Brit woke slowly, luxuriating in the silken sheets as she took a drowsy accounting of her circumstances—one, it was morning; two, she was naked; and three, she was lying in a strange bed.
A real bed. A lavish bed, big enough for three or four energetic partners. Unlike the one in her quarters on board the CSFS Vengeance, which could barely accommodate Brit’s lean frame. She stretched lazily and rolled onto her side. In the soft morning light, she admired last night’s date . . . whatever his name was.
Did it matter what she'd called him? She would tolerate his company for perhaps another night or so, and then he would become another pleasant memory from shore leave, like all the others before him.
She reached out and moved a curl off his forehead. No lines of worry marred that perfect, golden skin. He’d never needed to block out the screams of battle or grimaced at the horrors of war. No, this man existed in a sort of perpetual shore leave—all pleasure, no pain. He was almost pretty, she decided, but well-built—she would not have chosen him otherwise. His dark hair was tousled; his lips were full, stopping this short of feminine. She preferred a manlier mouth—ah, but he’d used his well. There was time for him to use it again too, before she deserted him for breakfast.
On her stomach, she slid closer and licked his jaw. “Wake up . . . ” Mister What’s-your-name . . .
He stretched and smiled then rolled her onto her back. Two long, thin slashes marred his shoulder.
“I scratched you,” she murmured as he nuzzled his way down from her neck to her breasts. She didn’t remember clawing him; she normally wasn’t violent in bed. Well, not this violent. But it had been too long between shore leaves, and she’d been hungry.
Hungry to forget . . . hungry to remember.
With this stranger between her legs, she could cast her memories back and pretend. He was Seff, and she was his young wife, innocent, full of hopes and dreams—all the things she wasn’t now. They had been only teenagers, married less than two years, when the Drakken marauders came. With this pretty stranger and all the others before him, she could lose herself in the sex, believing in those moments of blinding, no-strings-attached passion that she was still human. That she could still feel.
“Come here.” She took his head between her hands and kissed him roughly. He returned the kiss with equal intensity, crushing her to the pillow, but something wasn’t right. Something’s missing, she thought. Of course it is, you fool. His passion is staged—it’s what you bought him for. Yours is real.
She swore under her breath, grabbing his shoulders and digging in as she trapped him. She wanted him to fuck her—now—before her thoughts, her self-analysis, could go any deeper.
Implanted in her right ear, her Personal Communicator Device beeped.
“Blast it,” she hissed, twisting out from under him to sit up before she answered.
Her bedmate playfully pulled her back and threw her down on the mattress. “Whoever it is can wait.”
“Release me.” The snarling command came out in her Admiral Voice. The man toy backed off immediately, lifting both hands. Satiny, unblemished palms, she noted. He likely hadn’t done a day of real labor in his life. Why would he, when there was nothing to do but service wealthy, privacy-craving clients on this pleasure dome of a resort planet? He was an attractive, empty shell of a man looking to earn a day’s pay with his cock. It was quite nice as cocks went, true—she stared briefly, almost longingly at the man’s hefty equipment, standing at attention between his legs—until the communicator rang again, diverting her attention.
Brit sat up, swinging her hair over one shoulder, and pressed a tiny disc embedded in the skin behind her ear. “Admiral Bandar,” she said curtly. Instead of connecting her to the caller, the PCD emitted several tones—it had to authenticate her voice first. The procedure was typical for high priority, classified calls. Except Brit was light-years off the beaten track, on a vacation planet, so the connection would take a while.
From the corner of her eye, she caught the sparkle of her midnight black, crisply pressed officer’s uniform, hanging in the closet next to an iridescent, gossamer lace poolside cover-up. Who would dare bother her on shore leave? This was supposed to be her few weeks of respite before she returned to helm the Vengeance and resume their anti-piracy campaign in the Borderlands. The bitter, centuries-long war might have ended, but there was cleanup to do.
