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
That did sound like Patter. Corso let out his breath, full of commands that were being taken care of without him, and breathed in another lungful of Benedetta’s essence. He didn’t smell smoke from himself either.
He squinted at Benedetta. “I’m clean.”
“Jorr said it wasn’t necessary, that your internal injuries would not be worsened by external dirt. But I wasn’t putting you in my bed smelling of destruction, so I bathed you.”
She had bathed him while he was unconscious. Shred it, he’d had a bath, with real water, and he’d missed it? And now he was in her bed. Of course it was her bed: soft, beautiful, enveloping, awash in sunlight. The kind of bed that could make a man forget his hard berth in the blackness of space.
Not that he was that man.
“You can go now,” he said. “I need to think.”
“Of a way to save our asses? I would be privileged to be your sounding board. That is what I was raised to be. In part.”
Hard to forget what she was, with her sex perfume and the staging of her boudoir all around him. “I doubt you can offer much in the way of strategy.”
She had undone her braids, and her brown hair looped in soft waves over her shoulders, but her eyes glinted with a fierce light. “I think you’d be surprised what I can offer. Not knowing who my eventual companion will be, I have been schooled in all the major arts and sciences. And enough of the minor ones to keep the dinner conversation lively.”
“The Union raiders won’t be stopped by lively dinner conversation.”
“But in an asymmetric battle such as this, they might be stopped by an insurgent gambit—one with our intimate terrain knowledge plus the
deployed in an unexpected retaliatory raid as the force multiplier that will allow us to prevail.” She smiled thinly when he blinked at her. “General Yuetzu had his l’auralya beside him when he fought through the contested Dust Province sheerways against supposedly unbeatable odds, and won. I told you, I have been thoroughly schooled.”
“I wonder why you even bothered calling for outside assistance.”
“What we possess in philosophy and knowledge, we lack in hardware. Most of our counteroffensive options required a well-armed ship.”
“And of course the l’auraly didn’t have those, because if you had, you wouldn’t be slaves.”
She sat back on her heels. “Your fixation on my supposed bondage is curious. And borders on galling.”
“Whatever you want to call yourself—”
“L’auralya,” she snapped. “Or, if your tongue can’t wrap around it,
He coughed out a laugh and his ribs ached. “Princess?”
“Indeed. I am pampered and catered to, polished and educated far above the norm. If in the end I serve my people—”
“Then the transaction is merely more explicit than most sociopolitical dealings. Although as a well-traveled sheership captain, perhaps you will correct my misunderstandings as I am just a poor planet-bound girl of no account.” She clasped her hands in front of her and tilted her head to one side, a picture-perfect pose for a patient student. Or a humble slave.
But her eyes flashed tarnished copper fire at him.
“Freedom comes at a premium.” Even to himself, he sounded stiffer than his bound ribs could justify. “It is worth more than you seem willing to admit.”
“And it seems to me the price of your freedom is you, alone in a stranger’s bed, because there is no one else who awaited your waking.”
His breath caught so fiercely the pang reverberated all the way through his chest, from his broken ribs to the scars across his shoulders.
“Etta! Etta!” The piping shriek from the doorway jolted them both upright as the little boy they had rescued stumbled into the room. He wielded his cane with more enthusiasm than necessary to support his wrapped ankle.
“Rooly,” chided his mother from the door. “Show your respect.”
The boy froze. “L’aurlya,” he said solemnly. But then he pointed his cane at Corso. “
called her Etta.”
Benedetta rose smoothly to her feet, her hands slicking down her robe to train the length into perfect folds. “
is an outworlder and must be excused.”
“Must be thanked,” the mother said. “Both of you. If you hadn’t been there...”
Corso cleared his throat. “We haven’t saved the planet yet. That ultimatum is still ticking.”
The three Qv’arratzy stared at him as if he’d spit in their pix. What was it with these people that they didn’t want to face hard, ugly truths?
The boy’s lower lip quivered and his eyes glistened as he lifted his face toward Benedetta. “When we were trapped, you said you’d sing me a l’auraly song. You didn’t.”
