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Authors: Susan Grant

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy

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BOOK: The Star King
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"Mom? Yo, Mom!" Ian's voice came to her, as if from the other side of the ocean.

 

Inhale ... exhale ... inhale.
She frantically massaged her temples.

 

"Did you zone out, or what? Are you okay?"

 

She dropped her hands. "Frankly, Ian, I'm not sure."

 

Clinging to wisps of magic, savoring the last shreds of desire, she tried in vain to recall the last time she'd felt this alive without a paintbrush in her hand.

 

* * *

 

"No! I will not allow it, B'kah!" Commander Lahdo slammed his sizable fist onto his desk, tipping an empty vase onto the environmental control console. The lights dimmed and hot air began blowing down from the vents. "Hell and back!"

 

Still in dress uniform from the meeting with the Earth delegation, Lahdo unbuttoned his collar with one hand, while his other danced with remarkable dexterity over the blinking lights on the panel, returning his quarters aboard the merchant ship
Lucre
to normal. "I repeat, you have broken our most holy covenant. You are in violation of the Treatise of Trade, article four—"

 

"Paragraph nine, third line down, I believe." Rom B'kah settled against the wall opposite the commander. Propping one booted foot behind him, he folded his arms over his chest and recited: " 'No organization other than the
Vash Nadah
or its duly appointed representatives may conduct transactions for profit or other such gain.' "

 

Lahdo's expression said.
Need I say more?

 

"Commander, if I may clarify—it so states in the appendix that if no formal agreement is in place, the Articles of Frontier Trade apply, meaning independent merchants such as myself cannot be excluded." Rom peered out the viewport at the rainbow-hued gaseous giant with its odd red eye.
Jupiter,
the locals called it. "And I do believe this remote little system qualifies as the frontier."

 

Lahdo exploded. He punched the comm button, shouting, "Dram, call up the Articles of Frontier Trade—"

 

"Page twelve, subparagraph four," Rom offered blandly. He'd been reciting the like since he was a child. "My ancestors wrote the damned thing, Lahdo. But have your man look it up, if it makes you feel better."

 

The commander closed his eyes, his lips fluttering as if he were counting silently to calm himself. "Disregard, Dram." He pushed himself to his feet. Gripping his hands behind his back, he paced the length of the room. "You have the audacity to maneuver your vessel into my fleet. Uninvited. Then you announce your intent to follow us to the new planet.
Now
you barge into my quarters spouting some obscure regulation that says you can trade with them."

 

Rom lifted his palms. "I didn't barge. I knocked."

 

"This is your most brazen ruse to date, B'kah!"

 

"Another gem in a long string, eh?"

 

"What brings you here? And why now? No one's heard from you in over a standard decade."

 

"I'm looking for a little adventure," Rom replied candidly. "This is the first new territory discovered in years. The frontier is shrinking. And what used to be the frontier is now entirely
Vash Nadah
controlled. As it should be. But that does make earning a living a challenge, if not outright impossible for independent entrepreneurs."

 

"Entrepreneurs? Bah! Profiteers, the lot of you."

 

"I have a ship to maintain, Lahdo, a crew to feed."

 

The commander rolled his eyes, and Rom bit back his urge to bait the older man. The man was intimidated, understandably, for few men of his station ever had the chance to cross paths with a B'kah, let alone speak with one. But Rom was no longer heir to the most powerful family in the
Vash Nadah—
he was no longer capable of being anyone's heir, for that matter. But the prestige still

 

followed him. Romlijhian B'kah—the unrepentant pariah, the legendary war hero, depending on whom you asked. By his father's decree, he was forbidden from involving himself in
Vash
affairs. For that alone, his presence here made Lahdo and the others uneasy.

 

They'd get over it.

 

"All I am stating, out of sheer courtesy. Commander, is that my ship will trail the fleet when you are invited to land."

 

"But Earth will not let us land! They are suspicious. They fret over disease, or that we will attack. I have never seen such a backward, dark-minded, pessimistic little ball of dirt."

 

"Give them a ship."

 

"A ship?" Lahdo repeated blankly.

 

Rom offered a gentle reminder. "The inhabitants of Kaaren Prime were suspicious, too. We gave them a class-four merchant ship, a vessel far beyond the technology they'd had in place. It whetted their appetite for more. They all but begged us to land."

