped back, snatching my hand from him.

He leaned forward, pushing my hands above my head, fingers laced around my wrists. He held both tight with one hand. With the other, he braced against the bed and forced us down, until he lay over me, breathing still ragged.

“Don’t move.” The warmth in his voice from our talk had burned away; nothing but lust remained.

He pressed his lips to mine. His tongue flicked over my lips and I opened for him, relishing the feel of his tongue. He sucked on my lower lip and I felt my body respond to his need; answer with heat of my own.

He lowered his torso to mine, his length hard and hot against me, timing his thrusts against my mound with the plundering of my mouth. He moved down my neck, alternating kisses with nibbles, his free hand kneading and squeezing my breast until I squirmed under him.

A pulsing noise rang in my head. I blinked, confused, unable to decipher it through the rising pressure through my body.

The volume of the noise increased until it broke through Kieran’s focus.

He looked around, face blank, while I panted under him. His eyes cleared—clearly the sound was an alarm of some sort. He trembled above me with the effort to remain still, and grunted, “There. Had. Better. Be. A. Fire.”

A long pause, then a voice from a speaker at the side of the room. “Mr. Matthias, there’s been a shatter bomb attack at the Sapphire Star.”

The words melted the fog of sensation from me, and I pushed Kieran away. “Is anyone hurt?” I called out to the unseen voice while searching for some remnant of clothing.

“No casualties reported at this time.”

I stared in dismay at the wisps of gauze on the floor.

“Find a set of women’s clothing. Prep the flitter. We’ll be leaving in five minutes,” Kieren ordered. He squeezed my hand. “He’ll have it here by then, and we’ll be in the air.”

But he couldn’t answer the question beating in my mind. What? Who would have done this?


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Staked: Chapter Three

Downstairs, a dark man waited by the door where Pietra had let him in.

Polished shoes, immaculate suit, he stood out in the Star like a denizen of the Uppers come slumming.

This was the driver?

“I’ve instructions to bring you to Mr. Matthias immediately. This way please.”

A crowd had already gathered around the sleek silver flitter hovering in the street outside. Curious eyes peered at me, and I was thankful for the concealing cloak as the driver helped me into the plush, padded interior.

“Have you worked for Kieran long?” I asked him as we began to move.

“For almost five years, Mistress.”

My eyebrows shot up. Mistress? “Just Anisha, thanks.”

He shook his head. Sitting behind him, I couldn’t see his face, but his voice sounded amused. “Mr. Matthias was very specific. You are to be treated with the utmost respect.”

I leaned back in the deep upholstered seat, careful not to undo all of Oleg’s work on my hair.

The flitter moved immediately into the high-priority traffic zone, then rose through openings in the decks of the spindle.

I expected us to slow, to move into a residential deck, maybe near the top of the Lowers. I gasped as we passed through the meridian, the thick deck at the vertical center of the spindle.

The boundary between Upper and Lower that in twenty-three years, I’d never crossed.

We hadn’t been stopped; no challenge came over the comms. Obviously Kieran’s flitter had been fitted with a high-priority beacon.

When had Kieran—my Kieran—become someone with that sort of credit?

Or a person who could command obedience from other people?

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t take advantage of my first chance to look around the Uppers, and all too soon the ship docked.

Another man, shorter, blond this time, stood by the door, hand outstretched.

“This way, Mistress.”

Bewildered, I followed him.

The small docking area led to a plush garden. Kieran stood in the middle.

Covered by the hood, I had to tilt my face up to see past my feet, but quickly lowered it.

His face was stony, jaw tight.

I couldn’t read any expression on him at all. My stomach clenched.

“Thank you, Hamilton. Please send the codes as arranged.”

The man nodded, then bowed to me and withdrew.

“Come here.” The tension in his voice pulled at me.

I stepped along the path, the thin soles of my slippers letting me feel every irregularity in the surface.

Oleg certainly hadn’t been expecting a garden when he picked them out of Dalla’s closet.

I stopped in front of Kieran, focusing on his feet.

Damn. Even his shoes looked expensive.

Dark grey fabric clung to every muscle in his legs. I let my eyes drift upwards, as far as I could without lifting my head.

He reached out and traced my lips with his fingers. “Take off the hood.” His voice was rough.

With quivering hands, I reached up and drew the hood back from my face, looking in his blue eyes.

He ran his hand down the side of my cheek and I shivered. Fear mixed with something else, something I couldn’t name coiled in my belly.

“Take off the cloak.”

My fingers fumbled at the clasp. Finally I freed it, and shrugged it off my shoulders, the fabric pooling at my feet.

He raised an eyebrow. “Well…” He walked around me, never touching, but I felt his eyes cover every inch of my body.

As he returned to face me, I crossed my arms in front of myself.

“Leave them at your sides.”

That was it. “Look, Kieran. I’m here. That’s what you wanted, right?”

In a flash he was on me, one arm pressing me to him in an unbreakable vice, the other wrapped in my hair, bending my neck to the side. He ran the side of his cheek against my neck, from collarbone to my ear.

“No,” he whispered. “The deal was that you were mine for one rotation.”

The whisper affected me more than if he’d been shouting.

“And mine means doing what I say. Is that clear?”

My knees threatened to go out from under me, and he held me closer to his body.

“Answer me,” he growled.

I nodded as far I could with his hand in my hair.

He turned my face towards him. “Answer me.”

Nerves dried my throat. I licked my lips before I could get the words out. “Yes, Kieran.”

Those two words plunged him over the edge. He covered my mouth with his, plundering my mouth with his tongue. His hand stroked my back, insistent, bringing me even closer to him. His raw hunger sparked something within me, and I responded, flicking his tongue with my own, tasting his want.

He pushed me away, and I gasped at the sudden loss of contact. He bent to grab the cloak from the ground, shook it out, folded it over his arm. “You won’t need this for a while.”

My head reeled, body still aching from the sudden need for him.

No.

I didn’t need him.

Didn’t want to be here. I took his offered arm, trying to ignore my hands which now shook, not from fear, but from want.

He led me through the path into a gently lit room. Windows stretched from floor to ceiling, overlooking wide streets. I wandered towards the windows while Kieran went to a small table at the side. Not far away from his building, a splash of green covered an entire block.

“What is that?” I asked, both fear and lust pushed aside by wonder.

Kieran appeared next to me, handing me a tall glass. He sipped from his, following my eyes with his own. “One of the city parks.”

I shook my head. Below, buildings crammed into whatever space they could manage. I knew there were gardens, but so much space for one? I thought of all that room, all that water. Simply to make a pretty place?

I took a sip from the glass. Slightly sweet and bubbly, it surprised me. I looked over at Kieran, and my question must have been clear on my face.

“A drink I discovered while trading with an isolated colony. A fruit juice mixed with sparkling wine.” He flashed a grin. “We’ll make a killing at the bar for offering drinks no one else does.”

I relaxed a bit.

Business I could talk about all day. Business was safe.

He guided me away from the window to a small table set for two. He pulled out my chair. When had Kieran become such a gentleman?

He laughed at my expression. “I’ve learned a lot in the time I’ve been gone. Including manners.” He reached for a covered tray from a side table and paused. “No new allergies?”

I shook my head and smiled. Kieran had been with me when we’d found the one thing I was allergic to—Parvian blowfish. There’d been so little food around, as kids it hadn’t seemed terrible to try to sneak a little something from the food carts down on the bazaar level.

We’d followed one as the vendor set up, waiting for a chance, then grabbed the first cellopak we could reach and ran like mad. Jerky wasn’t what we’d been after, but we weren’t picky. Back in the day, he was always hungry. Always. Looking at his broad frame now, I could see why. He had a lot of growing to do.

“Your dad had us doing chores for that vendor for a full month after that stunt.”               

I laughed. “He chewed me out thoroughly, even while I was so swollen that the medtek came and threw him out.”

Kieran looked like he was going to drop the tray. “Someone yelled at your dad? And he listened?”

I shrugged, relishing the memory. “Apparently, riled up medteks feel strongly about quiet.”

Kieran shook his head and uncovered the tray. He put a small portion of a blue jelly on the edge of my plate. “Give it a taste,” he answered my questioning look.

I gingerly dipped a finger into the jelly. Colder than expected, the texture was mostly smooth. I brought my finger to my lips and tasted. Not at all the fruit sour I was expecting, but savory and rich.

I sucked my finger clean and looked up. “What was that?”

His knuckles were white around the serving spoon, and his eyes were glazed. “Do that again.” His voice was flat, cold.

Gone was the old friend I’d glimpsed.

Apparently, I didn’t move fast enough.

He put down the tray on the table behind him and dragged my chair back from the table. With one hand, he gripped my chin and ran his index finger over my lips. He pushed one, a second finger into my mouth. “Suck.”

Eyes wide, I flicked my tongue around the intruding digits as he slid them back and forth. I stared at him as his heated gaze flickered between my mouth and my eyes.

