Authors: Tracy St. John
Tags: #erotic science fiction
Tasha drew a deep breath. “Well, here we go. It’s time to greet Empress Jessica. Are we supposed to curtsey or something?”
Cissy laughed harder than the statement warranted. She told her twin, “Jessica will break both your legs if you dare. You know that girl. No way living on an alien planet has changed her that much ... even if she is royalty now.”
Cissy checked the vid to reassure herself. Their youngest cousin, standing there in the bay on the other side of the hatch, looked impatient as only Jessica could. No, she couldn’t have changed much ... right?
Jessica’s mother Tara had been the sister of the twins’ father. While Jessica and her older sister Lindsey had lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the twins had lived in Lower Matecumbe Key. Frequent visits had made them all fast friends ... and had gotten Cissy and Tasha detained by authorities when Jessica had been proclaimed Kalquor’s empress.
None of that was important now. Cissy and Tasha would have given their lives for their cousin. Fortunately, it hadn’t come to that. Now they would be reunited with the last living members of their family. Excitement made itself the equal partner to anxiety.
The Imdiko flight attendant on the shuttle stepped up to one side of the hatch and smilingly bowed to them. “Are you ready to greet your family, Mataras?”
Cissy drew a deep breath. “As ready as we’ll ever be.”
The young handsome Kalquorian smiled encouragingly. Though he’d kept in the background during the flight from the transport except to offer them refreshments, Cissy was pretty sure he’d listened in on their conversations. His breed was dedicated to nurturing others. He’d have eavesdropped to make sure they had everything they needed. The Kalquorians Cissy had met, whether the solicitous Imdikos, the protective Nobeks, or the guiding Dramoks, were always kind to a fault to Earther women. She knew there were a number of the aliens who rejected the need for Earthers to breed with, but so far she’d not run across those people.
The attendant issued the open command, and the hatch slid away. Stairs descended beneath the opening, waiting for the women to disembark.
Tasha balked at the last moment. Since she was dressed nicer than Cissy, she was to have stepped out first, but panic asserted itself and she hesitated. Her hazel eyes wide, she told Cissy, “You’re the brave one. You go first.”
Cissy’s heart thundered in her chest, and she attempted to cover her sudden terror with humor. “The brave one? I thought you said I’m the twin with no sense.”
“That too. That’s what makes you so brave.” Tasha gave her a little push.
The women grinned shakily at each other. Then Cissy squared her shoulders and took a step forward. She’d always been the tough one of the pair. She’d protected her sweeter-natured sister when situations had called for it. She didn’t like to think about some of the things she’d done to make sure Tasha would not be hurt.
Cissy led the way off the hatch, holding Tasha’s hand at the small of her back as she might a small child. To keep her cool, she refused to look at the crowd of huge muscled Kalquorians, members of royalty and the elite. Instead, she looked at her cousins and aunt, seeking the old warmth of family thought long-lost.
Cissy needn’t have worried about their reception or greeting Jessica with regal decorum. Like the exuberant children they had been, Jessica and Lindsey shrieked with delight at the twins’ appearance. Cissy yelled back in a wordless shout of happy greeting.
The four women didn’t run across the space separating them, but they didn’t precisely walk either. Within moments they were in a knot of embracing arms, laughter, and joyful tears. Cissy thought they all spoke, saying each others’ names and talking over each other, but she wasn’t sure of anything that was said. The glee of full hearts overrode everything else, making words meaningless. Emotion ruled for several minutes.
At last the four women began to talk sense to each other, the first burst of exhilaration easing enough to do so. Jessica wasted no time in chortling and tugging on one of the belt loops of Cissy’s jeans.
“There’s my rough and ready tomboy cousin! You haven’t changed one bit, Cissy!”
Cissy snorted, her face ready to split from its grin. “Well, you have. When did you get so fat and ugly?”
Jessica shrieked with laughter, knowing the joke for what it was. In truth, she looked spectacular. The years since Cissy had last seen her cousin had been more than kind. Jessica was almost thirty now. Maturity, along with a few extra pounds, had softened her once too-stark elfin features. Jessica was still tiny, especially compared to the Kalquorians standing nearby, but at least now she didn’t look like a breeze would blow her away.
Elder sister Lindsey planted a kiss on Cissy’s cheek. Bigger boned with classically lovely features, Lindsey looked just the same as when Cissy had last seen her. “We’ve missed you two so much!” she exclaimed. “I can hardly believe you’re here.”