Though the artful fall of her robe almost disguised it, her feet did a nervous shuffle in hiding. “I didn’t think a brave boy like you would care about a silly song.”
“But you said—”
“Rooly,” his mother cautioned again.
“If it was a promise...” Corso goaded.
Benedetta shot him a hard glance as she stepped into the fall of light filtering through the window. But her voice was gentle as she sang, and her gestures drew softly shadowed forms in the arch of golden sun on the floor.
In my mirror, I see your eyes as you see mine,
I trace in silvered lines your face; our bodies’ peaks and valleys echo
As the mountain’s silhouette divides still water and sky.
Between us, edges dark to light, and silver in the seam
To mark the ways of our dancing hands, infinite and unrestrained
And more perfect in each other’s loving eyes, not as we are but
Who I see you to be and what you see in me.
Let me be the stillness and you will be my sky
And in the space between us, silver stars will rise.
As she drew out the unfamiliar last words, she held her outstretched hands together, thumbs touching, fingers spread. The white bandages were stark against her silvered skin, bound and achingly vulnerable. But on the floor, the shadow soared like something unfettered, a wild bird on the wing or a sheership. Dust motes hung suspended in the still air, and Corso’s chest ached, not from his broken ribs, but from the missing breath Benedetta seemed to have stolen with her husky song.
One sharp clap from the doorway broke the spell. Old Rislla stepped into the room. “Thank you, l’auralya; that will do.”
Rooly thumped his crutch. “But the song isn’t over, I can tell.”
His mother caught him by the shoulder and steered him away. “Blessings, l’auralya. And l’auralyo.”
Icere crowded behind Rislla. The youth scowled at Benedetta though he waited until Rooly’s piping voice, singing the refrain, had faded with distance before he snapped, “Why in a million tiny stones would you do that? The song isn’t for them.” He widened the scowl to encompass Corso as well.
Rislla put her hand on his arm. “Be easy, child.”
“Easy? None of this is easy. And now Benedetta is giving away the only thing we have left, our l’auraly secrets—”
Corso snorted. “It was a song.” Although the haunting lines lingered in his head.
Had anyone ever wanted to be his sky?
Icere tossed a tablet across Corso’s thighs. Would have landed higher if Corso hadn’t stopped it with the flat of his hand. “There is your pilot’s estimate of the mortar drop clock.”
Corso didn’t trigger the tablet, only stared from under lowered brows at Icere until the youth shifted uneasily. Satisfied, Corso turned his attention to the older woman. “If I’m going to work up a counterattack, I want to see what your people have already developed. I need a map of sensor dead zones in the planetary rings, and your system rep contact info too. If the UU is actually involved, you can’t make an appeal to them for aid, but I can start hunting down who might want to brainwash the universe. That could be useful information for stopping them. And I also need the location of the crystal mine.”
Rislla nodded at Icere. “Send it. Except the vein coordinates.”
Corso dredged up his scowl again, but Rislla stared back, unaffected. At least he knew where Benedetta got her glare-proof shields. “How am I supposed to help you?”
“You can do that without knowing anything more about the l’auraly.” She smiled. “Besides, everyone knows pleasure slaves have no secrets of their own, just silly songs.”
She drifted out with Icere behind her.
Corso swore to himself and pushed back the covers. Benedetta made a breathless sound and he turned his glare on her. “If you’re going to tell me to stay in bed—”
But her focus on the parts of him he’d unveiled made him forget the rest of the complaint.
was thinking about staying in bed. Her bed.
She looked…enthralled. The heat churning through his veins was half embarrassment. He’d never heard any whining from his past partners—at least not bad whining—but he didn’t fancy himself anything special either. His equipment was standard issue, if slightly upgraded proportionally.
“Where are my clothes?” He didn’t mean for his voice to sound so rough, but the weight of her gaze over his flesh was going to get interesting in a moment.
With one last lingering glance, she turned to a small wardrobe. His clothes hung tidily within, and when she handed them over, only the scent of fresh air clung to them. He mumbled his thanks and turned sideways to her.
Tangle it, but he wanted her to touch him with the same fervor that simmered in her eyes. He yanked his trousers up quickly, only wincing a little when bending strained his ribs.
