Every story has a beginning. Sometimes long before anyone suspects that everything has changed…

Months before…

Dark boots crunched through the abandoned tunnels, kicking aside bodies with as little regard as for sacks.

“Torches are out. Useless barbarian tech,” a low voice muttered.

A ball tossed into the air hung yards from the cavern ceiling, bringing steady light to the destruction below.

“Looks like they had a right party here. Pity we weren’t invited.”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“I suppose that little diversion was meant to keep us occupied. Foolish, really.”

The footsteps stopped, the sounds of shuffling, as if someone paced in a circle.

“This is intriguing.”

The empty row of cages yawned in front of him. A deep breath. “Very intriguing.”

With a quick motion, a dark-scaled hand shot out to wrap around a torn and bloody scrap of fabric.

He brought it to his face and sniffed. His tongue darted out, as if to taste the air itself.

“Your Highness?”

He tucked the fabric into his belt. “We’re done here.”

The two strode from the cavern without another look.

* * *

“Your Highness?” a soft voice came from the doorway. “The reports you ordered are in.”

“Later,” he snapped, and returned to the screen that consumed all his attention.

The scent from the discarded bandage had been overwhelming to his senses, but apparently almost too faint for his trackers to pick up.


“Miss Matilde! Miss Matilde!”  A grubby hand shot up.  “I’ve finished. Can I go play?”

“Let’s see what you’ve done.”

With a flick of the controls, the microdrone’s camera zoomed in on the woman who sat on a low stool, surrounded by a gaggle of children.

Was gaggle the right word?

Who knew?

The care and feeding of children had never been of any importance to him before.

It certainly wasn’t now.

His interest was caught by the lively expression that crossed the woman’s face.

“It doesn’t count if I can’t read what you’ve written.” She handed the tablet, nothing more than a crude writing surface, back to the child. “Start again, more slowly this time.”

“Oh, Miss…” the child whined. Girl or boy? 

A small orange and white furred creature wove through the children and leaped onto the woman’s lap. She scratched between its ears.

“You can go slowly and get it right, or keep speeding along, and I’ll keep having you redo your work,” the teacher said tartly. “I suspect I have more patience than you have.”

“Matilde,” the distant watcher tested the sound of her name on his lips. “I have patience, too.”

* * *

“Lady take it!” Matilde jerked on the crank of the well, hoping to loosen the windlass enough to lower the bucket.

Or raise it.

Or anything.

Instead, it swung at the end of the rope, halfway down the well. Far too far away to reach.

Declan had promised to take a look, but he’d already headed south again, head in the clouds, dreaming of business.

As usual.

She smacked the wooden cylinder again, and it creaked.

Maybe it was unsticking?

One more solid blow, then she jumped away.

But not quickly enough.

Unbound, the crank spun wildly, cracking into her upper arm so hard she staggered at the blow.

“Right then,” she muttered, and slowly raised the bucked back to the top with one hand.

* * *

The next day, there was something different about the well.

A scroll of gleaming silver arced off the edge of the stonework. When she peered into the well, she could trace the strange metal all the way down until it disappeared into the darkness.

And when she brushed against the end of the metal pipe…


She moved her hand, and it stopped.

“For the Lady’s sake, Matilde,” she scolded herself. “Of course, it’s water. You’re at the well, what did you expect, ale?”

Cautiously she tapped the pipe again, thinking hard as her jug filled.

Declan must have said something to one of the men at Ship, and they’d installed this thing.

She snorted. 

Not her absent minded brother, surely. More likely Adena had overheard her telling him about the crank getting stuck so often and had arranged this as a surprise.

“Either way,” she murmured to herself as she lifted the jug to her hip and headed inside, ready to start the day, “it’s appreciated.”

* * *

“You are welcome, my lady,”

She didn’t turn, never noticed the microdrone.

He scowled at the screen, black scaled fingers drumming on the desk as she re-entered her small home.

He’d never followed her inside.

Too close.

Too personal.

But now he was worried.

She’d been hurt doing something as trivial as fetching water.

“It shouldn’t be permitted,” he grumbled. “Ridiculous planet, with its ridiculous rules.”

He held his hand out, didn’t need to look to know that a fresh cup of thran would be ready for him, delicate steam coiling into fragrant clouds.

“I won’t allow her to be injured again.”

“Of course not, your Highness.”

“Be careful, my lady,” Tosrich Neic Balgzer Reucec Ryaca Tirus, prince of the Kuseon Empire, murmured as he turned his attention to the morning reports.

