An All-New Series by New York Times bestselling author Susan Grant
And Coalition starship admiral Brit Bandar is one tough woman. A mere intergalactic treaty could never get her to trust the Drakken Horde. There was too much bad blood between the Coalition and the Horde and, for intensely personal reasons, Brit wasn’t sure that she was through spilling it! But now a peaceful accord has made Finn Rorkken, a notorious Drakken rogue, second-in command on her starship – and through some grand cosmic irony – front and center in her thoughts…and her heart.
Either title sat easily on Finn’s battle-hardened shoulders. Though second-in-command to “Stone-Heart” Bandar? That would take some getting used to. Peace required as much sacrifice as war, so he’d comply even if his reaction to the gorgeous admiral fell decidedly outside protocol. But would he end up kissing or killing her if the galaxy’s tentative truce turned into all out war?
Brit woke slowly, luxuriating in silken sheets as she took a drowsy accounting of her circumstances: One, it was morning. Two, she was naked. And three, she was lying in a strange bed.
A real bed. Compared to the one in her quarters onboard the CSS Vengeance, the bed was lavish, big enough for three or four. It appeared, however, that only one other person shared the mattress. What was his name again?
Brit rolled onto her side to view her bedmate. Did it matter what she called him? She’d tolerate his company for perhaps another night or so before he became another pleasant memory from shore leave like all the others before him.
She reached out and moved a curl from his forehead. No lines of worry marred that perfect, golden skin. He’d never needed to block out the screams of battle, nor grimaced at the horrors of war. No, this man existed in a sort of perpetual shore leave: all pleasure, no pain. He was almost pretty, she decided, but well-built--she would not have chosen him otherwise. His dark hair was tousled; his lips were full, stopping this short of feminine. She preferred a more manly mouth. Ah, but he’d used it well. There was time for him to use it again, too, before she deserted him for breakfast.
On her belly, she slid closer and licked his jaw. “Wake up...” Whatever your name is...
With this stranger between her legs, she could cast her memories back and pretend he was Seff and she his young wife, innocent, full of hopes and dreams, all the things she wasn’t now. They were only teenagers, married less than two years when Hordish marauders came. With this pretty stranger and all the others before him she could lose herself in the sex, almost believing in those moments of blinding, no-strings-attached passion that she was still human. That she could still feel.
“Come here.” She took his head between her hands and kissed him roughly. He returned the kiss with equal intensity, crushing her to the pillow, but something wasn’t right. Something’s missing, she thought. Of course it is, you fool. His passion is staged--it’s what you bought him for. Yours is real.
She swore under her breath, grabbing his shoulders and digging in as she trapped him close. She wanted him inside her--now--thrusting hard, before her thoughts, her self-analysis, went any deeper.
From the bedside table, her Personal Communicator Device rang.
“Blast it,” she hissed, twisting from under him to grab the PCD.
Her bedmate playfully pulled her back and threw her down to the mattress. “Whoever it is can wait.”
“Release me.” The snarling command came out in her admiral’s voice. The man-toy backed off immediately, lifting both hands. White, soft palms, she noted. He hadn’t done a day of real labor in his life. Why, when there was nothing to do but service wealthy, privacy-craving clients on this pleasure dome of a resort planet? He was an attractive, empty shell of a man looking for a day’s pay earned with his cock. It was quite nice as cocks went, true, she thought with a brief, almost longing stare at the man’s hefty equipment standing at attention between his legs...until the communicator rang again, diverting her attention.
Brit sat up, swinging her hair over one shoulder. “Admiral Bandar,” she said curtly into the PCD as she hooked the secure-signal communicator over her ear. Several tones told her that her voice required authentication before the identity of the person trying to reach her could be revealed. The procedure was typical for high-priority, classified calls. Except that Brit was light years off the beaten track on a vacation planet. The connection could take awhile.
In the corner of her eye, she caught the sparkle of her midnight-black, crisply pressed officer’s uniform hanging in the closet next to an iridescent, gossamer-lace poolside cover-up. Who would dare to bother her on shore leave? This was supposed to be a few weeks’ respite before she returned to the helm of the Vengeance to hunt down increasingly desperate Hordish pirates in the Borderlands. The war might be over, but there was cleanup to do.
The war...over. It had been several months and Brit still couldn’t wrap her mind around the concept. Yet, long ago, before time began, the galaxy was whole. The worlds of the Drakken Horde were the original cradle of the goddesses. Then, under threat of religious extermination, the goddesses were forced to flee their home. They found refuge on the ice planet Sakka, where they formed a new government, the Coalition, and essentially split the settled galaxy in two. The two sides, Coalition and Drakken, had warred ever since. Every school child could recite that bit of history. What no one considered, however, was the sheer number of faithful living across the border under Hordish rule who worshipped the goddesses in secret--undocumented believers, billions, even trillions of them. When the young goddess Herself, Queen Keira, killed the Drakken Horde leader Lord-General Rakkuu to escape capture, she in effect broke the dam holding the faithful back. The warlord’s blood hadn’t even cooled when those secret believers began pouring out of the shadows. Thus, in an almost bloodless coup, the Drakken Empire had come crashing down, bringing peace to a galaxy that remembered nothing but war.
Peace with the Horde? Bah! It would never last. The only trustworthy Drakken was a dead Drakken.
