by Val Roberts
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60504-663-1
For Commander Taryn Penthes, an assignment to escort a group of diplomats seems routine–until the party is ambushed. And when she realizes the attacker she just killed is her-sister-the-Crown Prince’s lover, political winds shift. Now she’s in a race to get the surviving diplomat to safety, using whatever means necessary.
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Some things just never changed: Zona was the only part of the planet Timarron still free of plastic and rivets, pesticides and pollution, and its neighboring giant, Barian, couldn’t bring its collective self to send a female diplomat to a matriarchal culture.
Silvergard Commander Taryn Penthes watched her breath steam in the frigid air of early spring as a group of muscular men exited Eastgate’s Internal Transit Authority door shouldering light duffels. Duffels, one each? Diplomatic hangers-on carrying their own luggage? What in hell?
“Those aren’t diplomats,” escaped her lips in a disbelieving murmur. She counted ten human males as a frown pulled at her scar. Nine of them moved like they were used to combat, though not with sabers; the last one looked like a valet. Balance and gesture were off slightly, almost as if they were more used to some other kind of weapon, but all of the nine moved like they knew how to fight with bare hands if need be. And there wasn’t a scrap of lace or a ruffle in sight, unless she counted the elbow-length capelets attached to their coats. “Those are Rangers, or I’m a Bariani concubine.”
But no, they weren’t that, either. The worsted superfine cloth and close tailoring of their greatcoats spoke of the kind of money that wasn’t spent on civilian togs by military men, especially military men who spent the majority of their time slogging through the ass-end of the backcountry like Rangers did. And no self-respecting Barian Ranger would wear shiny, knee-high boots. Had Barian sent mercs into Zona?
Or maybe this was their hare-brained way of trying to blend in with Zonan locals. Her snort of derision puffed away from her face in a cloud. The group of men had stopped some ten feet from the door with their backs to a blank brick wall, which meant it was her turn to move. She pushed away from the livery brick where she’d been waiting.
They had grouped themselves in a loose knot around the tallest, with his long, shaggy mane of dark-brown hair standing out in the small herd of short-cropped brown-blond heads. He topped the next man by a good four inches, maybe more, and was obviously the alpha in this pack of alphas. And of course, he spotted her movement first and focused on her with a coldly calculating expression. His face smoothed out almost immediately and he seemed to lose several points of IQ in the process.
At the requisite five paces away, she stopped, bowed, and waited for the rest of the party to notice. “Gentlemen, I am your guide to Balsom and the temples of Zona. Which of you is the negotiator?”
The tall one stepped forward, as hard-bodied as all the rest of the fighters, and verified her assumption.
“I am Commander Penthes of the Silvergard,” she continued. “You may call me Commander, and I will address you as Negotiator. I will address members of your escort as Guardsman. This is for your own protection, Negotiator, and does not denote any inherent dehumanization of any member of your party. Do you understand?”
“Isn’t Penthes the name of the royal house?” he questioned, amending that unsettling stare by raising one eyebrow. An eyebrow lighter in color than his hair, she noticed. At least the question was normal, even if everything else about them was bizarre.
“House Penthes is large, and only one line among the many holds the Matriarch’s crown.” She said it with a smile, even though it pulled the scarred skin that signified she was not of that line. Not anymore. The smile seemed to draw his eyes to the scar, and he looked puzzled somehow, along with something else.
“But you are related to the Matriarch,” he persisted. Something else unusual. Normally they were either clueless enough to accept the size of the family as an explanation, or well-briefed enough to keep their mouths shut.
“Yes, I am,” she confirmed, “along with a few hundred other people in the city of Balsom. The Penthes family has been around for a long time.” Two hundred and ninety-six standard years, to be exact. “If you’ll come this way, Negotiator, I have a carriage waiting that should be able to accommodate you.”
“Do you have a first name?” he asked, still staring at her cheek. The frown had traveled upward to his eyebrows, drawing them together in a wrinkle of skin and betraying his intelligence again.