 

Lahdo returned to his desk. He called up something on his viewscreen studying the text thoughtfully. "A ship..." He was now oblivious to Rom's presence. "Class twos and threes, only. No fours. Perhaps the cruiser? No, that won't do. Too old, needs repair. . ."

 

Rom fought to keep his temper in check. Was this officer the best the
Vash Nadah
could find for this delicate mission? He found it easier to believe the rumor that the discovery of Earth had been made by accident. It would explain how this narrow-minded bureaucrat had been thrust into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unless Lahdo made an unholy mess of the initial proceedings with Earth, he'd be promoted, ensuring status and a life of ease for his family. No wonder he wanted to shoo Rom away.

 

Crossing his arms over his chest and drumming his fingers, Rom gave a sidelong glance past the partition separating Lahdo's quarters from the bridge. The
Lucre's
engineer was in the midst of explaining the ship's propulsion control panel to the group from Earth. The one woman, Keiko Takano, was animatedly asking the translator one question after another, her black chin-length hair swinging with each movement.

 

Something long dead inside him stirred.

 

Rom cleared his throat and averted his eyes. He had been stunned when he'd first seen that woman, finally realizing through a haze of shock that she was not the angel from his long-ago vision on Balkanor. Three of the men in her party shared that hair color; it was common on Earth, if nowhere else, the shade he'd thought belonged solely to the ethereal being who had saved his life.
Only to lead to your complete ruin.

 

But was that her fault or his? He'd chosen to remain under her spell when he should have sought refuge from the radiation—squandering precious minutes to bury his fingers, his lips in those strands of midnight, reveling in the tousled silk, inhaling the fragrance that was her. He'd been driven half-mad by her sheer responsiveness, the way she'd sighed when he kissed the tender place under her ear, moaned when he'd whispered his need for her, how he would bring her pleasure, all the ways he would love her.

 

She deserted you... when you needed her most. Vanished without a trace.

 

"Great Mother!" He shook himself out of his trance He was exhausted, pushing himself and his men too

 

hard. Only once had he allowed himself to succumb to his imagination, and look where it had gotten him. By all that was holy, if that woman from his vision ever dared take the form of living flesh, she'd better make damned sure she didn't find herself in his path.

 

He took his irritation out on Lahdo. "I cannot waste time lolling about while you catch up on your trade history lessons. I will take my ship to Earth when the fleet goes in. It is my right." Tempered by the man's expression of abject dismay, he assured him, "I do not seek to cause you trouble. While on Earth, I will conduct my business apart from yours. I will not interfere. And when my transactions are complete, my crew and I will leave."

 

The besieged commander sighed, then closed his viewscreen. "Very well, B'kah. I'll need your ship's name and registry number. Earth has requested the information. I must pass along yours, as well, since you will be accompanying us—
if
Earth allows us to land."

 

"Ah, of course, Commander. Name and registry number." Rom's mood ratcheted up a few notches. He was going in with the fleet.

 

Chapter Three

 

Aboard the
Quillie,
his muscles tense, his combat instincts pulsing in readiness, Rom turned in a full circle, slowly, holding a sens-sword in front of him in a sure, two-handed grip. "It's over for you, Gann." His voice echoed dully in the cavernous room. "Give up now and I might show you a bit of mercy—you sniveling whatever-the-Earth-dwellers-call-those-subservient-furry-creatures. Ah, yes, you sniveling little
dog."

 

Rom froze. He was certain he'd heard a muffled laugh. Quelling his own, he stared wide-eyed into a wall of complete blackness. "It's over. I see you."

 

Though not with his eyes.

 

The neurons in his body hummed, pointing to his prey. Honed to a nearly infallible sensitivity from years of training in Bajha, the age-old game of warriors, Rom's senses guided him. Following their ancient, mysterious direction, he trusted his body in the way warriors must, inching closer. Listening.

 

Though not with his ears.

 

He relied on the blood coursing through his veins, his tingling pores, and the tiniest hairs on his body, while he clutched the blunt sens-sword in his fists. Ah, he loved this aspect of the sport: the thoroughly arousing anticipation of a victory not yet realized.
Show yourself, Gann.

 

His opponent attacked, the rounded blade of his sens-sword passing so close that the wind sang over the tops of Rom's bare hands. Rom arched his back, ducked. Whooping in joy, he whirled, swinging his own weapon in a brutal arc from above his head and sharply to the right. He heard a grunt of surprise as the sens-sword vibrated in his hands, signaling a hit.