She shot to her feet. Pacing away from the bed to find privacy, her hair swinging around her shoulders, she felt her bedmate eye her nude body. She was older than him by a number of years, yet she was certain, nearing forty, that she looked better than women almost half her age. Then again, she allowed herself no excess. She was disciplined, focused. She knew what she wanted and that was to kill Drakken.
“Authentication verified,” a comm-bot announced.
A familiar voice came on next. “My sincere apologies for the interruption, Brit,” soothed Prime-Admiral Zaafran, her commander-in-chief. “However, it is with good news that I do so.”
She closed the veranda door behind her. “The peace accord has broken down.” Her hopes soared.
Zaafran’s deep chuckle crushed them. He didn’t sound as if he shared those hopes either. He doesn’t have the reasons you do.
“The accord remains in effect,” he said. “Your orders, however, have changed. I’m reassigning you to a new ship—brand new, state-of-the-art.”
A bolt of surprise shot through her. “And the Vengeance?”
“She’s being retired.”
Her warship had the best record out there, having won more battles than any other. She loved that hunk of luranium; it was as much a part of her as her skin and bones. The merest whisper of the word Vengeance struck fear in the hearts of Drakken combatants. They knew that she, Admiral Brit Bandar, was its commanding officer. They knew that she held no mercy in her soul for them. “Admiral Stone-Heart,” they called her.
The nickname amused her.
Over the years, countless Drakken had lusted for her capture. Oh, the things they’d dreamed of doing to her, most related to sex and torture—she’d learned of a few choice scenarios from Drakken prisoner confessions during interrogations—but none had ever caught her. Now they never would. The entire Drakken Empire lay vanquished at the Coalition’s feet. A victory that didn't satisfy Brit at all. She wasn’t done with the brutes yet. No, nowhere close. “It will seem odd, commanding a new ship, Prime-Admiral.”
“One foot on the bridge and you’ll change your mind. I’ve seen her. She’s more impressive than any ship in our space forces, even the Vengeance.”
“I look forward to you convincing me of that,” Brit quipped, though an expanding ball of tension sat cold in her gut. Regardless of the reason, Zaafran planned to remove her from her ship. Even if she was trading up, as he’d implied, it was an unsettling event. It would be so for any captain of any ship—let alone for Brit, being torn from her beloved Vengeance. The warship had been the closest thing to home since the Arrayar Settlement.
“Report to the Ring, and I’ll do so,” he said.
Brit frowned as he ended the call. The usual procedure for a new ship captain was to proceed directly to the nearest shipyard or port, run through the usual change-of-command formalities if taking the bridge from someone else, and be off. Yet, the prime-admiral wanted to see her on the Ring, at Coalition Headquarters, in person. He was holding something back. But what?
She let herself back inside and shoved the veranda door shut. Morning sunshine streamed between the slats of the shuttered windows, a bright and cheery contrast to the need for vengeance scorching her soul.
She could never reverse what the Drakken had done, but she could keep it from happening to anyone else. She’d spent her entire career doing exactly that. Now, Headquarters was taking her ship away, replacing it with a new one. Taking away her mission and replacing it with . . . what? The mighty Vengeance was to be retired. Would she be forced into retirement next? Brit stalked back to the bed.
“It’s about time you came back to me,” the man toy murmured with come-hither eyes. But it was a wasted effort. The mood had passed.
“Get dressed.” Brit reached into the closet and removed a few extra credits from the safe. She’d paid the man in advance, but his performance from last night warranted a tip. She tossed the credits on the table. “And be gone before I return.”
She closed and locked the bathroom door, stepping into the shower, letting the water fool her into believing that the moisture on her face wasn’t angry tears.
* * *
Warleader Finnar Rorkken paused in the entrance of the dilapidated inn and bar, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Inside, it smelled like sweat and sex and blood—like any typical Drakken haunt. A few motionless bodies littered the stone floor. Finn stepped around them, his boots muddy from hiking to the town. The planet looked to have been badly bombarded during the Great War, probably several times, and spring rains had turned the scarred hardpan into mud. All week, the downpours had continued unabated. He’d never seen so much damn rain.
