Skypirate

Skypirate

Justine Dare Davis

October 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-423

Book 2 of The Coalition Rebellion novels

A legendary warrior and a slave with dangerous secrets.

Bound by a love neither expected or wanted.

 

 
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A need for revenge.
Hunted by the Coalition and haunted by his past, Dax Silverbrake is determined that those who conquered his planet, almost completely destroying the Triotian people, will not enslave his young ward. But to rescue her, he must also rescue a woman who wears the notorious Coalition slave collar—a woman whose secrets could destroy what is left of his soul.

An unforgivable past.

Once an integral part of the Coalition command structure, collared slave Califa Claxton hides secrets that could mean her death by rebels and the Coalition alike. Her biggest fear is that the one act of courage which left her collared may never be enough to erase the past or give her a future.

One chance, two souls who need redemption.

An unexpected and white-hot passion might change everything—if they can put the past behind them and risk everything for the rebellion.


 

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Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

I DON’T MIND dying, but I’ll be damned to Ossuary if I’ll do it here.

Not here, not now, and not by the likes of the men who guarded this grim place, Dax Silverbrake thought. No, the way out of this fix was guile, and he’d learned the craft well.

"I swear,” Dax muttered under his breath as they walked down the grim, narrow hallway, "if Rina wasn’t the best navigator I’ve ever seen, I’d—”

"—still go after her.” Dax gave his first mate a sideways look; Roxton was grinning at him despite the danger. "And don’t be trying to convince me otherwise, Cap’n.” The grizzled older man, disguised as a servant, tugged on his beard as he went on in a whisper, "Not that I’d blame you, mind, even though she is like your own blood sister to you.” He shook his head in disgust. "Of all things. Gettin’ caught rigging a game of chaser!”

Dax’s jade green eyes narrowed in warning, and Roxton quieted as the guard ahead of them, who had slowed his pace, got too near to risk further talk.

They continued down the stone corridor, their way lit only by the guard’s cellight, the dank walls making Dax glad of the heavy, hooded cloak of his disguise. The rustling he heard from the floor made him glad of his knee-high boots; being nibbled at by Carelian muckrats was not his idea of fun. Blast Rina anyway; how could she let herself get caught rigging the dice for chaser? A child could—

"Here we are,” the guard said as they turned right and stepped into a wider corridor, no less dark, but lined on each side with barred cells that were even danker and colder than the hallway they’d come through. "You’ll find one here to warm even this chilly night.”

Chilly? Dax didn’t want to know what the man thought was cold. Carelian nights were bleakly cold this time of year, something to hide from, not go wandering about in. The cold made the byways and main concourses virtually deserted, which was both good and bad from their point of view; once they got out of here they could be reasonably certain of going undiscovered, but if they were, they would have a difficult time explaining why they were out on this freezing night.

"Take your pick, friend,” the guard said.

Friend? Not likely, Dax thought. But he answered mildly enough. "In the dark?”

The guard sniggered, a lewd, nasty sound. "Why not? That’s where you’ll be with her anyway, isn’t it?”

Dax restrained the urge to bury his fist in the man’s round, leering face. He knew the sale of Coalition prisoners, no questions asked, was a common practice among the more unsavory of their guards, but he still found it repug­nant. He reined in his distaste; Rina’s freedom could depend on how well he played this part.

"Not necessarily,” he answered, putting as much of sordid anticipation as he could manage into his voice.

The guard laughed, loud and ribaldly. "I forgot. A man who’s spent a sea­son mining in the caverns of Boreas wouldn’t want to spend any more time in the dark, would he? Well, I’ve a few worth looking at, even in the light. Come along.”

Dax followed the man, resisting the urge to straighten his shoulders to re­lieve the ache. Every crystal miner he’d ever seen walked hunched over from years of working in cramped quarters; if he’d realized what he was letting himself in for, he would have picked another disguise for his tall frame. Not for the first time he wished for a bit more anonymity; he might have been able to simply buy Rina’s way out by paying off the officer she’d tried to bilk.