Brit shot to her feet. Pacing away from the bed to find privacy for the call, her hair swinging just above her buttocks, she felt her bedmate’s eyes on her nude body. She was older than him by a number of years, she was certain, yet, nearing forty, she looked better than women almost half her age. Then again, she allowed herself no excesses. She was disciplined, focused. She knew what she wanted, and that was to kill Horde.
“Authentication verified,” a computer announced.
A familiar voice came on next. “My sincere apologies for the interruption, Brit,” soothed Prime-Admiral Zaafran, her commander-in-chief. “However, it is with good news that I do.”
A bolt of surprise shot through her. “And the Vengeance?”
“She’s being retired.”
Her warship had the best record out there, winning more battles than any other. She loved that hunk of luranium; it was as much a part of her as her skin and bones. The merest whisper of the word Vengeance struck fear in the hearts of the Drakken. They knew that she, Admiral Brit Bandar, was in command. They knew that she held no mercy in her soul for them. “Admiral Stone-Heart” they called her.
The nickname amused her.
Over the years, countless Hordish war leaders had lusted after her capture. Oh, the things they’d dreamed of doing to her, most of them related to sex and torture--she’d learned a few choice scenarios from listening to Drakken prisoner confessions during interrogations--but they’d never caught her. Now they never would. The entire Drakken realm lay vanquished at the Coalition’s feet. A victory that for Brit wasn’t satisfying at all. She wasn’t done with the Drakken yet. No, nowhere close. “It will seem odd, commanding a new ship, Prime-Admiral.”
“One foot on the bridge and you will change your mind. I’ve seen her. She’s more impressive than any ship in our fleet, even your beloved Vengeance.”
“I look forward to you convincing me of that, sir,” Brit quipped, though an expanding ball of tension sat cold in her gut. Regardless of the reason, Zaafran planned to remove her from her ship. Even if she was trading up, as he’d implied, it was an unsettling event. It would be for any captain of any ship, let alone tearing her from her beloved Vengeance. The warship had been the closest thing to home since Arrayar Settlement.
“Convince you, I will,” Zaafran assured her.
“What is the ship’s name? Give me that, at least.”
“Have patience, Admiral. Report to the Ring. I’ll tell you the rest.”
Patience--bah. Brit frowned as he ended the call. A summons to the Ring to trade ships seemed odd. The usual procedure for a new ship captain was to proceed directly to the shipyard or port, run through the usual change-of-command formalities if taking the bridge from someone else, and be off. Yet, the Prime-Admiral wanted to see her in person. He was hiding something. But what?
It was a giddy, hopeful time--for everyone else but her. While the galaxy celebrated the Drakken surrender, Brit had prowled the bridge of the warship she commanded, cursing it. Dreading it. She wouldn’t know what to do in peacetime. She wasn’t ready for it. Peace meant unfinished business with the Horde. She could never reverse what they’d done but she could keep it from happening to someone else. She’d spent her entire career doing exactly that.
Now they were taking her ship away, replacing it with a new one. Taking her mission and replacing it with...what? The mighty Vengeance was to be retired. Would she be forced into retirement next? Brit tore the PCD off her ear and stalked back to the bed.
“It’s about time,” the man-toy murmured with come-hither eyes. But it was a wasted effort. The mood had passed.
“Get dressed.” Brit reached into the closet and removed a few extra credits from the safe. She’d paid the man in advance, but his performance last night warranted a tip. She tossed the credits on the table. “And be gone before I return.”
She closed and locked the bathroom door, and stepped into the shower, letting the streaming water fool her into believing the moisture on her face wasn’t angry tears.
Warleader Finnar Rorkken paused in the entrance of a dilapidated eatery and bar, waiting until his eyes adjusted. Inside, it smelled like sweat and sex and blood--like any typical Hordish haunt. A few dead bodies littered the stone floor. Finn stepped around them, his boots muddy from the hike from the ship to town. This planet had been badly bombarded during the Great War, probably several times. Spring rains turned scarred hardpan into mud. All week, downpours had continued unabated. He’d never seen so much damn rain.
Water dripped from his ponytail and earrings, his leather overvest and trousers. His wool sweater stank, and was two-sizes smaller than when he’d bought it. He was tired of being wet, tired of being hungry more often than not, tired of...
Blast it all, he was just tired!
The tang of cheap alcohol hung heavy in the muggy air. Finn waved off the expectant glance of a bar wench. He didn’t want a drink; he wanted a warm, dry room and a good square meal--simple needs but harder than ever to satisfy. Worse, there was more than his belly to fill. He had a crew of fifty-two to look after.
As an Imperial Fleet warleader, he was paid in scrip that he divvied up amongst the crew. In port, they’d exchange scrip for real money. The implosion of the Drakken government had rendered the scrip worthless. Finn had to dig into his own funds to support the ship and crew. There hadn’t been much in the way of funds. Now he was liquidating ship furnishings, liquor, and unneeded weapons, anything he could barter or sell. To slow the hemorrhage, he’d resorted to raiding. It was like the old days.
He’d given up piracy (more or less) upon his promotion some years ago to Warleader. He’d turned a new page in his life. He’d thought he’d found a new career, a respectable one. Now, he’d fallen back on old ways. Desperation did that to a man. The skills honed during his reign as Scourge of the Borderlands hadn’t vanished. A recent haul from a raid in the Borderlands had been sizeable enough to keep them fed. Life had turned good again, relatively speaking, until the Pride’s plasma core acted up, forcing them to put down on this scum pool of a planet for repairs.
