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
He flinched. Just a twitch before he caught himself, but he knew she caught it too. Patter’s soft chuckle grated in the comm behind Corso’s ear.
“They are fine where they are,” he snapped.
“Aw, Captain,” Patter whispered through the link. “We can still shoot her after we eat.”
“Very well.” Benedetta swept her hand ahead of her. “Welcome to the l’auraly temple, Captain. Please, step inside. Do leave your boots on if that will make you more comfortable.”
Corso scowled down at her bare toes but didn’t kick the closure tabs on his heavy boots as he crossed into the antechamber. The interior was divided with hanging panels, dyed in subtle gradations of dawn and dusk hues, that blocked his view.
“There’s a hook there for your weapon...” She pursed her lips and then, with a shake of her head, drawled, “Never mind. Through here.”
She whisked around the curtains, but he followed more slowly, his boots silent on the smooth squares of the floor. He eased past the drapery with its delicate tracings of silvery thread, careful not to touch it in case the qva’avaq woven into the fabric might poison him.
Beyond, the tiled chamber opened wide enough to hold dozens of opponents.
Benedetta had kept her smile, but now there was a touch of wickedness to it. Only herself, one old man and one old woman, a youth working hard at the fuzz on his chin, and two petite girl children waited in a row. They stood with their slender, silvery hands clasped in front of them in matching postures as poised as they were subservient. Between them and him spread a long, low table laden with more platters of food than the
had passed in light-years. In the fluted glassware centered perfectly on every plate, small purple pixberries still bubbled in their own juices, scenting the air like captured sunshine.
Corso swallowed hard. The last time he’d smelled that, he’d been face down in a muddy enemy field, his shoulders burning, while the purple pix hedges blackened in the torrents of plasma raining down from the squadron of sheerships that had once been his.
His fingers tightened on the hazer. Too bad he couldn’t put a plasma pulse through his memories. He had to deal with them the old-fashioned way—by ignoring them.
“Welcome, Captain Deynah.” The old man raised both age-gnarled hands to his receded hairline in a deferential salute. “Thank you; a thousand times thank you, for coming in our time of need.” Despite a faint quaver in his voice, his back was straight as he knelt, and the sensuality that breathed heavy in Benedetta still whispered around his trim figure. The youth steadied him surreptitiously with a grip that had not yet come into its full strength. In a sinuous wave, the whole group sank to their knees—Benedetta a heartbeat behind the rest.
The l’auraly stared up at him with jewel-toned eyes. Instead of bartering in berries, maybe he could sell their eyeballs as ornamentation. But Corso knew he was being a bastard only to offset his realization that these living, breathing baubles of erotically enhanced humanity posed absolutely no threat at all.
With a sigh, he lowered the hazer. “Patter, Jorr, get in here.”
He crossed his legs and seated himself opposite the old man, avoiding Benedetta’s amused yellow eyes. He was limber enough to sit cross-legged but too tall for his legs to fit comfortably under the table.
The old man grimaced. “We apologize for the humble reception, Captain. Qv’arratz is in reduced circumstances at the moment.”
Corso waited while Patter and Jorr crowded the table. “Let’s talk about those circumstances.”
At his cold tone, his crew members paused, their plates already half filled.
Patter shifted so the carbine swung over his shoulder, closer to his reach. “Can we eat first?”
“Please,” the old man said. “Eat and enjoy while I tell you everything.”
“That would be a nice change.” Corso shot a brooding glance at Benedetta.
“I am Yecho—”
Corso directed his glare back to the old man. “Cancel the edict on my ship.”
“Already done, Captain. A gesture of goodwill. And good faith.”
Beside Yecho, the youth averted his face—a silent protest.
Corso sized him up in a glance. “You didn’t agree, boy?”
The youth froze, and the old woman settled her hand on his sleeve. “Captain, I am Rislla, teacher to these young people. Icere here is still learning the twin arts of will and faith.”
“I suppose that would be hard for a gang of blackmailing sex slaves.”
Benedetta sighed. The old man and woman didn’t react at all. And the youth, Icere, scowled while the two young girls blinked in confusion. What a group.