He heard the mumble of voices, some rambling crazily, some wailing pa­thetically, and some strident with anger. The only consistency was that they were all female. The males, equally subject to sale if the price was right, were obviously in another wing. Dax smiled wryly in the shadows. Perhaps it was a good thing that it had been Rina who had gotten caught; he doubted he could work up a credible show of enthusiasm for Roxton. He wondered briefly if the guards ever had to account for the prisoners who were never seen again.

Not likely, he thought again. There were so many Coalition prisoners that the loss of a mere hundred or so here and there would hardly be noticed.

The guard stopped, turning the ray of his cellight through a set of bars. "Now here’s a nice one, if you’ll be wanting it a little... rough.”

Dax frowned as a gleam reflected from eyes that looked decidedly pink. "She looks Carelian.” Hard to believe; the natives of this world were known not to survive captivity.

"She is, but don’t worry. We’ve declawed her. And after a long season on that ice planet, you must be... eager.”

If you only knew, Dax thought wryly. But this was not the time to dwell on his own mating problems. "Not that eager,” he said. "What else have you got?”

Several cells and rejections later, the guard was becoming irritated. Dax knew it was only a step from irritation to suspicion, and he tried to ease the man’s mood.

"You were right, you know,” he said unctuously. "After a season buried un­der tons of ice, mining crystal, I’ve a preference for sunlight. Have you any with that coloring?”

Placated by the flattery, the guard’s face was split by a grin, distorted evilly by the angle of the cellight. "Ah, so that’s what you’re after. I have just the thing for you. A young one. She just came in today. A Coalition officer caught her cheating at chaser. I warn you though, she’s a bit stubborn. We haven’t had time to work on her yet.”

Dax’s amusement at the understatement—Rina, only a bit stub­born?—was tinged with relief at the last words; they hadn’t hurt her yet.

"I’m not averse to a little spirit,” he said casually.

"Oh, she’s got that, all right,” the guard crowed. "And except that it’s short, she has gold hair, like a Triotian.”

Dax was grateful for the dim light then; he was sure his sudden fear must have shown in his face. He felt Roxton stiffen beside him. It was a moment before he trusted his voice enough to tell the man to lead them on. Roxton held back, and Dax slowed his steps to match the older man’s.

"Do you think he guessed?” the first mate asked in a hushed whisper.

"No.”

It was flat, certain, and Roxton lifted a bushy gray brow. "So sure?”

"If he knew she really was Triotian, she’d be dead.”

"True enough,” Roxton agreed after a moment, but Dax was already ahead of him, striding after the guard.

They came to a halt at the last cell. Only a tall, solid metal door remained between them and the end of the corridor. The guard directed his light through the bars. It caught the face of a female, barely more than a girl, who blinked in the sudden brightness. Her face, although dirty, was that of a pixie, a legendary creature of the Triotian woodlands. Big eyes nearly the same vivid green as Dax’s own, and a tiny, pointed chin were topped by a short, tousled cap of hair that was indeed the uncommon color of a Triotian, the same shade as the golden steeds of Arellia. Only the shortness of her hair and the sun-browned color of her skin masked her true origin; with few exceptions, Triotians were the golden children, both in hair, which they never cut, and skin.

For an instant Dax was unable to speak, his throat tight at the sight of her, safe. Roxton hadn’t exaggerated; this girl was as precious to him as a blood sister. Perhaps more so, since he’d lost his own true sister.

"She’ll do,” he said, his voice tight with emotion. He heard the husky sound of it, and hoped the guard would take it for the arousal of a long de­prived man.

The guard laughed, pleased, but under the sound Dax heard Rina whis­per his name in tones of utter relief.

"Well, now,” the guard drawled, "this one may cost a bit more than we agreed on. We haven’t had a chance to examine her yet, but it’s quite possible she’s untried.”

Fury rose in Dax. He heard Rina’s outraged exclamation and motioned her to silence. He well knew she was untouched; he’d fought on occasion to keep her that way. Rina had a hard-learned dislike of most men except the Evening Star’s crew, and none of them would even think of laying a hand on her. The thought of some man the ilk of this grinning knave intimately examin­ing Rina made him want to pull his flashbow right now and put an end to this farce. But with a patience that had been long fought for and hard won, he reined in his naturally hot temper.

