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Sometimes the right thing to do is to go against all orders...
Second generation daughter of gods, Kira DeVassi, is haunted by past tragedies and considers her only purpose to ensure the safety of her people. She works as a spy for the underground Inaut information line her father began to make sure the Madai keep to the peace treaty promises. When she finds proof of a planned attack on her home city of Tarjei, she becomes the hunted, and stumbles onto a Madai Scholar of the Monarch, Dane Valdor.
Oblivious to Kira's true identity, Dane requests her help in his quest to research the western lands. When the tables turn and he risks his own life to help her, she discovers the enemy scholar isn't only what he seems. Together they must find a way to stop the new war building between their people, but with Dane becoming an enemy of the Monarch and Kira thought unstable by many of her people, Fate may not be on their side.
Kira held tense against the hot sheets, her lover's breaths the only audible sound in the room. She listened to him exhale, softly, rhythmically for five minutes, ten, until she felt satisfied he would sleep soundly for hours more. The corner of the sheet slipped silently from her bare shoulder when she moved, careful not to disturb the half that covered Akron. Inch by inch she slid from the warmth of the mattress and covers and escaped to the cold emptiness in the room. She stood motionless, watching the shadowed form of the big man to be sure he remained in deep slumber.
He knew her only as Shindra. He thought her a farmer’s daughter who came in from the south fields just to see him. It was true, she found her way to Madai City to see him often, but her incentives were something more than he realized. When his even breaths continued, she pulled her clothes on and crept to the closed door, listening for a long moment before she dared to open it.
The hall was dark and silent beyond. The only guards in place at this hour stood outside the front and back lower level doors. She quickly swept down the passage and to the one locked door in the compound. The lock took a moment to relent to the wires she inserted. Blood pounded her veins when she reached the desk, all her senses functioning so sharply her mind hurt from the battering of information, the shadows of furniture, the outline of the one window and the quiet street just one story down, the creak of wind caressing the roof tiles. She scanned the papers by starlight, not reading every detail, but skimming for key words.
Her heart fluttered in a painful skip when she found the word “Tarjei.” The suspicions she was sent to investigate this night weren’t wrong.
The treaties between the Inaut and Madai people were less than eight years old, written when she was sixteen. Her people, or rather her stepmother’s people, agreed to assist in mining the world to help the Madai as long as they were not enslaved, not too much was taken from Earth too quickly, and the Inaut cities inside the Kharsag Mountains remained untouched and unthreatened. That included the city of Tarjei.
To date, pockets of Inaut people remained enslaved and whispers of attacks against Tarjei, the outer city at the mountain range base, drifted through the remaining underground information line. It was the information line she worked for as she sifted through the Madai military papers. She held Akron’s orders in her hands. He led the largest force of military-trained Madai known to reside on Earth, not counting those scattered throughout the smaller Madai settlements and in the huge space station hovering and growing just within Earth’s orbit.
Kira set the papers down and watched out the window a few steps away. Stars hung bright in the moonless sky, cold, distant. She shivered. She scrubbed her hands over her face, through her short hair, and shook emotions from her thoughts. Hope she would never have to actually turn on Akron had been futile. She knew that. She knew the only reason she met him at all was to infiltrate his impenetrable building. How she did it was no one’s business but her own. Climbing into his bed hadn’t reached her emotions until she had seen him for a year.
She knew him too well now, knew his secrets, his desires. He led the military in hopes he would one day be a leader in Madai City. He wanted to protect the city’s people, to help it grow beyond its walls and not fall to the slums now pervading much the city grounds.
None of it mattered, not what he wanted or what he would do. What mattered were the orders he now had to attack Tarjei. She read through the page, taking note of the date. He would lead his troops out on the mission before month’s end to reach Tarjei with full force and authority to act as he saw fit forty days later.