Finn had paid dearly for the privilege. No one was supposed to fix Drakken ships anymore without Coalition knowledge. Almost all the remaining raid money went to bribing a mechanic to circumvent the new rules. Rationing supplies would be necessary all over again, something he hadn’t yet the heart to break to the crew. No, not until he learned more about the mysterious summons to the Ring of the Goddess.
A body slammed into his side. Finn spun, his dagger in his hand. Hooking his boot under a leg, he threw a large man to the ground. The stench of alcohol rising up from the drunk was almost strong enough to make his eyes water. With the distraction of the drunk, someone who hadn’t grown up on the streets as he had might not have felt the light touch of fingers on the empty leather money pouch attached to his belt. He had the pickpocket in his hands and off the ground in a half breath. Through the red haze of anger, he saw two eyes going wide with fear.
He dropped the thief to the ground, making sure he saw the glint of his blade. “You’d better run, boy.” The child dashed away. “Run!” he shouted after the waif, old memories whispering. He’d been in those shoes before; he knew what it was like, being so hungry that you were immune to risk.
Finn exhaled as his pulse slowed. A pickpocket this time; a thief with more murderous intent the next. He was a target. The men and women in his crew were targets. No matter how tattered their uniforms, they were several levels up from what most people wore around here. Any one of them could be ambushed at any time, ending the day lying on their backs in a pool of blood for the price of what little of value they had in their possession. The Borderlands had always been a dangerous place. Now there was an air of acute desperation.
But Finn might have a way out of this dead-end spiral, an escape. An escape or a trapdoor? He didn’t know. His mysterious summons from Coalition Headquarters commanded that he show up at the Ring next Septumday. The accompanying message was a personal one, issued by Chief of the Coalition Naval Command, Prime-Admiral Zaafran, as if the idea of Finnar Rorkken, formerly the Scourge of the Borderlands, aboard the Ring wasn’t surreal enough. Good gods, what was next, a love letter from Admiral Bandar? The way things were going, he wouldn’t be surprised to see ol’ Stone-Heart herself sitting there when he arrived.
He almost wished she were. After all the games of hide-and-seek they’d played in the Borderlands, he felt as if he knew her. A more worthy opponent he’d never encountered. If he ever had the chance, he’d buy her a drink and brag about all the times she’d thought she’d had him in her clutches, only for him to slip away again. He respected her, aye, admired her, but he had to admit the male in him was more than a little curious about the woman at the helm of the Vengeance.
No one knew what she looked like, although there’d been many guesses bandied about. No one who’d met her ever returned to pass along the juicy details. They were either dead or scraping luranium out of the mines on a prison asteroid. Not him, oh, no. He’d led her on one merry chase after another across the Borderlands until she’d been called away for more pressing duties: battles more critical to the survival of the Coalition than catching a pesky pirate.
The war, over--it was damned hard to imagine. Now that he was out of a job killing her people, and she was out of a job killing his, maybe they’d have time for that drink, after all.
Smirking, Finn clamped a nano-pic between his teeth as he scoped out the noisy, crowded, shadowy bar. Bioputers spread through his mouth in a refreshing wave, eliminating any sourness. The pic was a welcome little novelty found amongst other, more important supplies taken on that Borderlands raid. The Coalition had lived with high-tech for generations. The Drakken lived with whatever they could steal or, rather, appropriate. Other than their machines of war, their weapons, they were centuries behind the Coalition in technology.
There was a newcomer to this two-sided game: Earth. When it came to tech, Earthlings made the Drakken look downright advanced. Luckily for Earth, it was protected under its new status as a Holy Shrine, thanks to it being the birthplace of Queen Keira’s consort, quite an achievement for such a far-flung, water-covered little rock.
A burst of singing drowned in angry shouts. Glass shattered. Someone cried out. Finn rolled his eyes. It was time to haul his crew out of the bar before they were too drunk to find their way back to the ship. Then he’d tell them the news.
The musical tinkle of female laughter drifted over to him. A group of women stood off to the side, giggling and ogling him, waiting for a signal to come closer, one or all of them. An image of their naked bodies writhing under and over his lasted only seconds and barely registered between his legs. Zaafran’s orders and what they could mean commanded too much of his imagination. If the outcome was as good as he hoped there’d be plenty of time for such sport soon, for him and his crew.
With a sly, regretful glance in the direction of the women that got them tittering all over again, Finn crossed to the rear of the bar. He found his second-in-command leaning heavily on a grimy counter, his eyes glazed over with a telltale fog. “Gather the crew, Zurykk. We’re off.”
Finn circled his hand. “We’ve got orders out.”
“Orders?” Zurykk dropped his boots. The skinny little wench wrapped around him protested. She was small, hollow-eyed. A girl that age should be in school, not a soldier’s bar. Problem was, the last years of Lord-General Rakkuu’s aggressive campaign to topple the Coalition had frayed what little was left of society’s edges. Unnecessaries like education had been the first to go. People were too busy reeling from the horrors of war, too numb to salvage their humanity in the shadow of unbearable atrocities.
Would the treaty with the Coalition make things better or worse? Who knew? It was a time of change. Finn intended to land feet-first like he always did.
“What orders, Captain?” Zurykk repeated.
“We’re to dock at the Ring of the Goddess no later than Septumday morning.”
“The Ring?” Zurykk searched his face and choked. “Gods, you’re serious.”
“As a plasma burn, aye.”
“We’re gonna run for it, though, aren’t we? We’re not going to show up.” Zurykk absorbed Finn’s determined expression and downed the last of his drink. “You’re crazy.”
