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
She glared at him over her shoulder from where she’d yanked the loops of her dark braids over her breast. “Now do you see?”
“Oh, I see all right.” Except he hadn’t really absorbed what she’d meant to show him. Without thinking, he raised his hand to the screen and traced his fingertip along the marks that allegedly identified the l’auraly.
He recognized the markings from popular vids. One long-running drama had even purported to count a genuine uncommitted l’auralyo among its players. The man had been kidnapped and his body was recovered not long after with his skin flayed and the word
carved in the flesh above his severed penis.
Benedetta had the markings. In her pale skin, the iridescent silvery lines glinted with her agitated breath. The graceful curls mirrored each other on both sides of her spine, rising up the slender column of her neck, swirling at the junction of her shoulders, and pouring down to pool in a glimmering pinwheel at the small of her back. Only half the pinwheel was visible, the rest hid tucked below the folds of her crumpled tunic. If he put his hand there, the pinwheel would just fill his palm…
He clenched his fist against the phantom warmth and dragged his gaze back to hers. With effort, he manufactured a dismissive shrug. “What use would a mercenary have for a pleasure slave?”
She pulled the sleeveless tunic up around her shoulders and turned to face him again but did not reseat herself. The screen blasted him with the full erotic effect of her body. He gripped the knot of his sheet to strangle the heavy pulse in his groin. He wouldn’t be controlled by his cock, not when her kind had been created for exactly that reason.
According to gossip—or was it mythos?—the colonists who’d arrived in the Qv’ar system during humanity’s second expansion through the sheerways had intended to follow the usual planetary domestication progression: a few generations of dangerous mineral extraction, followed by genteel agricultural export, leading to the more lucrative tech.
Instead, they’d found qva’avaq.
The crystalline element—unique to the habitable fourth planet, Qv’arratz, and found in only one location even there—had no worthwhile industrial properties, but it was unusually beautiful. The quicksilver translucence of qva’avaq refracted even the faintest light in subtle rainbows. The crystals spars, which grew in mirrored pairs, or infrequently in triads or quads, oscillated harmonically with their matched components, resulting in a compellingly intimate song.
Unfortunately, when carved into sparkling ornamental jewelry, the crystal tended to kill its bearers.
The wasting deaths were preceded by strange periods of lust and longing and sexual madness, and thus the stories began. Those who wore the stones and survived exuded an odd intensity of allure, as if the stunning crystal had been absorbed into their beings and shone out through their erogenous zones.
A few dissections confirmed the element had indeed merged with their bodies. The metallotropic liquid crystal infused the nervous system and surfaced through transdermal rivulets where the concentration of nerve endings was high. The qva’avaq threaded over the survivors’ skin in silvery whorls, permanently marking them with shining, mysterious sigils.
The l’auraly—the “light clad”—were exquisite, vital and evocative. Extraordinarily sensitive, responsive and empathic, they would have been remarkable as physicians or artists or many other callings.
But above all, they made unspeakably excellent lovers.
The resonating qualities had given the crystal its name—qva’avaq, meaning “the still water that reflects the mountain”—and the ability to perfectly mirror the deepest desires of their lovers gave the l’auraly an undeniable glamour. Their rarity made them valuable.
Qv’arratz had found its commodity. Promising children were exposed to one half of the twinned crystals and raised to become l’auraly. To spare patrons from the high mortality rates of qva’avaq exposure (and thus preserve the spiraling demand) the other matched halves of the crystals were processed and carefully sealed. Each buyer received a lovely piece of jewelry, a necklace, bracelet or ring with the crystal light and song muted—but no longer lethal. And each also received a male l’auralyo or female l’auralya, afire and trembling with the full force of the qva’avaq—and utterly, intimately attuned to the keying crystal in the buyer’s hands.
Benedetta left the tunic unfastened, and the oversized torque—reflecting the same crystalline shimmer as her markings—rested heavily on the delicate ledge of her collarbones. The rounded finials of the incomplete circle angled downward, casting faint glints of color into the soft shadow between her breasts.
