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Sneak Peek

Mission to Mahjundar (Veronica Scott)

Posted: 31 March, 2015 at 4:42 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Sneak Peek: Mission to Mahjundar (Veronica Scott)

 

SFRGalaxyAwards_iconRelease Date: 15 August 2014
Publisher: Veronica Scott
Available from: Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play, All Romance eBooks
Price: $2.99
URL: https://veronicascott.wordpress.com/

CHAPTER ONE

This place feels primed for disaster. Despite their local escort’s best efforts to hurry him through the crowded market, Mike noticed many of the stalls were closed, the vendors having left early and shuttered their inventory away. Other sellers seemed to be practically forcing their wares on the passersby, as if there was a deadline they were afraid to miss. Crowds of people thronged the place, some buying supplies, others talking furtively in small clumps. The situation report on the planet had said the political climate was stable, even with a dying emperor.

Sitreps were notoriously incomplete or dead wrong.

Shifting the heavy bag of equipment he was carrying, Mike exchanged a glance with his sergeant before tapping their guide’s shoulder. “Always this crowded?”

Without slackening his stride, the gaudily dressed local officer shook his head. “No, tomorrow is the first day of a major festival. People are stocking their larders for feasting. The plaza will be nearly empty by nightfall.”

“A pity our briefing didn’t mention the festival, or we’d have come in tomorrow. Our mission could have waited one day.” Ducking past a man carrying four rolled-up carpets, nearly falling over a pair of small street beggars, Mike shoved a half-drunk youth out of his way. His limited store of patience frayed, Mike felt a dull headache pounding. “After this melee, encountering mountain bandits will be a picnic.”

He stepped onto a broad, green-tiled walkway that bordered the flagstone street. From there, the going became somewhat easier. The small party made progress for a couple of encouraging minutes before a new impediment arose. Behind Mike came a fanfare of blaring, slightly out-of-sync trumpets. What traffic there was in the street came to an immediate halt as people started shoving, struggling to get to the sides of the thoroughfare, leaving the center of the road clear.

“It must be the empress and her party, on their way home from their observances at the temple complex.” Their guide, who’d introduced himself at the tiny spaceport simply as Captain Rojar, peered into the distance, one hand shading his eyes. “Let’s wait and see the fine sight. A treat for you.”

Granted, Mike’s hypnotraining in the primary Mahjundan languages might not have been all-inclu­sive, but there’d definitely been a faint tinge of sarcasm in the man’s remarks. Mike studied Rojar’s bland expression for a moment, but the officer’s tanned face and half smile betrayed nothing. Over his shoulder, Mike said in Basic to his cousin Johnny, the Special Forces sergeant accompanying him, “Watch our six. I didn’t think this crowd could make me any more nervous, but the tension definitely ramped up in the last two minutes.”

Glancing at the nearest citizens, Johnny Danver nodded. “Kinda quiet and sullen compared to what it was, ain’t it?”

Deciding to push the issue with their guide, Mike said, “Why don’t we move on? We could make some real progress while the crowd waits for the parade to go by.”

Hands on his hips, eyes narrowed, Rojar did a nervous survey of their position, as if marking where they stood in relation to some landmark only he knew, before shaking his head once. He made a slicing motion. “No.” Belatedly, he attempted to soften the refusal with a bit more explanation. “Much better to wait. No doubt you’ll find this glimpse of our royal family highly interest­ing.”

“No doubt,” Mike agreed, his own tone sarcastic now. Exchanging a rapid glance with Johnny, he settled in to wait for the promised parade, keeping a close eye on their gear, piled on the walkway at his feet. There was no point in struggling through the crowd independent of their escort. Arriving at the palace without the guy and having to wait for him to catch up would get the job off on the wrong foot for sure. Mike took a swig of water from his canteen, to cool his throat and his temper. One thing the report had been accurate about–Mahjundar was hot, even in midafternoon.

***

Although she’d never lived in the temperate mountain forests, Princess Shalira imagined she’d prefer them to the hot lowlands. Whenever she visited the tiny temple of her patron goddess Pavmiraia on the outskirts of the city, as she was doing today, she pretended the heat and intrigues of the capital and the court had been left behind. This chapel and her vivid daydreams provided special refuges for most of her life.

The floor was cool beneath her bare feet as she strolled twenty paces from the door to the altar, passing the snoring priestess, sprawled on a bench no doubt, mouth probably wide open. Not many come here anymore, not many at all. Will anyone worship the goddess when I’ve gone? Tears pricked Shalira’s eyes as she felt for the padded knee rest, bowed her head, and knelt in front of the altar.

“Do you know this is to be my last visit?” she whispered to the goddess she could no longer see. “Do you care? Will my pleas still reach your ears when I’ve completed my appointed journey?” Shalira fingered the amulet around her neck, the familiar whorls of the much-worn pattern under her fingers soothing her anxieties. For the thousandth time she reminded herself this impending trip wasn’t her choice so much as the least of evils. She took a deep breath. “Maybe my life will improve, away from the empress and her schemes.”

Settling more comfortably on the knee rest, she tried to visualize the chapel – graceful murals of forest and mountains on the walls, a small fountain in the courtyard outside, the larger than-life-size statue of the goddess herself, perpetually gazing to the east, a half smile on her face. Though Shalira’d not beheld these sights in well over fifteen years, she felt sure she was remembering them accurately.

A cool breeze smelling of moss and tiny flowers blew her long hair away from her face, and instinctively she lifted her chin to enjoy the stray breath of air.

Footsteps came down the aisle behind her, an unfamiliar, light tread. The newcomer halted a few feet behind the princess, who was already pivoting, unwilling to have her back to a stranger. For all the good it’ll do me if the intruder harbors evil intentions. She curled her hands into fists.

“No need to fear me, Your Highness. I offer a parting prophecy for your journey.” The woman’s voice was sweet and low, disarming. “You’ll travel farther than you dream, experience many things both good and bad, and even unexpected, but the blessings of Pavmiraia will wrap around you. Never doubt, but follow your heart in all your choices.”

“Thank you, priestess.” Unclenching her fingers, Shalira tried to calm herself with a deep breath. “Are you recently assigned to this chapel? I didn’t know there were any new celebrants.”

Gentle laughter like the chiming of bells. The woman touched Shalira’s cheek with the tips of her fingers. Annoyed, the princess straightened her spine, disliking anyone touching her, much less someone she didn’t know. “Indeed not,” said the bold newcomer. “I’ve been here since before your time. I came to bid you farewell, for I also take my leave of this place.”

“Who are you? I don’t recognize your voice.” She tried to keep impatience out of her tone. People who made her guess their identity were another frustrating aspect of her existence on the fringes of the court.

“Yet you know me – you call upon me with great frequency.” The cool fingers lifted away from her face. “One of the last of the true believers, you.”

Confused and angry someone would take advantage of her blindness, would dare to impersonate the goddess, Shalira hesitated to utter scalding words. I want this to be real, whispered a voice deep in her heart. I want some magic; surely I deserve some magic.

In the next moment, she felt a whisper-soft kiss on her forehead before the intruder said, “Stay true to your heart in all which faces you. Go with my blessing, hold tight to your dreams, even in great adversity. The things you wish are worthy of being granted, but must be earned.”

Love, children, a home of my own–my vision restored. Maybe this arranged marriage I go to will satisfy a few of these.

Blinking hard, she realized the footsteps were receding, a faint pattering as if the woman was dancing to a tune only she could hear. Despite stiff knees from kneeling in prayer, the princess took a few faltering steps, bumping into the railing around the altar, clutching the wood to keep from falling. “Wait, please wait–”

“Who are you speaking to, Your Highness?” It was the gravelly voice of her one loyal guardsman, Saium. His heavy footsteps echoed in the tiny chapel as he crossed the threshold, shoving the door aside with a scrape of warped wood on stone. The smoky scent of the pipe he’d indulged in wafted around her, as he approached with the uneven sound of the limp he tried to conceal when his bones ached.

The elderly nun coughed, stirring on her bench.

How did the other woman leave? There wasn’t any sound of the door before Saium entered. Bewildered, Shalira toyed with the end of her long braid, twining the loose tendrils around her fingers. “Did you see her?”

