Liberating Clemency (Emmeline Lock)
Immersed as I was in my last-minute check of the underground tunnel blueprint of Dulaheim, I didn’t hear the airlock of my flightcraft’s pedestrian entry hatch hiss.
In fact, I was oblivious that someone unauthorized had entered my little ship until I felt the cold press of a weapon at my neck. Careless of me, but I wasn’t too concerned.
“Easy.” The voice was deep and coarse, and made the skin between my shoulder blades shiver.
I slowly swiveled my chair. My seat now rotated a full one-eighty degrees, I could see the man at the other end of the weapon.
A black and white old-school bandanna covered his face, like one of the cowboys on the old entertainment vision my grandfather watched. A utility belt, with various useful tools, lines and sharp things adorning it, was slung low around narrow hips and a vest of sturdy khaki fabric held even more paraphernalia. Spikes of tawny hair fanned out from under a dark watch cap, the hair a similar color to his tanned skin. His big, bare forearms were littered with various scars. A fighter, then.
Damn. Why couldn’t he be a dreadful little man with a size complex like most starpirates? I didn’t have time for a good-looking, finely-built distraction. I was on a quest.
Above the covered face, eyes the color of the bright blue saltwater that covered half of my home world watched me.
His grip on his weapon and his tightly coiled stance said military. As did the little khaki-colored patches placed strategically on his vest, covering insignias and badges. The one over his left breast pocket would be his name…
Damned if he didn’t rev my engine.
It was a similar getup to what I would wear for my work, except I favored black over khaki for my marauding uniform and opted for knives and speed over high-tech gadgetry to get the job done.
He was, as I had about to be before he’d interrupted, up to no good.
I liked him immediately.
But, he had accessed my craft unauthorized, so there was a good chance he was going to have to die.
I swept his legs out from under him with my boots. He hit the deck with a muffled grunt, and leaped his feet immediately, like he’d bounced.
Heavens, those muscles weren’t just for show. The man had strength. I launched out of my seat and attempted to pin his arms, while he tried to pin mine.
He had the muscles, I had the speed.
Slightly concerned about the location of the weapon he’d previously had at my neck, I slid my knife from my boot as I kicked his legs out again, and fell with him. Before my body could touch his, he flipped me until I was underneath him, his hands pinning my wrists to the floor, his body a whisper from mine as he held himself rigid on the tips of his boots.
A smooth, milky-white object hung precariously from a pocket on his vest, and my heart seized in my chest.
He had the Herz des Mondes, the moonstone icon I had come to steal.
I’d been out-thieved. My skin prickled with heat. Nothing more appealing than a man with excellent skills.
He gripped my wrist with both hands and I let him thump the knife from my grip, with just a few quick decoy punches to his excitingly-firm mid-section with my free fist for good measure. That stone was the key to finding my future.
It was rumored that the Herz des Mondes assisted in all facets of love. I didn’t need help with all facets, just one. And I was running out of time.
Ergo, where that stone went, I went. If the stone was with the hot solider, I was with the hot soldier.
The game had changed. I went limp, to let him know he’d won. For now.
He moved to his feet like a man half his size. “I have to get out of here, but my own aircraft is currently…indisposed. I need someone to fly me out. ASAP.”
I slid back into the pilot’s chair.
He reached forward and I froze, but he angled his body past mine, slapped at a few buttons, and flipped on the external camera switch. He spun my chair until I faced the immense control panel, the pistol a firm presence at the base of my skull again. I had to admire his skill with a weapon. I still hadn’t set eyes on the damn thing.
Viewscreens across the cockpit came to life, showing dark-clad guards searching for something, checking doorways of the airport, attempting to board craft. Dulaheim, the beautiful artificial planet that was home to the Herz des Mondes, was also home to a large group of well-trained soldiers called the Wache, intent on protecting the moonstone and the scantily-dressed Priesterin who worshipped it and channeled its power.
On the viewscreens, as the Wache executed a regimented search, four Priesterin of various skin colors—and I could see a lot of skin—wrung their hands and consoled each other.
Served them right for being lovers, not fighters.
I spun back to face the solider, and crossed my arms.
“I have…liberated something from them.” My hijacker indicated the screen. “I’d like to keep it for now.”
I know exactly what you’ve liberated, sir. I was hoping to liberate it for myself.
Still, just to keep it fun, I shook my head.
The color of his eyes intensified, and he leaned in, grabbing me by the forearms and hoisting me up against the wall. As he did, his bandanna slipped, and I saw his face.
A scar from cheekbone to mid-neck bisected his brown skin. His lips were full, and his nose perfectly formed. His jaw line looked sharp enough to cut fingers.
I was dying to see if it would. Dying to.
With a hand that only shook a little, I hooked a finger in my mask and pulled it from my face. His indrawn breath was rewarding.