“A fool!” In the glare of Finn’s disapproval, the man added, meeker, “Captain, sir.” He slammed his glass to the counter and exhaled loudly. “The question isn’t whether you’ll be executed, Cap’n, but whether it’ll be public or private.”
“Private, I hope. If that smart-noose curls around my neck, I plan to spend my last breaths on obscenities raw enough to make Stone-Heart blush.”
“You need blood to blush,” Zurykk pointed out.
Finn chuckled. “Aye, you do, that.” Blood was something that cold bitch surely didn’t have. “Gather everyone up, Zurykk. We’re off.”
Finn took a watchful position by the door as his second-in-command yanked the crew off chairs and out of cots, tearing them from the arms of lovers or from bowls of greasy, cheap, but belly-warming stew. Rakkelle, his latest pilot, pulled her shirt over surprisingly white and delicate breasts. A few red splotches on her skin told him she’d been engaged in activities that had been anything but delicate. Finn hated to interrupt any of it. Without battles to do the job, a crew needed a way to vent energy. Finn would rather it be sex than bar fights that could leave them dead or, worse, badly injured. These days, with medical supplies hard to come by, they needed to preserve what little they had.
With the crew grumbling all around him, Finn walked out into a cold and soaking drizzle. Rakkelle strode alongside him. Again he thought of her breasts, and felt a twinge in reaction to the thought of tasting them. Lusty little Rakkelle wouldn’t mind, but Warleader Finnar Rorkken didn’t sleep with his subordinates. He still had a few principles that went along with his hard-won title. A few.
Fewer principles by the day, he thought, reminded of his precarious situation.
“Zurykk says we’re heading out, Captain,” Rakkelle said.
“Aye. We’re been ordered to the Ring.”
She let out a husky war cry, spinning around to face the others. “The Ring! We’re going to the freepin’ Ring! We’ll slice off their wee little Coalition balls and crack ‘em like gornuts!”
The crew roared like they did before a battle.
“Shut your traps!” Finn bellowed. He rested a hand on the butt of his pistol, glaring at the noisy men and few women who knew he’d use that weapon if provoked. “I’ve been summoned to appear by Prime-Admiral Zaafran.”
Boos and curses came in response.
Finn drew the pistol. The laser sight streaked along the foreheads of the suddenly silent crew. His aim was deadly, and they knew it. It was no different from his pirate days: a strong arm kept a Hordish crew in line. “Disrespect of our military orders is to disrespect me. Who dares more disrespect?” He armed the pistol. “It will be your last mistake.”
“But, sir, they’re Coalition.”
“And so are we.” That generated more growls of protest, quickly self-extinguished. “We are one now, one world. We either accept this, or we flounder and fail. I will not fail.” He twirled the nano-pic between his tongue and teeth, glaring at the men and women surrounding him. He counted to ten before he spoke again, quieter. “Am I clear?”
“Aye,” the mumbles went around.
“I didn’t hear you.”
Finn jerked his chin to the dock. “Let’s move out.”
Ahead, his warship glinted darkly, evilly, a giant amongst the smaller ships in port. His ship, his pride, he thought. Finn’s Pride. With most Hordish vessels bearing monikers like Blood Wrath, Scourge of Death, and even Stench, his ship’s name was the source of ridicule at first. One by one, his disparagers learned the consequences of that. Now his ship commanded respect, wherever they went.
Finn strode on ahead, letting damp, cool air wash over him. He was going to have to fight to keep his ship, fight to keep his career. It was nothing new. He’d struggled for everything that had come his way, from the moment he was born until now, fighting for every gods-be-damned bite of food, it sometimes seemed. From skinny street urchin to opportunist pirate, to working his way up the ranks of the imperial fleet from unwilling conscript to decorated Warleader, he’d busted his ass for it all.
He threw a grateful glance at the heavens in thanks for all the near-misses, lucky breaks, and last-minute saves over the course of his life. Someone Up Above took pity on his sorry soul. The gods had been generous with him, aye, but they’d made him sweat for every blasted bone they’d thrown his way.
What is granted can be taken back, no matter how hard you’ve worked to win it. Finn had learned that lesson well. He threw a dark, regretful glance at his ship. Ah, but it had been good while it lasted...
As if reading his thoughts, Zurykk ventured quietly, “What of the Pride, Captain? What of us?”
The crew was vocal in their disappointment. Of course they wanted to know more. Their fates were tangled with his. In these dark times, the loss of their warleader would be devastating. He was all that separated them from hunger and homelessness. For morale’s sake, he’d keep the pitiful state of the ship’s vault to himself now that he’d coughed up what he owed for the plasma core repairs. For the same reason, he’d keep private his nagging reservations on his summons to the Ring. Zaafran’s “news” was either incredibly bad or incredibly good. Finn had his bets on the former. His heart held out for the latter.
“I smell Horde.” Brit sniffed as she exited the airlock connecting the Vengeance to the Ring. Hands clasped behind her back, her posture perfect, she strode forward as Lieutenant Hadley Keyren scurried to keep up with her. “They all have that peculiar stink.”
Hadley wrinkled her nose. It was clear by the girl’s silence that the cloying stench didn’t bother her. Brit would never forget it for as long as she lived.
The Drakken were here, inside the Ring. Blast this treaty, letting barbarians sully our highest military offices. “Find out where in the VIP wing I am to stay, Hadley. Set up my quarters as always.”
