Authors: Ruby Lionsdrake
Tags: #General Fiction
(Mandrake Company, Book 5)
by Ruby Lionsdrake
Copyright © 2015 Ruby Lionsdrake
Thank you, good reader, for following along with the Mandrake Company series. I hope you’re ready to revisit Ankari and Viktor to see what adventures they’re finding. Before you jump into the story, please allow me to thank my beta readers, Cindy Wilkinson and Sarah Engelke, and also Shelley Holloway, my editor. I’ve been writing these quickly, and it’s been great of them to keep up!
Ankari held up the long dagger, eyeing the gleaming steel and testing the heft of the hilt. It was made from antler, whether fake or real, she could not tell. Etchings of alien runes—or what passed for someone’s interpretation of them—ran along the blade.
Shaking her head, she placed the dagger back on the black velvet tray the sales robot in front of her held. “Too frivolous. Do you have anything that looks amazing but is still functional and practical?”
“I assure you,
of our blades are amazing, ma’am,” the robot said, its mechanical voice managing to sound impressively haughty. “I will bring you more to peruse.”
The robot rolled away, its metal body spattered with holo-stickers that promised great discounts and affordable elegance. One sticker, which advertised beer by the bucket and half-priced tokens, might have been slipped in on the sly, by a casino manager from the floor above.
A long-suffering sigh came from behind Ankari.
“Can’t you just pick one?” Even as she spoke, Lauren Keys, microbiologist and Ankari’s business partner, kept her focus on the tablet in her hand, swiping her finger through columns of data floating in the holodisplay above it.
“I want something that suits him,” Ankari said.
“He kills people with laser rifles. What’s he going to do with a knife?”
Ankari thought about pointing out that Viktor had killed people with everything from daggers to throwing stars to carnivorous plants to his bare hands, but that was perhaps not an appropriate discussion for the bustling upscale shop. Two kids munching on caramel apples were standing nearby, prodding at the display cases with sticky fingers, leaving smudges on the pliable force screens. A few feet away, someone else’s bored child was climbing a vine wrapped around a pillar in an attempt to reach the glowing leaves that stretched across the ceiling, providing lighting for the shop.
“He likes knives,” Ankari said, but not with a great deal of conviction. In truth, she still sought inspiration for Viktor’s birthday present. To say he had Spartan tastes was an understatement. His cabin hadn’t even had a sofa or chairs before Ankari came into his life. “Unless you have a better idea?”
“A better idea for what?” Lauren looked blankly at her. She had probably already forgotten what they had been discussing, her research absorbing her attention.
“A birthday present.”
“Oh. No. You should have brought Jamie.”
That was a given, but Commander Borage had sent Jamie a miles-long parts list, asking her to use her smile to get a good deal on it all before the
arrived. The ship had taken a great deal of damage—and Mandrake Company had suffered their first deaths since Ankari had come aboard five months earlier. Ankari ached to see Viktor again, both because she missed him and because she worried about him. He had sent Ankari and her team ahead to Midway 5, ostensibly because they had clients waiting for them, but Ankari had read the truth in his tight jaw. The company had committed to a deadly battle, and he hadn’t wanted her to be in that danger. It had been over two weeks since they parted ways, and even though she knew from his brief comm messages that Viktor had survived, she needed to see him in person. She had never been in a relationship with a soldier before, and worrying while he was in combat had been a new and terrifying experience. Now, she wanted nothing more than to hug him, to kiss him, to slide her hands over his powerful shoulders and—
“In fact,” Lauren added, “it’s quite unfair of you to bait me with the promise of fresh lab rats and then take me on an extensive shopping trip.”
Ankari pushed the thoughts of Viktor’s physique from her mind—for at least the twentieth time that day. She had always considered herself an independent woman with little need for a man, other than for casual companionship, so the attachment she had come to feel for Viktor sometimes surprised her with its intensity.
“An extensive shopping trip?” she asked. “This is the only store we’ve stopped in. And we’ve been here for less than ten minutes.”
“A store utterly devoid of lab rats.”
“Aren’t you starting clinical trials on human beings soon? Why do you need more rats?”
“I’ve already implanted several volunteers with the alien intestinal micro flora, but since the mercenaries went into battle, they’ve been extremely discourteous about reporting in. Communicating over distance is
ideal. Since the lab rats can come with us on the shuttle, they can be more precisely monitored.”
“The pet store is on the level above this one,” Ankari said. “That’s the closest thing you’ll find here to a lab rat provider. Midway 5 isn’t known for its research facilities.”
Lauren’s lips twisted. “I know.”
“You can head up there on your own if you want. I’ll catch up to you.”
Lauren’s lips flattened as she looked toward the atrium. Where Ankari saw tourists in sarongs and tacky T-shirts, Lauren seemed to see something else, some danger perhaps. She was never comfortable outside of her lab or the clinic on their shuttle, especially since their kidnapping months before. Even if that had turned out well—or at least acceptably—in the end, it had been a harrowing experience. Jamie had recovered without trouble, but Lauren had grown more solitary and reserved than ever.
A winged creature slightly larger than a parrot flew out of the sixteen-story atrium and into the shop, flapping leathery wings and whipping a scaly green tail back and forth. It landed atop one of the display cases and watched the shoppers with inquisitive golden eyes. Ankari thought the cute, genetically engineered “dragon” added a restful ambiance, much like the chirping birds in the trees outside, but Lauren stepped back, an alarmed expression on her face.
