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
Her heart ached at the unspoken pain in his dark eyes. But she did not want to bind him with guilt anymore than qva’avaq. The deaths at L-Sept had sent him running for the stars; she would not lure him back with the false promise of a life in crystal chains.
The hint of possible resolution had energized Yecho and Icere. Though Corso suggested leaving the girls behind, there was no place they were guaranteed safety. So all together the group sped for the crystal mine.
Yecho huffed along in the back, keeping up despite his age. When Corso suggested he return to the temple, Yecho shook his head. “Rislla and I were acolytes together. There was nothing I could do to prevent the failure of her key, but I can stop her from making this terrible mistake.”
A mistake made of her own free will, Benedetta mused. She wondered what Corso would say about that sort of freedom.
Although she hadn’t known him long, she knew him well enough to guess; mistakes—even terrible ones—were the price of freedom.
Somehow, he had infected her as thoroughly as the crystal.
Except now she’d thrown away the qva’avaq bond. And maybe lost the captain along with her key.
Corso followed the coordinates toward the crystal vein, with the last l’auraly trailing behind him. He cursed himself, the l’auraly, the crystals, and other significant chunks of the universe, including the anonymous ship above.
And his princess.
The way she’d looked at him, devastated, the light gone from her citrine eyes. From the very first, she’d been willing to fight. Fight for her planet, fight the invaders, fight him. Even draped in that shredded crystal, with the marks of her bondage hardwired in her skin, she’d forged onward.
Until he’d broken the crystal. Broken her.
Yes, her hand had been on the other end of the torque when it shattered, but he’d been the one to drive her to that point.
And now he was charging through the dark, ostensibly to prevent the crystal compulsion of the universe, and he knew he would burn worlds, tangle the sheerways, enslave the stars themselves just to make her smile again.
The universe should be very, very thankful he hadn’t any such power.
In fact, he had only an old man, a boy, and two young girls, plus a distant hidden ship to set this world to rights.
The pulse hazer at his thigh was feeling very inadequate.
When they reached the location marked on his scanner, he paused in the shadow of the looming cliff face. Against the lush jungle greenery, the dark rock wall seemed out of place and shockingly bare.
“No sign the attackers have landed,” he muttered. “The rough ground will force them to take a shuttle down and land at a distance.”
The first pale light of dawn was just brightening the sky over the cliffs, which would make it easier to spot an incoming ship. And easier for any ship to spot them. In the soft light, the opening of the mine was a shadowed arch in the wall of stone. Around the opening, traceries of silvery crystal glimmered.
Yecho sketched an arc in the air. “The inscription around the doorway reads:
From the stone, we take our passion. To the stars, we give our light
Once, Corso would have scoffed, but he didn’t have it in him now. Instead, he slanted a glance at Benedetta.
She was already striding forward although she held up a detaining hand to Icere. “Stay with the girls.” When he started to protest, she gave him one hard glare. “Keep watch for the other ship.”
The youth scowled. “How am I supposed to tell anyone?”
Corso unwound the comm link from behind his ear. He tossed it to the boy. “Find a hiding spot close by. Signal the
on that if you see anything. And Benedetta has your tablet. Send one burst. Then get yourself and the girls far away.”
Benedetta had almost disappeared into the dark recesses of the mine, Yecho on her heels.
Corso looked at Icere once more. “Whatever you’ve been taught, I’ll tell you this: You aren’t only what you were born to be. You are what you choose to become. This is your chance to be a hero.”
Icere stared at him. “And what have you chosen?”
“Still working on it.” Corso plunged into the darkness.
They had brought lume sticks, but Corso was surprised to find, once inside, Benedetta’s stick alone was enough to light the way. Though the qva’avaq seams here ran too thin to extract crystal sets with matched l’auraly and a’lurily components, the glimmering traceries wound all through the corridors, which more resembled finished hallways than a working mine.
“Rislla will be in the core,” Yecho said. “That’s the only place where she would be able to get a signal out.”
As they raced down the corridor, the crystal seams thickened and Benedetta’s lume stick seemed to race ahead of them like pale flame, jumping from facet to glittering facet as they advanced.
