Authors: Jessa Slade
Tags: #Firefly spaceship captain, #Linnea Sinclair, #Susan Grant, #Nalini Singh, #Ann Aguirre, #Queen of Starlight: Sheerspace Book 1, #alpha male, #space opera, #hot sexy, #futuristic romance, #science fiction romance
“Inevitable,” he reminded her.
“I know.” Something about the lack of focus in her eyes made him think she wasn’t talking about the wounded and dead on Qv’arratz or even the killing to come.
He gulped down the rest of the concoction. She whisked the mug from his hand before he could speak and upended both in the wash unit.
“Let’s go,” she said.
He blinked. “Where? You’ve done everything there is to do on this ship.”
In his bemusement, he let her lead him back to his quarters. Where she proceeded to do things to him that he was fairly sure had never been done on the
“The l’auraly training is very…thorough,” he gasped at one point.
“Save your breath,” she suggested as she reached for one of her veils and wound the silky pale green fabric between her hands.
He had a moment to wonder if anything could save him and then he completely forgot to breathe.
Benedetta stood in the field and watched the
launch skyward again. With Corso onboard.
They’d slept briefly, limbs entangled in repletion, as the ship completed the reconnaissance survey. Come morning, with the possibility of the raiders’ return, Corso had wanted to reshuffle the crew, with some fighters left on the ground and some returning to the ship.
He had left with the ship.
Only sensible, she knew. The
—and her captain—was Qv’arratz’s best chance. And yet…
She shielded her eyes from the rising sun to track the ship’s arc into space.
Why did she feel so abandoned, as scorched and brittle as the grasses behind the
’s rockets? He was doing what she’d asked—what she’d demanded, under threat to his ship; to end the threat so life could continue as it had.
And when had that outcome ceased to appeal to her?
Resolutely, she turned away from the rapidly disappearing ship.
Disappearing is exactly how this would end. The Union raiders would retreat. Corso would take his payment and be gone. And she—
“Benedetta? A moment please.”
She blinked the dazzle of the pale morning from her eyes and focused on the path toward the temple. Rislla and Icere stood in the shelter of the trees.
Icere waved his tablet with a frown. “We’re in contact,” he groused. “You don’t have to stare up at the sky and
your messages to him.”
She ignored him and focused on the older woman. “What is it, Rislla?”
“We have a problem.”
Benedetta tried to dredge up a smile. “Which one?”
Rislla didn’t smile back. “The villagers are dreading another attack.”
“We all are.”
“But they have taken the brunt while the l’auraly have been spared. They are grumbling like...” She shook her head. “I’ve never heard them talk like this.”
Benedetta scowled. “We’re doing all we can. I’ve given—” She bit back her own complaint.
But Rislla’s sharp gaze dropped to the crystal torque. No, her stare focused slightly higher. “There is a bite mark on your neck.”
It took all Benedetta’s l’auraly training to dampen the guilty flush that threatened. “I thought since the captain was going into battle for us, I would get his blood flowing.”
“Not into that part of him,” Rislla snapped.
Icere glanced between them. “What do you—?”
Benedetta lifted her chin. “I followed our teachings.” All the pleasurable ones anyway.
Icere blanched, finally understanding. “You squandered l’auraly gifts on a mercenary?”
“The mercenary who will save our lives, our way of life,” Benedetta reminded him. Reminded herself.
Rislla frowned. “Benedetta, you were to be our bargaining chip.”
“And I laid the chip down.” Benedetta couldn’t restrain a tiny smile at how thoroughly she’d been laid.
“But you are the last of us,” the older l’auralya fretted. “What you have done—”
Icere interrupted. “Not the last. I’m still here. And Torash and Alolis.”
Rislla shook her head. “So young.”
“I’m not.” Icere straightened imperiously. “I’ve been preparing all my life. Let me take the key crystal now. I won’t betray our cause.” He shot Benedetta a disdainful glance.