“See who? No one entered or left since your arrival.” Saium was next to her now, taking her elbow in one huge hand with a light clasp, overly familiar, but allowed from him. “The empress is impatient to leave the temple complex. She’s been waiting–”

“And she is extremely annoyed to be delayed by an ungrateful girl!” Empress Maralika’s shrill voice echoed in the small chamber like fingernails on a slate, the sound startling the elderly priestess into falling off her bench with a thump and a quickly smothered curse.

Saium dropped to his knees as Maralika’s quick steps rapped on the stone floor like a drum tattoo, moving in their direction. Shalira stretched her stiffened joints, turning her head toward the sound of the empress’s approach. “My apologies for delaying you, Your Majesty. As I’ll never be here again, I had to complete the proper leave-taking of the goddess.” Did Pavmiraia herself speak to me? Bless me?

“Considering I was kind enough to bring you along today, the least you could do is observe the demands of my schedule.” Tapping one toe on the stone floor, Maralika laughed. “Although from the dilapidation of this place, I might have done you a disservice. Surely, no goddess, no power, still dwells in this environment. Better you’d worshipped at the temple of the new gods, the ones I give allegiance.”

“I prefer the old ways.” Shalira kept her voice mild. They’d had this fruitless argument before.

Maralika snapped her fingers. “And much good your loyalty has ever done you. Come along now.” The empress wheeled, her robes sweeping across the floor with an angry swish, leaving the temple as rapidly as she’d entered a moment ago.

Not quite sure where she stood, or how many steps it would be to the door, Shalira held out her hand. “Please?”

Saium clasped her fingers in his. “My pleasure, Your Highness.”

Together they strolled from the temple, the hot sun striking like a slap on her face as she crossed the threshold under her guardsman’s guidance. The princess blinked back tears, wishing for a fleeting second she could run into the temple and find true sanctuary there. Don’t be childish, people are watching. People were constantly scrutinizing her. She was an object of curiosity, pity, and speculation at her father’s court. Well, I’m leaving all this behind now, aren’t I? Maybe change will be a good thing. Smiling despite the gnawing dread in the pit of her stomach, she walked steadily toward the restless horse the empress insisted she ride. She could hear the stallion’s hooves striking sparks from the paving stones as he challenged the grip of his handler. When Saium boosted her into the saddle, Shalira took comfort in the fact there would be only a few more days to struggle through before she left her present troubles behind forever.

***

If he’d been in charge of the imperial procession, the soldiers would’ve marched in better formation, with a crisper gait. Mike couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a supposedly crack regiment display such an uncaring, lax attitude in front of the local populace. Heading the column was a contingent of mounted guards, wearing gaudy uniforms, cut from the same iridescent fabric as Rojar’s, and sporting helmets with long, curling feather crests. Involuntarily, Mike glanced at his own black and gold uniform.

Busy whittling a stick of wood he’d picked up from somewhere, small yellow pocket knife sending the shavings flying, Johnny laughed out loud. “Makes you glad the Sectors don’t go in for much color.”

“We’d never be able to do our job.” Mike hefted the bag he was carrying, not wanting to set anything else down on the busy street. “The enemy would see us coming a mile away.”

His cousin held out the crude carving. “My best attempt at local fauna, that winged lion thing.” He tossed the quickly done piece to a nearby boy who’d been watching him open-mouthed, before snapping his knife shut and tucking it in a pocket of his utilities.

Mike nodded at the standard bearers marching behind the guards, holding aloft the banners of the imperial household. “You mean that? The cherindor? You need a lot more practice.” The mythical, winged feline rampant on the banners resembled pictures he’d seen of Terran lions, but with a barbed tail and three eyes. The image was apparently ubiquitous in the city. He and Johnny had been joking about it in fact, while they’d waited for Rojar.

“Wings are tricky to carve. Just passin’ the time.”

Rojar elbowed Mike in the ribs, pointing with his free hand. “Her Imperial High­ness Maralika. You’re privileged today, Major Varone, to have a glimpse of her magnificence.”

Definitely sarcasm. Mike stifled a flash of irritation. Getting embroiled in local politics, even accidentally, wasn’t on his agenda for this search-and-recovery mission. He might have to request another liaison if this guy was going to cause problems with his hostility toward the ruling family.

The off-key trumpeters strutted by, blaring yet another fanfare. Now the empress appeared, carried in an elaborately painted litter, a muscular soldier at each corner. She was semi-reclining, so Mike couldn’t get a good look at her face full on. Elaborately coiffed black hair, sparkling with jewels, framed a rather hard profile, somewhat disguised by cosmetics. But for all I know, she’s the Mahjundan standard of high beauty. He took a second look. Not mine. She waved languidly at the crowd with one pale hand as her litter proceeded along the parade route. Three rings flaunting gems the size of pigeons’ eggs caught the sun, throwing rainbows across the crowd as she flicked her hand.

Grim-faced guards walked on all sides, tougher than the gaudy troops who’d marched first in the parade. These men had their weapons at the ready, constantly scanning the mostly silent crowd.

A party of boisterous younger people rode horses behind the empress. Laughing and talking amongst themselves, they made no pretense whatsoever of acknowledging the crowd.

“Ladies-in-waiting, courtiers, some of the favored royal children,” Rojar told Mike. “We’re close to the end of the procession now. We’ll be able to go on our way in a minute or two, after the priests and serv­ants.”

A girl riding slightly behind the others caught Mike’s eye. She was wearing a pale blue dress, edged in lavender and gold. The lack of riotous, clashing color alone made her stand out to Mike in this crazy kaleidoscope of a city. But then he took a second glance to admire her beauty, masses of glossy black hair framing her lovely oval face. Brows drawn together in a fierce frown of concentration above almond-shaped eyes, she sat straight-backed in the saddle, one hand clenched in a death grip on the pommel, the other clutching the reins. Holding the horse’s green-tasseled bridle was a guard in the most subdued uniform Mike had seen yet on the color mad planet – brown-and-emerald with no braid or gaudy ribbons. Having a keen eye for horses, Mike could tell her magnificent stallion was ill at ease, sidestepping nervous­ly, tossing its head, wild-eyed and sweating. He was about to ask Rojar a ques­tion about these two when suddenly there was a massive explosion farther to the east, toward the palace, followed by another, smaller blast.

The shock wave knocked Mike to his knees, hands going automatically to his ears, which ached from the concussion.

The crowd went berserk, screaming, pushing, running in all directions.

Instinctively, Mike reached for the blaster customarily at his hip. Damn, not this trip.

The neat column of the procession had fallen to chaos on the roadway. The horses bolted, one plowing through the crowd right behind Mike, knocking people over like straws. Caught in a knot of Mahjundans, forced away from his companions by the unruly mob, Mike’s attention was riveted on the black stallion, rearing and lashing out. The guard in green was nowhere to be seen.

Mike pushed against the packed, sweating bodies surrounding him, yelling above the din for people to get out of his way. His attention was focused on the beautiful girl who’d seemed such a reluctant horsewoman. The stallion was circling, bucking, gathering itself to bolt while she did her best to control the terrified animal. Lips compressed, eyes unaccountably closed, the woman he’d become fascinated by before the explosion was holding the reins tight. Mike ran across the green tile border and into the street, which offered easier going. Most people were trying to escape from the square altogether, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the potential danger of another explosion. Sprinting to the horse, Mike made a wild grab at the reins.

Seeing her at closer range, he revised his estimate of her age upward by about ten years–not a girl in the late bloom of youth after all, but a stunning woman. “Hang on, lady, I’ll help you dismount. Once you’re safe, I can try to get him calmed down for you,” Mike said, pitching his voice at a level he hoped would cut through the incredible din in the square. “You’re doing fine, just don’t let go of the reins, ok?”

She opened her eyes, turning in his direction. “Oh, please—”

The stallion bucked harder, breaking the rider’s hold on the saddle. She slid off like a rag doll. Cursing, Mike let go of the horse, which promptly bolted. He managed to break the girl’s fall, going to one knee as he caught her. To prevent her from being trampled by the crowd, which surged into the space the distressed horse had kept clear with its lashing hooves, Mike carried her in the direction the panick-stricken people were flowing. “Come on, we’ve got to get away from this mob!”

