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
The pod skimmed atmo as little more than a burning meteor, nothing worth noting and too quick to catch, even if noted. He put down in a small clearing well away from the village and the temple and separate from the open space they’d been using for the
He took a moment to mark the location well in his memory. They might need to make a quick getaway.
With the hazer in one hand, he moved quickly through the jungle, following his scanner’s map until the smells of the temple—woodsmoke, incense, and flowers—guided him in. The temple buildings were dark, as he’d suggested before he left; no sense lighting a beacon for the dropping mortars. The attackers would no doubt be using coordinates they would have established on their initial mapping run, so they wouldn’t be fooled, at least not for long. Unless they’d been lazy, as the automated drop indicated, and not done their battle survey. In his militia days, Corso would have court-martialed the lot of them. The false beacon he’d had his crew set up just a few degrees off the temple and village might buy them some time.
Although, with helpful information from whoever was communicating with the raiders, maybe this could all be over by morning. In no time, Benedetta would be headed into the welcoming arms of some eager patron, and he’d be back on the
In silence, he circled behind the blacked-out temple to Benedetta’s rooms.
The curtains were drawn. Not even the faintest line of a lume stick glimmered under the door. He pushed through and quietly called her name. Nothing. Where was she?
A hint of alarm prickled through him.
She wouldn’t have…
He reconnoitered the rest of the temple. The old man Yecho was praying, on his knees in front of a single stick of incense, its glowing tip smaller than a star. Corso left him to it; couldn’t hurt their cause any.
But he scanned the building first, looking for electronics that might be sending the message.
Not every message going up was in their favor.
The two girls were asleep in the room behind the devout Yecho. They curled around each other, their heads bowed inward to reveal the backs of their fragile necks. The silver lines of the qva’avaq glimmered, as if recognizing him. He grimaced.
When he withdrew, the old man was standing outside the doorway. “What are you looking for, Captain?”
Corso pitched his voice low. “A liar. A traitor. A thief who wants to take everything I have left.”
Yecho raised one eyebrow. “I thought you might be looking for Benedetta. But she is none of those things.”
No, she wasn’t. Maybe it would be easier if she were, since then a mercenary sheership captain might have a chance…
Corso cursed under his breath, and one of the girls lifted her head. “L’auralyo?”
“Hush,” Yecho murmured. “Empty your hands, Torash, and go back to sleep.” His gnarled fingers traced a silvery sign through the darkness.
She gave him a drowsy smile. “Qv’auro lo, l’auralyo.”
“A qv’auro lo eso, child.”
As the old man led the way back to the temple, Corso kept scanning. “What does that mean?”
“The ritual gestures?” Yecho turned his hands over in front of him. “A blessing, and a reminder that if we are too grasping, too afraid to let go, we have no way to touch.” His smile was not as sweet as the girl’s—was more suggestive. “Has Benedetta not explained to you the l’auraly power of feeling?”
Nothing on the scanner. Corso grunted. “She explains what she feels like, when she feels like it. Which isn’t much or often enough.” What other secrets was she holding back besides the location of the crystal mine that was going to poison them all? “That phrase you said…
“Qv’auro lo, yes.”
“That was in the song she sang...” Corso trailed off when the old man gave him a sideways look. “She said it was too hard to translate.”
“Not at all. It means I love you.”
Corso couldn’t hide his inadvertent jerk of surprise.
Yecho pointed at the scanner and hazer. “Perhaps she did not want to burden you with too many explanations since your hands are already so full.”
Stalking away without a response, Corso finally found Benedetta in the central garden; he would have stumbled over her earlier if he hadn’t been creeping around behind the buildings. She knelt in the middle of the tiled path, the lines of qva’avaq tracing her spine exposed by the low drape of her gown, her face turned skyward.
He didn’t think she was praying, not if the tear tracks on her cheeks—glimmering in the starlight—were any indication.
Her sorrow pierced him, and he called her name softly though he’d only meant to find her, make sure she was safe, before continuing his search for the outbound signal.