His fingers went deeper, and I fought down the urge to gag, squirming under his hand. He pulled his fingers out and caressed the side of my face, running a damp trail down my throat to the neck of the caftan.

“Dinner will wait.” His voice was husky. He pulled me to my feet and before I could move, he caught me up in his arms and carried me around the corner.                     

The bed. Of course a bed. I struggled in his arms, but it was no use.

“One rotation, Ani. You knew exactly what I meant when you agreed.”

He placed me by the foot of the bed, carefully as you might a child. His gaze ran the length of my body, the thin gauze covering leaving nothing to the imagination.

He fell on me as if he’d devour my mouth instead of the meal now growing cold, his hands running up and down over my back. One hand stroked my hair while other snaked under the hem of the caftan, stroking the soft skin of my back.

He pulled me tighter into him, and all I could do was cling to him, holding on against the assault on my senses.

His attention shifted to the curve of my ear and I collapsed against him. “Ani, I’ve had ten years to think about all the things I want to do to you,” he whispered.

The hunger in his voice frightened me, but also sent a thrill through my spine. “And I’m going to do them all.”

In one move, he pulled the caftan off me, and I stood, blinking as the cool air hit my heated skin.

The pale lace of the bra against my skin caught his attention, and he stepped back to admire it. “I’m surprised.” He ran a finger over the edge of the cup barely containing my breast. “Doesn’t look like your usual style.”

I blushed. “One of the ladies went shopping for me.”

“Remind me to thank her.” He walked behind me, his finger tracing the edge of the fabric around my chest.


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Staked: Chapter Two

Pietra knew someone who knew someone, and in less time that I would have liked, a freelance clerk had transferred Kieran’s draft contract to his own tablet for review. “Ms. Cheng, the document seems in order. If anything, it may be slightly more favorable to yourself.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t going to give up any advantages, however small.

“We do have one addendum and would appreciate your assistance with the phrasing,” Kieran said.

The clerk’s eyebrows didn’t rise a millimeter when Kieran explained the stakes of the game. I couldn’t imagine what craziness he saw in his job.

“There. Ready for your thumbprints, then it’ll be filed and a matter of legal record.”

I gulped. “Wait. Is there a way to make the last… condition private?” The thought of curious legal students running across our little bar bet edged too close to exhibitionism for my taste.

The clerk pressed his lips together. “I can put a seal on that section, so it’s only revealed to a judicial level inquiry, but that’s about all. And it’ll cost extra.”

Kieran grinned and slipped the clerk a credit. “Do it.” He winked at me. “Your happiness is my only concern.”

The laughter in his eyes faded when I didn’t respond. “Do you have cards with you?”

He shook his head, looking a little sad. “Would you use them if I did?”

I felt my lips pull up into a twisted smile despite myself. “No, probably not.”

Oleg appeared with a sealed deck.

I passed it to Kieran for inspection.

He broke the seal, fanned them open. Nodded. “Looks fine to me.” He reached to hand the deck back. “Shuffle?”

“I called the game. Go ahead.”

One, two, three, four, five. Five slips on the table before both of us.

This was my big plan to save the bar and my pride?

I picked up my hand. Not great, but I could work with it.

Discarded one, drew another. And that made it totally workable.

I glanced up at him. Kieran frowned at his cards. Maybe he hadn’t played since he left. Maybe he had one of those crappy hands my father always called a foot.

Another draw, and the hand fell into place.

Once upon a time, I would have waited, dragged the game out a bit, seen how much I could make Kieran squirm, but in three rounds I laid my cards down.

A run of three, a pair and a discard. Nothing left in my hand, and Kieran still held all five of his cards.

The iron vice around my chest eased just a bit. “One point to me.”

He tossed his hand to the table and shrugged. “Not over yet.”

I shivered. His voice had a certainty to it, a confidence I didn’t expect.

I dealt the next one. Picking up my hand, I cringed. This was a foot.

Nothing connected my cards—not symbols, not colors.

All I could hope for was that his hand was as bad. Kieran pulled from the top of the pile, not a flicker of emotion on his face.

One round, the next. That vice around my chest was back. I hesitated at my next turn, gnawing my lip.

“A problem?”

Other than wanting to choke the slow drawl out of him, no. I smiled brightly. “Everything’s fine, thanks.”

“Good to know.” He slapped his cards on the table, a mirror of my earlier play. “And now a point to me.”

Hell. I should have gone for the single game.

Why didn’t I just pick one game?

My thoughts raced as he gathered the cards for my deal. I jumped as his hands brushed mine.

“Sure everything’s okay?”

He was mocking me. “Fine,” I growled through gritted teeth.

One deep breath, then another. I looked at my cards. All right, I might be able to do something with this. If the Domina moved here…

“Tunk.”

My head snapped up. “What?”

“You heard me. Check them out,” he crowed.

I placed my cards down carefully on the table, trying to control the sudden shaking of my body. His hand was face up on the table.

Tunk damn near never happened, but here it was. All low point cards, equaling less than fourteen.

An automatic game winner.

I rocked back in my chair.

He’d won.

He’d won me.

I stiffened as he came around the table towards me, then bit my lip at the intensity of his gaze. Kieran bent over, whispering in my ear, “I’ll send a car at 1800. Keep the spike, I’ll send the transfer codes when you arrive.”

His scent surprised me.

Warm, heady, almost spicy. His lips brushed the rim of my ear, and despite myself, I quivered.

He walked out of the bar, calling over his shoulder. “Don’t be late, Ani.”

***

The next two hours passed in a blur. Pietra argued none of us would be focusing on business as usual and against my protests, closed the Star for a rotation.

One by one customers drifted out, and finally the bar was empty of all but residents.

Dalla and Shaymarie coaxed me upstairs to one of the bedrooms where Oleg had already been making plans.

“Let’s find something nice to wear, all right?”

My voice sounded far away. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Dalla spun and glared at me.

“Of course it matters! Look.” She plopped down on the edge of the bed where I sat. “Here’s the thing. You’ve never quite had to learn this, and that’s all right. But you need to know this now. Your clothing, your makeup, your hair. That’s your armor and weapons. You can do anything you need with a client, but put a little effort into it, and you’ll own him as much as he owns you.”

She stared into my eyes, waiting for some sign of understanding, an acknowledgement I couldn’t give, not while my mind still reeled.

I’d lost to Kieran, again.

She sighed. “Never mind. Will you trust us?”

I nodded.

That I could do. “I trust you,” I croaked. “But… Kieran…”

Oleg rubbed my shoulders. “He doesn’t look like a bad guy. I’m not getting a dangerous vibe from him.” He stopped. “Actually, I am. But not that he’d be dangerous to you.”

I swallowed.

Somehow that wasn’t very reassuring.

Dalla wasn’t done. She brushed the small, pale scar on my upper arm and raised her eyebrows. “Is your implant current, and your shots up-to-date?”

I nodded. I might not go out much, but growing up in the Star had reinforced the necessity of protection from all sorts of surprises.

Oleg led me to a chair in front of a dresser and brushed my hair as Shaymarie arranged pots of color and brushes.

The strokes through my curls, accompanied by the feathered touches of the brushes across my face relaxed me.

Maybe this would work out after all.

I watched in fascination as Oleg pinned my hair into an elaborate pile at the top of my head, then pulled out locks according to some unknown plan.

“What? After all that effort, why?”

Oleg’s eyes twinkled. “The instant he sees you, I want him to think of how you’ll look on his pillows.”

I shivered.

I’d love to say it was from fear, but the thought of laying, spread before Kieran, letting him do anything he wanted to me….

I sighed. Once, I would have given anything to be his.

Later, he was the first man I learned to hate.

Now, I didn’t know.

“Sweetie, tilt your head up.” I did as she said, and Shaymarie applied deep ruby tint to my lips.

Dalla came back into the room, arms piled high with clothing.

“There wasn’t a thing in your closet suitable for a date,” she griped. “When this is over, we’re going to talk. You’ve got to get out more.”

Pietra grinned. “I’ve been telling her that for years. Wouldn’t have thought it would take something like this for it to sink in.”

I stared at her.

Of all people to be joking about this. “Pietra, you don’t go out either.”

She quirked her lips up at the corner. “Shows what you know. Why do you think I don’t live here? Easier to keep my personal life just that, personal.”

I stared in disbelief into the mirror as they sorted through clothing, not bothering to consult me. Finally, they settled on a gauzy syntra caftan of the deepest blue, covered with tiny purple jewels.

Cambrie ran into the room right before they dressed me. “First things first!”

She held up a tiny bag with a logo I didn’t recognize, but everyone else in the room did.

When I didn’t react, she pulled out two ivory tinted scraps of lace. I blushed.

She laughed. “I didn’t even look in your drawers. I know you don’t have anything… appropriate.”

Dalla giggled. “Did you get a good deal?”

They whispered behind me as I stepped into the sheer panties and slipped on the lace bra that was nothing like my usual support.