“Can I join in?” came a melodious and calm voice.
Cissy and Tasha turned at once to see an older, shorter version of Jessica beaming at them. “Auntie Tara!” they simultaneously cried. They wrapped their father’s sister in a hug between them, kissing and exclaiming with abandon once again.
When they’d calmed once more, Tara jerked her chin towards the three men coming towards them. “Here are the rest of us. They’ve been almost as excited for your arrival as we have.”
One of the three emperors did not have the typical black hair of the Kalquorians. Instead, his shoulder-length locks were the color of dark steel. Cissy was amused to have an emperor bow before her and her sister before he shook a warning finger at them.
Blue-robed Dramok Emperor Clajak gave them a mischievous grin. The expression lit his broad, handsome face and crinkled the skin at the corners of his eyes. “Don’t you dare bow to us, you two. I am glad you made it here safely, my cousins. Welcome home.”
The heart-stoppingly gorgeous Nobek Emperor Bevau also bowed to them, his red robes doing little to hide the equally perfect body beneath them. “And if half the stories Jessica and Lindsey tell us are true, the Empire will never be the same.” His perfect features grew even more impossibly stunning as he grinned.
His comment brought laughter from everyone, including the often aloof Imdiko Emperor Egilka. As staid as the eldest member of the Imperial Clan often was, his smile offered pure warmth as he added his welcome. Cissy thought Egilka should smile more often. It made his sharp features soften.
Apparently, he was loosening up these days. He even hugged the twins, wrapping them in the softness of his emerald green robes. Leaner than his clanmates, Egilka’s body still felt like muscled granite to Cissy. Nice. Very nice. She had to remind herself not to grope her cousin’s Imdiko.
When he released her and stepped back, Cissy fixed Jessica with a glare. “Oh, so you’re telling stories on us, are you? I think we might have a few of our own to share about the empress and the Imperial Sister.”
There was more laughter and teasing fist-shaking from Jessica and Lindsey. “Put them in chains and throw them in the dungeons!” Jessica cried.
Clajak gave her one of his naughty grins. In a voice kept low so only their family could hear, he said, “We don’t have dungeons, my love. As for the chains, you know they are reserved for you.”
Cissy bellowed laughter with the emperors and Lindsey as Jessica turned pink. The small empress punched her Dramok none too gently in the stomach. He laughed harder, not reacting with the slightest hint of pain.
Tasha set about rescuing Jessica from being the center of attention. “Clajak, I am so sorry about the loss of your father Zarl. Jessica always had the highest regard for him, so I can only imagine how it’s affected you.”
Clajak’s hilarity fled, but his smile stayed steady as he bowed to Cissy’s twin. “Thank you. I miss him more than I can tell, but at the same time I am glad his pain is over. His life might have been cut short, but it was full and he was much loved. For that, I am grateful.”
Jessica waved her hands as her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, don’t get me started crying. I wish you could have met Father Zarl. He was wonderful.”
That started off a fresh round of hugs between the cousins and Aunt Tara. Cissy was sorry for Jessica’s pain, but at the same time it was good to see her cousin still had a tender heart beneath her fiery personality.
Clajak stroked Jessica’s hair with a gentle hand. “All right now, my love. Zarl would hate to see you crying over him again. Especially at this happy occasion. More of our family has come home and we must be glad.”
He bowed once more to Cissy and Tasha, deeper than before. As if given a signal, his male clanmates and the other male Kalquorians in the bay followed suit. In a strong voice that filled the space, Clajak announced, “Cecilia and Natasha Salter, cousins to our empress, welcome to your new home of Kalquor.”
Dramok Ospar made his way through the greeting line. Now that the initial reunion between Empress Jessica, her mother and sister, and the recently arrived cousins had occurred, many important men of Kalquor queued up to meet the lovely newcomers. As a man who was not only a governor to one of Kalquor’s colonies but also counted himself as a friend to the Imperial Clan, Ospar had been one of the first in line to offer his welcome.
His famously charming smile appeared as he introduced himself with a bow to twins Cecilia and Natasha Salter. Seeing the joyful family brought together gave plenty of reason to smile. It helped Ospar’s mood to see the quiet strength of the one referred to as Tasha, along with the obvious spirit of the woman nicknamed Cissy.