“As far as outland guests of the Matriarch are concerned, I do not.” She spun on the ball of her right foot and started back the way she had come. He definitely had not been briefed if he hadn’t known that. She strained her ears and could hear the sound of one of the others whispering, but couldn’t make out the words. Finally, the group fell in behind her as she marched back to the livery, where she’d been waiting.
Three years she’d been on diplomatic escort duty, and three negotiators had been quietly slipped into the Lady Palace. He would be her fourth, and hopefully last. Escort was boring, but she’d done worse. It was so very much better than being “Prince Taryn of Zona,” and it was considerably better than being dead.
She dismissed the unneeded baggage cart and the ten were settled in seats of some variety within a couple of minutes. She mounted Chuffer, the old dapple-gray who had done this for enough years that he could have made the long walk without her. Nevertheless, she patted his neck as she adjusted her weapon for riding. When she was ready, she nodded at the carriage driver—one she didn’t recognize so he must be new—and set off at a walk through the thoroughfare at the edge of the gate plaza.
When they entered the marketplace, she glanced over her shoulder again, to check that the carriage was keeping pace with her, and got a shock. The negotiator had climbed out onto the box next to the driver and sat there looking more like a guard than anything else. The different angle of view made her notice another odd thing; the lower half of his face was lighter-skinned than the tanned portion around his eyes. Either he spent a great deal of time with the lower half of his face swathed, or a beard had shielded the skin.
“Weird,” she whispered to herself. Was he the real Bariani negotiator? As her horse ambled through the market, she mulled the thought. This “diplomat” could disguise himself as a caravan guard all he liked, but he was still on a fool’s errand if he thought the Matriarch or the Crown Prince would ever admit anything or forgive anything. That she knew from hard experience.
Blade watched the nameless female finger the fine scar during her one glance at him from the worn saddle as the overage nag plodded through the marketplace. She was tall for her kind, with a delicate bone structure that belied her broad shoulders, and titian hair tightly contained in a braid kept close to her head.
Gods, what a time to switch obsessions: All the while he’d been supposed to be screening potential wives in the social whirl last summer, he’d been consumed with the Zonan economic situation. Now that he was here to do something about Zonan relations, his subconscious decided it was time to get serious about finding a mate. If a Zonan Silvergarder fascinated him, though, he might require psychiatric help. Even if this one carried herself with elegance worthy of the duchess of Northshield, if not the queen of Barian.
“She might be less nervous if you’d stop staring at her like you’re considering what wine would go with her charred flesh,” Galen murmured next to his ear. “Silvergard officers aren’t your usual type, Blade, though I have to agree that taming that one could be fun.” Of course, Galen would have noticed, because he noticed everything.
Blade grunted as a reply. He was observant in his own way, but his way was usually wondering why Barian’s Luddite neighbors had suddenly started raiding mountain villages for food, not checking hemlines on ball gowns, when the ridiculous things could be said to have hems.
Ladies weren’t his field. And yet, something about this woman bothered him. Since when did mid-level officers carry themselves like royalty? Since when did they have the impeccable tailoring to make midnight-blue khakis look sexy as they skimmed every perfect curve? He stopped short at the observation. Not good. Not good at all. He was supposed to be scanning the city, not the escort.
The market in Balsom was sparsely populated for a trade day, and that made him suppress another frown. Sure, it was early and it was damned cold, but there didn’t appear to be much for sale. A comparison trip to a Krystale junk market the week before gave him a baseline, but even allowing for the difference in the economies and population sizes, things were looking just a bit grim in Balsom.
Of course, they’d been much grimmer in the Jags.
He looked for more evidence in the market stalls they passed, ignoring the pseudo-Renaissance ambiance. Had any of his stuff made its way to the capital? A sign of anything he’d left for them to find would lessen the guilt.
Unfortunately, even rats were hard-pressed to eat well in Balsom’s main marketplace, though a couple of the grain bags looked vaguely familiar enough to allow him hope.
Now he had to convince their political establishment that a little technology wasn’t necessarily evil if it kept children from starving to death or gave the Matriarch’s subjects clean water to drink, even if it hadn’t been invented by a woman two hundred years in the past. Easiest thing in the worlds, right?