"Fine,” he said to the guard, with a blitheness he was far from feeling. "But if your examination proves her not virgin—quite likely, if she’s been long on her own and running games of chance on the streets—the price is halved.”

"Halved?” the guard sputtered.

"Fair enough, for my time and patience. As you said, it has been a very long season.”

Dax’s tone brooked no argument. The guard gulped, then swallowed as he stared up at the broad, hooded figure that, even hunched over, towered above him. "But you’ll take her as is, at the price agreed?”

"Only if I take her now.”

The man made his decision quickly. "Then take her.” He reached to his belt and removed his code key, which he aimed at the lock as he punched a series of buttons. With a click that echoed in the damp darkness, the lock opened. He turned around and held his hand out to Dax.

Reaching into the cavernous pocket of his cloak, Dax grasped the bag of coins, a motley collection of Arellian Novals, Carelian Ducas, and two rare Romerian Withals. Different coins, from different worlds, but similar in two ways; they were all accepted at face value or more throughout the system, and all had been liberated from their original owners. They clinked satisfyingly as he drew out the pouch. A small price, to walk out of here without—

"So”—the voice came out of the darkness, clear and ringing—"you will es­cape, just as you said.”

Startled, Dax’s gaze darted to the blackest corner of the cell, from which the voice had come. His instincts were slipping, he thought. He hadn’t even realized there was another prisoner here in this gruesome place that was the possible—probable, he amended grimly—future for them all.

"And here I thought all your bragging about your rescue merely talk.”

Dax’s gaze shot back to Rina, who looked away, but not before he saw her chagrined expression. Damnation, couldn’t she keep her mouth shut, even here?

"Silence!”

It took a split second for Dax to register that the guard had not voiced his own thoughts to Rina, but had barked an order to the as-yet-unseen female. As he spoke, the man moved the beam of the cellight to the dark corner.

Dax’s brows furrowed. There, standing with a proud, straight posture that surprised him, was another female. At least, he supposed it was, since all others in this wing of the Coalition prison were. But this one was filthy, the kind of grime built up over time, not the surface dirt such as Rina had ac­quired during her short stay. This one had hair cropped even shorter than Rina’s, hair that was either dark unto black, or so dirty it didn’t bear thinking about. Her face was almost as dirty; he had no idea how old she might be. Her eyes gleamed in the cellight’s glow.

They were blue, a startling pale blue, the color of the purest ice on the min­ing planet Dax was pretending to be from. They were fastened on him with a steadiness that made him long more than ever to straighten his aching, hunched shoulders; a man shouldn’t face a stare like that without whatever advantage his superior height might bring.

Who was she, this prisoner who held herself so proudly? Who was this, holding his intense stare with a coolness he’d not seen in even his fiercest opponents? She was slender, he guessed from the shape of her face, since it was impossible to tell in her grubby, baggy clothes. She was tall. She was—

She was a slave.

He hadn’t noticed before, with his fascination with those unusual eyes, but now he focused on the dull glow of gold at her throat. A collar. The collar of Coalition enslavement. He’d heard of them, even seen some of the lower levels, but never a gold one before. It looked almost ornamental, with the sheen of the precious metal and the three jewel-like lights. He supposed that helped the citizens of the almighty Coalition pretend they weren’t truly slaves.

He’d heard they were referred to merely as "gold collars” or "bronze col­lars,” or whatever level they were, as if the collar itself was the being. He hoped this was as close as he would ever get to one.

She didn’t wear it well. It was at odds with her proud carriage, with the force and intensity of her eyes. And most especially, at odds with the ringing tones of her voice.

"When you told me about the man who would come for you, I didn’t real­ize you spoke the truth.” Dax caught his breath. Just how much had Rina said?

"Silence,” the guard roared again, apparently too angry—or too thick— to be suspicious, "or I’ll get the controller and quiet you permanently.”

"I think not,” the female said. She was, Dax decided, either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. Or, he thought suddenly, she had a token up her sleeve. Something to bargain with. Something with a worth of which she was very, very sure.

"From your bragging of his strength and beauty, I didn’t expect a bro­ken-down hunchback,” the female added scornfully.