“Other than the prime-admiral or you, I do not wish to be disturbed once there. Screen all my calls.”
A group of officers passed them in the bustling corridor. “Admiral,” they greeted with respectful nods. “Goddess be with you.”
“Gentlemen,” Brit replied, scanning their faces. Coalition uniforms mostly with an Earthling or two amongst them. But no Drakken. No Horde.
Brit’s hands flexed at the small of her back. Her stomach muscles clenched with tension.
“Download the names of my new staff, include their training history and war records.”
“I do not want any unknowns serving under me.”
“Have the data waiting for me with dinner.”
“Broiled rainbow fish, tropical fruit medley, wine: Kin-Kan Vineyards, vintage 6763, is that right, Admiral?”
“Sixty-three? Yes. Very good, Hadley.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Brit stopped in front of Prime-Admiral Zaafran’s suite of offices with a click of her polished, booted heels. An aide scurried into the labyrinth to announce her arrival. “And Hadley...”
“Yes, ma’am?” The lieutenant’s intelligent blue eyes lifted expectantly, awaiting her next orders. The young officer’s blond hair was knotted in a chignon at the base of her neck, above the rim of her uniform collar as regulations dictated. Once, Brit had been just as sweet and eager to please. But that was before... She set her jaw. “I hope you enjoyed what little there was of your shore leave. It may be some time before we see another.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Then, softer, “Good luck in there.”
“Luck favors those who don't depend on it, Hadley.” Brit turned, steadied herself, and entered the office of her commander as if she owned it.
Gorgeous babe, twelve o’clock. With his gaze locked on the slim blond, Major Ruben Barrientes smoothed a hand over his Air Force blues, wishing he was wearing his flight-suit. His USAF Thunderbird insignia always impressed the ladies, but chances were the hot little number in Coalition blacks didn’t speak or read English, or had ever heard of the USAF flying demonstration team, a coveted slot he’d vacated when this even more coveted slot was offered to him.
“Girl, you don’t deserve that,” he said low and in her ear, causing her to whirl around. Those blue eyes were even more gorgeous up close. He wanted to kiss the circle of surprise right off her soft pink lips.
“I don’t know you,” she said.
“You do now.” He flashed what he knew was a killer smile and extended his hand. “Ruben Barrientes. At your service.” Curiosity and wariness filled her narrowed eyes. And attraction, he was sure of it. She wanted him already. “Just call me Tango. Everyone does.” He’d wound up with that call sign because he was Argentine by birth--no matter that he had blond hair and grew up in Texas, it didn’t matter, he was Tango as soon as the squadron heard the remains of his Spanish accent. The pretty little lieutenant wouldn’t know where Texas was, let alone Argentina.
“I am Lieutenant, Star-class Hadley Keyren.”
“Lt. Keyren,” she corrected.
She wanted to keep her distance. That was okay, it wouldn’t last long. She was a good girl; he could tell with one look. Good girls always fell like ripe apples, right into his hands. “So, Lieutenant, is General Grouch always like that?”
“‘Get me this, bring me that,’” he sniffed in imitation of the other woman’s rapid-fire demands, hoping his accent didn’t make him too tough to understand. “And you scurrying after her, all sweetness, like the girl in that movie, The Devil Wears Prada.”
Hadley’s look of perpetual surprise deepened.
“The Devil Wears Prada...” Did the words even translate? The closest thing to devil was “god of the Dark Reaches.” And Prada? Shit, forget that. In preparation for this assignment, Tango had spent the past twelve weeks in a total immersion course, learning “the Queen’s tongue,” aka “QT,” the language of both the Coalition and the former Drakken Empire. Unfortunately, if the blond babe’s expression was anything to go by, he might as well be speaking Chinese the way he mixed American slang with her words. “Girl, all I gotta say is that you handled that ruthless bitch pretty damn well. Me, I wouldn’t have been so nice.”
Hadley stiffened. “She is my commanding officer.”
He laughed. “My condolences.”
Hadley’s powder-blue eyes turned dark and humorless. Furious. “That was Admiral Bandar.”
“Yes. Admiral Bandar.”
Tango’s heart dropped. Bandar was his new boss. Bandar was to the Coalition as General Patton was to the United States--and he’d just dissed her in front of her assistant. Good going, Tango. He shoved his hand through his fresh haircut and swore. He hadn’t recognized the admiral. The military headshot photo he’d seen was nothing like the reality. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t this--a tall, sleek comic-book superheroine complete with patent leather dominatrix boots and a black commando uniform. All that was missing was a bull whip and he wasn’t so sure the admiral didn’t have one tucked in her belt somewhere; he’d been too busy looking at Hadley and feeling sorry for her.
If he had a tail, right now he’d be tucking it between his legs at the thought of being on the receiving end of Bandar’s displeasure. It was gonna happen, though, sooner or later, so he’d better be ready. His charm wouldn’t work on Bandar. He wouldn’t even try. She’d rip his balls off and spit them out. Unconsciously, he brought his legs together, just in time to hear Hadley in the midst of chewing him out.
“You speak of her with disrespect when you aren’t even worthy enough to utter her name, Earthling.” Her voice had dropped to an angry hiss. “Admiral Brit Bandar is one of our greatest war heroes. She’s my hero. She’s a living legend. Many of us owe our lives to her. She’d give hers to save any of ours.”
He lifted his hands in surrender. “Look, I know. I’m sorry. I fu--I screwed up. I was just trying to be funny--to break the ice, since we’re going to be serving together.”
