Authors: Michelle M. Pillow
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Demons & Devils, #Science Fiction
“I wish I could be so ambitious. I’m afraid I didn’t watch a single one of those boring uploads.”
Kendall glanced up at the sound. The women were talking about marriage, as usual. Seeing an empty chair in the shadowed corner away from the others, she sat down. The beauty droid automatically activated and went to work on her hair. Those around her were in various stages of completion.
Whoever spoke referred to the uploads in the ship’s computer. If you weren’t used to them, they could give a wicked migraine, but Kendall had utilized them for her schooling. They were great for uploading factual information directly into the brain, such as cultural information or a new language. They weren’t so good when it came to practical applications. Why hadn’t she just paid the extra fee for the conversion-chart uploads?
“Don’t look so worried,” Trinia said, pausing on her way past. None of the women seemed to know Kendall’s name, but she knew theirs. “I’ve been married over thirty times. There’s nothing to it.”
Kendall said nothing. Marriage wasn’t the only thing Trinia had done over thirty times. The woman’s shiny skin looked as if it had been over-enhanced to the point of plasticity.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Trinia continued, lowering her voice. She leaned close to Kendall’s ear. Kendall stiffened to feel the woman’s breath on her skin. She smelled of liquor and spicy meat. “If you don’t like them, divorce them and keep the presents. Or don’t let them ask you to marry them. If they don’t ask, you can’t get into trouble for saying no. Then Galaxy Brides will give you a ride to the next planet if you want. If you do it right, you can travel the universe for years until they catch on.”
Kendall didn’t answer. Trinia laughed, flinging her hand carelessly as she sauntered away.
“This is not my life,” Kendall whispered, desperately wishing she was back on the fueling dock.
Thanks to the uploads her captors had forced on her, Kendall’s head was filled with Qurilixian facts. Indeed, she still had a small headache from the rush of information. They were classified as a warrior class, though they had been peaceful for nearly a century—aside from petty territorial skirmishes that broke out every fifteen or so years between a few of the rival houses. The planet was on the outer edge of the Y quadrant, inhabited by primitive males similar to Viking clans of Medieval Earth—not that she knew what those were. The Qurilixian worshipped many gods, favored natural comforts to modern technological conveniences and actually preferred to cook their own food. They called their wedding ceremony a Breeding Festival and it was only allowed to happen at night. The planet only had one night a year and it would begin in a few hours.
The only interesting fact was that their mines were one of the only mineral-rich sources of the
in the known universes. It was a semi-radioactive element that not only had stable isotopes, but whose components could be harnessed to fuel long-voyaging starships. The resulting fuel was so expensive that her family didn’t bother to stock it. Normally, only very trivial amounts of the element could be found in nature. Qurilixen was loaded with it.
“I tried on my gown this afternoon,” Gena, another bride, said. The woman pushed up her generous chest beneath the robe. “They are gorgeous, but I think I am going to go get my breasts enhanced again—just a little bigger—and I’m going to have my nipples enlarged. Those princes won’t be able to resist me. Maybe I’ll marry all four of them, just for fun.”
“How will you know who the princes are?” a blonde asked from across the room. The women were obsessed by the fact royalty was going to be at the ceremony looking for wives. “I’ve heard that all the men wear disguises. You could end up with a royal guard.”
“Or a gardener,” offered a brunette with a laugh.
“I hear they wear practically nothing at all,” added a woman with flaming red hair and sparkling green eyes the color of emeralds. “Except the mask and some fur.”
“You can’t miss royalty,” Gena said with a kittenish smile of excitement. It was hard to miss Gena. She made sure everyone knew her name. “You’ll see it in the way they move.”
Kendall looked down at her own robe and pulled it tighter across her chest, trying to hide her new body. Since she was bought and paid for, the company had automatically put her through certain procedures. The new breasts were real, just genetically altered for perfection.