There must have been strands of tech in the weave, because there was no way that thin fabric should have lifted my breasts as well as it did.

They arranged the midnight syntra over the lingerie, the amethyst flecks sparkling.

A chime rang from the front of the house.

“It’s time!”

I’d thought there’d been a scurry of activity before, but the frenzy only heightened as the last bits and pieces of my costume—my armor, as Dalla had called it—were arranged.

“And now,” Oleg stepped in, his arms covered in fabric. “The gift is ready to be wrapped.”

He gently settled a deep burgundy colored cloak over my shoulders, fastened it down the front, and drew the hood up. I peeked under the hood to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The only thing visible was the lower third of my face.

The lip stain matched the fabric, catching the eye immediately.

Damn.

They really, really were good at their jobs.

Steel straightened my spine. And that’s why I was doing this. To keep everyone’s jobs. To keep this, my little family, safe.

They were right. Kieran wouldn’t hurt me.

At least, not my body, a tiny voice in the back of my head whispered.

And the steel weakened, just a bit.


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Staked: Chapter One

I flicked through the bills in my tablet’s incoming folder. At least the ones I’d bothered to organize. At some point in the last few months, something in the back of my brain decided to ignore them.

Since I wasn’t able to keep up with things anyway, why file them?

“Because now it’s twice as hard to find things, Anisha,” I muttered.

On a separate screen, I started a running total of how much I’d need to get out from under this debt. The amount so far made me gulp.

It was possible, just possible, I could get another loan. I’d have to mortgage the Star, and the interest would be exorbitant.

I looked around my cramped office.

Any sane person would walk away from the Sapphire Star. Cracked ceilings and sputtering lights were the norm in the rooms we didn’t let guests into.

A hydro-gen needed percussive maintenance way too often.

Apparently, I wasn’t sane.

I leaned my head against the back wall, letting the reassuring hum of the spindle run through my body.

I’d grown up here, watched my father run the bar, gather in hosts who became more than staff.

And I’d be damned if I’d leave without a fight.

I snapped the bills folder closed and pulled up the camera feeds from the floor downstairs.

Pietra was on bar, scanning the room as usual, but her shoulders were down. Her face, well, not exactly relaxed, but not ready for a fight either.

On the next screen, Dalla smiled up at a potential client. The room may not have been as full as we’d have liked—as we needed—but Dalla could still find a client.

Hell, with her open smile and tumble of curls, she could probably find an interested customer outside the station hull in the inky black.

She might not be a bred and groomed looker like the up-tower hospitality houses featured, but she was pretty and fresh, and honestly enjoyed the work.

Oleg worked the table next to her, the barest excuse for a vest covering his chest. His long legs were poured into synth pants that showed off every inch of his ass as he leaned over a little farther than necessary to pick up his customer’s drink.

Flirt.

It was the same small crowd more or less every night, mostly crews of ships docked here at Cilurnum 8 to switch cargo to move between other platforms.

Maybe even on their way to planetfall.

Captains and pilots would stay in the gardens of the Uppers, but crews didn’t get paid that much. They’d spend their money in the dark streets on the bottom side of the spindle.

And tonight, I hoped they’d spend extra.

We could use it.

I kept scanning the room. Sometimes residents of the Uppers would come down, slumming, bringing a nice bonus credit flow with them. I didn’t pick any out tonight.

My eye paused at one man sitting at a corner table. I couldn’t get a good look—the camera facing him had been on the blink for the last cycle—but something about the line of his jaw caught my attention.

The hands cupping his drink were tanned and broad. Sandy, shaggy hair obscured the side of his face turned towards the working camera.

Not a denizen of the Uppers, certainly.

I shook my head. Probably just a crew member who’d been in often enough to look vaguely familiar.

I flicked the camera back to Pietra in time to see her look directly at the camera.

Well, then. Time to check on things in person.

With relief I closed the tablet. Bills and problems I had no answers for would have to wait.

I paused to check myself before going downstairs. As the owner of the Sapphire Star, no one expected me to look as good as the ladies and gentlemen on the floor, but I still had to be somewhat presentable.

While fighting paperwork, I’d managed to pull my hair out of the braid. I looked for a brush, gave up and ran my fingers through the strands. Better.

My dark grey slacks were wrinkled, but not much I could do about that. I frowned at the small spot of lunch at the wrist of my white shirt. Maybe the jacket would cover it? I shrugged.

My bar.

Not like anyone was going to mistake me for a fashion plate. A jacket would cover too much of the crazy purple paisley design of my favorite vest, anyway.

Dalla passed me on the stairs, pressing into her client a little more than necessary to make room. She gave a little extra wiggle and winked at me. At least one person in this place would be making rent.

And… that wasn’t fair of me.

Everyone did their part, hustled the best they could.

If there was a problem with the finances, that was my fault.

I’d set up the contracts so that the hosts kept all of their fees and paid the house rent.

It seemed fairer than the usual arrangement, where the entire fees went to the house and hosts got a tiny percentage out of any profits.

More fair, but to be honest, my idealism might put us all on the street.

At the landing, I paused to survey the room and see what had disturbed Pietra.

There—at a small table on the far side of the U-shaped bar.

Shoulders hunched, eyes flicking through the room, the girl couldn’t have been old enough to get past the automated bouncer.

My mouth tightened. A forged ident card, no doubt.

There had to be a way to program the ‘bot to do a better job picking those up. I added it to my mental list for later.

If there was a later.

I headed over to the girl, picking up the glass Pietra handed me on the way over.

Nice to have someone know what I want before I asked.

I sat down across from the girl; the sudden movement made her jerk back.

“Hey,” I said softly. “Want to tell me what you’re doing here?”

She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin, defiant. Her hair fell back to show the growing bruise across her cheek. “I’m looking for a job.”

“Not a chance, kiddo.”

Her lips tightened. “I can lie on my back as well as anyone else.”

Even if she didn’t mean it, the insult rankled.

“You think that’s what my people do? They like people; they enjoy spending time with them. And yes, they go upstairs, but that’s not all they’re getting paid for.”

She rocked back in her chair. “I can be good with people.”

From her tone of voice, I’d lay money she was still in the surly stage, but bringing that up never helped.

“Also, I don’t take on kids.”

Pink rose through her cheeks. “I’m old enough. It’s not like I’m a virgin.”

“I’m sure you’re old enough to do whatever you want to do, but not here. Look, it’s clear you haven’t thought this through. Why are you really here?”

The girl looked down. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. Word ‘round the spindle is that you keep a clean house, nobody gets beat up.”

I chewed my lip.

There was no way I’d let the girl work here, even if I kept her downstairs on the floor serving drinks. Someone was bound to get the wrong idea, she’d get scared, Pietra would get protective, and I’d have another bill for repairs on my hands.

But that didn’t mean she was out of options.

We’d gotten the updated directions through the whispers just the other day, they should still be good.

“How good are you at remembering directions?”

The girl’s brow wrinkled.

“I won’t write this down, so you’ll need to remember it.”

The girl was a quick learner, and it only took a couple of rounds for her to memorize each of the steps.

“And at the end I ask for a lady with a sword?”

“No. The Lady of Swords.” I rubbed my eyes.

How it could be the 156th year of the empire, and there still be a need for shelters, I’d never understand.

Tech might change, maybe people never did.

The girl gave me a shy smile as she headed back out through the floor. Maybe she’d be all right.

Maybe not, but I’d done everything I could.

I went to the bar to check with Pietra. “Everything smooth?”

She kept polishing glasses. “Like landing on silk.”

“You’d know better than me.”

Behind the bar, no one could see the artificial legs supporting Pietra. Years ago, I’d given up the argument that no one cared about her augmented legs, but although Pietra was reluctant to leave her fortifications, the former pilot kept a keen watch on her domain.

Over the years, a few rambunctious patrons had been surprised at how fast she could appear, weapon drawn.

When Pietra stiffened, looking at the front door behind my back, I knew there was trouble. “You’re not going to like this, boss.”

I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t turn.

“Jahal just walked in with two of her muscle boys.”

The knot in my gut that had festered all night turned as heavy as a collapsed neutron.

Jahal might be the last person I wanted to see right now, but I forced myself to turn around and paint a bright smile on my face.

Station rumor said Jahal worked her way out of the worst of the Lowers, and though she might not have broken through to the Uppers, you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

I would have appreciated that sort of initiative if she didn’t have her eye on taking over my place.

Almost as tall as Oleg, her cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut ice. She’d had the latest enhancements, deeply toned skin with a dusting of metallics over the planes of her face, her collarbone, and her hip bones.

The sheer panels of her dress gave me a far too clear view of the decorations. On either side lounged a pair of young men. Their matching faces would make anyone suspect Jahal of recruiting twins, but I’d bet it was easier to pay for facial sculpting.

They didn’t look particularly dangerous, but it was safe to assume they’d been enhanced for strength and speed while they were on the operating table.

