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Authors: Christine Warren

The Bargaining

BOOK: The Bargaining
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The Bargaining

Christine Warren

 

 

 

Dedication

 

For my readers, the most patient, most amazing people I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t be doing this without you.

And for true love, especially for those who refuse to let it go.

Chapter One

 

To be fair, Eric Deacon knew he was diving into deep shit the minute he made the decision. And to be even fairer, he did make the decision while being pursued by an elite force of Protectorate soldiers and royal guards, who were shooting stunners and blast launchers at his head. But it was still his decision, and it was still stupid.

He looked over the head of his teammate, Eve Cartwright, and into the eyes of his team leader, Michael Taggart, and threw caution to the wind. Not to mention common sense and any hint of self-preservation he might have once possessed.

That was it. When two men had known each other as long as Deacon and Taggart, some things didn’t need to be said. They could be grunted, or just inferred. Both parties still got the message. He saw Tag’s hand tighten around Eve’s arm even as Deacon released his own grip and reached into his pocket.

Beside him, Eve froze. He saw her mouth open, vaguely heard her cursing demands about what he was planning to do, but he was already in that mental space where warriors went just before they yelled banzai and dove into the fray. So he heard her words, but he didn’t really hear them.

He palmed the blast grenade and tossed her a grin he knew would drive her nuts, then rubbed salt into the wound by dismissing her fears and calling her by her least favorite of his nicknames for her. With luck, the “buttercup” remark would keep her mad enough not to spend the rest of her night worried sick about him.

It worked some, but not enough. He saw Taggart restraining her when she would have launched herself after him, but Eve had a point to make. Loudly.

“Shit! No way! Deacon, there’s no fucking way. We are
not
leaving you here, no matter what macho bullshit you have planned. Now get your ass over here and follow us!”

Deacon ignored her as he hooked his finger in the grenade pin. He gave his friend a grateful look when the other man covered Eve’s mouth to muffle her shouts. The last thing he needed in the midst of this insanity was the distraction of a shrieking woman, rebel major or not.

Blocking her from his mind, blocking everything from his mind but the grenade in his hand and the Protectorate troops in front of him, Deacon took a deep breath and released his last hold on sanity.

“Rrrraaaaaaaaaghhhh!” He roared, a primitive battle cry of rage and adrenaline, and pulled the pin on the grenade, launching it over the heads of the frontline troops to cut off their reinforcements. He knew he was about to get his ass kicked, but he saw no reason to lower his odds any more than necessary.

He heard the deafening thunder of the blast and felt the tremor beneath his feet, but he didn’t feel the confusion and shock the Protectorate forces must have, and that was the only advantage he was likely to get. Giving another war cry, he threw himself at his enemies, blaster humming and fists flying.

If he was going down, he was going down swinging.

The chaos around him distilled into crystal clarity, like a rec-vid he watched in slow motion. It always happened for him this way in fights. It felt like the rest of the world slowed down and he stayed moving at his normal speed. The first time it had happened, in one of the toughest matches he’d faced during his years as a ring fighter, it had creeped him out. The whole thing still felt a little too much like magic for a low-class station rat like him, but over the years, he’d gotten used to it. It didn’t hurt that it gave him a great advantage in some sticky situations.

Nothing could help him in this situation, though. He put up a hell of a fight, but when a man’s outnumbered by something around thirty-five to one -- they all started to blur together after a couple dozen -- he can only do so much. Like take a couple handfuls of the bastards down with him.

He heard the roar of the battle raging around him, but he only saw the threats immediately before him. He felt blows landing on his side and the impact of his own fists contacting flesh, but his entire awareness was distilled to its purest form -- the adversaries facing him.

Which is probably why he didn’t see the guy with the contact stunner who rushed him from behind and laid the charge right against the back of his neck.

After that, he didn’t see a Powers-damned thing.

 

Chapter Two

 

THUNK!

Nothing like being dropped from a height of four feet onto a stone floor to wake a man up.

Deacon’s lack of consciousness precluded his whole tuck-and-roll maneuver, so instead he hit the floor like three hundred pounds of unconscious rebel. Which he was.

He grunted and rolled onto his back, wincing at the bruising he could feel around his ribcage. He also had a knot in his neck the size of a small asteroid from the spasms caused by the stunner. When he opened his eyes, he found himself looking up into the smirking face of a truly ugly Protectorate soldier.

Somehow a few aches and pains started to look like the least of his problems.

The armed gorilla nudged him in the side with the toe of a size-“ridiculous” boot and cradled a blast launcher like a lover. Considering his bedside manner, Deacon wouldn’t be surprised if it was as close to a lover as the behemoth had ever gotten.

“Hope you’ll be comfy here, reb,” Einstein drawled, displaying a stunning verbal acuity. “Not that you’ll be staying long.”

Deacon ignored the fiery pain of the nudge -- he definitely had a crack or two going on in his ribcage -- and pushed himself up on his palms. “Got room service? ’Cause I could use an extra pillow, now that you mention it. Down, please, no fiberfill. Makes me sneeze.”

Mr. IQ blinked and scowled. “Shut up, reb!”

“And do you mind telling me the thread count on these sheets?” He nodded toward the dingy cot shoved up against one wall. “I have sensitive skin.”

The soldier blinked again, then resurrected his sneer. “Then you’re really gonna love it in the morning when they bring you out for trial. I hear that on Ankhar, the prince can give the judge the go-ahead to conduct questioning under the whip. What do you wanna bet he decides to do that for you, Miss Priss?”

Deacon opened his eyes wide. “Wow, that’s a great comeback. You write your own material?”

He thought the guard might have come up with another zinger of a response, but he couldn’t hear it over the dull roar in his ears caused by the butt of the other man’s blast launcher hitting him on the side of the head.