It was like swimming in a riptide. Going with the flow initially, Mike angled toward the far curb and got himself and his trembling companion across the roadway.

“I can walk,” she said, voice faint. Making no effort to leave the security of his arms, however, she had her eyes closed again.

Rather than waste time arguing, he carried her as he clambered over fallen people and maneuvered around debris until they fetched up in the doorway of a bakery. The sweet smell of fresh breads mingled incongruously with the stench of smoke from the bomb blast. With a muttered apology, Mike set the woman on her feet behind him, so he could defend them both if necessary.

Drawing his belt knife, which was the only weapon he’d been allowed to carry through the city gates, he felt better. Now prepared to deal with whatever might happen next, he crouched in the doorway, trying to keep the woman out of sight behind him as much as possible. Mike surveyed the plaza, identifying no immediate threats. No one paying us any attention right now, too much confusion and panic. He had no way of knowing if the empress had just been the target of an assassination attempt or whether the bombers had hoped some members of the royal household would be unlucky enough to be caught in the blast so close to the parade. If it was the latter case, his job was to keep the terrorists from stumbling over his companion. Time to reassure the woman I rescued.

Half-turning to check how she was doing, he said, “Sorry for the rough handling, miss. Someone apparently has it in for the royal family today.”

One hand was clenched around a small red purse tied to her belt. She was staring slightly over his shoulder with beautiful caramel-brown eyes, golden highlights sparkling in their depths. Reaching to touch his shoulder with her free hand, she let her manicured nails drift ever so slowly to his face.

She’s blind? He allowed her to run her hand over his features for a moment.

Finishing her rudimentary scan, the woman patted her hair and cleared her throat. “Your voice is unknown to me, sir, but thank you for your help. What of my guardsman? I’m anxious about his safety.”

You should be worrying about your own skin, lady. “I didn’t see him after the explosion. He probably got dragged away by the crowd. There were a lot of people in the market, and they became a mob with one thing on their minds—escape. I had a hard time working my way to you and the horse.” Mike took a deep breath of her perfume, floral with a woodsy undertone, while he reconnoitered the square again with practiced efficiency. “The excitement will subside in a few minutes, after which I’d be honored to escort you to the palace.”

“Most kind.” She stood patiently, one hand at her throat, toying with the turquoise and green necklace she wore. ”I wish we knew what had become of my guard.”

He checked conditions in the plaza. The crowd had thinned out now, leaving behind a colossal mess of broken pottery, crushed food, torn awnings, and everywhere, the injured. Mike guessed most of the casualties had been knocked down and trampled in the panic, since the lethal effect of the bomb itself had been localized. Is this the explanation behind Rojar not wanting to walk any farther? He was on edge, anticipating something from the moment we met him.

The woman leaned back until she was propped up by the bakery wall. “Could—could you tell me what’s wrong with my arm? I think it’s bleeding.”

Returning his knife to the sheath first, he took her slender, tanned arm and pushed several jeweled brace­lets and the blood-stained fabric of her sleeve out of the way. A jagged metal shard was embedded in her upper arm, blood dripping onto the sheer silk dress. Examining the wound carefully, Mike was relieved to find it messy but superficial. The blood was already clotting. “Not too serious, just a big metal splinter. Hold still and I’ll pull it out. Have you got something we can use for a bandage, until you can see a doctor?”

With her free hand, she tugged a wispy lavender scarf from her ebony black hair. “Will this do?” she asked, holding it slightly off to his right.

Mike reached over to take the scrap of fabric. “Fine. Now try not to move.” Getting a firm grip on the twisted fragment, he drew it out, doing his best not to enlarge the wound. Then he wrapped the puncture firmly with the scarf. “You probably won’t even need stitches,” he said cheerfully. The woman stood quietly during the whole procedure, closing her eyes and breathing too fast, her chest rising and falling. She nodded at his remark but didn’t answer.

Mike surveyed his handiwork, then peered at her face. “Only a small piece of shrapnel, but pretty jagged. You’re pale. Are you sure you’re up to walking?”

Stepping away from the wall, she straightened her shoulders resolutely. “I’ll be fine. We must get to the palace. They’ll be searching for me, and if there’s trouble on the streets, I shouldn’t be out.”

“Let me help you, then.” He laid his hand on her uninjured arm, to guide her down the bakery’s three shallow steps.

She pulled away from him abruptly, eyebrows drawn together in a frown. “I can manage.”

Mike didn’t relinquish his grip on her wrist. “I don’t care if you know every inch of this plaza on an ordinary day—there’s too much debris at the moment. You won’t get ten steps without tripping over something. Now, do I guide you or do I carry you?”

Wordlessly, but with the hint of a curve to her lips, she extended her other hand. Closing her fingers over his with a strong grasp, she allowed him to lead her from their sheltering doorway. Mike decided against walking in the roadway. Too conspicuous. He set a path along the fringes of the plaza, sticking close to the shops. It wouldn’t be as direct a route to the palace, but they’d attract less attention, a goal high on his priority list at the moment.

“Are there many injured?” she asked, brow wrinkled, voice soft with concern.

“Afraid so. Must have been quite a bomb. There are people attending to the wounded now, though.” Steering her around a spilled cart of melons, past a decapitated sheep, he was glad she couldn’t see the carnage. Collateral damage and human casualties were increasing as they got closer to the smoking bomb crater.

Empress Maralika’s empty litter was tipped side­ways, the solid wooden undercarriage facing the side of the street where the bomb had gone off. Gave the empress some protection. The litter appeared undamaged in the middle of the roadway, about fifty feet short of the worst of the blast zone. Lying in the street, one of the four guards who’d been carrying the litter was moaning and clutching at his chest.

Mortally wounded, nothing I can do to help. “Detonated too soon, apparently,” he said to himself, mentally measuring the distance from the crater to the litter as he guided the girl past the dying soldier.

A voice hailed him in Basic from the side of the road behind them. “Mike!”

He spun around, breaking into a relieved grin. “Am I glad to see you. Where’s Rojar?”

The sergeant gestured as he took in the woman standing hand in hand with Mike. “Right behind me. Been rescuing damsels in distress, have you?”

“She’s blind,” Mike said in Basic.

Rojar sprinted to join them but stopped abruptly when he focused on Mike’s companion, making a sharp salute in her direction, which of course the woman couldn’t see. “Your Highness, Captain Rojar of the emperor’s guard, at your service.” Waving his drawn gun, he glared at Mike. “And this person with his hands on you is Major Varone of the Sectors, newly arrived on Mahjundar. Outworlder, she can order your death for touching her—she’s a princess of the blood direct.”

“Nonsense,” said the woman in a sharp tone. “Such drastic measures would hardly be an appropriate way to reward his kindness after I requested his guidance across the plaza.” Then, and only then, did she disengage her hand from Mike’s. “I’m somewhat disoriented. Are we close to the family gate?”

Taking a second to double-check, Rojar answered in the affirmative. “Indeed, Your Highness. We have only to cross the last hundred yards of the plaza. Allow me to procure a litter for you. All this blood on your dress—are you—”

“A scratch only, but I’m lightheaded. These gentlemen will stand watch over me while you go for the litter.” The princess nodded her agreement with the captain’s suggestion. She swayed a little as Rojar rushed off in search of suitable transpor­tation.

Putting an arm around her waist, Mike kept her on her feet. Quickly, he steered her to a nearby cart and had her sit on the open tailgate, kneeling solicitously beside her. “Are you sure you don’t have any other injuries?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine. I think it’s the shock of the whole event. Only military men such as yourself remain calm in the face of bombs and assassins, right, Major?”

“Oh, the explosion left me searching for cover, I promise.” Mike laughed with her. “We weren’t expecting such a rousing welcome to your planet.”

“I thought your accent rather unusual.” She nodded.

“And we studied so hard to get it right,” Mike said, in mock despair. She’s getting paler by the second. Better keep her talking and alert. “Where’s our gear?” he asked Johnny.

“I’ve wrangled it into a heap, over there, out of the way, and set two of Rojar’s men to guarding it while I located you.”

A moment later Rojar returned, accompanied by a small troop of guardsmen and a litter. After making sure the princess had no objection, Mike placed her gently on the pillows lining the conveyance. The guards whisked her through the ornate gilded gates of the palace. Mike watched her go, before turning his attention to his companions.