A woman. His eyes were pulled back to the Silvergarder like a compass needle to the pole. Even Dar was starting to nag him about getting married, but every year the debutantes were getting younger and less substantial. How was he going to find a future queen in a gaggle of idiot teenagers when he was closing in on thirty-five? He allowed his gaze to move down her back to the long, strong legs peeking out from the sides of her cloak as she straddled the horse, and he wondered what they would look like in one of those barely there evening dresses. Or better yet, straddling him.
He almost lapsed into fantasy, but the so-called carriage hit a patch of loose cobbles and jolted him from the base of his spine up. Right. He was supposed to be thinking about Zona. Cobblestone streets, a massive maintenance problem and entirely unnecessary, but Zona couldn’t be all bad if it produced women like their guide on a regular basis. The end of her braid brushed her belt over the back-slung scabbard and was at least half as thick as his wrist all the way down, the kind of hair a man could lose himself in for days, exploring the silky soft locks and what they covered.
She glanced again to check on the wagon as they exited the marketplace, interrupting his train of thought as he caught another glimpse of the arc of stretched, white tissue on her left cheek. That scar was perhaps the weirdest thing in a week of the weird, because it did nothing to mar her beauty, or the eerie similarity between her profile and that on the hexagonal metal coins they’d received in exchange for their credit wands. He shook off the preoccupation and glanced back himself.
The wagon turned off the main thoroughfare, bringing Blade’s attention back to the front. The Silvergarder was nowhere in sight, and the new street was a dead-end just wide enough for the wagon.
Trouble. Planned trouble.
“Fece,” escaped his lips as his pulse went into overdrive and adrenaline coursed through his system. He snatched the reins away from the driver and was mildly surprised to feel a dagger scrape along the hidden vambrace on his left forearm.
The driver fell to the cobbles after bouncing off a brick wall with a scream and a crunch before Blade even realized he had kick-shoved with his left foot while hauling on the reins. The horses finally got the message after the wagon’s left front wheel had severed the driver’s spinal cord, bucking the box’s left side up at least a foot so that he had to brace himself to stay seated.
Then he heard the distinctive thwupp, thupp of a pair of Zonan crossbow bolts and a gurgle. His men poured over the back of the wagon as he fought to get the horses out of the killing zone. It might deprive them of cover, but the wagon would get in their way for the hand-to-hand he knew was coming. The musical sound of a laser pistol firing behind him signaled Bariani counterfire that probably took out the snipers, but Blade was still in the wagon, and if he’d planned an assassination attempt, he would have had more than one backup plan on the ground—one of the few benefits of an education in ground-war tactics. He grabbed the knife tangled in his coat and slid off the seat as the horses came up against the end of the alley.
There were at least a dozen attackers, all with straight Zonan sabers, most still on horseback. The valet and the new kid were skewered to the back of the wagon seat, easy targets. One of his men went down with steel poking out of the back of his coat as Blade watched, and hoofbeats approached from the main street. The Silvergarder, or reinforcements? Did it matter? If it was her, she’d missed the sound of the wagon in seconds. If she’d been part of the plan, she would have been here already.
Turning back to the wagon, he tried to find the dead guard’s katana in a hail of grunts, the clash of metal on metal and other less savory noises that signaled people dying. The damned thing wasn’t there. A particularly nearby clang made him look up to see a Zonan saber still settling onto cobbles as its previous owner stared at the mass of seared flesh and smoking cloth where his chest used to be. Bless Galen’s paranoia. Blade was about to be armed, and he felt more like himself than he had since agreeing to this errand. Sometimes it sucked to be him.
“Maris—packs, all of them,” Blade barked as he rolled to scoop up the fried assassin’s saber and waded in. “Galen, horses.” He swung the blade up just in time to block someone’s attempt to sever his head from his shoulders.
“But, my lord—” Galen started to protest, letting his guard down for a millisecond too long, and Blade had to move fast. He sliced across his opponent’s throat and skewered the man about to behead his chief of staff in less time than it took to realize he was going to do that. Out of the corner of one eye, he noticed the Silvergarder was keeping up, two male corpses at her feet and a third about to join them if she could get her blade out of that eye socket in time. A flash of reddened metal told him she had as he scanned the gory scene for more attackers. She was left-handed.