“Jahal, I’m surprised to see you here.” My voice sounded strained, even to my own ears. “I thought we had a meeting in three days up at your place?”

Her light tone set my teeth further on edge. “Oh, I just wanted to check out my investment, get to know the building and the staff a little better.”

“Not yours, yet,” I forced the words out from a locked jaw.

Oleg brought me a fresh drink. He didn’t offer Jahal one.

To hell with politeness.

Jahal ran her eyes over Oleg’s form, then turned to spot the rest of the staff working the room. “Yet. It’ll be mine soon enough. My sources are confident you won’t be able to repay that note. And then… what a lovely little place you’ve built up for me. And such very fresh looking… hosts for the clients.”

I felt Pietra stiffen behind her and shook my head slightly. This wasn’t the time to get into it. “Like I said, it’s not yours. I still have three days to make sure it never will be.”

Jahal’s face hardened and the pretty boys with her tensed. “Not only will it be, I’m looking forward to revising the contracts around here.” She smirked, her thin lips curving up at the corners.

I stepped forward. “But since you’re not the owner now, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

She sniffed. “I’ve certainly spent enough time here.” She sauntered off, leaving my emotions raging behind her.

And the worst thing was the bitch was right.

There was no way I could think of to get the money in time.

I turned back to meet Pietra’s worried face.

“Did you really take out that large of a loan from her?”

I rubbed my eyes and took a drink. “Remember a few months ago when Monty was sick and couldn’t work? And Siovan left with her captain? And then the hydro-gen needed all that maintenance?”

She nodded, eyes wary.

“There wasn’t enough coming in to cover the bills. I thought I could get a little loan, something to tide us over until business picked back up, until we were fully staffed again.”

Pietra put down the glass she’d been holding. “You should have told us sooner. We could have helped.”

“I know. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t want anyone else to worry.”

“And of all people, Jahal?”

I sighed, looking away from the disappointment in her eyes.

“I tried my dad’s contacts first. Black Company was away on a job and I couldn’t get through. Hit up the Skulls and the Outlanders, but they wanted partial ownership.”

I looked back at her, hoping she’d understand. “I couldn’t do it. Finally went to Jahal. I guess I thought from one business woman to another, there might be a little flex.”

“You know better than that. No one gives anyone flex around here.”

“I know. I got desperate. The terms seemed fair enough. I was sure I’d be able to pay it off before the interest really ramped. Once it started to kick in, there was no way I could keep up.”

“How much is it up to?”

I took another sip, delaying the confession. “Thirty thousand.” I shrunk in my seat, ashamed of letting everyone down. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t know that you’re not contracted employees.”

Pietra scowled at me. “We don’t have to work for her, sure, but we all like it here. Where else is Dalla going to work where she gets to choose her clients? Or any of us?” She took my glass away. “Kicking her out may make you feel better, except it doesn’t do anything in the long run. How are we going to get the money in three days?”

I ran my hand through my hair. “I’m sorry. I’ve failed everyone.”

Pietra snorted. “You should have told us what was going on earlier. Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help. We need a plan.”

A chair scraped against the floor as the man in the corner, the blond who’d caught my attention earlier, stood up and headed over to us.

“Maybe I can help.”

My eyes widened at an all too familiar voice. “Kieran Matthias. What the hell are you doing here?”

Kieran raised his hands shoulder high in mock surrender. “Not quite the welcome I’d hoped for, Ani.”

“That’s because you’re not welcome,” I snapped.

Pietra moved from behind the bar. “We’ve had enough nonsense for the night. Get a move on, sailor.”

Kieran didn’t move his eyes from mine. “Even if I know a way to get out of debt with Jahal?”

I laughed. “You’ve never seen that kind of money.”

“Here.” He moved his hand towards a hip pocket.

“Slowly,” growled Pietra.

He froze. “Ani, you’ve got to know, I’m not going to come in here and blast you.”

I thought a minute.

Con me.

Sweet talk me.

Bring up all sorts of old memories.

Distract me when I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Sure. Any of those.

But shoot me? No, I couldn’t imagine. I nodded. “Pietra, he’s all right.” He grinned roguishly, and I immediately regretted my words. “Well, mostly.”

Kieran brought out a credit spike and slid it down the bar. “Check that.”

I handed it to Pietra to run. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I’ve been off the platform for a while.” Kieran reached towards a chair. “Mind if we sit? This is feeling a bit formal.”

I nodded and dropped into the chair facing him. “Yes, you left. I remember that.”

And I did. My father had sworn like the ex-marine he’d been, about the no-good son of a trader, probably signing up with some syndicate, disappearing, turning out to be a rat like the rest of his family.

I’d agreed with my father, but kept my own hurt well-hidden.

“Ani, I couldn’t stay here. There was no way out, and nothing for me.”

I felt my face harden.

“Dammit, that’s not what I meant.”

“You said what you meant pretty clearly.”

Pietra slid to the side of the table. “The spike has thirty-six thousand credits on it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “How the hell did you end up with that sort of credit?”

Kieran shrugged. “No matter what I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Would you?”

I shook my head. “Probably not.”

“You’ll trust me as far as a few things I wouldn’t do, right?”

“Maybe.”

“It’s pretty clean,” he promised. “Clean enough.”

“Why should I care? And why are you here?”

“I’ve been back for a little while, long enough to ask around. It didn’t take much time to hear about your issue with Jahal.”

I stood. “That’s my problem. Not yours.”

Kieran shrugged. “I think this place could be a money maker, but it needs a little work.” He nodded at the spike Pietra still held. “That would be my investment.”

“Oh no.” I stepped away from the table. “I’ve already heard from all sorts of people on ways to make the place more profitable. My people aren’t meat.”

Kieran held his hands out. “I’m not going to tell you how to run anything. I have some suggestions, but that investment would include me as a silent partner.”

“Silent?” I scoffed, but felt a trickle of hope. “As in you’re going to give me the money and walk away?”

“Nope. An investment, as in we’d work out a percentage that would come back to me, but yes, silent as in I’d make suggestions and you’d have the power of veto.”

I slid back down in the chair, legs weak.

It could be an answer to the problem. But what if I only made things worse? “Who draws the contract?”

“Clerk of your choosing.” Kieran shrugged. “I have a draft pulled together, but you should go through it.”

I tilted my head, trying to think of his angle. “What’s in this for you?”

Kieran leaned back in the chair. “This place, your dad’s place… this was the one safe spot for me, you know that?”

I looked away, nodding.

Everyone had it rough down here, but Kieran’s family was on the streets more often than not. His mom disappeared when he was little, leaving Kieran to the mercy of an abusive bastard.

My dad always found small jobs around the bar for Kieran, and usually a bit of extra food.

Kieran cleared his throat. “Anyway, the idea of it falling into the hands of Jahal and her crowd turns my stomach.”

I studied him, really looking at him for the first time since he’d shown up.

Blond hair, shaggy, darker than before. Skin weathered, a new scar at the edge of one cheek.

Tall and long and lean, he’d grown to have more muscle than his father. And the same clear blue eyes I’d cried over late at night all those years ago.

I thought about the bills I’d run through earlier in the night. He was right. This was the only way.

But he kept talking. “There’s one other thing I want.”

I nodded. We’d have to hash out the contract, down to the last detail.

“I want you.”

I shot away from the table. “What?”

“You heard me, Ani. One rotation, you’re all mine.”

“Oh, hell no.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “What makes you so much better than the men and women who work here?”

I sputtered angrily. “That’s not the same at all, and you know it!”

He rolled his eyes. “They’re entertaining clients to make ends meet. Sure, they can pick and choose the client, but that’s the life. This is one night.”

My blood beat in my ears. He was right.

I wasn’t better than anyone else. Not Dalla or Oleg or Shaymarie, none of them.

But… my face paled. Not with him.

With anyone but Kieran Matthias. Unless…

“Fine.”

His eyebrows shot up at my sudden capitulation.

“But how about we play a little Tunk for it?”

It was his turn to look angry. “Tunk? For …”

“If I win, you’re a silent partner with no extra benefits. If you win…” I swallowed “I’m yours for one rotation. Anything you want. Either way, you’re investing in the Star.”

He scratched his head. “I should have known you’d pull something crazy. How many hands?”

I thought. It’d been awhile since I’d played, but I’d regularly beaten the pants off him when we were kids.

“Five.” That should give me a buffer, get up to speed.

“One.” His face was grim.

“Three,” I countered.

He nodded.

I turned to Pietra. “Get a clerk. Get a good one.”


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Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Four

Merren

He was trapped.

Trapped in the prison of lightning and pain that came back every time he closed his eyes.

And this time he could not wake himself, even though deep in the back of his mind he knew he was safe, home with his brothers.

He was trapped, and the agony was tearing him apart.

“Tell me what you remember.”

The voice drilled into his mind.

There had been voices then, too, he knew that much. Voices that threaded themselves through his dreams, a never-ending litany.

This voice held an echo of familiarity, but still, he could no more answer it than he could the inquisitors from so long ago.