Coming from one of the oldest families on Qv’arratz, Icere had always considered himself a cut above the other l’auraly. He’d been tested for the crystal affinity as an infant and dedicated to the temple before he could walk. He’d been raised with them and still took great pains to remind them, whenever he could, about his ancestors who had discovered and refined the bonding of l’auraly to qva’avaq.
She bit back a harsh retort to remind him he was no better than they were. No better, really, than a slave.
Tangle it, she was starting to think like Corso. Rislla didn’t know the half of what Benedetta had given to him.
She took a tempering breath. “Icere, l’auraly aren’t keyed before their majority for a very good reason.”
“I know the mortality rates, Benedetta,” he snapped. “But I’ve studied the research. Survival is determined as much by strength of the psyche as by chronological age.”
“Which leaves you suspect on both counts,” she growled back.
“Children,” Rislla said, disapproval lowering her tone.
Icere straightened. “If you don’t think I can help, fine. I won’t say another word. But if you think the mercenary cares more about our lives than I do, you’re lying to yourself.” He spun on his heel—l’auraly graceful despite his pique—and vanished into the forest.
Rislla watched him disappear, her hands poised in the resting gesture. “He is so angry; as if he knows this is the end.”
“It’s not the end, l’auralya. We have the
.” And Corso.
But Rislla shook her head. “Even if we defeat these raiders, there will be more. Whatever secret they’ve discovered will be found by others in the end.” She touched Benedetta’s shoulder. “Maybe Yecho and I should have sent you and the younger three away. Maybe we should never have taken you into the temple at all.”
Hearing her unvoiced thoughts spoken aloud, by her mentor of all people, sent a chill through Benedetta’s skin, as if the qva’avaq had turned to ice. “But, l’auralya, this is what we are.”
“We are all what we are,” Rislla said cryptically. Then she sighed and dropped her hands to her sides. “Not that it matters. We are too late now. We will play this thing out to its end.”
Benedetta wished the other woman would stop talking about the end, not when the bombs could start dropping at any moment.
Rislla had started to walk away but she glanced back. “Yes, child?”
“Your a’lurilyo… Did you love him?”
Rislla frowned thoughtfully. “I gave him everything I was. And I was nothing else except what I was for him. Is that love?”
Benedetta opened her mouth to answer but found only a silence, deep as space, on her tongue.
Rislla smiled sadly. “I don’t know either.” She followed Icere’s path into the trees, leaving Benedetta alone under the empty sky.
The attack still hadn’t come. Corso paced the nav room on the
, staring down at the peaceful planet turning toward night. Evessa had already charted a patrol pattern, the best protection one ship could provide. Which wasn’t saying much.
Although maybe he was wrong about the raiders’ plans. Maybe he was so scrambled by l’auraly temptations, he had miscalculated and would get everyone killed.
Maybe he should just retrieve his planetside people and run for the outer reaches of the sheerways where no one could reach them.
Benedetta had said the old l’auralyo had voided the decommissioning edict. She’d also said she would be on the hunt for a true companion. She’d said a lot.
And, he reminded himself, she hadn’t lied yet. In fact, in a universe as black as the deadly paths between stars, she shone with truth, integrity, and courage despite the names he’d called her.
While he hid up here in his ship. Alone.
Evessa lifted her head from the nav board. As far as he could tell, she just liked to stare into the void. “Is there something I can help you with, Captain?”
“Are you trying to say I should get my tangled ass out of here?”
“Certainly not. You are the captain. The
is yours.” She paused. “But if you wanted to get your tangled ass out of here...”
He gave a sharp laugh. “And where would I go?”
“Back to the l’auralya. Where you want to be.”
“She is with her people, where she is supposed to be. I am here, which is my place.”
Evessa inclined her head. “As you say, sir.”
He tightened his jaw. “You think something else?”
“Sir, I only point the ship where you tell me.”
He snorted. “And you always tell me when you think I’m headed in the wrong direction.”
She lifted her starfield eyes—the black-on-black stare speckled with pinprick lights that marked a gene-modified sheerways navigator—and gave him a meaningful look.
“You think I’m headed in the wrong direction,” he interpreted.