Yecho poured matching goblets of some sparkling liquid and distributed them down the table. “I know Benedetta has already explained the repercussions should the qva’avaq be weaponized.”
“She told me. I’m not sure I believe it.”
Icere surged upright. Patter dropped his plate and mirrored the youth with a carbine. Icere gave an audible gulp but slowly held out the tablet he’d had on his lap. “It’s all here.”
Corso sipped at the cup the old man handed him and let the tableau stand for a moment. “Patter, take the tablet and send a comm to Evessa with the data. Let me know what she finds.”
The youth flushed a dull red. “I double checked all sources. Based on my—”
“And we will triple check. After all, it’s
crew that could die.”
Benedetta snorted. “We hope you are better than that.”
“Me too,” Patter said as he punched the
’s codes into the tablet.
The girls linked their arms, their dark and light hair mingling as they huddled together. The blonde whispered, “We don’t want to die.”
Benedetta caught Corso’s glance for the briefest moment then dropped her gaze. He hissed out a breath, because yeah, he felt like a bastard right then too.
They finished the meal with awkward small talk. Corso and his crew had been a long time without fresh provisions, and the table, as burdened as it had been, was soon cleared. Corso pushed his goblet of pixberries to Jorr, then left Patter to interface with Evessa and Icere over the data.
He stepped outside, breathing out hard to clear the lingering sweet scent from his lungs, and stared up at the sky. At the almost inaudible pad of bare feet behind him, he stiffened. Benedetta’s more subtle perfume teased him, and his heartbeat ramped even higher than it had that long-ago day when the sheership plasma scorched the earth around him.
“Is it strange to see the stars from this angle?”
He glanced at the woman beside him. The l’auraly markings curled up the slender column of her neck to brush the points of her jaw, and the traceries glimmered even in the faint starlight. Every soldier knew, a sharp blow to those pressure points could disable. A kiss along those same lines could… He crushed the wayward thought. “What?”
She gestured upward, and the inner skin of her wrist glinted. “In your ship, you’re so much closer to them. They are beautiful from here, even through the ice rings and the light of three moons. They must be utterly amazing when you are up there alone with them.”
“You don’t see them at all in the sheerways. It’s all black. Unless you’re tangled, and then I’m told you see every star and moon and nebula at once in the nanosecond before your ship is shredded.”
She blinked. “Well, Captain Deynah, and here I wondered if you had any music in your soul.”
“Keep wondering.” As he wondered about her; how could she hold onto her soul when she was destined to be sold? He didn’t want to think about that either. “I suppose there’s no chance my pilot is going to uproot an error in your boy’s findings?”
She shook her head. “We always thought the crystals were inert without the unique Qv’arratz physiology. Not even all of our people can be keyed, and not all who are exposed survive the process. We’ve been safe until now because no one else could use them.”
“Safe, except for those people who died. And the ones who were sold.”
She moved a few restless paces from him. “People get hurt and die on every world through the cosmos. We are not unique in that respect.”
“Just unique in the aspect that you can be programmed to become the perfect mate for the perfect person.”
She glanced at him. “Now you sound intrigued.”
“I didn’t believe the stories. And I’m not sure I do yet.”
She gave him half a smile. “I can’t convince you with mere words. You must wear the a’lurilyo crystal to experience it yourself.” She touched the outer curve of the torque.
In the starlight, tiny points glittered on the inner curve of the crystal ring. Sharp enough to pierce the skin? Maybe, except a clear sealant coated the torque and protected the owner. Still, his hackles prickled. “No thanks.”
“What other reward will you take then?” She turned her steps in a half circle behind him. “You didn’t even touch the pix.”
He held himself still, though the prickle on the back of his neck tripped down his spine with her out of sight. “Keeping the sheerways open is more important than berries. We should bring in backup. If your raiders are a private entity, we can blow them out of the sky. And if the UU is involved, other consortiums will be willing to fight them—do whatever it takes, to stop them from commanding the sheerways.”
“Fight them long enough to take the qva’avaq for themselves? No, we can’t bring in anyone else.”