“Tell me what you know.” Over and over again it repeated, demanding answers he didn’t have.

“Stop it!”

A new voice.

He should recognize it, he knew it, he was sure.

But he couldn’t hold onto the sound, couldn’t grasp anything past the torment that shredded his frame.

Suddenly the scent of burnt flesh was overwhelming.

“Come on, come on,” the new voice insisted, and suddenly cool hands were on his skin, soothing away the pain, pulling at him, leading him out of the trap.

“What are all of those wires for? What was he doing?”

He couldn’t answer her, even as he began to be aware of the darkened room around him.

Kennet’s lab.

That’s right, he’d gone to Kennet’s lab with…

Suddenly a face filled his vision, smooth copper skin and deep brown eyes glowing softly in the faint light of the laboratory’s work panels.

“Sasha,” he croaked.

She smiled, and for a moment all of the pain was gone, vanished.

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” she said, and laced her fingers with his.

He stopped, turning her hand back and forth within his own, entranced by her smooth skin.

“I promise you can look at my hands all you want later, just follow me.”

And so, he did.

He stumbled, then leaned on her small shoulders as they wound through the corridors of Ship.

Step by step, his mind cleared, but it wasn’t until they had crossed into the trees outside that his senses fully returned.

He came to a stop, pulling her against him.

“What happened?” he demanded. “What have you done? Where is Sonoda?”

Sasha bit her lip, shook her head, eyes wide with fear and worry. “He was doing something to you. I don’t know what it was, but it was wrong.”

He grabbed her shoulders. “He’s an authorized genetic technician of the Alliance,” Merren enunciated slowly. “Technicians like him are the ones who built me, built all of us. Sometimes they have to do some fixing up, work out the kinks.”

He tried to keep his voice light.

What had happened to him was a little more serious than a kink.

But Sasha wasn’t convinced. “He wasn’t trying to help you,” she insisted. “He was demanding answers from you. And you,” she looked away. “You were screaming. He might be with the Alliance, but whatever you think he’s here for, he’s looking for something else.”

Merren let go of her and dropped down to crouch on his heels as her words sank in.

“Do your usual checkups end up with you screaming in pain?” Sasha pressed on.

“No,” he admitted.

He ran his hand through his hair, clutching the sides of his head, focusing on his breathing.

This was not the time to shift, to let his cat out to solve the problem with the rending and tearing.

Wait a minute…

“Is he dead?”

Sasha shrugged. “I don’t think so. A little charred maybe.”

That was good.

Except in his gut, he wasn’t sure.

She knelt beside him. “What does he want you to remember? Do you know what he was asking about?”

“Carthak.” The word came to his lips unbidden. “It must go back to when we were on Carthak. Everything does.”

She stayed silent for a long minute, watching him. “Then maybe you need to go to Carthak and find out what happened? Because I wouldn’t trust that guy to ask.”

The idea jolted him from his spinning thoughts.

“I can’t,” he said flatly. “Our unit has been stationed here, on Crucible.”

“And the men who ruled over my people thought that I should be locked into a cage, experimented on, and–”

Her voice broke off and her eyes had the lost, haunted look he’d seen there so often.

Sasha shook herself. “I’m just saying, sometimes you can’t trust the people in charge to look after you. You’ve got to get your own answers.”

Get answers.

He nodded, the beginning of a plan forming even as he fought against accepting the idea.

“You don’t understand. An Alliance Enforcer doesn’t leave his assignment. Ever.”

“Why not?” she asked simply.

He took a slow breath in, the cool night air mixing with something else. Something sweet.

With a start, he realized it was her.

“I mean, what happens if you do leave?” She reached over and tapped his cuff. “I know they can track you through this, but what if you just took it off?”

What if…

“How do we even get to Carthak?” he asked, as much to himself as her. “Any of the shuttles we have access to could be tracked just as easily as my cuff by the Alliance.”

She grinned, her white teeth flashing in the moonlight.

“What if we didn’t use anything from the Alliance? You never exactly met the new neighbors, did you?”

It took a moment for her meaning to sink in, then he stared at her in shock. “You want to borrow something from a Prince of the Empire?”

She rose to her feet, lithe and graceful.

“Think of him as your new brother-in-law. Does that make it easier?

Merren blinked once. Then again.

“No. That doesn’t make it easier at all. Besides, that’s the bastard that had me, traded me back to my brothers like a sack of meat.”

Sasha shook her head slowly. “From what I heard, he wasn’t the one that took you originally. But he’d have information as to where you were before, as well as transport. Sounds perfect to me.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“Come on, I’ll introduce you,” Sasha said.

“What? Wait. No.” Merren shook himself all over and concentrated on his breathing.

Really, there had to be something better than that.

And he had to regain control of this conversation.

“Even if I were to go to Carthak, and even if I were to go ask a Prince of the Empire for the loan of one of his starcraft, you are most definitely not going with me.”

Sasha leaned back, her eyebrows raised. “How do you think you’re going to stop me?”

Merren threw his hands up in the air, stomped around the tree, kicked at last year’s fallen leaves, and came back to her.

“There are a million reasons.”

“Alright then. Start listing them.”

“If someone in the Alliance is really willing to torture me in order to get information,” his mind stuttered, stopped.

Someone was.

He knew that. Ridiculous as it sounded, he knew that was the truth.

“If that’s the case, nowhere is safe. Any Alliance world we go to is in danger, any Alliance technology we used could be used to track us, and I’m not exactly going to fit in well with the Empire.”

“Last I checked, nowhere was safe,” Sasha said bluntly. “At least that hasn’t been the case for me. Besides, don’t you want to know what happened to you?”

“Yes,” he rumbled as his cat answered with him.

It was true. Before, the missing years had been a slow lingering weight, a reminder of the damage done to him, to his body.

Now it seemed like ignorance could be deadly.

Now he had to know.

“And wouldn’t it be nice to know you had someone with you who is on your side?”

His brothers would be on his side, Merren knew that.

But if they had orders otherwise?

No, he couldn’t put them in that position.

“As far as the Empire outpost,” he allowed. “I can’t take you off planet.”

Sasha shrugged and turned to the north. “We’ll see.”

He grabbed her shoulders, turned her back toward him.

“No ‘we’ll see’ about it,” he growled. “You don’t know what’s out there.”

She jerked her arm out of his grip. “And you don’t know what’s been here. Somebody’s offering you help, so do the graceful thing, and accept it.”

He recoiled as if she’d slapped him. “You’re right,” he said finally. “But we’ve got one more thing to do before we leave.”

As they headed out to the north, only a small hill at the base of a tree marked where they’d buried her bracelet and his cuff.

Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Three

Sasha

“You should stay inside with the others,” Coracle insisted, standing in front of Sasha to block her way.

“I don’t think so,” Sasha said, squatting down so as to be able to be eye-to-eye with the cat. Because that made as much sense as anything else in her life. “Look, I am grateful for everything you have done and are doing with Nettie. But let’s be clear. I’ve spent far too long taking orders. I’m done with that.”

The black-and-white tail thrashed. “It’s not an order. Think of it as a strong suggestion. For your own safety.” The golden eyes glared. “Besides, you don’t know what’s coming.”

“No,” Sasha said, standing again. “But I’m not going to go hide, just in case. Is it an enemy?”

Coracle sat upright, his tail wrapped tightly around his front paws. “No,” he admitted. “A stranger, a GeneTech from the Alliance.”

Sasha shrugged and walked past the cat toward the reception hall.

Vast and empty, it seemed to unsettle the others. She kind of liked it. No one could sneak up on you, not in there.

“I thought the Alliance was your team. Shouldn’t everybody be getting ready to make this new person feel welcome?”

Coracle reappeared in front of her. She stopped again, sighing. She really hated when he did that.

“Everyone here is on edge between the situation with Matilde and whatever was done to Merren,” Coracle snarled. “Anyone, even an ally, could upset whatever fragile equilibrium we’ve managed to obtain.”

Sasha shrugged and walked straight toward the cat, not slowing this time.

He flickered out before she stepped through him.

“None of that has anything to do with me. And I’m going out.”

The night still held a touch of coolness, the late spring sweetly perfuming the air.

Sasha stared up into the purpling twilight and swallowed hard.

She wasn’t afraid. Not at all.

She just didn’t want to meet this stranger, whoever it was. No matter why he was here.

That was all it was.

She headed across the open field that stretched around the castle the starmen called Ship, her boots silent on the newly green grass.

A light in the tree line caught her attention, and she called a flicker of flame to her hand.

The stranger?

The crackle sparked again, like blue lightning trapped beneath the budding trees.

No.

She knew who that was. Not a stranger.

Well, not exactly.

Despite herself, Sasha let her feet carry her closer.

“You didn’t feel like sticking around and saying hello to the company either?” she asked Merren.

Now that she was closer, she could see how the storm traced over his entire form, snapping and sizzling.