Only a minute into their run, the corridor abruptly narrowed again, pressing them close as they slowed to a walk to avoid the sharp points of the crystals.
Yecho touched Corso’s shoulder. “You won’t kill Rislla if you don’t have to, yes? She could have been the most powerful l’auralya of our generation. She was to be gifted to an admiral who conquered entire star systems in his youth. She might have become anything.”
“A traitor, apparently,” Corso said.
“That was because of the flawed key.”
“Was it? Or was the flaw in her?”
Yecho stared down at his twisting hands. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. There are no more keyed l’auraly. Benedetta was the last, and now...”
Corso scowled. He hated how they spoke of her as if she were already dead.
As abruptly as it had narrowed, the corridor suddenly expanded in all directions, up and sideways. And down.
Corso swallowed at the sudden drop off beyond the toes of his boots. All of outer space was one thing, but this open cavern made his stomach roil uneasily.
The chamber was roughly spherical, though angled with the long-lost facets of the crystals that had been collected. The geological activity had been volcanic, he guessed, a bubble of magma about the size of the
, pulling whatever strange, melted elements had been in Qv’arratz’s mantle and percolating with waterborne minerals over eons to create the resonating crystals.
All that remained now, though, was the hollowed-out sphere. Streaks of crystal still shone from the walls, but large patches of bare, dull rock riddled the surface. At its peak, the mine must have been amazing. No wonder a near-religious devotion had been built around it.
And just as clearly, it was coming to an end.
From their entry point, a narrow path had been carved into the rock, spiraling down toward the uneven floor of the chamber. Benedetta was already well along the path, and Yecho and Corso hastened to catch up.
When they reached the floor, Corso realized how truly large the chamber was. What had looked more or less even was actually a maze where the crystal had been mined, leaving only waste rock and slivers of qva’avaq too small for recovery. In some places, the rock could be scrambled over. Elsewhere, the remaining columns towered over their heads.
Corso grabbed Benedetta’s arm and dragged her to a halt. “Don’t get too far ahead.”
She set her jaw but nodded and fell back parallel with him although their steps were out of sync.
Why did he even notice that?
Resolutely, he pushed onward. “Thank you for trusting me with the coordinates.”
She stared ahead too. “As I said, we had no choice.”
“You always have a choice. Especially now.”
She slanted him a glance as hard and dark as the waste rock around them.
“You aren’t locked into anything anymore,” he said. “You can be…whatever you want.”
“You are the one who was afraid of being locked in,” she reminded him. “And now you’re free. Just as you wanted.”
His jaw worked on words he couldn’t quite say. “That isn’t what I wanted. At least, not like this.”
She took a breath to answer, but he grabbed her arm and hauled her back against his chest. He showed her the image on his scanner. “Just around the corner. The crystal blocks most transmissions, but this signal is going straight up through the rock.”
“A good spot for her to hide,” she murmured.
“Let me go first,” Yecho implored. “Maybe I can talk to her, have her send them away.”
Corso lifted his eyebrows, but Benedetta said softly. “If he can convince Rislla to distract them, at least, the
will have a better chance.”
The uneven rocks left them a partially obstructed view, and Corso wasn’t happy with the way the haphazard footing would slow him down, but he nodded once. Yecho stepped around the rock, taking the lume stick with him. Corso and Benedetta concealed themselves in the shadows he left behind.
Rislla sat on an outcropping of stone, the transmitter on another shelf beside her. Whatever message she’d sent, she was obviously finished and impatient to get on to the next step. She tapped one foot against the ragged remains of a crystal seam beneath her but stood with alacrity when Yecho appeared.
She scowled. “What are you doing here, old man? Go away.”
He shook his head. “Who are you waiting for, l’auralya?
Her scowl deepened at the honorific. “In a way, I suppose I am waiting for my key. Do you remember Augheld?”
“The admiral you were keyed for? Was that his name?”