Water dripped from his ponytail and earrings, his leather overvest and trousers. His wool sweater stank and was two sizes smaller than when he’d bought it. He was tired of being wet, tired of being hungry more often than not. Tired of . . .
Blast it all, he was just tired!
The tang of cheap alcohol hung heavy in the muggy air. Finn waved off the expectant glance from a bar wench. He didn’t want a drink; he wanted a warm, dry room and a good square meal—simple needs but ones harder than ever to satisfy. Worse, there were more bellies than his to fill. He had a crew of fifty-two to look after.
As an warleader, he’d been paid in scrip by the Imperial Navy, which he’d then divvied up amongst his crew. In port, they’d redeemed their scrip for supplies until the fall of the Drakken Empire had rendered it worthless. No business accepted an IOU issued by a destitute government. Finn had since dug into his own funds to support the ship and crew, but there hadn’t been very much. Now, he was liquidating ship furnishings, liquor, and unneeded weapons—anything he could barter or sell. To slow the hemorrhage, he’d resorted to raiding. It was like the old days.
He’d given up piracy—more or less—upon his promotion some years ago to warleader. He’d turned a page in his life and found a new career, a respectable one. Now, he’d fallen back on his old ways. Desperation did that to a man. It was good to know that the skills honed during his reign as the Scourge of the Borderlands hadn’t vanished. A recent haul from a raid there had been sizeable enough to keep them fed until recently. Then the Pride’s hyperdrive had acted up, forcing them to land on this scum pool of a planet for repairs.
Finn had paid dearly for the privilege. No one was supposed to fix Drakken ships anymore, not without the Coalition’s knowledge. Almost all of their remaining raid money had gone to bribing a mechanic to circumvent the new rules. Rationing their supplies would be necessary all over again, something he hadn’t yet the heart to break to his crew. No, not until he learned more about his mysterious summons to the Ring of the Goddess.
A body slammed into his side. Finn spun, dagger in hand. Hooking his boot under a stranger’s leg, he threw the large man to the ground. The stench of alcohol rising up from the drunk was almost strong enough to make his eyes water. With the drunkard as a distraction, someone who hadn’t grown up on the streets—as he had—might not have felt the light touch of fingers on the empty leather money pouch attached to his belt. He had the pickpocket in his hands and off the ground in half a breath. Through the red haze of anger, he saw two eyes go wide with fear.
He dropped the thief to the ground, making sure to show the glint of his blade. “You’d better run, boy.” The child dashed away. “Run!” he shouted after the waif, old memories whispering. He’d been in those shoes before; he knew what it was like, being so hungry that you felt immune to risk.
Finn exhaled as his pulse slowed. A pickpocket this time, a thief with more murderous intentions the next. He was a target. The men and women in his crew were targets. No matter how tattered their uniforms, they were several levels up from what most people wore around here. Any one of them could be ambushed at any time, ending the day on their backs in a pool of blood, all for the price of what little possessions of value they had. The Borderlands had always been a dangerous place. Now there was an air of acute desperation.
But now Finn could have a way out of this dead-end spiral, an escape—an escape or a trapdoor? He didn’t know. The Coalition Headquarters had commanded that he show up at the Ring. A personal note was attached to the orders, signed by the leader of the Coalition Space Forces, Prime-Admiral Zaafran. As if the idea of Finnar Rorkken—formerly the Scourge of the Borderlands—aboard the Ring wasn’t surreal enough, Zaafran had promised him “a great opportunity” and gushed that he was looking forward to meeting him. Good gods, what would be next, a love letter from Admiral Bandar? The way things were going, he wouldn’t be surprised if he saw ol’ Stone-Heart herself sitting there when he arrived.