His face twisted into a snarl as he turned toward her. “I don’t think you’re stupid, so what are you doing here?”

This was much more interesting than being stuck inside.

She stepped closer still. “I’m just curious as to why everyone is nervous about this guy’s visit.”

The lightning storm around him grew in intensity, and his shape flickered, the tall dark-haired man flashing to a giant striped cat and back again in the space of a heartbeat.

“I’m not nervous,” he snarled. “I’m just tired of being the problem of the week.”

Sasha leaned back against one of the trees, trying to calm the heartbeat that raced in her ears.

In the months that she’d lived in the castle, she’d learned these starmen had their own kind of Gifts. Heightened senses were the least of them.  The last thing she wanted was for him to smell the fear on her.

“That stupid cat won’t give me any straight answers,” she said. “What is the actual problem with this visitor?”

Merren shook his head. “Of all the things I did not expect to happen around here while I was busy having whatever it was done to me, a talking cat wasn’t even on the list.”

“I know that he isn’t on anybody’s list, but you didn’t answer my question,” Sasha pressed. “Coracle said the guy was a GeneTech? What the hell is that?”

Merren snarled, rage pouring off him to such a degree that she could feel it change the air around her.

Interesting.

“You need to get back inside,” he ground out from between clenched teeth.

“It’s not safe for you to be so close to me when I’m like this.”

Sasha summoned the fire, let it wash over her.

“You’re not the only one with issues,” she snapped. “I think I can take you.”

He bent double, the change ripping through him over and over, until he fell to the forest floor, his hands gripping the soil.

“You might be the only one that is safe,” he muttered. “Everybody else’s too busy being careful around the dead man.”

She called the fire back into her skin and bent forward to offer him a hand up. “You’re crankier than I expected a dead man to be.”

For a long moment, he stared at her with dark eyes, his expression blank, then he doubled over again, this time laughing.

“I’ll rely on you to tell me when I’m being cranky.”

“I’ll make it easy on you,” she said as her defenses relaxed. “Are you awake? Then you’re cranky.”

A soft chime sounded in the air between them, then looking around, she realized that it came from the thin silver bangle at her wrist. It chimed again, and she looked up to see Merren staring at the broad cuff encasing his own forearm.

He tapped the cuff to answer, and she stepped closer.

“Ship says you’re nearby, both of you,” Nic’s rumble filled the night air. “If you’re done having your snit, get back here. Adena wants everyone in for dinner with GeneTech Sonoda.” The cuff fell silent, then his voice came back on. “And try not to be an asshole about it. She’s curious about this guy, and I won’t have it ruined for her.”

Merren’s shoulders sagged as he leaned back against the tree, staring up through the branches.

“Your boss is serious about a lot of things,” Sasha said. “But I’ve noticed he’s really, really serious about it when Adena’s got her heart set on something. Is that new?”

Merren pushed himself away from the tree and began walking back toward Ship. “I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here when they got together.”

Sasha lengthened her stride to match his as they walked back.

“But was he such a hardass before? I thought that people in love got soft and squishy or something like that. At least that’s how it always was in the stories.”

Merren cocked his head in her direction but kept walking. “I don’t care what stories you grew up on. The chance that Commander Nic Vistuv is ever going soft is nil to nothing.” His eyes narrowed. “At least, if he does, I don’t want to be around to see it.”

One of the things that fascinated Sasha about living in the starmen’s castle was the insane variety of halls and corridors it contained.

No matter how massive the building looked from the outside, every time she stepped into the small room called the elevator, it seemed possible that it might open out into an entirely new place.

There were far more chambers and corridors than could possibly fit, yet they obviously did.

As she and Merren exited the elevator on the floor with the dining hall, she couldn’t help but notice Adena had not only decided on a welcome dinner for their new guest, but had redecorated the hall, as well.

The warm twinkling lights and screen of the open sky above had been replaced with a staid grayish green which faded to brown at the bottom.

Sasha looked around. Everyone seemed a bit subdued, on edge.

Everyone stood by their chairs, waiting for the latecomer.

“I saved you a seat by me,” Esme called out to her.

Without a word, Merren walked around the table to take the chair that had been left for him between Kennet and Gavin.

Sasha’s eyes ran around the table.

That was strange.

While they certainly had nothing like assigned seating at meals, usually the mated couples sat closer together.

But tonight, other than Adena standing by Nic’s side, all of the human women were clustered together at the far end of the table, away from the newcomer.

But before she had time to think about it, her gaze fell upon the unwanted guest.

He stood, leaning across the table to talk excitedly with Kennet, giving her a chance to study him closely.

Adena had told her and Nettie when they first arrived that the starmen were crafted, part of their bodies carefully shaped to look like humans.

Sasha glanced at Kennet.

Well, mostly like humans.

But the Alliance that had created the Enforcer Units was formed by people from all over the stars, of every shape and size imaginable.

Matilde’s mate, Tirus, had been different enough, with his black scaled skin and horns peeking through his wiry hair, not bothering to masquerade as human.

But this person, this GeneTech, was stranger yet.

Skin the pale blue of a hot summer sky, he was squat, puffy, with lavender folds and frills at his throat, and a pair of short fleshy antennae above either temple.

Three fingered hands gestured impatiently at Kennet as he spoke.

While Kennet’s face was its usual mask, it didn’t seem to be a pleasant conversation, judging from Adena’s growing consternation.

Adena placed her hand lightly on Nic’s forearm, and he looked down at her, his stern face softening.

Maybe he really did get all soft and squishy around her, Sasha realized.

Eww.

“Now that we’re all here, shall we begin?” Adena said mildly. And everyone took their seats, then began passing platters and bowls around.

Dinner went smoothly, despite the heavy atmosphere of the room.

Sasha couldn’t help but wonder how much of the starmen’s usual fare Rhela and Adena had transformed with their knowledge of local herbs.

The meal was good. It was always good. That was one benefit of having someone else do the cooking, even if that someone else was one of the magical machines that ran the castle.

Not that she really had much to compare things to.

Not after the slops and crusts she’d been fed for years in the cage.

She must’ve faded away, lost in her own thoughts, because when Nettie reached for her hand, she jumped.

As usual, Nettie was silent, but her single dark blue eye was filled with questions.

“I’m all right,” Sasha whispered, glad for the clatter of conversations all around them. “I promise.”

Nettie turned, and Sasha couldn’t help but notice how intently she stared at the newcomer.

She didn’t think it was because of the blue skin.

Sasha didn’t have Nettie’s Gift of foresight, but the room felt off, tense, like the air before a storm rolled in.

Maybe the stupid cat was right.

Thinking about Coracle, Sasha frowned.

“Where’s the cat?” she whispered to Nettie.

Usually Coracle managed to rearrange rooms, furniture, and people for his comfort and convenience, but now he was nowhere to be found.

The corner of Nettie’s mouth quirked up as her eyes flicked downwards.

Sasha leaned slightly to the left until she saw a glaring black and white furred bundle underneath Nettie’s chair.

She sat upright, fighting a grin.

It was probably terrible of her, but anything that unsettled the cat was kind of a win in her books.

As the soup was cleared away, she leaned toward Esme, who’d been watching the table with narrowed eyes.

“What do you think of him?”

Esme shook her head slightly. “I don’t know. I keep trying to get a read on him, but it’s too different, too strange.”

She didn’t sound happy about it.

Throughout the meal, it seemed that every time GeneTech Sonoda wasn’t speaking to Kennet, he was staring across the table at Merren. Sometimes even when he spoke to other people, his ice white eyes couldn’t help but stray.

But Merren didn’t seem to be equally excited.

He sat stonily between Kennet and Gavin, ate what was brought from the replicator with an almost mechanical motion.

He looked like a man who’d gone deep inside himself.

If Sasha didn’t know better, she would almost think he was scared.

Scared of this little blue man?

Nonsense.

In either form, Merren would mop the floor with him.

Then what was the problem?

A thin sliver of ice wrapped around her spine.

She didn’t know what was wrong, but somehow the introduction of this squat, excitable person was a threat.

And despite what she had said to Coracle in the entry hall, that had quite a bit to do with her.

This was her home now, these were her people.

She looked around the table and saw that everyone was tense behind their smiles.

Conversation quieted enough for her to catch the end of Sonoda’s sentence.

“And we’ll begin the treatment tonight.”

But she wasn’t watching him, she was watching Merren.

If she hadn’t been, she might’ve missed the spark of lightning in his eyes.

***

After dinner, the atmosphere had lightened somewhat. The men disappeared for their regular nightly rounds, while Rhela and Adena went up to the still room to tinker with another concoction.

Nettie wandered off with the disturbingly silent Coracle in her arms, and Esme was talking about the next trip she had planned.

“I’m going to get some more target practice in,” Sasha decided, surprising herself even as the words left her lips. “Want to come along?”

Zuri nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

They passed through the halls, down toward the terrace.