Man, that’s gonna leave a mark.

His head cleared just in time to hear his cell door slam shut, leaving him on the floor and his guard on the other side. Hey, at least he rated a private room.

Now that there were no eyes on him, he gave himself the luxury of a two-minute pity party right there on the cold, stone floor. He eased himself back down to lie prone, grunted as his previously tensed muscles relaxed, and stared up at the cobwebbed ceiling.

Shit. What the hell was he supposed to do now?

He groaned long and deep from the bottom of his chest and jackknifed to a sitting position. Even if he hadn’t decided on a next move, he figured he’d be better prepared to make it if he got his ass up off the floor and onto his feet. Something about reaction time and not whining like a little girl.

It took him a second to go from his ass to his boots, thanks to the creaking ribs and the new ache in his head. The guards hadn’t provided him with a trip to a medibay, though, so it looked like he was going to have to tough it out. Wincing, he lifted his arms over his head, testing his range of motion. The pain made him grit his teeth hard enough to crack titanium, but he was pretty confident he had near full range in an emergency situation.

He got the feeling an emergency situation would not be too far in his future.

Once he got his head to stop spinning, he took a good look around the cell to get his bearing. Approximately ten-by-ten. Solid block walls, probably eight feet thick. One window, set high in the wall, bars three inches apart, two-inch diameter. One door, solid wood about four inches thick, banded with wide swaths of metal in four places. A small window in the door, also barred. Stone floors and ceilings, one cot, one head, no table, no chair, nothing that made a likely-looking tool.

They weren’t giving him much to work with here.

He checked himself out next.

Two arms, two legs, and five digits on each extremity. Things were looking up. The cracks in his ribs wouldn’t kill him and neither would the knot on his head, the bruises on his back, or the scrape on his right shin. Looked like he’d live.

He patted down his pockets and cursed. Stripped bare. They hadn’t just disarmed him; they’d been smart enough strip him of his equipment, too. His standard comm unit was gone, along with the sneaky bit of technological wizardry he’d been wearing inside his ear and at the corner of his mouth. They’d confiscated his utility blade, his medikit, his minicomp, and even his bloody antique and all-but-useless compass. He supposed this was where he started being grateful they’d left him with something to cover his ass, instead of leaving him stark raving nekkid in here.

Well, this severely limited his options. He sure as hell couldn’t break through the bars or the walls or the door -- even he didn’t have a head that hard -- and without his equipment, he couldn’t contact anyone else for assistance. Which meant he had no way of stopping Tag, Eve, and the rest of the cavalry from riding to his rescue.

Shit
.

Standard procedure in Tag’s unit said that any soldier left in a vulnerable situation had to report back within four hours or be considered captured and awaiting rescue. At this point, rescue would cause a hell of a lot more trouble than it solved. Deacon had barely gotten Tag and Eve off this rock the first time. If they came back, even if they came back to get him, he’d kill them himself.

He paced the perimeter of his cell because he always thought better when he was moving. Plus, there was the whole if-he-sat-down-he-might-not-be-able-to-haul-his-sorry-ass-back-up-again thing. Ignoring the ache in his ribs and the pounding in his head, he weighed his options. They didn’t feel real heavy.

Option A consisted of doing nothing, cooling his heels in his cell, waiting for his morning “trial,” and smiling when they put a sword to his throat. He pretty much discounted that one right off.

Option B involved waiting here for another two to three hours for Tag and Eve to work out that he wasn’t on his way to joining them, at which point they would come after him and land themselves in water even hotter than what he currently stewed in.

Which left him with Option C.

Option C was the fun one. It involved three of his favorite hobbies: scheming, sneaking, and physical violence. He almost looked forward to it. After a mission gone wrong, nothing cheered him up like a little judicious violence.

It also required something he thought used to be referred to as “casing the joint,” so that’s what he did.

He ran over the cell measurements in his head, reviewed what he’d seen of the royal city before his and Tag’s cover had been blown. He hadn’t seen the prison itself, but it had been pointed out to them on their journey from the docks to the palace. Every bit of information helped.

He knew the standard uniforms worn by and arms carried by the Ankharan guards, which helped as well. He didn’t, however, know how many there were, or how many Protectorate soldiers had been brought in with Mokollik to try and pick up Eve. That didn’t quite help as much, but he didn’t really have a chance to argue.

What he could find out was how many guards were stationed outside his cell. On each pass by his door, he slowed his pace minutely and looked through the small window. Then he changed course and looked through from the other side. There was one guard stationed right outside his cell. Ankharan, not Protectorate.

Right. Maybe he should take a few minutes to think.

 

Chapter Three

 

Kili glided along the corridor, bare feet soundless against the stone floor, hips swaying in a tempting rhythm beneath the gauzy cloth of her
lya
. The traditional costume of the
nitara
left her exposed to the sneaky drafts that always seemed to creep in through the walls and marked her as exactly what she was ... a concubine. Her long, midnight-brown hair hung down her back and teased the skin of her hips. Her exposed breasts bounced subtly as she walked.

She moved the way she’d been taught to move, shoulders back and head down, displayed for all male eyes to see. Keeping her head down made her anonymous. After all, her identity wasn’t nearly as important as her breasts to any of the men who might be looking. Was it any wonder that she was about to commit the most serious offense a
nitara
could contemplate?

Kili would betray her master.

She controlled the nervous tremors in her hands through sheer force of will and kept her mouth curved in the mysterious smile she always wore and never meant. She couldn’t afford for anyone to doubt her obedience or question her actions. If she were discovered, she would die. And while death might be more appealing than her current circumstances, she wanted to keep that as a last-resort option. She preferred to at least make an attempt to change her circumstances before she gave herself up to them.

BOOK: The Bargaining
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