The sheet below showed her the paths of his intended attack. Using images obviously taken by the space station, he had plotted out passages to the south and north of Tarjei. They planned to attack from three directions, push into Tarjei and then into Nikkar deeper inside the mountain range. She recognized the passes marked for military use, committed the information to memory, then slipped the papers back into the folder just as he had them, not one sheet out of order, not one corner bent. For seventeen months she had managed to do the same every other week but this was the first time she needed to remember and relay the information.
She crept back into the hallway, the latch of the door’s lock stabbing her nerves. She held perfectly still a moment, sensing as well as listening for any spying eyes. Anticipation for the unknown filled her with heat and urgency she nearly couldn’t contain. She paced her breaths as she moved along, turning to descend the main stairs.
It had been months since she left in the middle of the night like she had to do now, but hopefully the guards wouldn’t see it as suspicious. At first she had done the same on each visit, claiming she had to return home for morning chores. Then she found how much she liked sleeping next to Akron. His strength, his desire of her, made her feel—wanted. She forced the thought from her mind and tapped lightly at the door.
The attending guard jolted in his seat. He squinted his eyes at her then nodded, allowing her passage through the glass door.
“Leaving so soon,” he said, a smirk on his lips.
“Chores need doing, brother is sick,” she said. “Tell Akron I will see him next time he’s in town.”
The guard bowed his head to her and let her pass from the enclosed porch and into the dark street beyond. First order of business was to get some supplies, enough to carry her nonstop from the Madai City gates, through Eastnorth Forest, and a day’s travel through the grasslands to the small village of Westend. Problem was the only thing open at such a late hour was the seedier taverns in the lower parts of town. She would have to do with small rations.
She stopped at a barrel tucked into a shadowed corner outside a clothier’s shop three buildings away and retrieved her thigh length coat, a laser pistol, two short blades, and her travel pack all but empty now. The coat felt cold as she wrapped it around herself, tying the high collar at her throat and lifting the wide hood over her blond locks. One knife strapped easily and familiarly to each hip and the pistol to the harness on her belt. Where she was going, she had to be ready for anything.
She moved west, ignoring the increasing disarray of the buildings and condition of the streets. It was said Madai City had once been as shiny as an opal through and through, no slums anywhere, but as time passed and high level families left, things changed. She couldn’t remember it any differently than it was now and wondered if the stories of such a grand state were false.
Shouts, laughter, and out of tune music punctuated the night air. Vapor materialized with each exhale, a ghost in the night fueled by her quickened pace and heavy breaths. She pushed herself hard until the dirty lights of the relatively safe haven of Haston’s Tavern shined ahead. The volume of the occupants halted her until she determined the sounds were of amusement not aggression, at least not of the large battle kind.
She continued forward, dodging patrons jammed tight inside the doors. The air hung thick with smoke and stank of weak ale and unbathed men. She worked her way forward, careful not to catch anyone’s attention until she reached the scarred bar.
Haston worked alone behind the counter, filling mugs from hoses run from wooden canisters of ale on the wall-shelf behind. He worked fast, shoving rags into the pockets of his grease and ale stained apron as he wiped up spills and delivered full mugs. She stood patiently, her forearms rested on the counter edge so he would know she waited for service.
“What can I getcha?” Haston said, not looking directly at her.
“Two loaves of your wheat bread, and a jug of your best ale,” she said.
Haston shouted something to a man several seats away, then leaned over to her. “Is that all young Kira?”
“Ah, none here are sober enough to hear me anyway. How about some cheese to go along with the bread?”
“How old is it?”
Haston yelled the order to the back room where the kitchen hid, his deep voice cutting easily through the noise. Kira knew the back room existed, but refused to enter it, sure she would never eat or drink from this establishment again if she saw the conditions concealed by one wall.
A puff of cold air wafted into the tavern, an opening of the door, but Kira didn’t turn. She took hold of the ale jug Haston handed her. His eyes didn’t focus on her.
“Ah nah, not again,” he said.