Her beauty droid pulled her hair and she was forced to look back up. Their spacecraft was outfitted with the best accommodations and services the star system had to offer. Personal droids were assigned to each passenger, and cooking units in each of their quarters could materialize almost any culinary delight without straying from the strict mineral diets the corporation had them on. Even the doctor was mechanical.
As the droids finished, the prospective brides began to slowly make their way back to their personal quarters to dress. Kendall had been assigned a later appointment in the ship’s logs and would be one of the last to finish her treatments. Closing her eyes, she waited as many of the women left the beauty parlor. She let loose a nervous breath and wished it would all just go away.
The command made absolutely no logical sense and yet Kendall could do nothing else. Her instincts said run and her feet obeyed. The dark red soil passed under her as she made her way from the Galaxy Brides’ ship. The tight black of her clothing clung to her new body like a second skin, helping her to blend in to the darkened surroundings. Dusk swept along the reddish-brown earth, shadowing oversized leaves on thick branches. The foliage began to droop, as if resting after a long year of light, as darkness finally came to Qurilixen.
Kendall ran faster. Somehow she’d managed to sneak off the ship while the other brides were getting dressed for the ceremony. Dumb luck. That’s what it had been. Dumb luck that the beauty droid needed a repair and had reported to maintenance, leaving Kendall unattended. Dumb luck that the docking plank had been opened for the ship’s staff before the brides were ready to descend into the campground. Dumb luck that the locals weren’t around to catch her as she snuck down the plank. And perhaps simply dumb that she now ran through an alien forest to escape the fate of marriage.
Her heart pounded. She wasn’t a runner. There weren’t open fields on a fueling dock. It didn’t stop her from moving. It would appear the Galaxy Brides’ treatments had expanded her lung capacity and strengthened her muscles. The forest became darker. What was she doing? Soon she wouldn’t be able to see.
Kendall slowed to a jog before stopping in front of a fallen log. The thick trunk was too big to jump over. Pressing her hand against the bark, she gasped for breath. Tears entered her eyes. She needed to find a way off world. She needed to get to Margot before her father gambled the child away, before her father fell so deep into a hole he couldn’t claw his way out. Flawed or not, the man was family.
The only comfort was that legally her father would have to be in debt for several months before the casino could issue another repossession order. But then she had no way of knowing how much time had passed while she’d been in stasis. Surely they hadn’t kept her in storage that long. They wouldn’t have wanted to risk stasis sickness by keeping her under sedation. Margot should be safe.
What if she wasn’t? Kendall couldn’t begin to translate any of the alien timekeeping methods. What if Margot had already been sold into captivity? Her sister was too young to be a bride. The thought brought little comfort. There were much worse things than marriage.
* * *
Alek led the procession of bridegrooms over the familiar path to make his offering to the gods. It was not lost on him how useless the task felt this year. It was as if all hope had finally withered. Even last year, there had been a small thread of excitement. Now, nothing. He’d gone dead inside. He just wanted it to be over.
Perhaps it was for the best. He would go through the motions, make his offering, stand in line and then sneak off to the pre-arranged campsite to meet up with his brothers to drink away his heartache. Well, all but one of his brothers. Vladan had found a woman right before the ceremony was to start. The fact did not give Alek hope. Though his brother in every way that mattered, Vladan had been born of different parents and adopted by Alek’s father after his parents had been killed in a mining accident when he was very young.
Before the ceremony, the king had ordered the men be presented to the marriageable daughter of a friend of one of the mining dignitaries. Apparently, Lady Clara of the Redding was above attending their
festival and refused to marry beneath her station. She’d barely even acknowledged them as she coldly looked over the highest ranking nobles the Draig had to offer. In fact, when Vladan’s crystal had begun to glow, she’d merely tilted her head, turned her back on them and left the main area of the tent. Perhaps Vladan was not so blessed. Which was worse—a cold bride or no bride?
“At least a cold bride can thaw with time and warmth,” he whispered, balling his hands into fists.