She came to her feet in a rush, swiping at her cheeks. She made even that hurried, surreptitious gesture such a study in beauty that his chest ached; his broken ribs, perhaps, reminding him not all damage could be healed with a hypo spray.
“What are you doing down here?”
He hushed her. “We have a problem.”
“Which is why you’re supposed to be up there,” she reminded him in a whisper.
Quickly and quietly, he explained the signal.
She shook her head. “The first mortar drop that took out our landing pad destroyed all our outgoing capabilities, sensors, message sending, everything. We were cut off.”
“You got a message to me,” he reminded her.
She frowned. “Barely. And only because...”
He took her arm. “Because?”
“Icere was able to amplify his tablet.” She grabbed Corso’s arm when he started to whirl away. “But he could only reach you because we had security codes for the
through Yecho’s connections.”
“He could have the same codes for the raiders if he has betrayed you to them.”
“He wouldn’t.” But Benedetta’s protest trailed off.
Corso shot her a glance. “Wouldn’t? Or you don’t want to think it? You’re too kind, princess.”
She scowled. “No, if Icere sold us out, I’d kill him myself. But I know him; he wouldn’t lower himself to that.”
“You would be surprised how low people will sell out,” he said darkly. “The l’auraly say the qva’avaq makes you sensitive to others’ thoughts and…desires and feelings, but do you trust that now?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Yes.”
“You’re sure? Our lives are on the line here.”
She bit her lip and wrapped her arms around herself. Her shoulders—bared by the low back of her gown—hunched a little as she shivered. He knew that feeling of exposure, and it wasn’t about the clothing.
“Yes,” she whispered. “The same empathy that primes us for love will serve in war.”
Corso nodded once. “I want to believe you, but I’d rather know where everyone is tonight.”
She turned toward the darkened buildings, as if she could see through the walls. “He was angry when he left,” she mused. “He would have gone to the...”
Corso waited a moment and, when she didn’t continue, guessed, “The qva’avaq mine?”
But she shook her head. “The Hall of Mute Crystals.”
He grimaced. “That sounds ominous.”
“Not ominous, more…poignant. The qva’avaq, fused with l’auraly bodies, is tuned solely to the a’lurily key, and the crystals resonate only with the bearers. When a’lurily die, their keys are returned to us to be entombed in the hall.”
“If that hall is here at the temple, I’m surprised the raiders didn’t just take that easy source of crystal.”
“They couldn’t. The crystals are disconnected, essentially dead.”
They hurried across the temple grounds to a small building behind the prayer hall. They paused while Corso scanned for the signal.
“I’d heard that the l’auraly bond was for life,” he murmured. “But I thought it was just a legend.”
“There’s a phrase in the keying ceremony when l’auraly are presented to their a’lurily:
The brightest moon is but a reflection of the sun
. The l’auraly don’t die when their patrons and the key crystals do, but neither can they take other patrons. They return here with the muted crystals to teach and mentor.”
“Why don’t they...” He shrugged helplessly. “Do whatever they want.”
She stared past him. “
L’auraly reflect the deepest of desires. What is want compared to that?”
Her glib dismissal made him bristle. “Maybe they just don’t know what else they desire.”
Benedetta realized she’d said too much and glanced away, but Corso fixed his gaze on the scanner again and swore. “What I want is a fix on this signal. Maybe Icere isn’t inside.”
“He is not the one sending,” she reminded him, as she pushed open the door. “Icere?”
“Go away,” came the surly reply.
She glanced at Corso and tilted her head toward the interior. “We need to talk to you.”
“You and Rislla said it all.”
“Not Rislla,” Corso growled. He nudged her aside and shouldered through.
The Hall of Mute Crystals was as grim as its name; she’d always thought so. Like all the other buildings tonight, it was blacked out except for a small red brazier, tightly shuttered. The hellish glow cast more shadows than light and filled the small niches carved into the walls with darkness like the eyeholes in empty skulls. Except in these skulls, the decaying crystals shone with a faint nacreous glimmer. Ghosts, she’d always thought, but imprisoned ghosts, not even free to haunt the living.
Icere sat with his back to the wall, hands dangling between his propped-up knees. He would be a devastatingly handsome man, she thought dispassionately, as most l’auralyo were, but right now he looked like a lost child.