Kira cocked one brow and turned just slightly to follow his gaze. A young man stood at the door, his flesh so pale and his clothes so clean and pressed, she knew at once he was a new arrival on the surface of Earth. He held his head a bit too high, haughty, and scanned the room.
“What is that?” Kira faced Haston again.
“He calls himself a Scholar of the Monarch.” Haston rolled a mug to a man at the lower end of the bar. “He keeps coming in here looking for a guide but all he’s going to find is trouble.”
Kira hummed in agreement. If the man showed up to the crowd enough times, at least a few of the hardened surface dwellers would take offense.
Someone slurred an ignorant shout from a far corner table. Kira kept her head low, hiding behind her hood, and watched the pale man step farther into the room.
“I have need of a guide,” he said to the room. Everyone quieted, some turning to him, others too drunk to realize where the voice spoke from. The pale man lifted a small pouch from his pocket and held it in the air, shaking it to let the coins it obviously held jingle. “I can pay handsomely for your assistance, I assure you.”
Kira closed her eyes and sighed. “He sure is going to pay handsomely now.”
“I’ve tried to tell him,” Haston murmured from the corner of his mouth and rolled two loaves of bread and one cheese log with paper before sliding it to her. “You best clear out before all spirits breaks loose. I’ll put this on your tab.”
Kira nodded her thanks, tucked her stash under her arm, and with the jug in her other hand, pushed through the door and back out into the cold air. She paused at the side alley to pack the food in her bag. The jug she fastened to the back with leather ties. She just slipped the bag over her shoulders when the door banged open and the pale man stumbled out, two tall men following closely. Kira leaned into deeper shadows, not wishing to be seen by any of them.
“What are you doing?” the pale man asked. “I came in honor to fulfill my duty.”
The two men scoffed loudly, one drinking sloppily from an ale jug he carried. “Honor sh’moner,” he slurred and shoved the pale one. “We’s told ya not to show yer face ag’in.”
“No, I—I only need to procure a guide.”
The second man flanked the pale one, tavern light washing over his haggard face and beard. Kira scowled when she recognized him. “Hank” was what the other’s called him. She knew enough to stay clear of him and his ugly mannerisms. He was Madai and cruel to the core, known to kill anything that got in his way and it was said he had done the same to his wife. Blood pumped hot in her veins again. She watched, willing the pale one to leave without provoking further conversation, but he stumbled around, trying to face both the men at his front and back at the same time and suddenly held up his money purse again. Hank snatched the purse so roughly, he pulled the younger man to the ground with a thud.
“Look at this Toby, enough here for a month’s rations for the both of us.” The drunker Toby stumbled toward Hank, his empty hand out for the money.
“You can’t do that,” the pale one climbed to his feet and jumped for the bag, provoking a solid punch from Hank and a sloppy kick from Toby. He fell hard and face down to the dirt. The three blended in a cloud of chaos. Toby kicked again.
Kira felt the hilt of her laser gun against her palm, her finger on the trigger, knowing no one else around would stop the two. The pale one would surely end up dead, obviously not capable of defending himself. She rushed forward, elbowed the back of Toby’s head, knocking him unconscious instantly and aimed her laser into Hank’s beady dark iris. He pulled his hands up to shield himself and stumbled back from the pulp of a man at his feet.
Hank growled and lurched at her.
“Ut ut, I wouldn’t,” Kira said, prancing back a step to shore up her stance, ready for a tackle. She held her pistol steady, its ugly red aim slicing a line through the dusty air and onto Hank’s face. Anger hardened the angles of his sharp features, painting him as hollow as a corpse in the dim light. Kira shook her head. “Don’t go giving me a reason to kill you.”
Hank lurched for her again, too fast for a drunk man. Kira leapt aside and palmed one of her knives as Hank barreled past her, just missing her chest with his fists. He spun back on her and this time held a weapon of his own, a large knife she barley deflected with her smaller one. She aimed her pistol and squeezed the trigger twice, sending the buzzing zip of the laser into the man’s knee, then the hand that held the knife. He screamed in agony and crumbled to the ground. Kira pounced him, kicking the knife far from his hand, and swiping the now dusty money sack. Hank clutched his smoking knee with his unwounded hand and withered in the dirt beside his sleeping pal. Kira backed away from the downed pair to stand over the pale man.