Each of his guardsmen had killed one, plus his two, plus the commander’s three—a long knife nearly brushed his nose as it sailed past on its way to another eye socket. Make that four. Damned woman had doubled his effectiveness, and she had a narrow target area. Was there something psychological about eyes to these people? The metallic clash of blade on blade had stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and the alley was quiet except for a lot of heavy breathing. And then there was the stench.
Nothing, Blade had discovered, smelled quite like the aftermath of a close engagement, the all-too-familiar mix of blood’s metallic tang, the adrenaline bite of fear, burnt pork, human feces, urine, every bit of it nauseating and emasculating. And war was supposed to be such a manly pursuit.
He worked his free hand against the shakes that came with unexpended adrenaline and looked around for the Zonan commander. One of her opponents had bled all over her shirt and supportive vest, even on the edges of the cloak. As soon as the liquid cooled and congealed it would suck heat from her body and be a gruesome dead giveaway as to who had caused the massacre in the alley, even if the fabric was dark to begin with. Even if they had been attacked.
She had to get rid of those bloody garments before they went back into the market square, because the direct route to the palace was out of the question now. He pulled the dagger out of his belt as the thought occurred and strode over to where she leaned against a blank wall trying to calm her breathing. Her eyes widened in something like disbelief and the wet, red end of the blade rose to the vicinity of his throat.
Of course she was edgy. And he was a moron, exactly like his father thought.
“Get those soaked clothes off,” he said, flipping the dagger to offer it to her hilt first, “before you freeze to death.” Her expression changed minutely, from controlled fear to confusion, then she looked down.
“Oh.” The sword dropped to a neutral position. Oh, indeed. Drenched clothing—even if it was drenched in something as horrible as human blood—was not exactly disguising her figure, and she was bustier than she’d originally appeared. Not a good thing to notice under the conditions. They had five minutes, maybe ten, before the city police arrived.
She didn’t take the dagger. “Be sure to take any of the goods your dead comrades were carrying,” she advised as she fished the blood-soaked laces out of the bodice. “I’ll have to get you to the palace by a back route and talk to the Captain of Silvergard.”
Blade grunted his impatience, flipped his dagger again, pulled her closer by the neckline of the damned bodice and sliced through half of the neat Xs that closed it. “We don’t have time for niceties.” He grabbed both halves of the stupid thing and yanked hard, almost pulling her off her feet. “Besides, you really don’t want to wear these again. Trust me.” Cut cord ends whipsawed through eyelet holes and it came apart. “Dorcan, get her a clean shirt. I don’t care where.”
He looked into her gray-blue eyes and almost started. Her pupils were dilated and her lips were parted in an unmistakable invitation that his body suddenly really wanted to accept, but the fact was that she had just killed four people and was now feeling the after-effects, much like his shaking hands. Nothing more. Although he had a feeling he would remember that look for the rest of his life.
She seemed to come back to herself and dropped her eyes, crossing her arms over the breasts outlined by her wet shirt.
Perversely, he was irritated by that. “Enough prudery, woman, I’ve seen mammaries before. Get it off so we can get you into something dry and a lot less gory.” She bit her lip but complied, which gave him the luxury of looking around for a body that hadn’t bled all over its outer coat to replace her cloak. He unstrapped the scabbard, wrestled the heavy garment off the dead man and stood just in time to watch her pull the dry shirt over her head, framing her breasts for a half a second before they disappeared. Two perfect orbs crowned by cold-hardened areolas, and though he hadn’t been lying about having seen them before, that particular image seemed to have been burned into his retinas. And he was drooling. He swallowed hard and stepped forward to spin her around with her back to him and her face to the blank wall.
“Put this on and button it up.” He set the coat over her shoulders and turned away to find Galen smothering a knowing grin. Definitely a white wine, but the flesh wouldn’t be charred and the method of devouring was best not thought about if he wanted to stay alive. Blade raised one eyebrow and ignored the rustling behind him. If only he could ignore the way his pulse had spiked. And why was he sweating when he could see his breath? No, he knew why, just as completely as he knew there wasn’t anything he was going to do about it.