“What do you mean?”
“You work for Admiral Bandar, right?”
“I’m her executive officer, yes.”
“I’m one of the pilots assigned to the Unity. We’re going to be stationed together on the same ship.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It was no joke; her confused expression attested to that. How was it possible for her not to know? Unless she and the admiral had just arrived, and...
Tango swallowed. “Do you want the goods news first, or the bad news?”
Hushed mutters nearby drew their attention. Hadley’s eyes widened as a tall Drakken crossed the corridor trailed by two black-suited Coalition security goons. The Drakken wore knee-high boots over leather pants, and a leather vest. His white shirt was more than halfway unbuttoned, held in place by a crisscrossing of rugged weapons belts. Streaks of tattooing and tanned skin peeked out in-between the well-worn straps. His expression was hard, his eyes wary, and he needed a shave. Or maybe the ponytail and beads were what made Tango gladly take a step out of his way as the Hordish officer strode past, beads and jewelry clinking. He caught a faint whiff of leather and something that smelled like cinnamon. “There goes Jack Sparrow,” Tango murmured to Hadley.
“Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean. Savvy?” Nah, explaining was futile. “It’s another Earth movie. I brought it with me. I’ve got a suitcase full of magazines and DVDs, three thousand tunes on my iPod, and plenty of time over the next year to give you a crash course in Earth culture.”
Hadley wasn’t listening to him at all. Her full attention was glued on the Drakken as he disappeared into the waiting room for the Prime-Admiral’s offices. “Another one of our shipmates, I guess,” Tango said.
“Why else would he be here?”
Hadley’s eyes closed. “Goddess...” she whispered and sagged against the wall.
The prime-admiral’s headquarters commanded a sweeping vista of the outer ring. Hundreds of thousands of portholes glittered, making the enormous, circular space station look like a jeweled band hovering in space. Zaafran was standing in front his wall of windows, his index finger pressing a PCD to his ear when Brit entered his private office. “Have him wait in the briefing room once Joss is done with him,” he was saying.
“Admiral Bandar, sir,” one of the security guards announced.
Zaafran ended the communication and strode toward her, his white teeth flashing. She allowed him to hug her. She’d known him for too many years not to.
“Kin-Kan wine before lunch?” the prime-admiral offered.
“You remembered,” she purred.
The table was set for a meal. Set for three, she noted. Hmm. There was to be another guest. Who else would be joining them? She kept her silence--and her impeccable military bearing; the prime-admiral would tell her when he was ready.
Side by side in front of the wall of windows, they sipped the luscious, deep ruby-hued wine and admired the view. Brit left it up to her superior officer to begin the important conversation or make small talk.
“I want to discuss your new command, Admiral.”
So much for small talk; he was going straight to business. She preferred it that way.
“Our duty takes us from our loved ones. It takes our own choices, our personal freedom. Yet, we serve because we are a special breed, a breed apart.”
“With all due respect, sir, this is a conversation one might have with a new, untried ensign on their maiden voyage. I’m your most experienced commander. My loyalty, my devotion to duty is something you should expect without question.”
Zaafran compressed his lips as he studied her.
“Without question,” she repeated.
“I know, Brit. You, more than any other officer. But I...you...” He sighed. She’d never seen him speechless.
“Better that I show you this first.” He activated the holo-vis. “Display triad.” A silver triangle appeared in front of them, three-dimensional and glowing as it spun slowly in midair. Each edge was a different color. “From the reunification hearings comes this--our future. The Triad. Planet Earth, us, and the former Drakken Empire--” he pointed to the blue side of the triangle, the black, and finally the red “--form the Triad Alliance. The Coalition as we have always known it is no more.”
Surprise exploded inside her, but her military bearing remained supremely confident and unflinching. One hand cupped her glass of wine; the other she kept pressed behind her, elbow bent, just so. Her shoulders were back, her chin up, and her expression serene. In the end, her only reaction to Zaafran’s bombshell was the barest lifting of her left brow. So this is what they’d been cooking up all these weeks during closed-door hearings. She’d suspected as much. Hearing it was another story.
“The Coalition will provide most of the resources and infrastructure for stability in these early stages of reorganization. Earth is too small and backward, of course, and the Drakken Empire is in disarray.”
“So, what you’re saying, Prime-Admiral, is that we’re still in charge.”
His slight smile gave her the answer she wanted. “As it should be,” she murmured, comforted by the knowledge that some things, the important things, hadn’t actually changed. The Coalition had, after all, won the war.
Her commanding officer spoke to the holo-vis once more. “Show next.” The triangle disappeared, replaced by a warship beyond her wildest dreams. It was half again as large as the Vengeance, with what appeared to be a double plasma-drive core, overlapping weapons portals, and many more decks.
Zaafran beamed with pride. “She’s every bit as much of a symbol of our future as the triangle I just showed you. Feast your eyes on the first Triad Alliance ship, the TAS Unity. Congratulations, Brit. She’s yours.”
“The Unity? Bah. What kind of self-respecting battleship is given such a weak name?”
Her brow went up again. She was a soldier, a warrior. Not a diplomat. Was this what he was so reluctant to tell her?
“She symbolizes the Triad’s first steps toward the future, united as one. As her captain, you will command a crew consisting of Coalition, Earth, and Drakken.”
And Drakken. So there it was. “I see...” Brit took a delicate, controlled sip of wine, rolling it on her tongue before swallowing. “How many of them?”