He almost wished she would be there. After all the games of hide-and-seek they’d played in the Borderlands, he felt as if he knew her. A worthier opponent, he’d never encountered. If he ever had the chance, he’d buy her a drink and brag about all the times she’d thought to have him in her clutches, only for him to slip away again. He respected her—aye, admired her—but he had to admit the male in him was more than a little curious about the woman who helmed the Vengeance.
No one knew what she looked like, although many guesses had been bandied about. No one who’d met her ever returned to pass along the juicy details. They were either dead or scraping ore out of the mines on the prison asteroids. Not him, oh no. He’d led her on one merry chase after another across the Borderlands until she’d been called away to more pressing duties—battles more critical to the survival of the Coalition than the capture of one pesky pirate. Battles for a war that was no more.
Peace had come on them fast and hard, but Finn welcomed it all the same. Now that he was out of a job killing Stone-Heart’s people, and she was out of a job killing his, maybe they’d have time for that drink after all.
You’re delusional, Rorkken. Aye, something told him that Stone-Heart didn’t view him in quite the same way as he did her.
Finn clamped a bio-pick between his teeth as he scoped out the noisy, crowded, shadowy bar. Invisible bots spread through his mouth in a refreshing wave, eliminating any sourness. The pick had been a welcome little novelty found amongst other, more important supplies from that Borderlands raid. The Coalition had lived with such hi-tech for generations. The Drakken had lived with whatever they could steal, or rather, appropriate. Other than their machines of war and weapons, they were centuries behind the Coalition in technological advances.
However, there was a newcomer to this two-sided game—Earth. When it came to tech, the Terrans made the Drakken look downright advanced. Luckily for them, their world’s new status as a Holy Shrine protected the Terrans, thanks to their planet being the birthplace of the Coalition queen’s consort. That’s what Finn called “marrying up.” Quite an outsized achievement for such a far-flung, water-covered little rock.
“Ripped my poor heart in two . . . two-ooh-ooooh.”
A terrible sound invaded Finn’s thoughts. A group near the front of the bar belted out a song—an old ditty favored by soldiers about a cheating lover. They sang so off-key that his eardrums twitched.
“Shut up!” a patron bellowed. The singing grew louder. “I said shut the freep up!” Glass shattered, then a table collapsed, spilling its contents on everybody sitting nearby.
Finn sidestepped a squirming pile of laughing, alcohol-soaked revelers, a few of whom belonged to him. He rolled his eyes. It was time to haul his crew out of the bar before they were too drunk to find their way back to the ship. Then he’d tell them about the change in plans.
The musical tinkle of female laughter drifted over. A group of women stood off to the side, giggling and ogling him, waiting for a signal to come closer—either one or all of them. An image of their naked bodies writhing under and over his lasted only seconds and barely registered between his legs. Zaafran’s orders and what they could mean commanded too much of his imagination. If the outcome were to be as good as he hoped, there’d be plenty of time for such sport soon, for both him and his crew.
With a sly, regretful glance in the direction of the women—which got them tittering all over again—Finn crossed to the rear of the bar. He found his second-in-command leaning heavily on a grimy counter in the company of a skinny little wench. “Gather the crew, Zurykk. We’re off.”
“We’ve only just gotten started, boss.”
Finn circled his hand. “We’ve got orders—out.”
“What do you mean—orders?” Zurykk pushed herself upright. The wench trying to cuddle up to his first officer protested. She was small, hollow-eyed, and intent on stealing the last dregs of Zurykk’s meal. A girl that age should be in school, not at a soldier’s bar. Problem was that the last years of Warlord Rakkuu’s aggressive campaign to topple the Coalition had frayed what little had been left of their society’s edges. Under the Drakken warlord’s rule, unnecessary services such as education had suffered. People were now too busy reeling from the horrors of war—too numb to salvage their humanity from the shadow of its unbearable atrocities.