“Kennet’s not happy. None of them are,” Zuri added after long minutes. “He says that while Sonoda has requested the use of his lab, it wasn’t exactly asking. And Kennet can’t be around for the treatment.”

Sasha paused at the door to the terrace. “But shouldn’t Kennet know what’s going on? Who else around here does he think is going to understand any of this?”

“Exactly,” Zuri nodded. “But we need to remember that as far as the Alliance is concerned, our guys are just a bunch of soldiers. Following orders is what they do.” She grimaced, raised the small silver blaster to the target as it materialized. “What they were created to do.”

Zuri’s words echoed in Sasha’s ears hours later.

Hard to think that although the starmen were strange, powerful beings when it came to the technology-starved inhabitants of Crucible, to the rest of the Alliance, they were nothing more than soldiers.

Expendable.

Replaceable.

Weapons of war to be tinkered with, adjusted as needed.

The idea left a bitter taste in her mouth.

She stepped into the elevator and tapped the bracelet on her wrist.

“Take me someplace new, please,” she asked the empty air.

The delicate filigree decorating the door slid shut.

“Yes, Lady Sasha.”

“I’ve told you before, stop calling me lady.”

“Yes, Lady Sasha.”

She rolled her eyes, but there was no point arguing with Ship. The spirits that ran Ship were more polite than their more mobile avatar, Coracle, but just as stubborn.

She looked at the dimly lit wood-paneled corridor that appeared as the filigree opened.

Through the weeks since she had been brought here, she’d spent the nights exploring rather than sleeping.

Sleep had far too many dreams.

And here, where every corridor looked the same, she continually discovered new surprises.

Three nights ago, Ship had brought her to a vast warehouse filled with metal carts of all types. The airsleds she’d seen the warriors use and more, stretching out into the darkness, filled with more frightening, alien things.

She wondered what she would find here.

A strange humming sound echoed down the corridor, drawing her closer.

The whirr of machinery and soft beeps punctuated the drone.

And then a voice.

“Tell me what you remember,” it demanded angrily.

No answer came other than a low groan of pain.

“Tell me!”

“The fire…”

Sasha froze.

That was Merren.

She should stop, go back, go to her room, try to sleep, and explore somewhere else.

Whatever was wrong with him, whatever had been done to him when he was a prisoner, this was personal.

“Fine, we’ll just have to go deeper.”

That other voice must be Sonoda.

And while it was possible that all people of his species just sounded that way, to her it seemed like there was menace coiled within his words.

Maybe she was jumping to conclusions, but she didn’t think so.

A sharp zap cracked through the air and Merren gasped.

Slowly, Sasha moved closer.

Whatever this treatment was, she was sure she didn’t approve.

This didn’t sound like someone here to help Merren.

This sounded far too much like the cries of Braydon’s victims, tortured and tormented as he pried through their minds, digging to find out what made their Gifts work.

She was almost at the door when she stopped again.

How could she be sure that whatever was going on was wrong?

What if she was just overlaying her memories of the past, those years in the cages, onto something that was perfectly normal?

Another crack cut through the air.

Merren began to scream.

That was it.

Normal or not, this was going to stop.

Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Two

Merren

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing with that thing?” Merren asked, eyeing with suspicion the newly designed scanner Kennet held as it ran down his own left arm, the constant whirrs and beeps that came from all corners of the lab not comforting in the least.

“I am uncertain why you ask such questions,” Kennet responded mildly. “You were here when I designed it. You are perfectly aware that…”

Merren rolled his eyes and held his hands up in surrender. “It’s good to know you haven’t changed at all while I was gone.”

Kennet froze, his eyebrows arching slightly.

On anyone else it was the equivalent of their jaw hanging to the floor.

“Do not think I was unaffected by your absence.” Kennet moved to the scanner again, running it down Merren’s right arm this time. “We all were.”

Shit.

Merren closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “I’m sorry.”

Every day it was like walking on a knife’s edge. So much had changed while he was gone.

Hell, he had changed.

Been changed.

“So, does that contraption give us any magical news that will get me fixed up?” he offered. Changing the subject was easier than apologizing, for both him and Kennet.

“For the fourth time, not yet. The regeneration chamber should have fixed whatever was done to you,” Kennet muttered. “And yet, it does not seem to be able to restore your body’s base programming.”

Yeah. In the four weeks since Merren had woken up back here, back home, nothing had done that.

And right now, it didn’t look as if anything ever would.

Kennet put the scanner down on the table and leaned against the far wall, his gray and charcoal-striped arms folded over his chest.

“How are the pills working? You’re not trying to take more than one in a day, are you?”

Merren shrugged. “I’m less likely to randomly shift, so that’s a plus.”

The pills also made him edgy, unsettled, as if half of himself were being smothered.

Probably because that’s exactly what the damn things were doing.

“If there are other side effects, we should discontinue them.”

Dammit. Kennet was always more perceptive than Merren had given him credit for.

“Not a chance. I like being able to stay in one shape.” Merren ran his hand over the flattened cylinder secreted in his vest pocket. “All I gotta do is keep my temper, right?”

“That’s not exactly all there is to the procedure.”

But whatever else Kennet was going to say was cut off when Nic strode into the lab, his hard face twisted into a scowl that only deepened when he met Merren’s glance.

Well. That didn’t bode well.

“We just received a communication from Central Command. While they appreciate our analyst’s efforts, they’ve decided to send a GeneTech to see if they can figure out what happened to you.”

Merren stood quickly, a wild rush of anger washing over him. “Nobody’s poking into me.” He pointed at Kennet. “You’re bad enough. And I know you. Trust you. Someone else? I think enough people have played around with my genome. Not happening.”

Nic’s jaw tightened. “You don’t have a choice. None of us do. It came through as a direct order.”

Just breathe in, right?

Kennet kept saying that would make the rage better, bring him back to an even keel.

Ha!

Breathing was doing a crappy job.

“Fine,” Merren growled. “When is our honored guest supposed to get here?”

Nic’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t challenge Merren’s tone of voice. Apparently, he was pretty pissed about this too.

“I suspect Central Command knew how we would react. They didn’t give us any lead time. GeneTech Nevyn Sonoda is requesting that we lower our shields to allow him to land now.”

And the flimsy dam Merren had painstakingly built up gave way against the force of his anger. “That’s it,” he snapped. “I’m going for a walk. If whoever-the-hell-he-is wants to see me, it’ll have to be when I get back.”

The last of his control wavered but he held firm, fighting back the change even as lightning sparkled through his body.

He headed for the door, and Nic wisely stepped away.

Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter One

Sasha

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to like this,” Rhela said as she fired the blaster for the third time toward the target at the far end of the terrace.

Sasha shook her head and turned to look at the garden around her, gently illuminated by the fading light of the day.

Rhela was a sweet girl, who definitely had a way with plants. But, as far as Sasha could tell, didn’t have much in the way of common sense.

“I don’t know if any of us like it,” Esme answered as she took Rhela’s place, the bells at the bottom of her vest jingling as she raised a small silver oval to chest level. “I’d rather stick with my knives. But I’ve got to admit, the range of these things is better.”

Her aim was considerably more accurate than the younger woman’s, Sasha noted.

She glanced over at Nettie, who didn’t seem to be paying attention to target practice at all.

Instead, the borrowed blaster had been discarded in favor of an armful of fluffy black and white cat.   

Well, sort-of cat.

“Whether you like it or not, you’re all going to practice until you’re better. There are too many strangers around these days,” Coracle managed to get out between purrs. “From what we’ve heard about what happened to Matilde, we can’t take the chance of someone else from the Empire deciding to grab any of you in order to put pressure on the garrison.”

Sasha half-remembered the cats in her village. She’d always assumed that if they could talk, they’d still remain silent and aloof.

Apparently, that wasn’t the case.  Coracle was always happy to tell anyone around what they were doing wrong.

Except for Nettie.

With her, he seemed content just to stay close.

Right now, he twisted joyously as she scratched a particularly sensitive spot just above his tail.

“I’d like to see them try,” Zuri said. “We’re not exactly defenseless. We have our Gifts.” She gripped her blaster, then aimed it carefully at the target.

Her shots weren’t quite as good as Esme’s, but respectable. “Still, we’ll be ready to fight.”

“We are not just pieces to be captured and used,” Adena said grimly, her black curls braided back tightly. “But for too many people, that’s exactly what they’ll think.”

“I wish I’d had this thing during the flyer infestation at the lake,” Zuri said as she fired again, nearer the center this time. “That would’ve solved a few problems.”

Rhela raised her eyebrows. “But then what would Kennet have done? I think I almost saw him smile this morning. He looked positively happy. Well, happy for him.”

Zuri blushed, and her third shot was nowhere near as accurate.

As she moved away, Sasha took her place, rolling her shoulders a bit to loosen them in the comfortable shirt. She wasn’t sure why the others hadn’t adapted their wardrobes, but she had been thrilled to leave behind the confining skirts and gowns.

“They could try to take me. But I don’t think anyone would like the result.” Raising the blaster with her right hand, she focused on the center of the target.