“You brought me.”
“Yecho and Icere trust you.”
He noticed she hadn’t included herself in that short list.
She stopped her prowl at a right angle to him, just out of arm’s reach. “You had the opportunity to bind a world to your bidding. And yet you chose otherwise.”
The dull heat in his face annoyed him almost as much as the sympathetic twinge in his scarred shoulders. His rebellion at L-Sept hadn’t been a choice; the men he’d once commanded had been trying to kill him. But he buried the memory under a hard smile. “Why would I settle for one world? With the
and the sheerways, the universe is mine.”
“I hope you mean that metaphorically. It was our calculation that—unlike our attackers—you will be able to resist the opportunity to enslave a universe.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “Why does it mean so much to you?”
“My freedom? You have to ask?” As soon as he said it, he realized, of course she had to ask. The reminder appalled him anew, and the truth popped out before he could censor it. “Because it’s all I have left.”
He dared to slant a glance at her, sickened at the pathetic sound of the words. But her face was tilted to the stars, and her gaze was frosted with the light. “Do you hear that?”
The faint telltale whine sent old memories racing in all directions. “Incoming. Tangle it, where’s my pilot—?”
Before he finished, his comm link chattered to life.
“Captain, we’re tracking a low-orbit launch. Looks like a remote minefield drop; timed. Sorry, sir, but it was powered down so we missed it on initial sweep. No other ships on sensors.”
As Evessa spoke, Corso grabbed Benedetta’s arm and hustled her back inside the doorway. “Point of impact?”
Evessa’s cool tone murmured in his ear. “Calculating… Looks like a klick downpole from your location. A small village by the heat sig. A missile from us at this angle will double the fallout.”
Corso took one second to think. “But smaller pieces will reduce damage. Get up there and hit it high as you can.” He spun Benedetta toward him. “Can you contact the closest settlement? Have them duck and cover.”
She paled, but nodded and raced back to the still-seated l’auraly. She snatched the tablet from Icere’s hand over his protest, explaining the situation rapidly as she typed.
Patter loped up. “To the
Corso turned his head to avoid the scent of pix on his first’s breath. “No, she’s going aloft now to counterstrike and neutralize that mine drop. We’ll be needed at the village.” His shoulders burned at the memory of scorching plasma fires.
His ship was all he had, and at a word from him, she would return to lift him off this rock, away from the raining fire on the ground and in his head. But if these jewel-eyed slave-whores were right, more than a planet—or even his life—was at risk; for want of this crystal, the freedom of all the sheerways could be lost.
What was his life compared to that?
He ran for the door but halted when Benedetta grabbed his arm from behind. “Can you stop it?”
He clenched his jaw. From the other side of the darkened forest, the
shrieked as she climbed into the sky at full speed, simultaneously launching a forward missile. Before he could speak, a rumbling roar drowned out the ship.
A red glow appeared over the trees.
He met Benedetta’s terrified glance. “Can’t stop a shredded thing. Let’s go.”
Benedetta paced the captain as they fell in behind the heavily-laden runabout rig bearing Yecho and Rislla. The elders’ anatomy skills would be needed tonight, she feared.
The captain barked orders to his ship above; something about redirecting the automated bombing drone without destroying it. “If they’re waiting for the autos to weaken resistance and soften us up for the kill, we don’t want them coming back early to see what’s causing the delay.”
Benedetta didn’t feel softened, she felt like a rock on fire—burning fury and heavy dread mixed with volcanic violence in her body. “The raiders aren’t even here. We can’t give in to them no matter how much we might wish it.”
He shot her a glance. “And wouldn’t you be more eager to submit when they finally return?”
“I want to kill them!”
“Well, a few more mine drops would take care of that. They have the timing of their attack well planned. The first bomb to announce themselves. This one to remind you. The next to break you.”
She chewed the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. No, the metallic tang came from the village ahead. “Oh no,” she whispered.
She stumbled as they emerged into the firelight.
The bombing had taken out a quarter of the village. The scattering blast had decimated buildings, and incendiaries were eating furiously outward in a blazing red ring.