“You all right?”
The man sat slumped, his knees up, head down. “No.”
“Can you walk?”
He huffed and slowly climbed to his feet. “I’m fine there,” he said and wiped his knuckles to the corner of his bloody mouth. He seemed taller now that she stood beside him than he had inside the tavern.
“Here.” She shoved his purse out to him, ignoring how heavy it felt and the lingering thoughts to just how much he had stashed there. “And for the future, don’t go making it public knowledge you carry this. Get out of here before anyone finds these two and stay out, will you? This is no place for the likes of you.”
She packed her pistol back at her hip and the knife at her side and headed west into the alley.
“Wait, please.” He hurried up behind her, his steps pounding sloppily and uncertain on the rough street. “Maybe you can help me.”
“Not my business,” she said and continued forward. “Check at the east wall, or the north sections of town.”
“I have, they’ve all told me to come here. And I’ve done that too, for three days and nights now.”
Kira scowled, not able to conjure something both the upper and lower class of Madai City would refuse for the price this man was obviously willing to pay.
“Just what exactly are you asking for?”
“A guide,” he said.
“To what?” There were plenty of guides in the city, many she knew who would have found him if they wanted.
“I need to travel west, to the Kharsag Mountains.”
Pure shock slammed Kira to a halt. She turned to glare at the man, obviously Madai, obviously from the space station.
“You know of them,” he said.
“I know you are absolutely insane to even mention going there.”
The man huffed and gazed down the dark alley. “Why does everyone keep saying that?”
Kira bit her tongue to stop her sharpest sarcasm, swallowed the jolt of pain, and reordered her thoughts. “Well, maybe because it’s true and everyone knows it but you.”
“It can’t be true. There’s a tried and tested safe road from here into the Enil desert now.”
“Why would you even want to go there?” Few of his kind ever had a need to travel to the Kharsags, not unless their intentions were less than honorable and in that case they wouldn’t announce where they wanted to go to an entire city.
“I have my orders,” he said, his voice more hushed than before, but not sounding like secrecy, more like uncertainty.
“Orders,” Kira said and peered back to the alley where she had left the injured Hank. Voices sounded, some loud, others not so loud. She wanted to be gone from sight of anyone who attempted to look for her. She hurried ahead, paying little attention to the man who tagged along.
“Yes, orders, direct from Monarch Crakshandal himself.”
Kira’s stomach soured and she suddenly thought maybe talking more with this man now wouldn’t be such a bad thing. If Crakshandal wanted a scholar to travel to the mountains, knowing about it could prove helpful.
“My suggestion to you would be to forget those orders.”
“Then you may very well end up dead.”
“I most certainly will if I return without the studies I promised to perform.”
Kira turned sharply down another alley, then right and left, keeping her main focus on reaching the west gates. “And what studies would those be?”
“I’m to study how the lands have changed over the last twenty years. I have all the surveys and information gathered at that time. I need to take census, study air quality, just record things like that to see what kind of impact we might be making on the environment. I really don’t understand why everyone seems so riled up over such a simple thing.”
Kira nearly laughed. “Gathering military knowledge is not so simple a thing.”
“Not military, not at all, just world study, purely for scholarly reasons.”
Kira huffed. “You can’t possibly be so stupid. How the lands have changed? How many people live there? The environmental quality? What’s that matter to anyone who isn’t wanting to move in on it?”
“It’s purely for study,” he said. “Monarch Crakshandal said so.”
Kira stopped short and peered up at him in the starlit night. “Do you really think your monarch cares about anything just for scholarly purposes? Do you really think he sent you down here without him knowing the resistance you would encounter? If he didn’t know, why put such a nasty penalty on your return without the information?”
