Authors: Michelle M. Pillow
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Demons & Devils, #Science Fiction
No one answered her hoarse greeting. Instead, a needle pierced her back. Heat released into her body before blackness consumed her once more.
* * *
Draig Northern Mountain Fortress, Planet of Qurilixen
Marriage was the last thing Lord Aleksej, Younger Duke of Draig, wanted to think about. He didn’t want to take time out of his work to put on a fur loincloth, hide his face under a mask, only to stand in line looking at eligible females—women that would never be his. Like the preceding years, he would wait for the sacred crystal around his neck to glow to signify he’d found his true mate, all the while knowing it probably never would.
He had actually thought about it quite a bit. With all the planets and space stations in all the universes, what were the odds that his true mate would find her way here? What if her ship had crashed on her way to him, and he would never know about it? What if she’d died in a childhood accident? What if her lifespan had yet to start and he wouldn’t find her until he was hundreds of years old and close to his own death? How could he be expected to believe his fifth attempt would turn out differently?
Oh, right. Fate. The will of the gods.
Alek used to believe in the will of the gods, but somewhere along the way his faith had wavered. How could it not? He lived honorably. Over the past four years he had gone to the bridal ceremony, hoping, praying, only to come home alone. He was ready for the pain to be over. He was ready to accept his fate of solitude and duty.
Alek did want a wife. He wanted one terribly. But the disappointment and loneliness had been hard lessons to live with. Just because he was willing did not mean he would find her. His older brother, Bron, the high duke, faced his seventh attempt. Mirek faced his fourth festival. The youngest of them, Vladan, prepared for his first. For some reason, the gods had not seen fit to bless any of the brothers with a life mate.
Glancing down at his neck where the dormant crystal hung from a leather strap, he frowned. Only when he saw his future bride would the crystal glow, an unmistakable sign of destined fates. Perhaps their crystals were tarnished, or broken. Then again, perhaps the gods did not think them worthy. No answer satisfied his honor. No amount of praying brought him answers.
Alek blinked in surprise and looked up from where he stared at the rounded belly of the pregnant ceffyl, stirred from his thoughts of the upcoming festival. The beast was nearing her time and it was his duty to make sure she made it to term. As Top Breeder, a very important position on his planet, his whole life focused around mares and steeds. His animals supplied the soldiers, helped the farmers, provided planetary travel and, in extreme times, meat. The animal opened its mouth, hissing as a long tongue slithered from between her lips. Ceffyls had the eyes of a reptile, the face and hooves of a beast of burden and the body of a small elephant. And, with a three-year gestation period and only about fifty percent live-birth rate, it was a resource that could not easily be replaced should something happen.
“She’s close,” he answered Cenek, one of his best trainers. “I hate to leave, but I cannot miss this festival. My cousins are attending for the first time, and I must go to support them. Let us hope the princes are more blessed than we. Prince Ualan, especially. As the future king, it is he who should find love first.”
Cenek nodded, not commenting on the four princes’s attendance. He had found his wife after one attempt, but then, he’d already met her beforehand at a space station where he’d escorted Mirek on an ambassadorial trip. For him, the ceremony had been a mere formality.
“She will be fine.” Cenek reached out a callused hand to pet the pregnant animal. “I will sleep nearby and check on her hourly while you are gone. The Breeding Festival is only for one night. Perhaps this will be a blessed year and you will come home with a wife.”
Alek stood, dusting off his hands. He had nothing to say to the words of encouragement, for he did not feel their truth and he refused to lie for the sake of politeness. He patted the beast a couple times before leaving the stables. As the fresh air hit him, he let himself wonder for the briefest of moments what a woman would think of his home. Surrounded by steep mountains, narrow passes and rocky crags dotted with lush plant life, the castle stood out against the elements like a timeless fortress. His mother, before her death, had loved the mountains. Sometimes, in the quietness of dusk as people settled into their homes, he imagined he could still hear her laughter ringing out over the valleys.