 

"Ah, hell and back," he heard Gann mutter.

 

"Lights," Rom said. The illumination came up, revealing his second-in-command on one knee. He pointed his weapon at him. "Give?" he inquired, breathless.

 

"Give."

 

Rom offered Gann his hand—a show of respect for the man he trusted as much as he had his brother, and the only member of the
Vash Nadah
willing to follow him into exile. Gripping each other at the wrist, they inclined their heads, formally ending the match.

 

Fealty, fidelity, family.
Like him, Gann was devoted to the ancient code of the warrior, one that stressed control and self-discipline. It was an honorable way of life, one that set the example for the lower classes—unlike the habits of most current rulers.

 

Fools, Rom thought, wrenching open the fastenings on his collar. Certainly eleven thousand years of peace was an accomplishment worthy of awe, but many of the
Vash Nadah
were using pacifism as an excuse for apathy, caring more for personal power, pleasure, and riches than the foundation of their civilization. If that foundation were allowed to crumble, the chaos and death of long ago would return. The Dark Years. Already there were signs of deterioration—terrorism, the destruction of supply lines and ships, previously unheard-of riots on essential planets across the realm. Had Rom not killed Sharron with his own hands on Balkanor almost twenty years before, he would have sworn the acts bore the mark of the monster and his cult following.

 

Rom's stomach muscles knotted up. The politics and future of the
Vash Nadah
were no longer his concern. He was estranged from his family, banished in disgrace. If the
Vash
wanted to wallow in ignorance and inaction in the name of peace, so be it. He was quite content to live out his life on the fringe, meandering along the ancient routes in the stars with his loyal crew, trading for baubles on backwater frontier planets.

 

Gann interrupted his decidedly dismal thoughts. "What was that you called me?" he asked, unfastening his white Bajha jumpsuit. "A
dog?"

 

"Yes. A
dog."

 

"I can match you epithet for Earth epithet, B'Kah:
A
-
okay-have-a-nice-day."

 

Rom said dryly, "Not something I'd care repeat to my mother, I take it?"

 

"Wouldn't risk it."

 

Chuckling, Rom draped a towel over his shoulders and squeezed half the contents of a bag of drinking water into his mouth.

 

"Zarra's volunteered to serve as translator," Gann said. "The lad boasts he's fluent."

 

"I've no knack for languages," Rom admitted. The fact had never posed a problem before.
Vash
Basic was used galaxy-wide; it was the language of commerce. Nevertheless, during the two months he'd wasted waiting for Earth's governments to decide whether to welcome Lahdo's fleet, Rom had been memorizing what little English he could, a guttural and oddly familiar tongue. It lessened the chance of being cheated in trade—should there be those on Earth who'd dare try.

 

He packed away his sens-sword, stripped off his Bajha suit, then stretched and flexed his muscles. He felt sated, alive. The game had heightened all his senses. A fleeting image of a bath—a real bath, not a timed hygiene shower—flitted through his mind. Next appeared a woman, offering him the gift of herself for a long night of lovemaking, yet another one of life's sacred pleasures he'd had to go without on the long voyage.

 

"Bridge to Captain B'Kah." His engineer appeared on the viewscreen positioned near the soundproofed ceiling.

 

Rom rubbed his head with a towel, then draped it over his shoulders, combing his fingers through his damp, spiky hair. "Go, Terz."

 

"Fleet Commander Lahdo is on the line, sir."

 

Rom exchanged surprised glances with Gann. "Mr. Composure, himself," he said under his breath. "Put the commander through, Terz."

 

Lahdo appeared on-screen, looking harried but triumphant. "Earth has cleared us to land."

 

"Well done, Lahdo, on keeping the Earth astronauts happy and healthy. Am I correct in assuming the quarantine experts on their homeworld have concluded we won't infect the general population?"

 

Lahdo's face fell. "No. Until an establishment they call the Center for Disease Control completes its final study, we will be placed in quarantine. A restricted area designated"—Lahdo squinted at a viewscreen on his wristband—"Andrews Air Force Base."

 

"Andrews ..." Rom committed the odd-sounding name to memory.

 

"I will forward the coordinates," Lahdo continued. "Earth's astronauts will pilot the lead vessel, the class-three ship I gave to them. I want you to move into position and follow the fleet." He thrust out his chin. "Now remember, B'Kah, I expect nothing short of full compliance from your ship and crew."