“Quite a welcome you prepared for us, Captain Rojar.” He stared more closely at his sergeant, doing a double take as he realized Johnny’s shirt was blood soaked under the arm. “Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”

“Nothing but a scratch. Don’t blame you a bit for not notic­ing sooner, not with the princess to distract you.” Johnny punched him in the arm and laughed good-naturedly. “Better get the stars out of your eyes now though and get on with our own program. Don’t recall any orders in the briefing about rescu­ing royalty.”

“I agree with the sergeant wholeheartedly, Major.” Rojar chivvied them to another, unadorned iron gate a short distance away. “Let’s get to your assigned quarters so we can have the wound attended to.”

Once inside the compound’s walls, Rojar led them through a large courtyard, shaded by trees with fern-like foliage. The place was bustling with servants and courtiers. Mike was relieved to get out of the crowd and into the dim, cool hallways of the palace itself, even if there were confusing corridors to be navigated. A servant waiting outside one door, apparently for their arrival, sat cross-legged on the black marble floor, idly fanning himself with a riotously colored feather fan. Scrambling to his feet as they came down the corridor, the man opened the panel and was bowing by the time Mike reached him. Following them into the room, the servant crowded Rojar, nearly tripping.

“This is your suite while we’re in the city, Major.” Rojar indicated the servant with a careless wave. “We should dispatch him to fetch a healer for your sergeant’s injury before the wound festers.”

“Won’t be necessary, thank you,” Mike said. “We brought our own medkit with us. I can take care of Johnny’s arm myself.”

The servant bowed nearly to the green tiled floor. “Captain Rojar, the chamberlain sent twice to remind you the feast begins at the sixth hour. You and the outworld officer are expected before the wines are brought in.”

“We won’t be late.” Rojar frowned. “Go tell the kitchen to serve dinner for the ser­geant, here in the suite.”

Closing the door behind the retainer as he left, Rojar let his control slip for a minute, revealing a tired and worried face. Mike wasn’t sure he’d actually seen the fleeting play of expressions, because when the captain turned fully back to him, his countenance was as composed as ever.

“Pretty fancy quarters for a couple of Special Forces operators. Why do they think we need all this space?” Mike asked.

“And perfumed pillows to sleep on?” Johnny grimaced and tossed a few to the floor before he sat on the couch to examine the wound on his arm. He dug two more pillows out from under him, adding them to the pile on the floor. “I hope it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings if we rearrange a bit.”

Rojar didn’t appear to care what they did, now that he’d delivered them safely to the palace as ordered. “You’re the honored guests, after all. Do as you please, enjoy yourselves. The mountains will be quite another story, I promise you. The clans there will serve your heads on a spit at their welcoming banquet.”

“How events play out in the mountains remains to be seen,” Mike answered, choosing to maintain a good natured tone. “Are you going to be okay, cousin?”

“I’ve taken worse knocks than this.” Opening the medkit, the sergeant sorted through his supplies one-handed. “Besides, at least all those medinjects we took will get some local bugs to battle. Hell, the injects sting more than this scrape. You go and enjoy the food.”

“Your dinner will be brought to you, Sergeant,” Rojar as­sured him. “Major, I must go change into a dress uniform for the banquet. I’ll be back for you in half an hour.” He saluted and let himself out the door.

Bemused by the idea of an even more elaborate costume being required merely to dine, Mike raised an eyebrow at Johnny. “I can’t wait to see the dress uni­form, can you?”

Gritting his teeth as he sprayed medication on the wound, Johnny shook his head. “Gaudier than a Terran peacock, no doubt. No one’ll see you for the glare of his buttons.”

“Just the way I prefer it on this planet.” Mike picked up the medkit and moved closer to help. “Now, let’s get this wound sealed. I’m not doing this mission by myself while you loll around on sick call.”

***

With the practice born of long years, Shalira came awake instantly when a slight shift in the air alerted her to the presence of someone in her bedroom. Sliding her hand under the pillow to clench the hilt of the dagger she kept there, she sat up, back firmly to the headboard. “Who goes there?”

“It’s only me, Your Highness.” Saium’s familiar, raspy voice was welcome.

Releasing the knife, she frowned. “What brings you to my room in the middle of the night?”

She heard a match flare and smelled the acrid smoke as he lit candles. “The emperor summons you.”

“Now?” Fear sent spikes of adrenaline through her nerves, bringing a surge of nausea in its wake. “Is Maralika going to be there?”

“No, the summons is for you alone. Kajastahn sent his body servant to waken me. I’m to bring you to his chamber through the old secret passages.” Saium was at the closet now, searching through her garments, judging by the sounds of rustling silk and clattering wooden hangers.

Shalira swung her legs off the bed, sliding her feet into the slippers she insisted the maids must line up properly, ready for her. Holding out her hand, she accepted the dress Saium handed her, recognizing her favorite by the embroidery on the sleeves. Lavender and cream, she’d been told. Her favorite colors, when she’d been able to see.

Saium’s footsteps thudded on the carpet as he moved to the door. “I’ll wait outside so you can change. Don’t be long.”

When the door had closed, she took off her nightgown, retrieved her underthings from the proper bureau drawer, and shrugged into the dress. Her hair was impossibly tousled, so she brushed it once or twice before catching the curls back in a hasty braid. Counting the steps, she reached the door.

Saium had her elbow before she could even step from her room. “We must hurry. Never a good idea to keep the emperor waiting, even in the dead of night.”

She’d no idea where they were in the palace after the first few twists and turns. Trying to count her steps or identify any of her customary landmarks made her dizzy. She surrendered to Saium’s lead, knowing he’d never allow her to come to harm. They walked for a long time through a dank hall or tunnel, apparently unlit, since Saium had stopped for a moment to grab a torch and light the flame. Brushing one hand against the wall as they proceeded, she found rough, unfinished stone under her fingertips.

“Stay away from the wall, you’ll get your dress dirty,” Saium warned in a whisper.

She yanked her hand back, feeling like a child who’d been scolded. “Where are we?”

“In the hidden passageway leading to Kajastahn’s private chambers. When he was younger, he liked to spy on his courtiers.”

Not surprised, because she knew her father to be a devious, untrusting man, she said, “Did my mother use this corridor to visit him?”

“She refused to venture in here alone, so I was brought into the secret arrangements, trusted to escort her to his rooms.”

Shalira pondered the information for a moment as they kept walking. “But why use the tunnel at all? All Mahjundar knew she was his Favorite.”

“How can you be so ignorant of the politics, living in this court your entire life?” Saium sounded annoyed. “Yes, your mother was his Favorite, but he didn’t want anyone to know how besotted he was with her, how much time he spent in her arms. Such knowledge would have made her even more of a target. Kajastahn trusted I’d never betray their secret. Hush now, we’re nearly there.”

They stopped for a moment as Saium set the torch into a holder on the wall before guiding Shalira up a set of steep stairs. At the top, her escort knocked twice and a door swooshed open. Leading her through the entrance, he said, “I’ve brought the princess, Your Majesty.”

“Took you long enough.” The supercilious voice belonged to the emperor’s body servant, not Kajastahn himself. Sniffing, the man said, “He’s gone back to sleep. Let me wake him. She can sit there while you wait in the tunnel.”

Saium guided her to a chair and Shalira sat, ankles neatly crossed, nervously adjusting her skirt. She could hear her father’s labored breathing close by. Pressing her hand, Saium whispered into her ear, “I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

Swallowing hard, she nodded. The guardsman had to yank his hand away from her clinging grip, but then Shalira straightened, determined not to give in to fear. After all, this is my father. He can’t have sent for me without good reason. She pushed away the nagging fact he hadn’t wanted to see her privately for over ten years. The room smelled of illness—decaying flesh and infection overlaid with medicinal herbs and cloying perfumes.

“All right, he’s awake and I’ve given him an elixir to ensure wakefulness and lucidity,” said the servant, standing right in front of her. “The medicine works for a short while.”

Startled, Shalira was unable to quell her instinctive recoil at the man’s proximity. “He’s so ill, then? The rumors are true?”

“I’m dying, girl,” rumbled the emperor’s voice from a short distance away, followed by a massive coughing spell.