As the guard gaped at the prisoner’s effrontery, Dax’s gaze flicked to Rina once more. Was she bluffing, or had Rina, in her youthful excess, let slip the identity of the rescuer she expected? There was a healthy price on his head—dead or alive—in this and more than a few other sectors. Perhaps even enough to buy freedom for a collared slave.

Rina met his gaze, and for the first time since he’d pulled her out of that cave on Daxelia, he saw fear there. And anguish. His jaw clenched. How much did this female know? Only that Rina had expected rescue from her crew, or had the girl let slip his name? Even if she knew only that this was indeed a rescue, not a purchase of a female prisoner for carnal purposes, she could get them all killed. He would have to move fast, or this whole thing could disintegrate on them.

"She’s not very pleasant, is she?” Dax said in an amused tone.

"She’s been nothing but trouble since she got here,” the guard grumbled. "She’s on her way to Ossuary, but if they’d turn me loose on her, I’d show her fast enough what we do with crippled Arellian slaves who don’t know their place.”

"Better men than you have tried, you Carelian blowpig.” Her voice rang with defiance, and Dax felt a grudging admiration for her courage, if not her foolhardiness.

"They’ve clearly been far too easy on you, Arellian bitch,” the guard snapped, whirling back to glare at her. "It’s time you learned your place, and what that controller is really for.”

"You won’t dare,” the Arellian said. "Not when I tell you what I know about—”

"As I said, I’m not averse to a little spirit.” Dax cut in quickly, putting a hand on the guard’s shoulder and leading him away from the female who was apparently about to play her bargaining token—him. "And if one woman is good, two is better, limn?”

The guard blinked as they came to a halt out of earshot of the cell. "You want both of them?”

Dax shrugged as if it were of no import. "I would pay extra, of course. Not that she’s worth it, unless you cut her tongue out first.”

The guard gave a low chuckle. "She’s already marred,” he warned. "Lame. Left leg.”

Dax grinned, a deadly imitation of the guard’s lewd expression. "It’s not her leg I’m concerned with.”

The man returned the grin, but then his eyes narrowed. He abruptly shook his head. "No. I can’t. Not a gold collar.”

"Oh? Are they so valuable, then?”

"The most valuable of all Coalition property. My life would be the price for misplacing a gold collar. And I hear they have special plans for that one, once she’s broken.”

Which is nothing, Dax thought grimly, compared to the special plans they have for me.

"You’re sure?” he asked, hoping to avoid what his gut was telling him was rapidly becoming inevitable. "Perhaps you could just say she escaped?”

The guard snorted. "Hasn’t been but one gold collar ever escape. A lot of people parted company with their heads over it. More just plain disappeared.” He shook his head, more definitely this time. "Coin’s worth nothing if you’re dead.”

"How true,” Dax muttered.

Then he let out a sigh as if giving up, and walked back to the cell. Rina met his gaze, apology—a bit late, as usual—in her green eyes. But Dax merely glanced at her; his attention was fastened on the other occupant of the cell. Still, she held his gaze unflinchingly.

"You’re sure you want to do this?” he questioned softly, too low for the guard to hear.

She didn’t pretend to misunderstand. "I have no choice.”

As the guard came up to stand beside him, Dax drew in a deep breath. "I guess I’ll have to give you one, then.”

The Arellian looked, for the first time, startled. The guard’s forehead creased. "What was that?”

"I said ‘Too bad, she’s a live one,’” Dax improvised.

"Hmph,” snorted the man. "You’re better off with the younger one. The Arellian’d probably freeze a man’s nether parts off.”

"Hmm. Perhaps.”

Dax reached down to tug at his cloak, as if it had caught on the uneven floor. The guard’s eyes instinctively followed the motion of his hand. The moment his field of vision was diverted, Dax grabbed the unlocked cell door and swung it open in a swift, powerful arc. The bars caught the guard at the temple, and he went down heavily.

Rina was out the cell door in an instant. The Arellian, while not quite as quick, was only a step behind.

"They’ve got my disrupter in that locker over there,” Rina said, pushing thick blond bangs out of her eyes as she ran to the metal door they’d seen before. "It’s locked,” she exclaimed in frustration.