 

Rom lifted his palms and smiled reassuringly. "No worries, Commander. No worries. You can depend on us to do our part."

 

The viewscreen went blank, and Rom whooped heartily. "Frontier time!" Lighthearted for the first time in— by all the heavens, he'd lost count how long—he snapped his towel against his friend's solid back. "All right, Gann, let's find ourselves a nice bit of cargo while we're there. I'm in a profit-making mood."

 

* * *

 

Jas slid onto a bench seat next to Dan Brady, making sure she had a clear view of the big-screen television in his microbrewery, a side business he operated out of sheer entrepreneurial enjoyment. Fortifying herself with a swallow of beer, she watched a replay of the arrival of eleven huge but sleek delta-shaped spacecraft. Trailing whirling ribbons of condensation, they floated out of the sky like exotic petals, settling onto an unused runway

 

of Andrews Air Force Base, the installation near Washington, D.C., that housed Air Force One. Even the smallest interstellar vessel was larger than a 747 airliner, but the command ship
Lucre
was said to be as big as five U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. It had stayed behind in an orbit around Earth because no one had been able to figure out where to put it. "This is incredible—
spectacular,"
she said, vainly searching for words worthy of the event.

 

Abruptly the scene changed to an aerial view of the highways in and out of Maryland, backed up for miles in each direction. Tens of thousands of people were fleeing what they called an alien invasion, but an even greater number were flocking to get a glimpse of the spacecraft. "And
that's
chaos," she said to Dan out the corner of her mouth.

 

"I pictured worse, considering how fast this was approved."

 

Two months of worldwide protests, bureaucratic snarls, misunderstandings, and emergency orders had ended abruptly in a unanimous invitation extended to the
Vash.
The decision had rocked the planet. "Our backs were to the wall; only idiots would risk losing a light-speed starship and the cure for cancer."

 

Dan's eyes lit up. "The
Vash
knew that from the start. I doubt we're the first technologically inferior planet they've 'discovered.' They understand the power of gifts."

 

Thoughtful, Jas tucked her jean-clad legs beneath her. "A ship and some shared medical tech—small potatoes compared to the minerals they claim permeate the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter." The rights to which the
Vash
wanted badly. "But they'll have to give us more technology if they want us to run the mining operation ourselves."

 

"They will," Dan said with confidence. "We get free start-up equipment and a built-in clientele. They get cheaper minerals. It's a win-win situation for both parties. Their trading federation is immense, Jas. The potential for profit is staggering."

 

"Unless they offer to pay us in salt," she quipped— unbelievably, the stuff was a rare and costly luxury for much of the rest of the galaxy. "In which case you'd better up your shares in the Morton company."

 

He spread his hands on the table. "Done."

 

Laughing, she raised her glass of Red Rocket Ale. "Here's to the only other person I know who shares my obsession with our visitors from space."

 

"Not obsession, Jas." He clinked his glass against hers. "Demonstrative intellectual and entrepreneurial fascination."

 

Whatever Dan might label her absorption with the
Vash,
it had taken over her life. Although she hadn't again glimpsed the handsome spaceman who'd so unsettled her, she was channeling her preoccupation with him into a far more sensible pursuit: learning
Vash
Basic, the language of intergalactic trade. Night after night, she logged onto the U.N. Web site to practice Basic and study
Vash
history and culture.

 

"Now I wonder what
this
could be," Dan muttered.

 

A special report headline was scrolling across the TV. Jas lowered her beer glass, praying it wasn't a reinstatement of the curfew, a return to squeezing her life between dawn and dusk, battling it out every third day for gas, and having to put up with the crowds at the

 

supermarket. But the footage showed a gathering of newspeople. Flashbulbs flickered as a distinguished-looking African-American man strode up to a podium, looking more like a young boy with his excited grin than a fifty-seven-year-old senior correspondent for CNN.

 

An odd mix of yearning and envy squeezed her chest. "So Kendall Smith's the lucky winner," she said. The competing networks had chosen Smith from an impressive pool of candidates after the
Vash
had offered to bring a correspondent into space to tour their main cargo depot. Afterward, if Smith wanted, he could continue on, traveling and reporting back indefinitely.

 

"A
Vash
public-relations stroke of genius," Dan remarked, "like the 'go west, young man' posters of the eighteen hundreds."

 

Unexpectedly, Dan's words painted an image of a new life, of starting over. What would it be like to do what Smith was doing, to set out into the unknown, to feel
alive
again?