The servant bustled noisily about, giving the ailing ruler something to drink and rearranging the bed pillows, Shalira decided, before asking his master, “Shall I stay, sir?”

“No. I need to be alone with my daughter, and there’s so little time left.”

“Very good.” Shalira heard the glasses and bottles clinking on a tray as the obviously disapproving servant left, the door closing softly behind him.

“Damn it, come closer, into the light.” The emperor’s admonition was harsh, although his voice quavered a bit. “I want to see you.”

Shalira stood. “I can’t see the light.”

“Follow my voice then. They tell me you’ve become quite clever, developed many tricks to minimize your disability.” Kajastahn sounded querulous. He caught his breath as she left the chair and walked a few steps nearer to the bed. “By the Ten Gods, you’ve become her twin!”

“No, sir, only her daughter.” Shalira paused, hands fisted at her sides.

“And mine.” His voice rang strong on the declaration, yet didn’t sound especially proud. “I never believed those claims your mother played me false with her damn guardsman.” Kajastahn was racked by coughing.

“I don’t understand—”

“I didn’t summon you here in the middle of the night to rehash old gossip. I know my Favorite didn’t cuckold me, not with Saium, not with any man. No one would have dared,” the emperor said. He fell silent, breathing heavily and shifting against his headboard as if no position gave him comfort.

Mother and Saium? Thoughts whirled in Shalira’s mind. Pointed remarks and hints made by impudent courtiers over the last few years gained new meaning in light of what the emperor had just said. But why bring this up now? “Why am I here, sir?”

“Heard you were caught in a terrorist explosion this morning.”

“I was on the edge of the blast, yes. I took no harm, other than a superficial wound in the arm. The military officer from the Sectors rescued me.” Touching the fresh bandage on her upper arm, Shalira felt her cheeks grow warm as she remembered how commanding and strong Major Varone had been, how gallant. I wish I knew what he looked like. She pushed the stray desire to the back of her mind. Important to concentrate in this rare audience with her father.

“Not the first sign of unrest and rebellion. Maralika thinks she and her son will rule after I die, but she may have miscalculated how much the people will swallow. New taxes, new gods, she’s imposing too much change, moving too fast. Make no mistake, though, she’ll hold power for some span of time after I’m gone, which is why I wanted you well away from here.”

Shalira was startled again. “I thought my marriage was arranged to ensure peace along the western border? To seal a treaty.”

“Come closer.” Kajastahn patted the edge of his bed and Shalira obediently moved toward the sound, sitting once she had bumped into the mattress. A heavy, beringed hand closed around hers. Stroking her hand with his thumb, the emperor said, “I’ve not been much of a father, not since your mother died and your brother was killed. Too painful to behold you.” Unspoken was, Why them? Why not you?

Pain clenched around her heart to hear him admit what she’d always suspected. Shalira fought not to cry. Time for self-indulgence later. “What’s changed now?”

“I don’t have much time left. Trying to settle old debts, fix some problems I allowed to fester. Now look, Bandarlok is reputed to be a strong man, holds what’s his. I think he’ll keep you safe, even if you aren’t to be his chief wife. Give him an heir with royal blood and your position will be secure, even after I’m dead. Maralika can’t touch you there.”

Icy shock poured through her, and Shalira’s heart skipped a beat. “I don’t understand. Are you telling me he’s already married?”

“Customary among the hill people, just as it is here in the city. By the Ten Gods, girl, surely you didn’t think a powerful man like him was going to take a blind woman past her prime as his chief wife? Not even with the dowry I sent.” Kajastahn’s laugh was like acid on top of his harsh words.

Shalira fought not to faint, drawing in deep breaths and digging the fingernails of her free hand into her palm. Never once had it entered her mind she’d be one among many wives. He makes it sound as if Bandarlok had to be paid to take me off his hands. She wanted desperately to be anywhere but in this room, listening to Kajastahn’s revelations. She’d been so proud to have the marriage arranged for her, to be serving a critical diplomatic purpose for her father. How little she’d understood. Forcing herself to remain seated, Shalira waited for the next blow to fall.

Perhaps sensing his daughter wasn’t finding this explanation palatable, the emperor released her hand. Shalira heard him noisily drinking some liquid. Burping twice, he continued the justification of his actions on her behalf. “Well, if I’d done nothing, Maralika was proposing to send you to the Abbey of Obedient Sisters to the south, where I’m sure she’d have had you murdered as soon as I’m gone. Give me some credit. It’s not as if worrying over the fate of one girl is at the top of my duties. I got you a husband despite all the odds. You do the rest. Get yourself pregnant by him is my advice.”

“Yes, Father. I’m grateful you’re taking an interest in my fate.” Shalira forced the words from her lips. Well, he’s right, life for me will undoubtedly be better out there in the western forests, even as a secondary wife, than here in this poisonous court. Or at the abbey! Recalling horror stories of the abuses suffered by unprotected novitiates at an institution little better than a prison, Shalira derived some comfort in her father’s arrangements for her future. I’ll make it work, just as I’ve done ever since I went blind. He has no idea how resourceful I am. No one does. Sagging confidence restored, she had a clever new idea.

The emperor endured a long coughing fit, unable to catch his breath. Shalira sat, not knowing what she should do for him, if anything. He hadn’t given her permission to leave or to touch him. Eventually, Kajastahn fell back against his pillows, shaking the bed frame.

She decided to press her luck. “Thank you, Your Majesty, for…everything. May I ask for one more boon tonight?”

“As long as you aren’t petitioning for anything costly. I’ve paid enough to get you married.” His voice sounded wary.

“I’d like the two Sectors soldiers to travel with my wedding caravan as an additional escort.”

“Don’t trust the men Maralika assigned to the job, eh?” The realization amused the old man, judging by his raspy chuckle. “Maybe you’ve inherited something of my cunning along with your mother’s beauty. Even Maralika’s cutthroats will think twice about harming you in front of offworlders. Get you to Bandarlok safely. Good girl. All right, I’ll give the order.” He caught her hand again, rubbing his bony fingers across her palm. “So like your mother—amazing. Well, she’ll be pleased I’ve taken care of your future.”

He expects to meet her in the afterlife soon and doesn’t want any reproaches about his treatment of me in this life—cold comfort. Shalira stood. “May I go now?”

“Said all I have to say. No need to linger. Fetch my servant.”

Helplessly she raised one hand. “I…can’t. I’m not familiar with your rooms.”

She heard the sound of a small gong close by.

“Useless girl,” the emperor said as the door to the room opened, followed a heartbeat later by the creaking of the door to the secret tunnel. “I hope Bandarlok is taken by your beauty and ignores the rest.”

“The Sectors soldiers?” she reminded him, resisting for a moment as Saium took her elbow.

“Said I’d order it and I will, in the morning.” Kajastahn chuckled. “I’m sure they’ll be upset. Sectors citizens don’t like anything interfering with their high-and-mighty mission. Well, they can’t do anything on Mahjundar without my permission, so they’ll damn well escort you to the high lands and like it.”

Satisfied, Shalira yielded to Saium’s gentle tug. Surely there’s something else to be said? Some word of affection? “Thank you, I’ll miss—”

“You won’t miss me. We’ve not even spoken for ten years, so don’t try to play the dutiful daughter. We don’t need any farce. I’ve done what I needed to do tonight. Now leave me in peace.”

Angry and hurt at the same time, Shalira allowed Saium to draw her away to the tunnel entrance.

“Shalira!”

She homed in on the sound of her father’s voice. “Yes?”

“Go with the blessings of the Ten and cherish the knowledge of how much your mother meant to me.”

How much she meant to you, not a word about me. “I will, Father.” She stepped over the threshold, and the door closed behind her.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Incessant knocking woke him early the morning after the banquet. Rubbing his temples, Mike rolled over and groaned. The local wine is potent stuff. Whoever’s hammering at the door isn’t helping my headache any. “Okay, I’m coming,” he shouted, working his way out of bed and heading for the entrance, throwing a pillow at Johnny along the way. “Get me some headclear, would you?”

“Sure thing. Did you want me to give Rojar some, too?”

Pausing in his tracks, Mike scratched his head, yawning. “Rojar?”

Rubbing his eyes, Johnny said, “You dragged him back here with you last night, drunker than any man I’ve ever seen. Don’t you remember?”