Unlike most other civilizations, the Draig chose to live simply. Even though they had the ability for deep-space travel, they normally only used it when ambassadorial duties demanded. Otherwise, they hid their technology in an elegant façade of stone and wood, choosing to do for themselves. Why have a food simulator materialize a meal when the earth could provide fresh vegetables and strong livestock? Why let machines serve when your own hands could do a better job? If they let technology do everything, society would become lazy. If that happened, an alien species would surely swoop in and take over the lucrative ore mines.
The castle nestled in the valley next to a jutting peak, a mere front for the homes hidden within the mountain’s core. That was where Alek lived, as did his three brothers. Here the earth was red with streaks of grey through the stone. When they traveled south to the ceremony, near the Draig palace at the base of the mountains, the ground would become a dark red and the trees so large a home could fit comfortably within a single trunk.
Qurilixen had three suns—two yellow and one blue—and one moon, which made for a particularly bright planet. Female children were rare due to the blue radiation from those suns. Over the generations, it had altered the men’s genetics to produce strong male warriors. Only once in a thousand births was a Qurilixian female born. In the old days, they had used portals to snatch foreign brides from their homes and bring them back to Qurilixen.
There were rumors that the Draig species had originated on the human planet Earth and actually traveled through some magical portal to capture women, but there was no proof that was true. Just as there was no actual proof that their dragonshifter ancestors had actually flown when in shifted form.
The fact they had nearly no women of their own was why the services of corporations like Galaxy Brides were so invaluable to them now. In return for women willing to marry a stranger, the Draig men would mine the rare ore found in their caves. Alek’s family oversaw the mines, not Alek directly, but his brothers. The mines were a longstanding family duty. The last he’d heard reported from his brothers, there was a surplus of ore. That had to be a good omen. Perhaps this bridal ceremony would show a surplus of brides.
Who was he fooling? This year felt no different than the others. There would be no wife to show this place to, no woman in his bed, no heart to beat with his own. The hopelessness was perhaps the hardest part to face, coupled with the realization that he and his brothers were destined to be forever lonely. There had to be a reason none of them had found love, year after year, when so many others had.
Alek sighed, turning his attention from the towering castle to the large rectangular structure of the stables. He would do best to focus on his work. “A quick trip down and back. That’s all this is. An ambassadorial trip to support my princely cousins, nothing else.”
The sound of his own voice did little to comfort him, so he did not speak again as he went about his work.
* * *
Repossessed. Drugged. Sold. Re-sold. Re-drugged. And all that was just the things Kendall had been vaguely awake for. There was probably some steps in-between those. She wasn’t sure which was worse—the things she could recall, or the things she couldn’t. As she found herself trapped on a ship owned by the Galaxy Brides Corporation for the last month, it seemed her captors had one last stop they wanted her to make on this nightmare of a journey—a Qurilixen marriage ceremony.
Kendall remembered waking up in a medic unit in some bumpy transport, crammed into a tight storage box and in a stasis chamber. She supposed it could have been much worse. Maybe it was much worse. She didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious, or how many days had passed by under the exchanging hands of her keepers. It wasn’t like people aged in stasis, but to keep a person under for too long risked a horrible death. The last she’d heard the medical alliance was unable to cure stasis sickness.
What if they had done something to her while she slept? With a medic unit to fix her, she wouldn’t be able to tell. What if her father lost Margot in the same way? What if her little sister was trapped in a transport box?
Each thought caused her heart to beat faster until the fear choked her and her world spun. How long had she been unconscious? No one would tell her. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they just didn’t care. The second her father had signed her over, she had become property, and everyone she met treated her as such.
She forced a deep breath and then another, trying to calm herself so she could think. The one date she’d managed to discover wasn’t one she could understand without access to a conversion chart. On the fueling dock they’d not had much use for measuring time like those who lived on worlds. Sure, her family kept record of days in their own way, but with so many travelers using so many different types of recordkeeping, and with computers so readily available should a conversion be necessary—which was never really the case—she had never bothered to memorize intergalactic date-conversion charts. Until now, the idea of actually uploading millions upon millions of tedious charts into her brain had seemed about as worthless as uploading hand-cooking techniques. Not once in her thirty years had she needed to covert time, or cook without aid of a food simulator.