And now…

Something was very wrong.

The room was glowing.

Her heart racing, she scrambled to get out of bed, but gasped at a sharp pain in her leg.

“Do not attempt to rise,” a gravelly voice came from the corner. “There is nothing to be concerned with.”

There was someone in her room.

Except, this wasn’t her room.

She pushed once more to sit up, ignoring the ache in her leg, and looked around again.

She couldn’t see much.

But the glow wasn’t fire, hadn’t spread from an errant spark from the hearth or a candle knocked over by the cat.

Just a soft golden glow emanating around the edge of the ceiling.

Except for the one corner in which a dark figure stood.

“I promise, no harm will come to you. The monitor shows that your heart rate is elevated. Become calm.”

“I’ll relax when I know what’s going on,” she snapped. “Who are you, where am I, and what is going on?”

With that, he stepped forward, the glow brightening just a bit, enough for her to look around.

She was in a large bed, with finely woven sheets and plush pillows. The smooth walls stretching around her were plain, but with that eerie look to them that was half familiar now.

While this certainly was no room in her own home, or anywhere in the town of Grasmer, she didn’t think it was Adena’s Ship, either.

Something was different, the quality of the air perhaps.

Or maybe it was that no one had stood in a corner and stared at her while she slept on the few occasions she’d spent the night with her cousin, giggling away as they had back when they were children.

That could be the difference.

Narrowing her eyes, she glared at the dark shadow.

Because that was all she could see of him.

A smooth black uniform covered him entirely, but even more disturbing was the helmet, smooth black metal that covered his head and face entirely.

“Stop. I do not want you to be distressed. There is no reason.”

She pushed herself to stand, but hissed in pain at the sharp twinge in her thigh.

“I was uncertain how much of our technology your system could withstand,” the figure said. “Remain resting.”

She studied him.

Despite the overall creepiness of the entire situation, he hadn’t tried to hurt her. It was obvious he could have.

“Fine. You want something, I want something.”

He stepped back towards the shadows, but she wagged her finger at him.

“I’ll stay in the bed, but you take that mask off and explain to me what’s going on.”

“That is not the best course of action.”

“Then I’m leaving.”

A deep sigh echoed through the room.

She did not see him remove the helmet, but suddenly it was gone.

His skin was dark, as dark as Nic’s.

But there was something different about it, the texture seemed odd somehow, the planes of his face not quite human.

Matilde laughed at her own ridiculousness.

Of course, not quite human. It’d be safer to guess not human at all.

The male tilted his head, eyebrows arched. “That was not the reaction I was expecting.”

“Glad we both can be surprised,” Matilde answered. “Now I’d like some explanations.”

A door to the side of the room, where she was certain there had been only a smooth wall, slid open.

A hooded figure scurried forward, carrying a tray.

He, she, whoever it was, didn’t look at her once, just knelt before the strange dark figure, holding the tray up as if he were a table.

Her captor took no notice other than to lift a delicate cup.

The smaller figure moved again, so quickly and smoothly Matilde still had no chance to see its face.

A second cup waited for her on the glossy surface of the tray.

“What is this?” she asked, studying the rising steam. The smell was tempting, but unfamiliar.

“Only tea,” the male said. “I have ensured that it was compatible with your biology.”

Matilde took the cup, wrapping her fingers around the thin sides, glad to hold onto one small piece of normality.

“Thank you,” she said to the hunched figure still acting as a side table.

It said nothing, just scurried back out of the room.

“Now that we’ve gone through all these polite motions, I’d like a little more information,” she insisted.

“And then you will rest?”

“I’ll consider it.”

He waited, then seemed to realize that was the best he was getting. Not that she was sure what she could do about any of this, but whoever he was, he had put a lot of effort into trying to keep her calm.

Whatever he wanted, she had some leverage. She just didn’t know what it was yet.

“You were injured. You were not being taken care of sufficiently. I had said before that that would be the last time.”

“Wait, what? We’ve never met. There was no last time.”

Even from this distance, she could see his scowl. “The handle on the well could have broken your arm. It is very hard for me to imagine that you could be injured by a piece of such primitive technology.”

Her fingers tightened around the fragile cup. The new spout. She’d assumed that it was something Nic or one of the guys had installed for her.

Apparently, it hadn’t been any of them at all.

“But I will make a fair trade with the Alliance. And you will remain here, safely with me.” He paused, inclining his head. “My lady.”

Matilde sipped her tea, thinking furiously.

“We’ll see about that.”

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