The necklace was too large for her, too dominating and masculine for her slender throat. But it would be just right for a man’s thicker neck: the neck of her future owner. Was that much of the aphrodisiac crystal coursing through her body?
Corso swallowed hard, his groin as heavy as if that torque were hanging off his sac.
“I am not a slave,” she said, her tone calmer than it had been.
He noticed that her self-control seemed inversely proportional to his; the more she flustered him, the more she seemed to find her confidence. “That is simplistic thinking.”
“L’auraly are sold to whomever can buy them. That’s slavery.”
“Not just anyone,” she corrected. She looked down to stroke the necklace, her oval nails ticking quietly over some texture too subtle for even the high-resolution screen to capture. “We take as a patron the one who best pleases the qva’avaq.”
He ignored the itch down his spine that matched the topography of her finger over the torque. “It’s a rock. How are you supposed to please a rock?”
She didn’t lift her face, but nevertheless speared him with a steady stare through long dark lashes. “It seems I will be discovering an answer to just that question.” When he opened his mouth to object to her oblique insinuation—he was not a rock, regardless of how part of him currently felt—she interrupted. “I am the only one of my kind until the keying ceremonies for the younger l’auraly. It will be years before anyone else in the universe, however far along the sheerways you might go, has this chance we are offering you.”
“‘This chance’ meaning you, pleasuring me.”
“Save my planet and the fire of suns will be as mere embers to the pleasure I will unleash upon you.”
Was that a promise or a threat? Or both? He swallowed, glad he’d grabbed the sheet when he had the chance. Her dance between innocence and smoldering anger provoked him in ways that would not enhance his bargaining position.
Not that he intended to bargain. “Not interested.” Though his voice was tellingly hoarse and evidence to the contrary raged behind the sheet, he wasn’t going to be pleasing cocks or rocks. “I’m not a slaver. Find someone else.”
“There is no one else. We’ve chosen you.”
He shook his head. “Then I’m sorry but—”
She raised her chin. “You
come to Qv’arratz and intervene with our attackers.”
The arrogant tilt of her head raised his hackles. “Why am I hearing an ‘or else’?”
“Perhaps your lonely years in the silence between the stars sharpened your hearing. The ‘or else’ is that you will lose the
A chill that had nothing to do with his sheet-only attire spread through him as if the bulkhead had begun to disintegrate, letting in the deadly cold of space. “No one can take my ship.”
is registered out of New Drakko, isn’t she? It would be a shame if she were scheduled for decommissioning by Drakko Federation edict. We can ensure such an edict never comes to light. But only if you help us.”
“Yes, by all the shining stones of Qv’arratz, we can.” She wrapped her long fingers over the blunt finial of the torque. “Did you know the recently deceased Federation sheerways commissioner paired with a l’auralyo? And did you know l’auraly come home after their patrons die? With the right incentive from a certain l’auralyo who fostered the new sheerways commissioner as a youth, we can make sure
’s papers are flawless.” Her voice hardened. “But that l’auralyo will expire, along with your ship, if you don’t get here now and save him. And the rest of us.”
The scars across Corso’s shoulders tightened. “Don’t threaten my ship. Do not.”
She held herself with the poised tension of a wild creature backed into a corner, on the edge of flight…or attack. “You won’t give me a chance to explain, so we won’t give you the choice to say no. What lies at stake is not only Qv’arratz, but perhaps the free will of every mind in the universe.”
“You talk about free will and then say I have no choice.” Incredulity—and a touch of fear—sharpened his tone. “The Drak Fed doesn’t own all the sheerways. I can stay ahead of them.”
When she shrugged, the blunt finial of the torque twinkled at him like a mocking eye. “You are free to do that. The
gives you that, doesn’t she? She gives you your freedom.”
And if he ran, he’d lose access to legitimate Federation business, making it that much harder to keep the
aloft. He swallowed hard, anger burning in his throat like the stench of spent fuel. “What do I have to do?”