"What did you expect?” Dax asked mildly. He glanced at his companion. "Roxton?”

The older man nodded, keeping a wary eye on the Arellian as he walked to­ward Rina. Dax, too, was watching the Arellian, who had followed close on Rina’s heels, and was showing her first sign of tension as she stared at the locked cabinet door as if the sheer fierceness of her gaze could melt it.

Roxton pulled out his disrupter, and aimed it at the lock on the metal door. At the piercing sound, a rumble of voices began echoing down the corridor.

"Be quick about it,” Dax muttered as the door swung open. "The guests are getting restless.”

Rina reached in and grabbed an armful of weapons, tossing a couple to Roxton, three more to Dax. He caught them and stuffed them into the pocket that had held the coins—

The coins. He was bending to retrieve the pouch from the unconscious guard when a movement by the Arellian brought him sharply upright. He suppressed a groan of relief at standing full upright for the first time in what seemed like aeons, but barely had time to savor it; he leapt forward, slammed the metal door shut, and trapped the Arellian’s hands in his. He felt her pulse leap beneath his fingertips.

"You’ll pardon me for not arming the person who was so very eager to hand the Coalition my head,” he said dryly.

"I had no choice,” she repeated. "Besides, I wasn’t going for a weapon.”

"Oh?”

He released her hands, but kept hold of both her wrists with one hand as he pried open her fingers with the other. She resisted him with a strength that surprised him, but eventually she had to give way.

What she held was like no kind of weapon he’d ever seen. It was palm-sized, adorned with buttons, a knob of some sort, and three crystals, one each of red, yellow, and blue. No, not crystals. Lights. His gaze flicked to the collar that banded her slender throat. The matching lights were there. This must be the controller the guard had mentioned. He hadn’t the slightest idea how the thing worked, but knew he wouldn’t like it if he did.

The racket increased down the long corridor of cells as the prisoners be­gan to guess that something was going on. The shouts were starting to ring off the damp stone walls. Dax bent to remove the code key from the downed guard’s belt.

"Better move, Cap’n,” Roxton urged. "They’ll soon hear all the noise.”

"If we go back that way,” Rina whispered, staring down the long, dark cor­ridor, "we’ll run right into them as they come down.”

"Give me a weapon,” the Arellian snapped. "I can help you fight them.”

Dax lifted a brow. "Fight? Four against... what, forty? Sorry, that’s not my kind of odds.”

She glanced down the hall, then turned back to Dax, contempt rife in her eyes and voice. "In a few moments, you’ll have no choice.”

She didn’t call him coward, but Dax heard it as surely as if she had. It didn’t matter; he’d been called that and worse. He’d called himself worse. But it made him wonder about this female, and why she was prisoner here.

"Quiet,” he ordered. He turned to look at the stone wall that was the dead end of the corridor. Then he spoke to Rina. "Did you pay any attention when they brought you in here?”

"Of course,” the girl answered indignantly.

He gestured toward the wall. "What’s on the other side?”

The girl closed her eyes for a moment. It was a familiar action to Dax; he knew she was pulling up the memory. And when she did, it would be, as it was aboard the Evening Star, as accurate as any star chart. But the sound of shouts and distant running footsteps overhead told him they were running out of time.

"The cliff,” she said a second later. "About twenty feet high, here. Above the main path.”

"Good.” He reached beneath his cloak once more.

"Good?” The Arellian gaped at him. "What’s good about it? That wall’s so thick even the strongest disrupter would barely scratch it.”

Dax gave her a look suitable for a pesky insect, then ignored her as he turned to face the blank wall, pushing his cloak back with one arm. He now held a lethal-looking yet beautiful gleaming silver weapon. Its short stock was etched with an intricate design that ended at a heavy oblong cube, which in turn gave way to an arm’s length half cylinder with a wide groove hollowed out of the upward-facing flat side. Near the far end of the long cylinder was a curved crosspiece, bent back and held with a strand of some material that shone as silver as the weapon itself.

"The flashbow,” Rina breathed, her eyes widening.