“I’ll wait,” she said.
The robot that had been helping Ankari rolled out of a back room with three new daggers on its tray. It had to halt to let a man in a trench coat stumble across its path, pausing to support himself on the robot’s gleaming metal shoulder. He appeared to be drunk.
“I am currently helping another customer,” the robot said, “but I can be of assistance shortly if you require it.”
The man mumbled something unintelligible and stumbled toward a holodisplay showing a knife-throwing demonstration. Ankari glimpsed beads of sweat dampening his forehead before he turned his back to her. Maybe more than alcohol accounted for his stumble. Was he injured? No drops of blood dotted the floor, and he did not appear to be clutching at a laser burn or any other wound.
“Please examine these lovely and
daggers, ma’am,” the robot said after it stopped in front of Ankari, “and let me know how they suit you. I am prepared to extol the features of each blade.”
“I’m sure you are,” Ankari murmured, pulling her attention back to the display.
Whatever that man’s problem was, it had nothing to do with her. She meant to relax and enjoy herself this afternoon. She had been working constantly the last two weeks, using the business as a distraction to keep her from worrying too much about Viktor and the company, and she did not feel bad about focusing on something frivolous now, such as finding a birthday present and some new lingerie for her man. Technically, the lingerie would be for her—her attempts to buy him form-flattering undergarments had not been well received—but she trusted they would both enjoy it.
Ankari picked up the simplest of the three daggers, one with a black hilt and a double-edged blade. She could see Viktor using it, though she questioned if he would truly value it. He had other blades and the money to buy his own weapons if he wished them. Was it special enough for a gift? He had been good to her, sharing a side he rarely showed his crew, and she teased him more than she should. Now that the business was doing well and she had the funds to do so, she wanted to treat him to something he would appreciate, to let him know with actions what she struggled to put into words. She loved it when his eyes closed to slits when he was thinking bedroom thoughts, and when he reached out and touched her, his reverence made her feel more special than she ever thought she deserved. Would a knife have that effect? She imagined him holding it and stroking it, smiling as she thought of other hard, rigid things he had held while she watched. She slid her hand along the sleek dagger, picturing where she might slide her hand on him, if he were there with her now.
“I think you’re supposed to buy it before you start rubbing it like that,” Lauren said.
Blushing, Ankari thrust the dagger back onto the tray. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Lauren seemed oblivious to all things sexual, including relationships and men, but every now and then she paid attention.
“Just... practicing,” Ankari said.
Lauren’s brows twitched. She had not stopped examining whatever results she was poking through, but she did eye Ankari through the display. “You’ve had that lustful look on your face frequently of late. It’s only been a couple of weeks. Do you truly find it distressing to be without sex for such a minuscule time period?”
Ankari glanced at the robot, but its blocky face had no features, and it did not comment on the topic, merely continuing to hold out its display of knives and waiting for her to ask a question related to its wares.
“It’s not that. It’s...” All right, it was at least partially that. In the past, there had been plenty of weeks—and months—where Ankari had gone without sex or even thought much about lacking a lover, but her relationship with Viktor was still new enough that it was exciting—
was exciting. And he tended to grow extra randy whenever they had been apart, so that made her anticipate those reunions a great deal. But, aware of Lauren’s pitying expression—as if she was so far above such matters and thanked the Buddha for that—Ankari chose to speak of the other reason she kept thinking of him. “I’ve been concerned about Viktor. That battle sounds like it was horrible. It will just be good to see him again.”
Lauren shook her head as if she could not imagine caring that much about anyone on the ship. Or perhaps anyone at all.
“Aren’t you interested in any of the mercenaries?” As much as Ankari appreciated her partner’s dedication to her work, there were times when she speculated on setting her up with someone. “It’s true that some of them—all right, a
of them—are rough around the edges. And, uhm, in between the edges too. But there are a few with manners and good hearts.” It had been a pleasant surprise to realize that men who killed for a living actually could come to care about a woman and treat her well. She had seen it with Viktor and with Jamie’s Sergei, too, a glum and deadly assassin who thought nothing of killing people but who treated Jamie like a treasure greater than anything unearthed by archaeologists. Couldn’t Lauren find someone like that among the crew if she looked?
“I’ve already selected several as potential candidates for clinical trials,” Lauren said.
“That’s not what I mean, and you’re not so obtuse that you don’t know it.”
Lauren shrugged. “I feel no need for a sexual relationship with a mercenary or anyone else.”
“Not at all? Ever?”
“Never. If I choose to procreate at some point, then I will consider enduring intercourse for insemination purposes, but even then, I believe I would prefer the reliability of artificial means.”
“Enduring intercourse?” Ankari asked, her mouth falling open. “Haven’t you ever... I mean, you
had sex, right?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Yes.”
“But you didn’t like it?”
“It was uncomfortable and a waste of time that I could have been using for studies or research.”
“Maybe it wasn’t the right man. Have there been others?”
For the first time, a hint of color touched Lauren’s cheeks, and she looked flustered. “That’s not important. Now, if you’ve interrogated me enough on this matter, I suggest you finish selecting a gift.”
Ankari did not think she had been interrogating—hadn’t Lauren brought up this subject?—but the kids with the caramel apples wandered past, staring up at them, and Ankari decided that it was, indeed, time to end the conversation. She went back to looking at the daggers, this time keeping her interest clinical and not allowing her mind to wander to thoughts of Viktor holding hard, rigid things.