The man’s pale face hung slack in the night, dumbfounded. He truly hadn’t thought of it in those terms.
“My Monarch,” he said.
Kira swallowed hard. She had forgotten that in this city, at this moment, she was Madai, not Inaut like they labeled her without the hair dye and bronzing lotions for her flesh. “I’ve never met him, I don’t agree with a lot of what he’s done down here, so I don’t really think of him as anything but the monarch who sits on his high and mighty throne out of world.” She started forward again. “Look, I suggest you find yourself a comfortable little room in one of the inns up town.”
“And what would you suggest I do about the reports?”
“Fake ‘em.” She finally stepped out into the brighter street. The gate stood just three blocks ahead, but she couldn’t go there with this man. She paused when she heard sharp voices ahead, guard voices. Something wasn’t right. “I have to be going now. I wish you the best, really. Good luck.”
With that, she hurried forward into a small slice between two buildings, slipping through the dark shadows, down and around until the outer wall came into view. The door accessible to her kind waited just below the gates, a door leading to the drainage tunnels newly installed to help alleviate the flooding during the rainy season.
She dashed between two more buildings and emerged ahead of the gate, the smaller door so near she smelled the green sweet air from the forest.
“Hey, you!” A guard shouted. Kira stood still, not wanting to panic, but when she turned, there was no mistaking the big brute of a man was stalking down on her. “Remove that hood and state your business.”
Kira breathed deep, her options swirling through her mind, but only one had any chance of ending with her still standing. She gripped her hood with one hand and pulled it down. Soft wind swept her hair aside, allowing her an unhindered view.
“You,” the guard said, complete confusion fogging his tone. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the south gates?”
Kira stood tree still, silently berating herself for not going out the lower gates and skirting the city. It took more time, and one had to be careful not to be seen on the outskirts, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so suspicious from the inside. Another guard moved from a larger group at the gate.
“Shindra?” She recognized his face from Akron’s front company, his second in command. She stumbled for his name.
“Erek,” she said.
He dipped his head. “What are you doing out here?”
Kira paused, but couldn’t pause too long. “I have some errands to run.”
“Errands? Out there? What kind of errands.”
“For my father.”
“There’s nothing for farms in the forest,” Erek said. “Why aren’t you still up at the compound with Akron?”
“I had to get an early start,” she said, but she knew he wasn’t believing her. Something in the night had snagged their suspicions. She doubted it was her, but because of it, the possibility she would be caught was higher. Erek murmured something to the other guard but neither of them looked from her. She heard Akron’s name, then the nameless guard hurried away.
“I think you need to come with me,” Erek said. He pulled his pistol from his belt. Kira cringed, knowing she couldn’t pull hers free in time to defend herself.
“Excuse me? Sir?”
The pale haughty man somehow appeared at her side and held out his hand to Erek. The guard responded by aiming the weapon away from her and at the newcomer.
“Dane Valdor,” the pale one said and wiped his hand on his chest. “Maybe you’ve heard of me. Monarch Crakshandal sent me dirtside to study the lands down here. I’m sorry if we’ve caused any trouble, but I was hoping to move west as soon as possible.”
“We?” Erek said, the suspicious squint of his eyes deepening.
“Yes,” Dane said and peered over his shoulder. “This young lady agreed to be my guide.”
Erek shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a sure sign of his uncertainty. “Her?”
Dane looked at her again, then to the guard. “Yes… is there a problem with that?”
Erek shook his head then straightened as if he suddenly realized something. He aimed his pistol at her again. “Then how come you said you had errands to run for your father?”
“Oh, I asked her to keep this whole mission secret, you see, although I didn’t mean with you guards.” Dane shook his head at her. “No, these men know my business, or at least they should, so you can tell them.”
Kira parted her lips, but couldn’t find anything to say. In one instant she seemed to escape the scrutiny of the guard, but in that same second, she was suddenly trapped in something that could be far worse.
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