“Your back.” She reached out as if she might touch him, but he flinched away.
“Long healed.” Though she hadn’t made contact, his skin tingled. He knew he couldn’t feel anything through the knots of scars, but somehow she had managed to work her way past the shield of burned-out flesh. He jerked on his shirt as quickly as he could, as if one layer of fabric could protect him.
“That happened on Lasa-Sept.” She made it a statement, not a question, which meant she’d read his file somewhere. “When they said you carried the battle, I didn’t realize they meant on your shoulders.”
“I didn’t carry it alone.”
“But you were the only one who walked away a hero.”
“I was one of the few who walked away at all. That’s not heroism. That’s luck.” And he had no doubt that some of those “lucky” ones wished they’d died with the planet. Sometimes survival came at too high a price.
“None of the other squadron leaders refused the illegal orders to pacify L-Sept. Only you.”
“And yet, despite my heroic last-chance stand against tyranny and despotism, somehow the planet is still dead. Which is about as pacified as you can get.” He slammed closed the tabs on his vest. “Where are my boots? And my weapon?”
“At the front door.” But she didn’t move out of the way. “Captain Deynah—”
“Corso,” he snapped. “If I’m going to kill for you, use my first name.”
That made her flinch, but she didn’t back down. “Corso, you’ve already risked your life for us. For the boy. For me. Don’t you want a taste of your reward?”
“I think we agreed on berries, yes? I could use some breakfast.”
She took a step closer to him. He wished for his boots, for the slight extra height to put him safely above her. But shorter though she was, she had no trouble resting her palms on the vest tabs he’d so carefully closed.
“We agreed on me,” she reminded him.
“No, you offered you. I didn’t accept.”
She angled her fingers under the tabs. “Would you like to accept now?”
He clamped his hands over hers. Not gently. “What are you doing?”
“Do you remember how you blew a hole in the side of the wall to come for me? My intention is rather like that.”
“And I’m the trapped little boy in this scenario? I’m offended.”
“Maybe you are the wall about to be blown.” Leaving her hands caught in his, she sank to her knees in a slow, sensuous slide.
He hadn’t done up his trousers yet and his shirttails hung out. When she knelt, her lips were level with the open placket—and his thickening flesh behind. His grip on her hands tightened involuntarily.
She glanced up at him, her gaze smoky, as if the fire they’d escaped still burned there. “We need you, Corso. I need you.”
“You already have me,” he reminded her.
“Not yet I haven’t.” She dipped her head forward.
And he jolted back, dropping her bandaged hands.
Thrown off balance, she caught herself with one hand on the floor. The way she looked up at him through her dark lashes made him think he should just abandon his shredded boots and run.
Though he might need the hazer.
“Oh, you’re one that prefers to do the pursuing,” she murmured. “My mistake.”
“I’m not—” He clamped his jaw shut. “You can’t buy me with your body, princess.”
She smiled, her flash of teeth a little too fierce to be simple amusement. “But I can buy you with berries. And credits, of course.”
“Get me the information I need or you won’t have anything to sell.”
She shook back the waves of her hair and stood, graceful as ever in her nonchalance. “You will have what you need. And that doesn’t include the coordinates to the qva’avaq.”
“You said you chose me because you knew I wouldn’t want the crystals.”
“Yes, well, we thought you would want me. And see where that has gotten us.”
It had gotten them in a tense standoff on opposite sides of her bedroom. Why hadn’t he just taken what she offered?
Because she would have given it to anyone standing in his place.
“I sold myself once,” he said softly. “And I ended up at L-Sept, watching a planet burn. I won’t be a whore again, not for anything. It was…too hard.”
She studied him, her silvery hands folded into a strange shape in front of her with index fingers and thumbs making two interlinked circles and last three fingertips lightly touching. Her wrists were braceleted in red where he’d held her too tightly. “I translated the song for you, except for the refrain—
—which is hard to paraphrase. It means, literally, ‘You are the light in my stone.’ I could light up your stone to make you forget a burning planet, Corso, but only if you want that.”