Alek looked at his hands, but the familiar lines of his callused palms held no answers. Perhaps his blood was tainted. Only the gods could know their reasons. The gods did not feel the need to tell their reasons to a mortal like him.
Stopping before the temple, he couldn’t bring himself to step inside. The others passed by him, going in. They focused on their own ceremonies and didn’t pay attention to him. Only his brother Mirek stopped and questioned, “Alek?”
“I need relief,” he answered, turning to the forest. Mirek chuckled but did not stop him.
The fur loincloth gave little protection as he moved into the forest. Thick brush rubbed against his thighs, scratching his skin. Alek didn’t care. He couldn’t make himself go into the temple to beg the gods for something that was not to be. He couldn’t. Not again. He accepted his loveless fate and saw no reason to continue to fight it. Surely the gods could respect such a decision. He acknowledged their ruling that he was destined to be alone. If that was what fate had in store for him, so be it. He would not torture himself further.
His eyes shifted to gold and his vision cut through the darkness as if it were daylight. The dragon form inside of him made it easier to sense the forest. As the skin of his thighs hardened with protective armor, the brush no longer irritated his flesh and he was able to move faster.
He reached for his neck, jerking the crystal that hung there. The leather strap broke. Fingering the stone, he traced over the familiar surface before balling it into his fist. He thought about leaving it on the forest floor, as if his failure would be easier to bear without the constant reminder hanging about his neck. As he debated the decision his fist became warm, then hot. Loosening his grip, he saw the faint glow of light radiating from between his fingers.
The crystal glowed.
Alek couldn’t believe what he was seeing so he merely stared at it. He was in the forest. Alone.
He held his breath and let the hard, dark-brown flesh of the dragon work its way from his thighs up his body. A ridge grew from his forehead to create a protective shield over his nose and brow. Fangs extended in his mouth and talons grew from his nail beds. In his dragon form, he moved with greater agility and his senses were enhanced.
Was he alone? Was this the final word of the gods?
The crystal’s light grew. The sign was unmistakable. His bride had to be near. Even as he thought it, he began to feel her inside him. The pull of her drew him before he picked up the sound of her breathing in the forest. Footfalls hit in a steady rhythm for several paces only to grow softer and slower. The beast inside him surged into action. He tracked her as easily as prey.
He found her standing alone in the dark, body pressed tight against a fallen log. Her widened brown eyes darted around the forest in fear. He stopped across the clearing from her. She didn’t see him even though she looked in his direction several times. Alek took advantage of the moment to study her. Blonde hair fell about her shoulders. The ends were tipped with a dark red. She seemed so fragile and scared. A wave of protectiveness surged within him.
“Hayo? I can hear you breathing,” she whispered. “Please show yourself. I can hear you.”
Alek lifted his hand and opened his fist. The soft glow of the crystal alighted on his face. The woman found him instantly. He expected her to feel the same rush of pleasure he did. Instead, she started to scream.
The woman tripped on vines as she tried to get away from him. Her back slid along the tree trunk. He smelled the moss she disturbed in her haste. She kept her eyes on his and her arms outstretched as if that would keep him from attacking. Her feet worked frantically against the ground, pushing her back up the tree while trying to untangle her shoes from the forest floor.
“Please, no, no, no,” she whimpered. “I don’t belong here. Who are you people? You’re supposed to be humanoids. The uploads said you were shaped like humans.”
Alek tried to answer her, but the sound of his native tongue only seemed to terrify her more. He realized he was still shifted. No wonder she was frightened. He’d been so eager to find her that he hadn’t bothered to change back. His people did not make their shifting abilities too widely known, and they hadn’t revealed them to the researcher who’d originally interviewed his people for the uploads she spoke of.
“I don’t understand.” She pressed harder into the wood. “They didn’t have us upload any native-language data. I only speak the star language.”
With little effort, he allowed his body to mold into a form she would be more comfortable with. Flesh replaced the hard shell of his skin. His fangs retracted, as did his talons. When he’d finished the transformation only his golden eyes remained so that he could see her in the darkened forest.