Reaching for the zipper, I unfastened the mirror cloak at my neck. It dropped to my feet, and left me standing there in my gear, a serviceable black bustier and leather pants with low boots.
“Mother of Heaven,” he whispered, easing me down the wall until I stood.
I watched his eyes cloud a little and he reached one of those strong fingers towards my left collar bone, to the Wings of Thorn. Across my décolletage, I was marked with swirling designs that glittered electric blue over my cleavage and petered out in silvery-green curlicues over my shoulders.
His fingers traced the pattern in a way that made my insides clench.
“Assassin. The Wings…so beautiful.”
Sadly, he seemed to remember himself when I used my forefinger to lift up the rectangular patch over his very-nicely-put-together chest, dropping his hand and stiffening into a pose that was one hundred percent soldier.
“L’Arc.” I read, the name familiar, but I was a little distracted by my increasingly desperate need get that watch cap off him and see if his hair would be cut short enough to prickle my fingers just right. And if I could melt a little of that military ice while I did it. “I’m Clemency.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “A pretty name for a hired killer.”
“If you meet any attractive girls called Charity or Mercy, be careful. It’s a family business—they’re probably my cousins.”
He smiled. Maybe. More of a lift of the corner of his mouth, but on him, it did funny things to my nervous system. I needed to be on my guard around him, or I’d develop a nasty tic.
A noise outside the cockpit, a raised voice, a bit of girly weeping indicated that the group of guards and girls was getting closer.
I let my gaze rake over my captor. I could have been captured by worse, for sure. And I wasn’t actually his captive at this point. He just thought I was.
The only sign that he’d heard the kerfuffle outside was a controlled stretch of his fingers.
I had come to find the Herz des Mondes. It seemed, it had found me and came complete with a tasty side order of sexy soldier.
The noise got closer. The Wache were stealing their way up the gangplank. Amazing how much noise that walkway made when you actually listened to it.
If one didn’t sneak up it like a highly-trained man of war. Or a felon on the run.
“It’s your lucky day, soldier. I’m feeling up for a bit of adventure.” The Kapitaen of the Wache walked to the threshold and saw L’Arc, who waved with a grin. The Kapitaen drew in an indignant breath so fast, he gagged on his own tongue.
Winking at my sexy stowaway, I dropped into the pilot’s chair. “Gangplank’s yours.”
I slapped the hatch closure button as L’Arc hit the walkway release, the Kapitaen’s shout only just audible before there was no sound at all. He might have to go home to change his pants before he came after us. That was a good drop into the bottom of the docking hub.
Leaning on the J-stick, my very interesting cargo and I moved out.
* * *
The man knew his way around an airboat like a master, checking levels, adjusting sliding levers from the copilot seat.
Something about those long, strong fingers confidently adjusting my console made me feel like I’d shrunk my skin when I last washed.
He was pushing my buttons, and not just in the cockpit.
“So, L’Arc, you going to kill me?” I had changed my mind about having to end his life fairly early in the piece, but nothing was set in stone. If he decided I was dispensable, I’d just have to be faster.
He watched me, his blue eyes sharp. He’d taken his cap off, and his hair was a ruffled mess of sable, with some very fetching silver over his ears. Me like.
L’Arc leaned over me, the warmth from his body seeping through my clothing, and flipped the ship to auto.
“It wouldn’t be in my best interest to terminate you.” Still no smile, but…was that an eye twinkle?
Be still my galloping heart.
“Well, cheers, Commandant. I’m fairly keen to stay alive myself. I’ve just finished paying these boots off.”
I flung my foot up into his lap, so that my combat boot landed awfully close to his groin.
He didn’t flinch, but he wrapped a large hand around my ankle, anchoring my leg to his.
He looked at me. A challenge.
Sliding my hands behind my head, I lifted my other leg and crossed my ankles.
Warm hands closed over my shins.
“So, if you’re not here to murder innocent assassins, what were you doing on Dulaheim, running from women who were barely dressed? Hot tip for free—usually men run toward the pleasure Priesterin, not away.”
With a smirk, he gave my shin a squeeze. “Not my kind. I’ve been looking for a certain kind of woman. Prior to now.”
His fingers massaged my calf muscles and all quippy replies exited my brain. If he kept that up, he would need a bucket to get me out of my own ship. I was melting.
I sighed, which was very un-assassin-like, but every killer has their weak spots and mine was sitting in the seat next to me, working my tired, tired calves with his very strong, very capable, hands.
L’Arc swung our seats to the centre and leaned forward in his seat, his knees settling either side of mine. Reaching forward, he took my hand in his, his palm dwarfing mine, and linked our fingers. So gentle for such a big man. I had a tight ache under my breastbone and I breathed deep to dislodge it.
“What were you doing here, Clemency?”
“Ah, well. Do you want the heart-breaking epic version, or the quick summary?”