Would the new treaty with the Coalition make things better or worse? Who knew? Times were changing. Finn intended to land feet first, like he always did. “Official military orders. Prime-Admiral Zaafran says he’s got an opportunity to offer me. ‘A great opportunity.’ His words. But he can’t tell me more. Not yet. Not until I show up in person.”
“That’s a bunch of flarg. Does he think we were born yesterday? We’ll make a run for it. We’ll be no-shows.”
“Not this time. We’re to report to the Ring of the Goddess no later than Septumday morning.”
“Coalition Headquarters.” Zurykk absorbed Finn’s determined expression. “Hells, you’re serious.”
“As a plasma burn, aye.”
“You’re going to waltz into Coalition Headquarters as nice as you please, expecting the same treatment in return. You—the unbeaten, the unrepentant, the uncaught Scourge of the Borderlands. We’ve done some crazy things in our time, boss, but not as crazy as this. The question isn’t whether you’ll be executed but whether it’ll be public or private.”
“Private, I hope.” Finn winked. “If that smart-noose curls around my neck, I plan to spend my last breaths on obscenities raw enough to make Stone-Heart blush.”
Zurykk snorted. “You need blood to blush,” she pointed out.
They shared a laugh. Blood was something that cold bitch surely didn’t have.
“Here’s how I see it,” Finn’s grin faded. “If the Coalition wanted my sorry ass on a platter, there are easier ways to do it than by making up some bog-brained story to reel me in. They knew where to find me. Why not catch me unawares instead of giving me the chance to run? For all the good running would do us—we’d be fleeing with our stores near empty and the ship coming apart at the seams. Having to rely on raiding to replenish supplies—in the midst of a major crackdown on piracy, with the Coalition hot on our asses. When it comes to odds, I like what I see waiting at the Ring better.”
“Well, when you put it like that.” Zurykk scraped a hand over her face, over high, rounded cheekbones that crinkled her eyes into slits of brilliant blue. Old soul eyes. Long sleeves covered the burn-puckered skin on her arms, but her tattooed knuckles revealed the scars of long years in service to the Empire. They’d all suffered personal losses from the war, but Zurykk’s were steeper than most. “Our backs are to the wall, aye. But to trot into the Coalition’s hands like an obedient pet? I don’t know, boss.”
“No. We show up, pride intact—like the military professionals we are—following a superior’s orders. No shame in that. We find out what the Prime-Admiral’s got up his gilt-crusted sleeve before we make up our minds about our options.” Finn ducked as a boot flew past his head. “Unless you’d rather stay here and go belly-up on this backwater mud bucket.”
Zurykk slid the plate of food in the direction of the skinny girl, who quickly gobbled up the scraps. “I’d take that freepin’ noose around my neck first.”
Finn slapped her on the arm. “Good. Find Bolivarr and round up the crew.”
“Aye, aye, boss.”
Their security officer appeared from the shadows to join Zurykk. The way Bolivarr moved, with stealthy, fluid grace, like a shadow himself, reminded Finn that the man had been an Imperial Wraith—before they’d found him late one night, unconscious and bleeding, much of his memory erased. Once one of the warlord’s feared assassins, he was now a hitchhiker dependent on his ship captain’s mercy. Finn was damned glad to have him along.
The two officers pulled the remainder of the crew off their chairs, up from the floor, and out of their cots on the second floor, tearing them from the arms of lovers or bowls of greasy, cheap, but belly-warming stew. Rakkelle, his latest pilot, pulled her shirt over surprisingly delicate breasts—a few red splotches on her skin told him she’d been engaged in activities anything but delicate. Finn hated to interrupt any of them. Without combat to deplete them, the crew needed a way to vent their energy. Better sex than bar fights that could leave them dead, or worse, badly injured. These days, with medical supplies hard to come by, they needed to preserve what little they had stored.