“You will command a total of two hundred and twenty officers and enlisted personnel. Of that, our initial mandate requires approximately sixty percent Coalition, thirty-five percent Drakken, and five percent Earthling.”
“I’ll simply assign the bulk of the Horde to the propulsion room below decks and out of sight. The overflow will go to the ship’s load master. They can work on keeping the cargo bays polished. As for the Earthlings, I can’t decide if their number is too small to be of concern or just enough to get in the way.”
“No, Brit. The crew will be integrated, not segregated. We’re going to make peace work. We’re going to prove everyone can get along. And if you don’t feel up to the task, Bandar, I’ll remove you right now and send you back to the Vengeance.”
Shock vibrated through her with the unexpected reprimand. She deserved it; she’d angered him with her impertinence. The Prime-Admiral’s intensity reminded her of the times they’d sit around a war table in their younger days, planning strategy to thwart Drakken onslaughts. He’d been one of the Coalition’s greatest tacticians before moving into positions of power that took him off the bridge of a warship. For that reason, Brit had refused to follow in his footsteps. She wanted to be close to battle. She wanted to hear it, to feel it. She would not be denied the satisfaction of victory. The creation of the Triad wouldn’t change that. Serving with Horde would change that. It would just...complicate it a little.
She squared her shoulders, keeping the knuckles of her left hand pressed to her back. “That will not be necessary, sir. I’ll take the assignment...and obey your orders.” No matter how much she’d prefer serving on the Vengeance to taking part in an ill-advised, political experiment that would never work! “You have my word.”
Zaafran’s expression gentled unexpectedly. He took a few pacing steps away and drove a hand through thick salt-and-pepper hair. Once more, he seemed to struggle with what he wanted to say. “Gods, I’m sorry, Brit. My gut told me this may have been asking too much of you--or of anyone who’s experienced what you have. Your ties to the Arrayar Massacre...gods, Brit, any normal person would--”
“No.” She almost showed emotion. Almost. Her posture was perfection, her expression utter serenity. “We will not speak of that.”
“It was a terrible tragedy--”
“The subject is closed.” True to her nickname, her tone and her expression were cast of stone. “Sir,” she added, conscious of how close to insubordination she skated. Zaafran would know what few others did. Only a few high-ranking officials had access to her personnel records and a need-to-know regarding her life prior to her selection as cadet in the prestigious Royal Galactic Military Academy. Zaafran had every right to doubt her ability to carry out his orders; her connection to Arrayar Settlement cast her objectivity into doubt and thus her ability to function as captain of the Unity. She wouldn’t fail, however. Her career was her life. Blast it all, her career was all she had left. She wouldn’t let the Drakken destroy it whether directly or indirectly.
“I am not unbiased when it comes to the Horde,” she conceded. “Who amongst us is, Prime-Admiral, after all these years of war? Yes, I may have more reasons than most to distrust them, but I will not let it interfere with my duty. I regret that my flippant remarks regarding shipboard assignments led you to believe otherwise. I will complete this mission as ordered.” She shot him a sly glance. “You never said I had to like it, though.”
His mouth twitched at her intentional humor. “There’s something else not to like, I’m afraid. Your new second-in-command. We’ve chosen Finnar Rorkken. He holds the Hordish rank of Warleader.”
“Was,” Zaafran corrected.
“Was one of the most notorious pirates in the disputed territories, I’ll have you know. I came close to capturing him once or twice. Had my primary focus not been on protecting Coalition worlds from the Imperial armada, Rorkken would have been mine.” Oh, how she’d longed for that face to face encounter: her triumphant, him in wrist and ankle cuffs. She’d have made him pay for the secret admiration she harbored for the man. “It’s been years since I’ve heard his name. I assumed he was dead. Though in truth, I haven’t given his pitiful soul much thought.”
“He accepted a commission in the Imperial Fleet seven years ago. He’s commanded a medium-sized battle-cruiser ever since.”
“But you mustn’t forget what he was. Of all the Hordish officers to choose from, this is the best you could do?”
“He’s the only Drakken of any respectable officer rank who isn’t dead, in hiding, or on trial for war crimes.”
“My, what impressive qualifications: last cookie at the bottom of the box, and a broken one, at that.”
“Or, if you’d rather, we can return you to the Vengeance while it sits in retrofit on Ninfarr.”
“Any ship can use a thorough go-over. One never knows what one will find that will require extensive repairs.”
The Prime-Admiral’s amusement at her indignation didn’t quite cover the fact he was dead-serious. Unless she cooperated, Zaafran would make her sit in Ninfarr for who knew how long, stuck in a locale she’d hate, out of commission and useless. “Your alternative is even more unpalatable than sharing the bridge with a Drakken.”
“My hands are tied, Brit,” he said, softening the blow. “The reunification laws governing the Unity insist that she be commanded by a former Coalition officer with a Drakken officer as the second. Rorkken was the best we could find for the reasons I’ve already stated. He’s a good officer. I think you’ll be pleased in spite of your reservations.”
“Good, eh?” The only “good” Drakken is a dead Drakken. Brit took another, controlled sip of wine.
A noise at the office entrance signaled an arrival.
“Ah, he’s here.” Zaafran gave her upper arm a cautionary squeeze before striding away to meet the newcomer.