An image of a man. Not real, just a shape, an illusion created by Ship.

Still, enough to set her memories burning and light a spark in her blood.

Blaster still raised, she released a focused stream of fire with her left hand until the image flickered and disappeared.

Adena shook her head. “You know, it’s really hard to put ash through the recycler and get anything useful back,” she said, laughing. “But seriously, what happens when your Gift is exhausted?”

It wouldn’t come to that. Sasha wouldn’t let it.

Suddenly, Coracle squirmed out of Nettie’s arms.

Nettie’s eyes, one dark blue, the other covered with a golden healing haze, widened in surprise but ,as usual, she didn’t say anything, even as he landed on the spongy turf that covered the terrace built into the side of Ship.

He paced, circling the women, head tilted forward to the right, ears cocked back.  The women moved closer, backs together, wondering. Waiting.

Finally, the cat spoke.

“Someone’s coming. And I don’t think we’re going to like it when he gets here.”

Prized by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter One

Landri

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

His proclamation was met with dumb silence.

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

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

“What was that? I missed the question.”

“He’s done,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your what?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Paper pushers,” he growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long has it been?” Khenja asked.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can hardly travel back to Mtoain —”

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

“I…”

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

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

I found I had no satisfactory answer at all.

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

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

“What is it?” Khenja asked.

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

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

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

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

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

I fell silent as I read through the message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to him. “Mtoain.”

Redeeming the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Two

Tonzul

My first indication that my scheme had worked was when I was punched awake.

There hadn’t been any warning. One second, I was in the middle of a dream — a hunt back on my home planet of Mtoain. In the next, bright pain exploded across my face.

I jerked up out of my bed, still half in the dream, only for a foot to catch me in my stomach in a brutal kick. I wheezed out, curling over myself.

“Get up, scum,” said a rough voice. Hands grabbed me, pulling me all the way out of my bed.

I’d been taken by surprise, but I was no weakling. Ignoring the pain, I surged up, knocking my assailants back a few steps. 

“What is this!?” I yelled, “Who are —”

I stopped as I focused on my attackers. They were two Mtoain males, like myself. One younger, about my age, one older and more powerful. Both stood a few steps away, looking pissed off.

For the first time, I felt a flutter of hope in my heart.

“You are Tonzul?” the older one demanded.

“Yes,” I said.

The younger one spoke, anger snapping in his voice. “You are accused of crimes against the Federation, and all sentient beings.” His top lip lifted up into a sneer, and he nearly spat the next words. “Namely, slavery.”

I close my eyes, pained.

“Do you deny it?” the elder one said.

“No, how could I? It is the truth.”

The elder one frowned, confused, but still very much disapproving. The second one grinned as if in triumph. 

“Tonzul, you are officially under arrest —”

“There’s just one problem,” I said, cutting off the younger, brash Mtoain.

Both stiffened, clearly thinking my hovel of a sleeping room was somehow booby-trapped. 

The elder spoke first. “What problem would that be?”

“I don’t actually have a bounty.”

“What is this?” the younger one snapped. “Of course you have a bounty!”

But the elder frowned. He turned to his younger partner. “Yndon, did you check this bounty against the official Federation galactic records?”

“Why should I? The bounty came through our guild’s channel.”

“You should do that,” I said. “It’s good practice.” I held up my hands in a peaceable gesture when both men scowled at me. “I assume one of you has a hand link computer? Do it now. I promise I won’t fight or resist if the bounty comes up. Which it won’t,” I said, adding a quiet, I hope.

There’s always the possibility I actually did have a bounty on my head. After all, I worked with several of the slave syndicates. Someone could’ve easily tied their crimes to me.

It didn’t matter much to the slowly grinding wheels of the Federation’s justice system that my work hadn’t been of my choice.

“Yndon…” the elder growled. “Do it. I’ll keep an eye on this scum.”

He looked at me, meaningfully.

I rolled my eyes. The one called Yndon frowned, holding out his arm with an attached hand link computer system. He typed on the screen. After a few moments, he scowled, glanced at me, and quite obviously retyped the query.

I wasn’t the only one watching him. The elder growled under his breath. “May the elder trees preserve me…” he muttered.

“This isn’t my fault, Landri,” Yndon said. “The bounty came through our guild’s computer systems! They’ve always been trustworthy before.”

“That’s my fault,” I said. “I spoofed the arrest warrant.”

Now I had the full attention of both of them again.

“Why?” Landri barked.

I took a breath. There was a lot gambling the next few minutes. My whole life, really. “Because I have major information on major movements within the criminal underworld.”

“If that’s the case, why didn’t you pass them on to the relevant authorities?” Landri asked, his eyes narrowed.

I shook my head. “Why would they take the word of someone who worked for slavers? I may not have an official bounty on my head, yet. But any ambitious bureaucrat in the Federation could enter one in. No,” I said with a shake of my head. “I won’t take that chance. In addition, I’ll only pass this information on for a price.”

“You are completely without honor,” Yndon snapped.

“Honor is reserved for those who have a choice in the matter,” I snapped back, stung. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but I disliked having it thrown back into my face.

Landri, although annoyed I may have wasted his time, seemed to be much more business minded. It made sense. If everything I heard from him was true, he’d started his own bounty hunter guild on Station Four. It was doing quite well, too. It wasn’t everybody who had the strength of personality to unite a crowd of nywosi.

“Where are you from?” Landri demanded. 

“I am nywosi from Mtoain just like you.”

“You aren’t anything like us.” Yndon spat to the side.

I glared at him. “As soon as I got out to space, I found my circumstances… Desperate. It’s a long story which doesn’t matter, but in order to make credits, I dealt in shipping and receiving from the criminal underground.” I shook my head. “I didn’t see — or, perhaps, I didn’t want to see, the specialized freight I’d shipped were actually people. I never saw the shipments, you see, they were just line items on a computer screen.”

“So you looked the other way,” Landri said.

“To my shame, yes.”

Yndon growled under his breath again.

“What has changed?” Landri asked.

“One of my clients let slip what was in their cargo hold,” I said. “And I couldn’t deny what I’d already half-expected.”

“If you had any honor at all, you’d’ve searched out the truth long before then,” Yndon said.

I bowed my head. I had no argument. It was true. Although I’d never participated in the capture of the slaves, imprisoned them, or owned any myself… I was still part of the system that had ripped their freedom away from them.

“Yes,” I told Yndon. “And I’ll work the rest of my life to wash off the stains of blood from my hands.”

“You can do that in Federation prison,” Yndon growled.

Landri held up his hand, silencing the younger man. “Enough.” He turned to me. “I’ll ask one more time. Why have you gone to the trouble of bringing us here?”

This, at least, was easier to answer. “My clients—who I now know of as slaver syndicates—have gotten nervous after the capture of one of the most powerful slavers in the quadrant. His name was Ilai.” I held Landri’s gaze steady. “I understand one of your people was the one who finally took him down.”

“Tadraa,” Landri confirmed. 

I nodded. “The remaining slavers want to do one last big score to last them until the heat from guild bounty hunters dies down.”

“A big score?” Yndon repeated.

I shrugged. “My best guess is it’ll be a large raid on a planet to capture many new slaves.”

Both men growled low. I didn’t blame them. It made me sick all over again to think of what else I’d missed simply because I’d refused to see. 

Well, now my eyes were unblinded. I’d set things right. I had to.

“I know who they’re going through to do it. I know all their back channels, all of their contacts. If your guild intervenes, you’ll be the heroes of this part of the galaxy and capture several important bounties at the same time.”

Yndon snorted again.

I couldn’t read the expression on Landri’s face, other than he seemed skeptical. “You mentioned payment. What do you expect to receive in exchange for this valuable information?”

“Simple,” I said. “I wish to join your bounty hunting guild.”

“Absolutely not,” Yndon barked.

Landri held up his hand for the other Mtoain to keep the peace. Yndon bristled. “You cannot possibly consider this, Landri. This man has no honor. He will turn on us the moment a new opportunity comes up… that is, if this so-called information is worth anything at all!”

“I’m not saying I believe him,” Landri said. “But I am… intrigued.”

He gestured again, this time to his own computer link system. A slight buzzing I hadn’t been fully aware of in the room, stopped. No doubt, they’d set up several explosive traps and gas knockout canisters within the room that would activate if I attacked further.

Good thing I was on their side. Even if Yndon didn’t want me to be there.

“You have made your offer,” Landri said to me. “Now here is mine: Provide proof of everything you’ve told me. Then, you may keep any bounty you claim when you stop the slaver’s raid.”

Ah, this would be a test of my skills as much as a test of truth. It was fortunate that before my administrative job had brought me in contact with the slavers, I’d tried my own hand at bounty hunting. True, I hadn’t much success at the time, but I’d been low on equipment and funds.

And my life and what little self-respect I had left wasn’t on the line. It was now.

“I agree,” I said to Landri.

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