Now that formal duty had been attended to, the governor of the Kalquorian/Earther colony of Haven felt concern worming its way into his thoughts. Worry and fatigue had become Ospar’s constant companions as of late. Ever since Imperial Father Zarl’s death, he’d had plenty of past misdeeds to ruminate over.
Attending the former Emperor’s funeral had been the reason Ospar had been on his home planet of Kalquor when the Salter twins arrived. The wily Dramok had hoped to return to Haven and his own clan once the last rites for Zarl had been performed. However Empress Jessica had asked him to be a part of the official contingent that would herald the safe arrival of her cousins. Ospar had never been able to refuse his monarchs anything. He delayed returning to Haven, though it grated on his nerves to be away from his Imdiko, Nobek, Matara, and son. Suspecting how little time he might have left as colony governor ... perhaps even as a free man ... had made honoring Jessica’s innocent request difficult.
He greeted men he’d known from his tenure on the Royal Council and when he’d been Kalquor’s ambassador to the Galactic Council of Planets. Ospar had been a mover and shaker among those who controlled the Empire’s destiny for many years now. Even newer councilmen who’d had little contact with him bowed in respectful acknowledgement.
Those old friends and former colleagues who hadn’t spoken to him before and after Zarl’s funeral now took the opportunity to do so. Ospar concealed his impatience with practiced ease. In truth, there was only one man he wished to have a word with. It seemed to take forever to navigate his way to a small knot of councilmen of which his quarry was one.
Dramok Rajhir saw him coming. Ospar knew his old friend had been on a well-deserved vacation when Zarl’s death occurred. Rajhir’s clan had rushed home to attend the final rites, but there had been no opportunity for Ospar to meet with his closest confidante in private.
Rajhir returned Ospar’s smile as his former mentor approached. The younger Dramok’s eyes were watchful, letting Ospar know Rajhir was as tense as he was. It was a bad sign. Even back when Rajhir had been a raw youngling, serving as Ospar’s aide when he was a councilman, he had been good at disguising his emotions.
Rajhir bowed to the men he conversed with. His voice carried to Ospar, still several feet away. “Please excuse me, everyone. I wish to have a few words with my old friend here before he runs off to his colony.”
The others turned and the air filled with knowing chuckles to see Ospar. They offered him bows, which he returned as Rajhir walked over to him. “Watch out for those crazy Earther revolts!” someone called.
“I worry more about the Basma’s followers,” Ospar answered. That shut up the teasing in a hurry.
Rajhir reached him, and the pair turned away from the rest. They walked to an empty part of the shuttle bay. Ospar made no effort to hide his assessment of Rajhir. The younger Dramok arched an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.
Rajhir was taller than Ospar by about five inches. His frame was leaner too, a sleek version of the muscular Kalquorian race. He’d been handsome and dashing when Ospar first met him so many years ago, and maturity had only added to his good looks. Rajhir looked the part of the noble Kalquorian: dedicated to honor and Empire with every fiber of his being. It wasn’t an air he put on; Rajhir had always been about duty to Kalquor.
They reached the area well away from the rest of those who had come to greet the Empress’ cousins. Here, they could speak with some measure of privacy. Ospar kept his ready smile in place, though he felt no more cheerful than Rajhir looked.
In a low voice, he asked his former aide, “Have you received any word on Zarl’s records yet?”
Rajhir nodded, his gaze moving over the rest of the councilmen in the bay. “The Royal Oversight Committee has narrowed the choices for reviewer down to two men: Councilmen Maf and Diltan, both who serve on the Ethics Committee.”
“Maf, huh?” Ospar eyed the councilman, who stood on the fringes of the crowd with another man he didn’t recognize. Both wore the blue robes of the Royal Council.
Sadly, Dramok Maf did not wear his well. Severely deformed from birth, the man’s body was a twisted, painful prison that left him a near cripple. Surgeries performed by the best doctors in the Empire had been unable to do much for the warped skeleton or distorted muscles. All they could manage was to give Maf mobility. Despite a strong, if not precisely attractive face and a brilliant mind, people tended to be repulsed by the sight of Maf. Some had even made the mistake of dismissing him as little more than a freak to be shunned, or even worse, pitied. Ospar, who had met the man and enjoyed something of a friendly sparring acquaintance, had better sense.