“I never forgot him.” For a heartbeat, her gaze drifted, softened with might-have-beens. “When the keying ceremony failed, he said he would have kept me anyway. The life I would have known with such a man...” The hard shine quickly returned to her eyes. “But Qv’arratz wouldn’t be shamed by a flawed l’auralya. They refused to let me off world.”
“I’m sorry we never talked about it.”
“Why would we have? You’d already been given to the commissioner. And when you returned after his death all those years later, what remained to be said?
” She turned slightly to stare up at the nearest node of qva’avaq. The aggregate wasn’t much larger than her hand, the crystals jutting out like a bouquet of flowers. Or teeth. “I used to come here and sing to them. I called out my note until my throat bled. Nothing ever answered.” She glanced at the transmitter. “So many years gone… Not until that first bomb knocked me out of my complacency did I realize it was long past time to make my own way.”
“So you sold us.” His tone was gentle but chiding.
She shrugged. “No one has ever had a problem with selling us, including ourselves. This time, I wanted my cut.”
“You know what they will do with this technology. They’ll have a weapon to enslave anyone they want.”
She shrugged. “They can’t enslave us. The keys to our crystals are long dead.”
His studious equanimity seemed to waver. “Rislla, why?”
“You know what one l’auraly was worth. Imagine how much they’ll pay for an entire universe of slaves.”
“This is wrong,” he whispered. “You are wrong.”
“But I’ll be free at last.”
Yecho straightened. “No. You will stop this, Rislla.” He strode toward her, the bold grace of his l’auralyo training still obvious in his withered frame. “Contact them now and tell them the deal is off.”
She laughed. “But it’s not.”
He took another step forward.
From the artful folds of her robe, Rislla drew a gun. “No farther, old man. I will have the life denied me. Far too late, but it will be mine.”
“It’s not yours to take,” he told her and reached for the transmitter.
From behind Corso, Benedetta darted forward, her bare feet flying over the rough ground. “Rislla, no.”
Rislla’s furious glare never wavered as she shot the old l’auralyo.
His robes ruffled a little, but other than that he seemed unharmed. Until crimson bloomed above his heart. The circle was almost decorative until it began to run in fatal rivulets down his chest.
Then it was just a bloody mess.
Benedetta, already in motion, caught him before he hit the jagged rocks.
Rislla tracked her with the gun.
Corso stepped out of the shadows, hazer sighted between the old woman’s eyes. “Drop it.”
She looked at him in the speculative way Benedetta had used in the beginning, l’auraly skills judging him. She dropped the pistol. “It’s too late.”
Corso risked a glance at Yecho. “It is.” In every way that mattered.
For a moment, her lips trembled. “He shouldn’t have tried to stop me.”
“Yes, he should have.”
She tightened her mouth into a strict line. “How can you, of all people, not understand what I went through? I would have been companion to an admiral. Not just a captain, but a ruler of galaxies.”
“I’m sorry for you.” And he was, in every way that mattered. With a short, sharp kick, he booted her dropped pistol out of reach. “But do you really think the Union raiders will pay you when they can take it for free?”
“Why do you think I brought the gun?” Rislla narrowed her eyes at him. “But we should work together since you do have the more powerful weapon. You’re a mercenary, Captain Deynah. Certainly you can see the opportunity here. Back to the shadows you go, while I wait. When my contact comes, you can make sure he complies with the terms of our agreement.” Her gaze flicked over Benedetta. “Should he be reluctant, we can sweeten the deal with the last l’auralya. Since you didn’t want her.”
Corso felt the weight of Benedetta’s gaze boring a hole through his back. “Interesting plan. So what’s my cut?”
Rislla pursed her lips. “Enough credits to make you admiral of your own galaxy. And I’ll give you unmatched crystals that will provide immunity to the weaponized form. That could be a lucrative sideline for you—peddling freedom from the qva’avaq to those who can pay—and very much in line with your character.” She stared past him. “I know where all the unmatched crystals are in here. When they chime, nothing answers.”
Corso swallowed. “I’ll be here when they come.”
Rislla nodded. “Meanwhile, get Yecho out of here. No sense bringing up more questions than we need to answer.”
With Benedetta hovering behind him, Corso pulled Yecho out of view.