She loosed a long-suffering sigh and pushed to her feet. “Our course is laid in, Captain. Do let me know if anything needs to be changed.” She let herself out of the room and the door eased shut, locking him in with his thoughts and the spinning planet beneath and the stars beyond.
world spun out of control so quickly? He’d fought with everything he had—he had fought with
than he’d been given—to become master of his own destiny, commander of his own fortune. Being captain of the
was the outward manifestation of all he had wanted. She’d taken him where he wanted to go. She was his home, his refuge, his escape, his everything.
But was the
still his everything?
When had he lost that certainty?
His gaze dropped from the dizzying view to the bare bench. He’d gone back to his quarters, but Benedetta had left her veil tied to his bed. The memory made him shift as his loins tightened. And though he knew it was impossible—the ship’s life support system would have processed the air a half a million times since the night previous—a whiff of her scent teased him.
The cold purity of his space had been changed into an intimate boudoir. The claustrophobia chased him out.
He cursed again, more softly though no one would hear him this time. Wasn’t that what he wanted; no one to hear him?
He sat on the bench, but the seat felt unreasonably cold, even though, once again, he knew life support kept the ship at optimal temperature. What was wrong with him?
As if he didn’t know the answer to that.
But how had she gotten so far under his skin? She was the one marked with the crystal lines, not him.
He pushed to his feet again and leaned into the curved viewport until he was surrounded by the illusion of hanging in space.
When he’d been trapped down on L-Sept, the pix fields flaming around him, he’d been willing to sacrifice the whole Lasa system to get his ass off that rock and back to the stars where he belonged. In the end, the price had been only one planet and the vast majority of its inhabitants, but still the survivors had proclaimed him a hero because all they’d wanted was their freedom too.
He allowed no innocents on his crew, precisely so there would be no more guilty blood on his hands. He needed that freedom. That solace. That loneliness. It was the only thing that kept him alive and sane.
But tangle and shred it, what if he’d been wrong?
What if the stars weren’t enough?
He pressed himself closer to the black, as if it could seep into his bones—a dark crystalline perfection of nothingness.
The comm crackled to life with Patter’s frowning face. “Captain, are you still there?”
Corso straightened abruptly and strode to the comm panel. “Incoming?”
“No, sir. At least not ships. And not incoming.”
“I’m on my way.”
Despite his focus, Benedetta’s shadow seemed to follow him to the bridge. She would be so curious, her keen intellect and open mind challenging him at every turn. And yet she had that quality that he’d never had: the ability to cede with grace and yet never be defeated, to carry the marks of an unchosen fate and yet not be scarred.
He pushed past the door to the bridge before it could finish opening. “What did you find?”
Patter had already vacated the captain’s chair, but he leaned over the arm to summon a heads-up display. “Here.”
Corso absorbed the implications in a heartbeat. “Not a ship. You caught a message.”
“And not incoming,” Patter concluded. “Outgoing, on the same frequency as the remote mortar drop.”
“That’s why they haven’t attacked,” Corso murmured.
Patter nodded. “Someone on Qv’arratz is making a deal.”
Corso mentally shuffled his options. “I’m going down.”
Patter reached for the comm panel. “Yes sir. I’ll tell Evessa to change course—”
isn’t going. Just me.”
Patter frowned. “Captain?”
“Everyone down there knows the plan we made to lay in wait for the raiders, but we can’t get the ship planetside in time without giving away that we heard the message. I want the
on a new attack course. And keep tracking that message.”
“Come up with something. We’ve worked together long enough. I’m taking a pod down. I’ll find out who’s talking to our invisible friends and why.”
Leaving his first to stare after him in consternation, Corso raced off the bridge.
was rated for atmospheric landings, they rarely used the shuttle pods. All four pods were rigged for emergency escape, traveling as light and as anonymous as possible. Qv’arratz didn’t have the sensors to track the landing pod, but someone else might be watching too.
Despite his words to Patter, Corso kept his ear comm tuned to the crew. Their bursts of planning chatter reassured him. Benedetta was right; they were a good crew. He had known that, of course, had chosen them to be exactly that, but he hadn’t appreciated them enough until this moment.