 

The way she had before the crash.

 

Longing struck her with surprising force, and the ache in her chest tightened to where she could hardly breathe. She thought of all the adventures not yet taken, of all the dreams she hadn't envisioned since before obligations and heartache had stolen them away. Quietly, she said, "I'd give anything to be in his shoes."

 

Dan contemplated her with an understanding smile. "Within a couple of years I'm sure we'll all have the chance."

 

"Right." A
couple of years.
What should have been a deflating statement of fact unexpectedly became a challenge. Was there was a way to circumvent such a long wait? Nervously she twisted the silver bangles on her right wrist. Adrenaline made her hands tremble. At the age when most women were ensconced in their nests, she was suddenly buoyed by the overwhelming urge to spread her wings.

 

* * *

 

As the sun reached its zenith over Andrews Air Force Base, Rom, Gann, and young Zarra, their trusty but untried translator, climbed into the backseat of the automobile. It was an antiquated vehicle, one not capable of flight, Rom noted with some relief, for he didn't relish the prospect of traveling any great distance wedged in its cramped interior. Like Gann, he struggled to fold his long limbs into a comfortable position, pressing one knee into the seat in front of him while angling his other leg toward Zarra, who appeared quite content, nestled between his two larger companions.

 

Gann said under his breath, "Great Mother, this is worse than the cattle hold of a Tromjha freighter."

 

"The lower hold." Rom recalled—in vivid olfactory detail—the two hellish days that he and Gann had spent trapped in one during the campaign against Sharron.

 

A cheerful female voice called out from the front passenger seat, "Buckle up, gentlemen." Rom winced as the last door slammed.

 

"She means the waist harnesses, I think," Zarra said, holding up one black strap in his hand as he fumbled rather intimately behind Rom's rear end for the other. "Sorry, sir."

 

Their escort, one Sergeant Mendoza, scooted around to watch their progress. She was dressed in a crisp, dark blue uniform, her black hair twisted and gathered at the nape of her neck in a clawlike contraption. Rom stared. Though he refused to dwell on what had happened that

 

long-ago day on Balkanor, Mendoza's tresses evoked an undeniably erotic yearning for the woman tied to his worst memories. He continued to study the sergeant, wondering idly what her hair would look like brushed loose, whether it was long enough to fall below her shoulders.

 

"Would you like some assistance, sir?" she asked, a flirting lilt to her accented Basic.

 

"Not at this time, no." He snatched the harness from Zarra.

 

Her gaze meandered from his face to his boots, and her brown eyes glittered with an invitation that was unmistakable on any planet, in any culture. "I'll keep the offer open, sir."

 

Rom masked his lack of interest with a polite dip of his head. To his relief, she turned her attention to a folder in her lap. Gann observed the exchange with a speculative gleam in his eye. "Shall I make alternate arrangements for your transportation back to the ship?" he inquired in Siennan, their native language, one few outside their class knew.

 

Rom frowned. "Don't be a fool. It's the hair color again. Damned distracting."

 

Ever tactful, Gann said no more. He knew more about Rom's battlefield vision than anyone else, recognized what its aftermath had done to his friend's life.

 

In a torrent of incomprehensible English, Sergeant Mendoza gave the driver instructions. The vehicle lurched forward. "What did she say, Zarra?" Rom asked.

 

"Out the north gate to the capitol, sir. For Commander Lahdo's address."

 

His thoughts tied up in the day ahead, Rom only half watched the landscape whir past. He anticipated success. After all the time wasted waiting to arrive on Earth, and then two more months spent sitting on the Earth base Andrews while the planet's politicians fretted over disease, he deserved a round of satisfying negotiations, salt trade heading the list. This planet's seas were laden with the expensive, sought-after commodity. The inhabitants actually
swam
in the precious liquid and thought nothing of it! Ah, it was easy to envision the
Quillie's
hold filled with blocks of salt. Perhaps, too, he could buy a stake in one of the mines opening on the asteroids. That would be a unique opportunity, for most mining was under strict
Vash Nadah
control, making it nearly impossible for unaligned traders to buy an interest. If he could purchase a claim while here, he'd make a handsome profit selling it once they reached the Depot—enough to buy that trading post he'd had his eye on. It was a tiny, remote moon, but it had a nice port. In no time, he'd have a small but efficient operation up and running. Not that he'd give up his nomadic life for good, but it wouldn't hurt to put down some roots.

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