“Come to Qv’arratz. We will show you more when you get here.”
His fists clenched. He’d already seen more than he ever wanted to of the fabled l’auraly.
Benedetta stepped out of the main temple hall, anxiety still crawling down her neck despite an hour of dance meditation. Most evenings, she would pause in the doorway to breathe the lush jungle air and admire the intricate tile work that decorated the one-story building and extended into the circular garden that adorned the center of the temple. But tonight her gaze was drawn inexorably past the high peaked roofs to the stark contrast of the night sky.
Against the darkness, the thin planetary rings of icy dust that circled Qv’arratz, the triple moons, and the stars beyond were as bright as the crystal around her neck. But one point blazed with an especially large and furious glory—emphasis on the fury.
Captain Corso Deynah and the
were coming into orbit.
Young Icere had put his eclectic l’auraly education to good use, tracking the elusive
. Captain Deynah obviously had experience flirting on the edges of danger and took no undue chances with his ship. She hoped he would prove a worthy match against their attackers. Old Yecho had consulted his former contacts in the Drakko Federation Sheerways Commission and assured her—after a hurried review of their limited options—that Deynah was the one.
Or maybe Yecho had said ‘the only.’ She’d been so frantic to find a way out of their predicament, her highly-disciplined focus might have failed her in that moment.
And for several moments since.
The sight of the captain unclothed should not have shocked her. She’d spent years studying the details of human nakedness, the patterns of burgeoning desire. But the jolt of excitement low in her belly—tingling outward through her limbs as if the light sprinkling of hairs across his broad chest and narrowing down to his heavy sex already rubbed against her—had been completely new. This time the man she was studying might be the one to take her a’lurily crystal.
She curled her fingers through the torque and closed her eyes as the caress echoed in the qva’avaq lines that traced through her skin. The pendant had hung a little heavy and awkward ever since it had been draped around her neck at her keying ceremony. She’d been told it would seem lighter as she grew accustomed to its heft and sway, that eventually it would become part of her.
At least until it became part of someone else. When
became part of someone else.
And now, that someone was about to touch down. About to touch her. She let her fingers slip free from the torque and glide down between her breasts. The careless caress made her shiver.
Maybe he wouldn’t take her. Maybe he would sell the keying crystal to another. Certainly that would be his best financial decision, since a pleasure slave—she wrinkled her nose—would be of so little use to a mercenary.
He hadn’t always been one though, or so she’d been told. Between organizing the healing circles and reassuring the others, she hadn’t had time to review the file herself. She had to be satisfied with the hurried assurances that Deynah could be compelled to do the right thing. Too bad reliance was one of the principles of acquiescence she’d found most difficult to master.
No doubt the captain would have similar trust issues with her.
Tension stiffened her usually flowing steps—so much for meditative dance—as she walked the tiled path of the garden and the short distance through the grove that surrounded the temple grounds. The smooth boughs arching overhead mocked her with their effortless grace. Of course, no one saw that the effortlessness was hard won; she’d spent many a long morning hacking back Qv’arratz’s monsoon growth. Now, not a single fallen petal marred the raked path, leaving her no excuse to pause.
Not that she intended to pause. She was the only l’auralya in existence still holding her own key. It was appropriate she should be expended to save the universe.
She halted at the outer edge of the grove, fingers clasped loosely in front of her, gaze tracking the incoming sheership as it grew from star to planet to falling moon. The
broke atmosphere in a blaze of rainbow light, fiercer even than her crystals. Beautiful.
The ship herself, though, was a thug of a vessel, cruel edged and space scarred. The running lights glared through the night sky, and the howl of the engines cracked the peaceful silence. Benedetta winced. In stories from Old Earth, asphodel flowers might soften the mythical fields of the dead, but this ship was loud enough to wake the deceased.
Despite her size, the ship settled delicately in the clearing, coming to a rest between her six slender landing struts like a crouching beast. The four rounded thrusters powered down with a quartet of resentful whines but remained poised for a quick takeoff, as if the
had no desire to touch the ground.