He scowled at them. “What do you want?” His voice was pitched just short of a sneer; clearly he wasn’t sure how far he could push Corso. That was an advanced lesson for the l’auraly.
Corso aimed the scanner at the boy without speaking, and Icere scrambled to his feet. “What are you—?”
“Wondering if you betrayed your people to the Union raiders,” Corso said bluntly.
Icere spun toward Benedetta, his expression stricken. “I would never do that! Béne—l’auralya—you know me.”
Benedetta sighed at the childhood nickname. He hadn’t used it in years, but it reminded her of a simpler time, before she’d understood the troubles of Qv’arratz, troubles only she would have a chance to relieve. “Stop, Corso. I told you he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Corso lowered the scanner slowly, obviously unwilling to give up their only lead. “Because your vaunted l’auralya gifts told you so.”
“I know what he is made of. I changed his underthings when he was a baby.”
Icere blushed, though his jaw worked as he tried to force down the blood rush through his skin. Yet another l’auraly trick he hadn’t yet learned, and Benedetta was suddenly glad he hadn’t been keyed to his a’lurily crystal yet. He might still make something of himself—something besides a glorified slave—if they survived… She shoved down the gloomy thought, but the ambiance of the Hall of Mute Crystals did little to encourage positive thinking.
Corso scowled at the youth. “You’ve been handling an activated tablet recently.”
Icere nodded, suddenly eager to help. “I was reviewing your pilot’s calculations on the mortar drone, wondering why they hadn’t tried to drop on us yet. And I was thinking, we can’t fully breach the protections on the timer, but if they try to trigger it, we could hijack the signal, replot its course, and maybe blow them out of space with their own bomb.” He glanced between them. “Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
Benedetta blanched. “You mean we could have done this all ourselves? We didn’t need to involve outsiders?” She had endangered Corso and the crew of the
Beside her, Corso stiffened. “Outsiders?”
But Icere was already answering eagerly. “Yes.” Then he hesitated. “Well, probably not. I wouldn’t have known what to look for without Evessa and Patter pointing me in the right direction.”
Apparently his sincerity, not to mention his eagerness to blow up the attackers, convinced Corso of the boy’s innocence. Corso stuffed the scanner in his pack and stalked away. His black ship’s clothes made him a demonic shadow against the red walls and fading crystals.
He stopped and spun on his heel to glare at them. “Where else can we look?”
Icere bit his lip. “The villagers have been putting the damage to rights. Maybe someone started on the landing pad and reactivated the communications relay there. No one would have commented on it since that would be a reasonable resource to rebuild.”
Benedetta nodded at him approvingly. “Do you think you can modify your tablet to pick up outgoing signals, like Corso’s scanner? Two sets of eyes would double our efforts and our chance of success.”
Icere nodded slowly then with more conviction. “I won’t be able to reach far though. Our technology just doesn’t have the range.” His sullen scowl flashed again. “We’re so far behind.”
He was right, Benedetta reflected as she and Corso headed for the village, staying quiet and out of sight. Qv’arratz had sacrificed more than its smartest, strongest, most sensitive children; it had given up its own evolution.
Corso’s thoughts must have been similar because he paused on the edges of the grove. “So many crystals in that hall, but you are the only one left.”
“Until Icere, Alolis, and Torash go through their keying ceremonies.” In the darkness of the grove, she wrapped her arms around herself. “I grew up with four other l’auraly children. Only two of us endured until our keying, and I alone lived through the ceremony. The surge of the qva’avaq is…intense.”
He shifted his weight so his shoulder brushed hers. “It’s hard to be the sole survivor.”
He would know, of course. She leaned into his strength, just for a moment. “Let’s make it count.”
They crept between the village buildings, like ghosts of themselves. The blackout and the empty streets made their job easier. But not more successful.
Corso growled softly. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“If our traitor stopped sending, would there be anything to find until he sends again?”
“If he left the transponder powered on. If a tether signal was still engaged. If someone responded.” Corso paced a few steps away. “More ifs.”