With his men and women grumbling all around, Finn walked through the cold and soaking drizzle. Bolivarr matched his strides, a quiet, calming presence. Then Rakkelle caught up, prancing and splashing alongside them. Finn glanced at her face but thought of her breasts, and he felt a twinge at the thought of tasting them. Lusty, little Rakkelle wouldn’t mind nor would anyone else working alongside them on the Pride. Drakken fleet culture allowed fraternization, even encouraged it—one way of making the long voyages under terrible conditions bearable. But Warleader Finnar Rorkken didn’t sleep with shipmates. He still had a few principles to go along with his hard-won title. A few.
Fewer principles by the day, he thought, reminded of their precarious situation.
“Zurykk says we’re heading out,” Rakkelle said. “Hells yeah! I’ve been itching to fly off this scummy rock. Where to, this time?”
“The Ring of the Goddess.”
She blinked then let out a husky war cry, spinning around to face the others. “The Ring! We’re going to the freepin’ Ring! We’ll slice off their wee little Coalition balls and crack ’em like gornuts!”
The crew roared like they once had before battle.
“Shut your traps!” Finn rested a hand on the butt of his dozer, glaring at the noisy men and women who knew he’d use the firearm if provoked. It was no different from his pirate days—a strong arm kept a Drakken crew in line. “My presence is required at Coalition Headquarters. Prime-Admiral Zaafran wants to meet with me. He claims he’s got something good to offer.”
Boos and curses came in response, quickly self-extinguished when they saw his thumb hover over the safety. “If anyone here has a problem with following military orders, do let me know.”
“But boss—” His weapons sergeant, Ekko, sounded almost meek, rare for the large man. “They’re the Coalition’s orders.”
“We’re the Coalition now. Whether or not you like it, get used to it. The galaxy is one big happy family. All right, maybe not happy, but we’re on the same side. Understood? Show some respect. Now, move your sorry asses! We’ve a timetable to keep.”
He strode on ahead, letting damp, cool air wash over him. His warship glinted darkly, evilly, a giant amongst the smaller ships in the port. His ship, his Pride. With most Drakken vessels bearing monikers such as Blood Wrath, Scourge of Death, and even Stench, his ship’s name had been the source of ridicule at first. One by one, his disparagers had learned the consequences of that. Now his rig commanded respect wherever they went.
What is granted can be taken back, no matter how hard you’ve worked to win it. Finn had learned that lesson well. If he had to fight to keep his ship, fight to keep his career, he was ready. It would be nothing new. He’d struggled for everything that came his way, from the moment of his birth until now; fought for every blasted bite of food, it sometimes seemed. From skinny street urchin to opportunist pirate—to working his way up the ranks, from conscript to decorated warleader—he’d busted his ass for it all. He threw a grateful glance at the heavens in thanks for all the near misses, lucky breaks, and last-minute saves over the course of his life. Being a believer wasn’t something one let slip, especially not while serving in the warlord’s armed forces, but clearly someone Up Above had taken pity on his sorry soul.
Again, his gaze slid over his ship. Ah, but it had been good while it lasted.
As if reading his thoughts, Rakkelle spoke up. “If it’s only you Zaafran wants, what’ll happen to the Pride?”
And to us? He heard the unspoken question loud and clear. Unease rippled through the crew as they hard-tuned their ears to his response. Their fates were tangled in his. In these precarious times, the loss of their warleader would be devastating. He was all that separated them from hunger and homelessness. Walking into Coalition Headquarters might mean the end of him, but it was a risk he would face gladly if it meant lifting the Pride’s crew from their current level of misfortune.
“I’m still your warleader. We’re still a crew. Nothing changes that. Hear me? I’ll fight for you to my dying breath. Which I don’t expect to take anytime soon, so quit hoping otherwise!”
That generated laughter, lightening the mood. Had he just made a promise he couldn’t keep? Feeling the sting of more rain, he shoved his hands in his pockets, the set of his shoulders and his long strides broadcasting that he was done chatting. Zaafran’s so-called opportunity could be incredibly bad or incredibly good. Finn dreaded the former. His heart held out for the latter.