Her situation was unbearable, yet she had no choice but to carry on and do what she was told. It wasn’t as if she’d eject herself into deep space with only a life pod and no sense of where she was.
The same thoughts had swirled through her brain, ever since she’d woken up on the luxury spacecraft. She vaguely remembered hearing of the primitive planet of Qurilixen in her fuel-ore studies. Everything else had been uploaded into her brain by the corporation, and she couldn’t help but wonder at the accuracy of those facts—after all, they were a business with the sole purpose of trying to sell brides to grooms. Located in the in the isolated space of the Y quadrant, the far-flung world was a veritable prison populated by warrior men whose genetics didn’t seem to include propagating females. The Draig weren’t star voyagers, and for all Kendall knew they wouldn’t have access to spaceships.
However, that wasn’t the worst part. Not only would she be stranded on the planet with these warrior men, without money, without means, without anything but the clothes on her back, she was expected to marry one of them so the company could recoup her father’s debt and make a profit. Turning her head toward the metal corridor wall as she walked passed, she stared at the bold words that read,
Galaxy Brides Corporation—Joining Hearts Across the Universes
“Hearts,” she repeated softly. “This cargo ship has nothing to do with hearts.”
Kendall was a business transaction. Plain and simple. The Draig men of Qurilixen needed women to produce children. They were the buyers. She was the merchandise. Galaxy Brides was the broker. As she saw it, the fate was almost as bad as if they’d sold her into bondage on a pleasure ship. Only, this way, she would be expected to please one man, not many.
“What happens when I can’t please him?” she whispered. Growing up on a fueling dock, she had plenty of experience dealing with any number of alien species during the course of her work. The problem was no one had really stayed around long enough to even begin a long-term relationship. Kendall had never been comfortable with the idea of sleeping with a man she didn’t know, so the few boyfriends she had had were fueling dock regulars who’d came through on shipping runs. Instead of nurturing those mediocre sexual relationships, she’d buried herself in her work, in her school and in taking care of Margot.
School. There was another thing she wouldn’t be able to finish, and she was so close to getting certified by the Exploratory Science Commission as a Fuelologist and Station Engineer. It had taken her nearly six years of virtual-class time to get as far as she had.
Round and round her mind spun—Margot, school, home, marriage to a stranger. She’d been all over the high skies in her lifetime, yet she wasn’t that worldly. She had grown up on a fueling dock, traveling, but never staying for too long in one place, and she normally only saw planets from a small window.
A knot formed in her stomach. Life on a planet. She used to dream of it, but now it terrified her. One planet. One place.
“What about Margot? She won’t know where I am.” The sound of her own voice was oddly comforting, more so than the overly excited voices of her travel companions echoing from the ship’s beauty parlor. The rest of the prospective brides were getting ready for the official docking later that evening.
“I’m Aeron, not Margot,” a woman answered. The long length of her black hair was pulled away from her reserved face. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Are you excited for the ceremony, Kendall?”
Kendall blinked, nodding in agreement as she pulled her arms around her waist and looked at the floor to hide the fact she was lying. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the woman. Kendall just had nothing to say to any of the women on the ship. When she didn’t elaborate on her answer, Aeron hurried past, leading the way to the expansive beauty parlor. Kendall followed behind, watching the other woman’s heels.
As far as Kendall could tell, she was the only one forced to be on the ship. The other brides were being well compensated for their participation. They had answered an advertisement and chosen to be here. In fact, they all seemed to think it was some sort of grand vacation. They had spent the last month being pampered and primped for the coming night—the Qurilixen Breeding Festival. Looking down at her toes, she saw the permanent pale-pink color on her nails. It was just one of the many things they’d done to her. She’d had medical scans, health checks, cosmetic dentistry, permanent hair removal, a body-enhancing lift. Running her tongue over her teeth, it felt weird there was no longer a chip in the canine.