“We have enough horses for the remainder of the escort and Commander Penthes, my lord.” Galen had collected himself and reported without even a hint of a leer, and he had to have seen more of her body than Blade had. He had his moments, Galen did, for all that he was a glorified babysitter on this trip.
“How many did we lose?” Blade asked, but his train of thought was interrupted by a decidedly female gasp. He spun and saw the woman staring at the body he’d taken the coat from, her face ashy white. Now she was ready to faint?
“Commander?” Galen asked in a tone of concern while Blade was still trying to find his tongue. The question seemed to snap her out of her shock.
“Ride. Now.” Her voice had dropped nearly an octave and was suddenly hoarse. “You have to get out of Balsom before the city guard arrives if you value your lives.” She suited action to word by trotting for the nearest horse.
“Yes, ma’am,” Blade replied and made for the horse Maris was holding. “How do you propose we get through the gate?”
“Getting out of the city is considerably easier than getting in,” she said as she swung into the saddle. “But we won’t be taking the gate.” She surveyed the lot of them from horseback, and something tingled in the back of his mind. She looked good on a real horse, every inch a warrior. “Hurry up. We can’t take out a company of Silvergard even with your laser, and that’s what will be coming after us.”
“Why would the Silvergard come after us?” Blade asked as he cleaned the saber on a nearby corpse. “We’re here for a peaceful negotiation with Silean, and you’re one of their own.” He strapped the scabbard he’d taken off the dead man over his back, the way she was wearing hers, and slid the sword into it.
“And all of it means nothing now, nor does the fact that you were defending your lives against an assassination attempt.” She wheeled the horse with a seat that made it look like she’d been glued to the saddle. He mounted and nudged his horse into a trot and left the stench of death behind, hoofbeats multiplying as his escort caught up. Thank the gods the two obvious non-riders had died quickly, because they would have slowed the survivors down and suffered immensely.
“What do you mean, the negotiator isn’t here yet?” Crown Prince Talyn, Heir to the Matriarchy, yelled at the Lady Palace majordomo. “He should have been here half an hour ago. I purposely cleared this time in my schedule to welcome him to Balsom.” She had even shaved her legs for the occasion, because she’d heard that Bariani perversions included liking their women hairless, like children, and it had taken nearly an hour. She only had another hour to seduce the drooling imbecile that her spies had assured her was the Barian Crown Heir before the Dozen Worlds representative showed up to check on her again. She didn’t have time for this.
“I’m sorry to inform you of this, Your Highness, but the Bariani party has not arrived at the palace,” the majordomo said again, bowing more deeply this time. His forehead wrinkled with concern. “I sent one of my clerks to inquire almost fifteen minutes ago.”
“Great Goddess, not even a Silvergarder could have gotten lost between Eastgate and the palace. Who was their escort?” She fisted her hands on her hips.
“Commander Penthes was assigned to that duty,” he said, face so stiff his lips hardly moved. Talyn felt an icy hand clench around her stomach. Not her. Not now, when all the carefully laid plans depended on getting to him first.
“Your Highness, are you all right?” the majordomo asked with concern.
Talyn pushed her dread away. “I’m fine, but I’m surrounded by incompetents. I’ll send someone to find them myself.” She forced herself to walk away from the lackey as if she were merely irritated, waiting to turn the corner at the end of the corridor before she broke into a sprint. The only person she could trust on this errand was herself, and the offworlder would have to wait.
When she got to her quarters, she slowed back to a walk, then flung the door open, pretending irritation again. All of her performance was for nothing, because the living room was empty. Talyn felt herself frown.
“Mychell?” Her call echoed through the luxuriously appointed space. Now uneasy, she headed for the bedroom, wondering if he could still be asleep after last night. Her lips curved faintly at the memory of their activities of the night before, but one swift look was all she needed to verify that not only wasn’t he there, the maids had been in. She didn’t even know what he was wearing today, so she had no idea where he might be. The unease intensified. First her Bariani mark had gone missing, and now her Prime. This wasn’t shaping up to be a good day, and it wasn’t even mid-morning yet.
She pushed the thought to the back of her mind and started looking for riding clothes.
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