He tapped the screen displaying the ship in our wake. The Wache were obviously keen to get their prize back. “That’s a big, clunky ship they’re flying. I think we’ve got a moment or two.”
His grin was unexpected and completely devastating. Heavens, he should have dragged that out instead of his weapon when he first climbed aboard. I would have had his babies right then, without question.
“Okay, so I’m an assassin, right?”
His gaze dropped to the Wings of Thorn and his eyes did that unfocused thing. He shifted in his chair a little.
“Well, lately, it’s been getting old, you know. Like there’s something more I need to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, knocking off nasties is fun, and pays well, but I wasn’t…happy.”
“Know what you mean.” He nodded at me to go on.
“So, there’s my biological clock, gonging, I was just existing, not living. Eventually, I worked out that living on an all-girl world was not my thing, due to the distinct lack of men. Oh, there are men there, but they’re other assassin’s partners, and it’d take a braver assassin than me to steal an assassin’s man. Taking into account the fact that the men are so darned content, you’d have to drag them away by their hair anyway, I had to find my own future. All before I hit the big three-five, when I’ll be pressured to level up to master assassin and give my life—my everything—to the cause.”
“Sounds…hard-core. And your birthday is soon?”
I nodded. “So—and this is going to sound a bit daft—an Oracle came to town one day, probably wanted someone dead and needed to organize that, but she had a little trancey-episode when she met me, sent me on a quest, which you kindly hijacked, and here I am.”
“I think I know the oracle you mean.”
He nodded. “A woman came to see me about a protection issue, and she did the same thing. Trance slash quest slash moonstone. Eventually no protection detail was ordered. She just left.”
“And we find ourselves both looking for the Herz des Mondes.”
L’Arc nodded. “I didn’t put much faith in the ‘true love’ myth attached to the stone.” He looked down at our joined hands, to where he was massaging my fingers in slow circles. Each press arrowed a fiery path straight to every single girl part I possessed. “But I was ready for a change. I’m too old for running around like a teen because other people pay me to. There’s more to life than work.”
“Amen to that.” I breathed.
“I’m a good boss, and a good friend, but that’s all I am, Clemency. Any full life should have more than that. A happy home, children, a great love. I’m not the only soldier out there. When it comes down to it, there’s no one who can’t live without me. ” He looked into my eyes. “That’s where the stone came in.”
He gazed at me like he could see inside me, all my darkest corners. If he kept that up, I would be forced to ravish him on my cockpit floor and completely forget about the men who were slowly flying up on us from behind.
“So, L’Arc.” I got to my feet and stood behind my chair. “It turns out I’m looking for a man I can’t live without. You might be a contender. Do you have any special skills?” If it came out a bit purry, it was completely his fault for putting me in a mood.
He smiled, and this time, it transformed his whole face.
Heavens, his parents needed a medal, or a gift basket, or something, because he was fine.
“Special skills? Depends on the talents you require.” His eyes sparked as he stood too, and raised an index finger toward me. He shot a shimmering thread of pure silver electricity in a perfect curve straight at my tattoo. I stiffened, expecting it to hurt.
It felt like a warm hand stroking the design. Oh, yes.
This time, he winked at me.
At the console, something dinged, but I was busy, man.
L’Arc glanced at the console and shrugged, his mountainous shoulders rolling.
“Hey, you’re one of the Coulombae Mercenaries. The perfect soldiers—disciplined, loyal, fierce.” I should stop with the descriptions—they were making me hot. “No need for weapons, because they’re right at your fingertips.” I stepped toward him. “A whole world of subservient women at your disposal. But you’re not a subservient woman kinda guy are you, L’Arc?”
“No, ma’am. I need a firm hand.” His big palm was at my waist, and the other fingers were sifting through the short strands of my close-cropped hair. He pulled me close. “And it’s Munro.”
Munro. His breath was on my lips, tantalizing, when I heard the clang of a walkway clamping into place. The Wache ship was connecting to ours. There was a hiss as the airlock released.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Kapitaen of the Wache standing at the threshold.
“He’s got a lead attached to his utility belt.” Munro said, his lips hovering over mine.
“Aww, someone’s got trust issues.” I smiled.
My hot new man laughed and rummaged around in his vest with his free hand. From his chest pocket, he withdrew a palm-sized hollow moonstone, deeply carved with filigree, and fairly buzzing with power.
Power we’d just experienced first-hand.
Tossing the rock to the Kapitaen with a backhanded flick, Munro said, “We won’t be needing this anymore, thanks boss.”
The Kapitaen’s jaw loosened and he made to step into the cockpit.
Munro was back at my lips when he murmured, “Gangplank’s yours.”
Our lips touched as we simultaneously flipped the switches, the Kapitaen’s shout drowned out as we sped off, and a bright wave of possibility crashed over Munro L’Arc and me.