Mike frowned. “Vaguely. Let me get rid of whoever is battering the damn door, then we’ll deal with Rojar.” He yanked the portal open. “Do you know what time it is?”

Blinking, hand raised to knock again, the servant standing in the hallway retreated a step or two. “You’re summoned to the prime minister’s office for a ceremonial breakfast in half an hour, sir. It would be best not to be late.”

Mike shut his eyes in disbelief for a moment. They go in for pomp and ceremony at breakfast on this planet? “How do I find this office?”

“Captain Rojar will escort you.” The servant darted glances both ways to be sure the hall was empty before leaning closer. “Have you seen Rojar since last night? He missed his duty watch, and if he doesn’t attend this ceremony with you, they’re going to arrest him for dereliction of duty. The empress has a vendetta against him.”

Conscious of the headache ravaging his nerve endings, Mike shook his head gingerly. “Haven’t seen him, but I’m sure he’ll show up. Thanks for the warning.”

“I’m his cousin. Clans have to stick together to survive in this place.” The servant bowed and walked briskly away.

Mike shut the door and grabbed the headclear inject Johnny was holding out to him. “Did you hear the discussion?”

“Yeah, cousins have to stick together.” Johnny shot him a sardonic look. “Not a news flash.”

Mike rolled his shoulders as the drug took effect. “Best invention ever.”

“No argument there. Good thing they provide an unlimited supply to operators in the field.” Johnny winked. “I’m glad you’re handling the high level protocol requirements. This place has too much politics for my taste. We’d better get Rojar sober and presentable, fast.” Another inject in his hand, Johnny walked toward the adjoining room of their suite, from which Rojar’s loud snores could be heard.

* * *

In between the first course and the second, the visibly bored prime minister presented Mike with a jeweled, totally useless dagger in appreciation of his having saved Princess Shalira from the bombing in the plaza.

“Thank you, sir, I was happy to be in the right place at the right time.” Mike accepted the gift, examining the workmanship. Mahjundan enameling was admired even in the Sectors. A nice souvenir, but hardly a serious weapon.

“Good,” said the prime minister, absorbed in spreading a second layer of jam onto a roll. “Then you will be highly pleased to know the emperor has such faith in your abilities after yesterday, he commands your presence in Princess Shalira’s caravan, escorting her to be married to a powerful tribal chieftain in the forested highlands at the edge of the mountains.”

Mike paused, cup halfway to his lips. “I’m not sure I understand, sir. My own mission is urgent. Surely the princess has a sufficient escort with her father’s troops?”

The prime minister shoved the dripping roll into his mouth and cleaned his fingers on a snowy napkin. After a bout of vigorous chewing, he swallowed hard, choked, and shook his head. “Perhaps you mistake my meaning, outworlder. If you don’t choose to travel with the princess, the emperor won’t issue a permit for you to leave the capital at all.” Tilting his head, he regarded Mike with his eyes half-closed. “Do you wish to reconsider your decision?”

Beyond angry, Mike kept a rein on his temper. Can’t cause trouble with the local officials. Command would be upset. All kinds of diplomatic complications. “Permit me to consult with my liaison, Captain Rojar, to get a better understanding of the caravan’s route.”

“Shalira leaves tomorrow and greatly desires the honor of an outworlder escort. I was told you were impatient to leave, so the emperor has arrived at a solution for both of you.” The prime minister picked up his next breakfast pastry. “Unless you have more to discuss, we’re done here.” Ostentatiously turning his back on Mike, he addressed some pleasantry to the woman seated on the other side of him.

Rojar tapped Mike on the arm. “The caravan goes north first to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Shalira’s mother.” He sketched out the route on the tablecloth.

“Do you see how many days of riding this detour adds to my schedule?” Mike demanded, keeping his voice under control. “How can anyone expect me to agree to this?”

Rojar sipped his juice. “As the prime minister said, if you don’t agree, you have no mission.”

“Unacceptable.” Mike shoved his plate away, causing the people near him to stop talking and stare. He nodded to the prime minister. “With your permission, sir, I’m going to excuse myself and go survey my gear, talk to my sergeant about this proposed change.”

The official waved his hand and resumed his flirtation with the woman.

Rising, Mike left the dining room with rapid strides, trying to regain his calm. Wisely, Rojar didn’t see fit to follow.

A voice hailed him from behind. “Major Varone!”

Pausing, Mike waited for the hurrying guardsman to reach him, pushing through the ever present crowd in the hallway. Recognizing the man who’d held Shalira’s horse, he noted a large, nasty, purple bruise, half-hidden by wavy white hair. “I see you were injured at the plaza?” Mike asked. The older man had a truly impressive head of hair, confined to a thick braid. “The princess was so concerned about you right after the blast, she asked about nothing else. How is she today?”

Touching his bruised temple gingerly, the guard nodded. “The blast knocked me off my feet, and the damn horse kicked me. I was out for hours. Lucky not to have been trampled. The princess is well, thanks to you.”

“A rider at her level can’t handle a horse so spirited and poorly trained,” was Mike’s critical assessment. He spoke more sharply than he’d intended, but his family raised horses on Azrigone.

This assessment apparently infuriated the guard, who drew himself up and glared at Mike. Green eyes narrowed, face flushed, he demanded, “Don’t I know it? Doesn’t she know it? Terrified of the brute she is, but the empress insists—and what Maralika wants must be so. If only the emperor—” Evidently about to commit some major breach of Mahjundan manners, he shut his lips tight for a second and then added, “Thank you for saving my lady yesterday.”

“I was there. I was lucky. Anyone would have stepped in.” Local politics weren’t his problem.

“Maybe. Maybe not. I think the princess was fortunate for once.” The last was muttered under the man’s breath. Mike wasn’t sure he even heard the comment correctly. “Princess Shalira requests your presence this morning, to discuss the matter of travel.”

“Now?” Mike wasn’t sure he was in the mood for any more conversation about the change in his plans, even with her.

Nodding, the princess’s guard said, “She regrets not having the chance to ask you to join her caravan before the emperor issued his decree.”

“All right, I’m not doing anything else at the moment. Lead on—?” Mike gestured toward the bustling corridor.

“Saium.” Making a quick bow, he took off at a rapid pace, taking Mike into a hallway he’d not been in before.

“Was she born blind?” Mike asked, curious about her disability.

“Not a good idea to ask too many questions in this cursed city.” As if invoking a good luck charm, his companion rubbed at the tattoo on his upper arm—a fierce bird of prey, outlined in green and black.

“I merely want to avoid causing her distress. Your loyalty to the lady does you great credit, but I don’t like riding into a situation unprepared. I want to understand the background. I’d rather not have to ask her these questions, but I have my own orders, which take precedence over anything your em­peror wants.” Mike tried to alleviate the confrontational tone they’d taken. “I have a niece who was born blind on my home planet,” he went on more softly.

“I’ve heard such things can be mended in the Sectors,” the guard said speculatively over his shoulder, as they progressed through the halls.

“Not always. In my niece’s case, the nerves were undeveloped at birth. Nothing organic can be done, and first her parents, then she herself refused cyber-enhancement. But she’s a success­ful musician on several instruments. Can play anything she’s heard once, gives concerts all over our Sector.”

“My lady wasn’t born blind. She lost the use of her eyes at age ten,” the man told him. “In our world, it’s a disgrace not to be whole in body and in senses. Life has been hard for her. Of course, the empress was pleased to watch the daughter of her greatest rival left without a husband.”

Tired of mystery and doublespeak, Mike swung Saium to face him. “Wouldn’t it be better for the princess if I had the full picture of what’s going on? I want to know what kind of trouble I’m supposed to be expecting, for her sake. It’s not my planet—I’m not on anyone’s side. My priorities are to get my job done and go home.”

Saium stared into Mike’s eyes for a long moment, before checking both ways to make sure the hall was relatively deserted. He leaned close to Mike’s ear. “Fifteen years ago, Shalira and her brother went for a morning ride along the river alone, as was their custom. Apparently they were set upon by assassins in a well-planned ambush. The crown prince died on the spot. My lady—a mere child of ten at the time—was found unconscious nearby, with few visible wounds. Yet when she awakened days later, she’d lost her sight.”