Two security guards entered the alcove across the spacious office. Then a barbarian stomped inside in heavy boots and stopped. So this was the Scourge of the Borderlands, Brit sneered, studying him in profile. His Hordish attire and adornments fluttered, tinkled, and clanked in contrast to the clean and silent black uniforms of his escorts. He was formidable in build: lean, powerful, broad-shouldered. His nose had a small hump where it was probably broken at some point. Other than that, he seemed to be clean-featured, even handsome in a raw, compelling way. Good looks, wasted on a barbarian. Like most Horde, his clothing revealed a good bit of skin. His tattooed flesh wasn’t filthy or sweaty as she was used to seeing on his kind, but golden and smooth, although his uniform, if one could call it such, was faded and quite obviously mended by hand in several places. Brit couldn’t imagine life without self-repairing nano-fabric.
Upon seeing Prime-Admiral Zaafran approach, the Drakken came to attention, bringing the knuckles of his right hand to his forehead. “Warleader Finnar Rorkken reporting as ordered, sir.”
“And your in-briefing?”
Zaafran chuckled. “I’ll pass along kudos to Star-Major Joss for a job well done. Come, I want to introduce you to your new commanding officer.”
Brit assumed an at-ease but impeccable posture as both men turned and walked in her direction. Rorkken slowed, noticing her for the first time. His eyes crinkled at the edges as they narrowed at her: warm, thickly lashed brown eyes under a pair of neat, dark brows that drew together in boyish inquisitiveness at the sight of her.
Her breath caught. Seff. Oh, gods. He looked like Seff.
Brit’s heart convulsed like a wounded animal, her mouth going dry. How could this be? The Drakken resembled an older version of her long-dead husband, the love of her life, lost so long ago that she could hardly remember his face, the feel of his arms, the sound of his voice. Now he was here, standing before her in the very form of the monsters who took him from her.
The wine in her glass sloshed. She put the glass down on a side table with an overly loud clatter. Prime-Admiral Zaafran glanced at her with surprise. Rorkken, the shrewd bastard, contemplated her with a gaze that was far too penetrating and perceptive for her liking.
No. Damn it all, not that, anything but attraction for a Horde. There was only one kind of lust she was capable of feeling for a Drakken, and that was a lust for vengeance.
The bands of control were now clamped so tightly around her chest that she could hardly breathe. Her heart raced; perspiration prickled her skin. Brit Bandar was a mess.
She dragged her attention away, keeping her narrowed eyes averted until she’d gained control over what was displayed in them. Rorkken’s resemblance to Seff was slight at best. Yes, of course it was. The barbarian was taller, and older. He was bigger boned; even the skin tone wasn’t the same as her late husband’s. In fact, the more her shock abated, the more she realized the differences she should have noticed in the first place. Yet that first impression had been enough to rip open the old scars, allowing her to feel what she’d worked so hard for so many years not to.
By the time she’d let go of the wineglass, resuming her impeccable military bearing only seconds later, she was certain no shock registered in her face. She was less sure about what she’d exposed in that moment of being caught off-guard, though. The warleader peered at her in bewilderment, as if he were unsettled himself. What had he seen?
Brit made the first strike, a defensive measure. “You’re staring, Warleader. Do you not know who I am?” Her brow went up. “Or is it that you do?”
The warleader stopped to think before answering. Smart man, that. Prime-Admiral Zaafran interrupted. He seemed anxious to regain control of the proceedings. “Admiral Brit Bandar,” he told Rorkken, introducing them. “The commanding officer of the Unity.”
Shock flickered in the Drakken’s golden eyes. Stone-Heart: She saw him think it, as clear as day. Her mouth formed into a not-quite smile she knew he didn’t miss.
Rorkken brought the back of his hand to his forehead in a salute. She’d expected he’d recoil in fear meeting her, to be somehow less than a man in her awe-inspiring presence.
Not Rorkken. The knowledge of her identity only intensified his interest, it seemed. She wished she could erase what she’d revealed to him but time could never be turned back. She of all people knew that.
“Admiral,” he said. She was acutely aware of the tilt of his head and the timbre of his voice--hell--and the way he watched her with Seff’s eyes--double hell. That damned physical attraction. How dare the barbarian make her think of Seff? How dare he make her respond to him as a male? “It is an honor,” he finished.
He said it as if he meant it in the most respectful way possible, and yet...he pondered her as no man had dared ponder her in more years than she cared to remember. He makes you feel like Brit again.
She stiffened. Insolent bastard! Yet, she couldn’t condemn him for disrespect if the interpretation of what she saw in his gaze was all hers. For the first time in her long career, she didn’t know how to react. She chose what had always worked best: cold silence and a haughty glare; her trademark, some said.
Rorkken’s expression was unflinching. He seemed to be working hard to read her. “I don’t expect you to feel the same about serving with me,” he said.
“As a matter of fact, I’d rather cough up blood.”
“And waste good blood? We Drakken would rather use it for a nice, warm bath.”
Heat flared in her cheeks at the realization. Her reaction swung between hate, surprise and respect--hate for his kind, surprise that he recognized how society viewed the Drakken, and respect for what appeared to be brash self-confidence moderated by self-awareness and intelligence, traits she didn’t expect from a Hordish barbarian. Murderers, all, but she was going to have to find a way to tolerate this one. For duty’s sake.
For her career’s sake, she qualified. “Any ship can use a thorough go-over. One never knows what one will find that will require extensive repairs.” Zaafran had given her no way out. It was either work with Rorkken or sit with the Vengeance in dry dock, far from the front lines. The choice was clear. Rorkken. Dry dock would give her too much time to think.