Before the soldier could say anything more, Mike heard the sounds of women laughing. A group of people approached from the other end of the long corridor.

“The Empress Maralika,” Saium whispered. Backing up to the wall, he went to one knee, head bowed subserviently.

Mike scrutinized the women mincing in a colorful parade toward him. As he shifted into parade rest, strong perfume enveloped him in a nausea-inducing wave, several scents mixing in an unpleasant effect.

“Ah, the outworlder!” Maralika came to a stop directly in front of him, standing so close her orange and red skirts swirled against his legs like a silken net. He met her gaze. Appraising him from head to toe in an insultingly frank manner, she didn’t speak for a moment. “What a pity,” she sighed to the nearest lady-in-waiting. “So handsome, in an alien fashion. To be wasted when the mountain clans kill him, which they will.” Tilting her head, she smiled, gazing flirtatiously upward through spiky black lashes. Tapping him on the chest with her fan, she said, “Tell me, why weren’t you there to rescue me in the square yesterday? Surely the life of the empress is worth more than the continued existence of some useless, pitiful girl? After all, who would miss our little Princess of Shadows?” Using the fan, she forced him to raise his chin. “Plainly, I was the assassins’ target, and your gallantry would have been properly appreciated, I assure you.”

Taking the fan in his fist, he removed it from her grasp, lowering his chin to stare at her. “Your Majesty appeared to be well guarded and well served yesterday.” Polite on the surface, Mike’s voice had a hard edge. “I observed that more than one of your faithful soldiers died to save your life.” With a slight bow, he returned the fan to her.

His tone and his answer apparently displeas­ing her, she spun on her heel and swept down the corridor without another word, her companions following, whispering and giggling. One, more daring than the rest, peeked over her shoulder at Mike, dissolving into laughter as she skipped around the corner.

Sliding one hand up the wall to steady himself on his apparently bad knees, Saium got to his feet. “Not wise to insult the empress.”

“I might have missed something there, but I’d say she insult­ed me first.” Mike straightened his tunic and shrugged.

Saium studied him for a moment, then puffed his cheeks out and nodded. “Whatever my lady doesn’t tell you, outworld­er, I give my word I will.” He walked in the opposite direction from the way the empress had gone and Mike hastened to catch up.

He had to be satisfied with the guardsman’s pledge because a minute later, Saium opened a hidden door and led Mike through a short corridor painted in a soothing pale green color. The ever-present Mahjundan cherindors were there, he noted with amusement, but here the predators were hidden among the pastel leaves of a fantasy jungle. Saium let Mike precede him through a door covered in a carved seashell motif, walking into an antechamber embellished with ocean scenes in pale, cool colors on the walls.

“Her Highness will be with you in a moment, Major. She asks that you be seated and wait.” Saium indicated a grouping of furniture that included a couch and two matching chairs.

Realizing he was relax­ing under the influence of the soft, simple colors of the room, Mike sat as suggested. Who chose this restful color scheme? Couldn’t have been Shalira. Maybe her late mother? The garish, clashing colors and tapestries of battle scenes and monsters that crowded every available flat wall in the rest of the palace were absent here. Nor was there any heavy incense burning. The breeze brought the refreshing, light scent of flowering plants from the garden beyond a half-open door.

A faint whiff of the perfume from yesterday came to him, deliciously floral. Shalira came through the draperies across the room, dressed today in a simple lavender robe, edged in lapis with a thin ribbon of white lace at the hem. Her glorious black hair floated free, curling slightly, held from her face by a lapis-and-white ribbon edged in gold. Her only jewelry was the oval green and turquoise pendant. Pausing for a moment on the threshold to set a basket of cut flowers on a low table, she walked across the floor to him.

Startled, Mike rose, admiring her skill at creating the impression she could see her visitor. His niece at home employed the same techniques, keeping everything in fixed locations and knowing exactly the number of steps it took to move from one thing to the next, seemingly effortlessly. Wonder what the polite greeting is for a Mahjundan princess? Briefing didn’t cover the contingency. Deciding to go for polite if insipid, he said, “Your Highness appears well today.”

She extended her hands to him and he reached out to close his much larger, rougher hands over her soft ones. “Thank you for coming, Major,” she murmured in her low, musical voice as she drew him towards the pale green sofa by the window. Indicating he was to sit at one end, she curled up at the other. Kicking off a pair of high heeled sandals, she tucked her bare toes under the edge of her dress. “Would you care for a beverage? Iced rubyfruit drink, perhaps?”

He glanced at the silver tray carefully positioned on the low table beside her. Crackers and cheese were artfully arranged next to the juice pitcher and matching glasses. “Sounds refreshing, but whatever you’d like, your highness.”

She served them both, holding the glass with one finger tipped slightly over the edge to alert her when the proper level of liquid was poured. Despite having seen his niece manage the same task in a similar fashion, Mike was impressed. I bet Shalira had to learn these things the hard way, unlike Cheryl, who had the best therapists and teach­ers in Sector Ten.

Having gotten Mike to meet with her, the princess seemed unaccountably at a loss for how to begin. She sipped at her fruit drink and toyed with the hem of her gown and then her jewelry, rubbing her fingers over the whorls of the pendant in a slow circle. Mike tried to put her at ease. “I’m admiring your necklace, exquisite enamel work.”

Shalira nodded. “This was my mother’s before she died. I never take the necklace off, not even for a moment. I’ll wear it till I die.”

“Of course the sentimental value must be—”

“This is the symbol of Pavmiraia, my patron goddess,” Shalira said, holding the ornament away from her neck as far as the golden chain would allow. “And it’s a locket.” Fumbling for a moment, the princess depressed one portion of the decorative pattern and the case flicked open.

Mike leaned closer, expecting to see a portrait, perhaps of her mother, but the interior was empty, nothing but shiny polished gold reflecting the light.

Shalira laughed, the sound flat. “It’s the custom for women to hide their most cherished dream inside the locket of Pavmiraia, but I’ve had no hopes worthy of submitting to her, not since my brother died and I became blind.” She snapped the locket closed with decisive finality. “Symbolic, of course, but a nice idea.”

“The prime minister gave me a fine dagger this morning on behalf of your father, for the small service I was privileged to offer you yesterday. There’s similar enameling on the hilt.”

“It was the least he could do—the least—” Her voice trailed off. Taking another sip from the frosted glass, she held it to her temple for a moment, rolling the cool glass from side to side as if her head ached.

“Are you doing okay?” Mike asked, watching how she frowned. “Any after effects from yesterday?”

“I’m fine,” she said, sitting up straighter. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

A little silence fell between them. Mike had the distinct impression the princess’s thoughts were elsewhere. Finally, she sighed. “At the presentation ceremony, did the minister ask if you’d be willing to ride in my caravan?”

“Ask? More of a threat.” Mike knew his frustration was showing. He sipped at the sweet drink. “Ride with you or have my own mission cancelled.”

“And you don’t sound pleased. I wish I could have made the request myself.” She nibbled on a cracker, brushing crumbs from her lap.

“Forgive me, Your Highness, but why do you want us to go with you?” He leaned forward. “I’m on an urgent mission. Your route causes me quite a delay, which I can’t afford without good reason.”

“You’re searching in the mountains for a lost military ship, aren’t you? To give those who died the proper burial, set their spirits free?”

“Well, yes.” Mike was aware Command had used those terms to explain the request for access to this closed world. The Mahjundans, with their various beliefs about spirits, death, and proper conveyance to the afterlife, understood and had consented to a burial detail. Of course there’s another, more important strategic reason for me to delay my hard-earned retirement and accept this last mission. He wasn’t about to explain the classified background to anyone, not even this beautiful, solemn woman whose proximity was definitely having an effect on him.

“But the dead have infinite patience, Major. Surely you can spare a few days for the living?” Leaning forward, she set her glass on the table, perilously close to the edge.

He shifted the glass to a safer location. “Your Highness—”

“You may call me Shalira, if you like.” Scooting slightly toward him, smiling, she raised her elegantly curved eyebrows. “One who has saved the life of a princess is entitled to the use of her name.”

“Thank you, I’m honored, Shalira, but—”

“Would you let the life you saved be lost so soon?” Tears shimmered in the depths of her unseeing brown eyes as she turned her face directly to him. Mike could­n’t look away, even though he knew she wasn’t actually seeing him, or his reactions. He put his glass on the table too hard, cracking the base.

“There are those who don’t want me to reach my wedding. The palace rustles with rumors of plots, schemes in motion to take advantage of this final opportunity to kill me. Once I’m safe with my bridegroom-to-be, I’ll be beyond the schemers’ reach, but I have to get to him.” Shalira rubbed her elegant fingers across the pendant as if it were an amulet giving her strength. “I hope that if you ride with me, those who plan my murder will be afraid to proceed under the attention of outworlders.”

What do I say to this? He hadn’t anticipated an appeal along these dramatic lines. “Do you think the bomb yesterday was an attempt to assassinate you?”

“No, assuredly Maralika was the target.” Shalira shook her head. “The empress is pursuing a host of unpopular actions—forbidding the older forms of worship, tearing down temples, forcing the people to pay taxes to her new gods, consolidating power for herself and her son. My father is not a well man, Major. Everyone knows he doesn’t have long to live, and she plans to rule when he’s gone.”

“But there’s opposition to her?” Mike was aware there was. Planetary politics had been a prominent part of his briefing, but he was curious how much Shalira might add.

“Her son is the heir since my brother was murdered, but the throne of Mahjundar has often been claimed by bloodshed rather than by rule of law. I have to get away from here, before the emperor dies.” She laughed, the sound bitter. “Playing the Princess of Shadows won’t protect me after his death.”

“Princess of Shadows?” Nothing about that in our briefing. He remembered the empress had also used the term to refer to Shalira.

“It’s an old folktale about a girl of royal blood who hid from her enemies in the shadows of the palace walls, disguised as a beggar, until her true love rescued her.” Gesturing to her eyes, Shalira said, “It’s meant as an insult to me, since I can’t see, not even shadows, and I’ve lived the past fifteen years on the fringes of the court, out of the ‘sun.’ I’m tolerated, protected only because my mother was the emperor’s Favorite till she died. If I reach the safety of my bridegroom’s people, then I’ll be safe, free of the empress’s plotting and hate. My mother’s clan is among his subjects.” Shalira blinked hard, and then her face crumpled as she wept.

Used to comforting younger sisters in distress, Mike didn’t hesitate. Moving closer, he gathered her against his shoulder and let her sob without interruption for several minutes. Patting her back, he realized she was overwrought and genuinely fearful. Her apparently genuine distress pulled at his sympathies. When the wrenching sobs became small hiccups and sniffs, he reached for the lacy napkin beside the juice pitcher.

As he pushed the soft cloth into her hand, he said, “I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the situation with your complicated family, but if you attach so much importance to having Johnny and me ride along for a few days, I guess I can stretch my mission schedule.” And what Johnny will say when I change our orders, I’m not going to think about. Dancing attendance—playing bodyguard—for a minor Mahjundan princess is not the way Command deploys first-tier military resources.

Wiping her eyes, she sat up, long lashes starred together from the tears. “You’ll ensure I get to my wedding alive?”

I’ve never seen such a beautiful woman before, nor one less aware of her own effect on me. Probably a good thing. He took her right hand in his. “Among my people, a bargain is sealed with a handshake. My word as an officer, I’ll do my best to protect you while we ride together. Fair enough?”

She wrapped her fingers around his, clinging to his hand, bringing it to her soft cheek. “More than I’d dared to hope, Major.”

“The name is Mike.” He released the trembling fingers. “Is there anything else we should discuss? Anything you think I need to know?”

She reached for her glass, and Mike surreptitiously nudged it closer to her searching hand. “It’s hard for me to talk about this.” Shalira took tiny sips of the rubyfruit juice, as if playing for time.

“If you’d rather not, I can ask Saium. Don’t distress your­self.” Mike hated to see her so uncomfortable.

“Empress Maralika is sending me to my wedding with a handpicked escort of men loyal to her. The officer she put in command, Captain Vreely, is the man I’ve always believed was involved in my brother’s murder and the attack which left me blind. I’ve no actual memories of the events, only feelings and forebodings. Nightmares.” Shalira lowered her head for a minute, touching her eyelids with a delicate hand. “Any imperfection is abhorred in our society, you know. The failure of my eyes kept suitors from seeking my hand once I was of age.”

Mahjundan men are idiots—her eyes are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. She’s one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever met. Mike forced his thoughts away from the princess’s beauty, concentrating on the matter under discussion. “But this chieftain you’re going to marry knows you can’t see?”

Shalira seemed troubled, wrinkling her brow and lowering her sightless eyes as she started worrying the fringe on the closest pillow, but all she said was, “A large dowry has been paid. He’ll keep me safe, and I’ll be happy living freely in the open forests, away from this hot, hateful city.”

Mike pondered the ramifications of what she’d shared, added to the quick overview Saium had given him in the hall. “So you’ve never actually met this guy?”

Bristling as if she heard unwarranted criticism in his tone, she said, “No. Why does it matter? Arranged marriages are the custom for the high-born on Mahjundar. It is how things are done.” She tilted her head, sculpted eyebrows drawn together in a frown.

“I see.” If it’s fine with her, it’s hardly my place to question the arrangement. Why do I care, anyway? But his mind had moved on to the topic of how well a palace-bred princess would fare in the wilderness with forest nomads. What is it with me and this woman? I just met her yesterday. She’s none of my concern.

Fortunately unaware of his consternation, she was providing her misgivings about the trip in calm detail. “I don’t know how Maralika plans to have me killed. Many things can happen on a journey, safely out of sight of the city. Maybe the horse she insists I ride will throw me and save her henchmen the trouble of committing a crime.” The princess rubbed her arms as if suddenly chilled. “I think she’s been hoping for such a fate, ever since she gave me the cursed animal.”

Mike took her hand to prevent her from worrying at the knotted fringe of a pillow between them. “We’ll settle the easiest problem first and switch horses, all right? I’ll have Saium show me the stables. We’ll pick a nice calm mare or gelding for you.”

“Already, you chip away at my biggest worries.” Impulsively, she hugged him.

Patting her back in his best imitation of an avuncular acquaintance, Mike discreetly pulled away, disturbed by how his body responded to the softness of her curves, the enticing perfume. This was no time to start thinking of Shalira as a potential bedmate. If any woman ever had to be strictly off-limits, it was her. Unfortunately. He cleared his throat. “It’s all settled, then. Johnny and I’ll dance at your wedding in the highlands before we continue on our way to accomplish our own mission.”

“I ask no more.”cover-missiontomahjundar

She might not ask, Mike thought, as he made his way through the mazelike corridors to his own suite and the waiting Sgt. Danver, but he had a suspicion something more would end up being required of him by events on this ad hoc excursion he’d just agreed to. What had the mission briefers said? Nothing was ever simple and straightforward on Mahjundar. Expect the unexpected. Yeah, but who could have foreseen this set of complications? Princesses are the stuff of kids’ fairy tales, not an assignment for a first-tier operator like me.

As the door closed behind Mike, Shalira laid her head on the back of the couch, toying with the pillow fringe again. Thank Pavmiraia he agreed to accompany me tomorrow. I know my father left him virtually no choice, but Mike doesn’t seem to be the kind of man who’d be diverted from his mission without a fight. Probably a good idea she’d decided to add a personal appeal this morning. Or at least that’s what she’d told Saium, hoping he couldn’t hear her heart beating faster at the idea of more private time with the outworlder. I wonder what he looks like? His voice was deep, his accent charming, with a little lilt she enjoyed. Especially when he says my name. He’s taller than I am, taller than most men at Court—I could tell yesterday when he was leading me through the streets. Strong, no nonsense. He gave his word to protect me on this journey. Hopefully, his escort, plus the other precautions I’ve already taken, will be enough to foil whatever Maralika is planning. Swallowing hard, she reviewed the few arrangements she’d put in place for this journey into the unknown. Bone weary after the emotional meeting with Major Varone on top of her encounter with her father in the middle of the night, Shalira allowed herself to drift off into a nap. Saium, faithful as always, would be guarding the door.

NOTE: Due to gremlins in the system, this excerpt from MISSION TO MAHJUNDAR didn’t make it into the downloadable formats for Issue 6. You’ll find it in those editions in Issue 7.

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