The Arellian glanced at her recent cellmate, then turned her gaze back to Dax. He bent for a moment, reaching for something beneath the cloak, then stood once more, pushing the hood back. With his free hand he slid what looked like a handsbreadth-long bolt of an oddly colored material into the groove, moving it back until it butted against the metal case. He pulled the metallic string back until it slid into a slot in the case, behind the bolt. He moved a lever on the metal portion, and an odd, low-pitched hum began. The bolt began to glow. He raised the weapon to his shoulder, ignoring the staring Arellian as he concentrated, focusing on the spot he’d chosen on the wall. His right hand curled around the stock, his finger slid over the trigger.

The sound of the footsteps above were growing fainter, which only meant they were closer to the stairway at the far end that would lead them down here. He heard the Arellian say something, urgently, heard Rina hushing her, but he blanked it out. It had been a while since he’d used the weapon, and he needed all his concentration.

He expelled his breath slowly, mentally closing out his surroundings. He closed his eyes, focusing all his energy on the feel of the silver, until it grew warm beneath his hands. Then he opened his eyes, sighting down the groove to the place on the wall he had instinctively chosen.

Only when all he could hear was the steady thud of his own heart and the hum of the flashcharger, when all he could see was that spot on the wall, so clearly he could count the nicks in the stone, when he had no breath left in his lungs to strain to hold, he moved that one finger.

The glowing bolt shot down the groove. A split second later the corridor was lost in a flash of blinding, fierce light and a sharp, deafening crack of sound that made their ears ring and their balance waver. Dax stood frozen as the others lowered the hands they had put before their eyes at Rina’s warning.

Before them, the wall that had been the dead end of the corridor had van­ished, leaving nothing but a few settling motes of dust. They stood on the edge of open air, nothing but the drop of the sheer cliff in front of them. Only Rina seemed capable of movement; she stepped toward the motionless Dax. He didn’t react. She reached upward, taking a lock of thick, dark hair in her fingers and tugging.

"Unh!” Dax grunted. Then he shook his head sharply, as if coming out of a daze. Slowly, he lowered the flashbow from his shoulder.

"Eos,” the Arellian breathed, her eyes wide as her gaze flicked from the gaping hole to the man who had done it.

"Come on,” Rina urged, releasing Dax’s hair and pushing her own bangs from her eyes. "They’ll be here any minute.”

Dax blinked, and shook his head again. Roxton moved then, taking a long, thin cord from under his own cloak. He looped one end around the base of the bars of Rina’s former cell and knotted it, then tossed the other end over the drop. Gingerly, he leaned forward to look.

"Have to scramble the last few feet, but it’ll do.”

"Go ahead,” Dax said, back with them now.

"But—” Rina began.

"Let Roxton go first.” The flashbow disappeared beneath the volumi­nous cloak once more. "We don’t know how visible we’re going to be going down that line. There could be somebody waiting for us by the time we hit the bottom.”

"Just why I should go first,” Rina said. "I’m a smaller target.”

"While you’re wasting time arguing, I’ll go down,” the Arellian snapped.

"No,” Dax ordered firmly. He nodded at Roxton, who disappeared over the side without hesitation. Dax moved to the edge and looked over. After another long, silent moment broken only by the clang of the metal door at the far end of the hall, he nodded at Rina. She scrambled over the side with youth­ful agility.

Dax turned to look at the Arellian. With an elaborate bow, he gestured to the taut line.

"You expect me to dangle there in the open, unarmed?”

Dax shrugged. "Or wait and meet the guards, unarmed.”

She looked at him sourly. "Are you sure you want me below you?”

With a movement so swift it made her blink, Dax swept the controller from her hand. "As long as I have this, it won’t bother me a bit.”

She swore, an Arellian oath he’d heard but didn’t know the meaning of, then swung over the edge. Dax noticed the slightest stiffness in her left leg, but she didn’t let it slow her down once she’d begun; she was down the line and out of sight before he heard the sound of running footfalls at the far end of the corridor.

He took out the code key he’d liberated from the guard. There was no way he could open the other cells; the possible combinations were nearly infinite. But given time...

He ran back to the cell that held the Carelian. She was at the door, her hands curled around the bars, obviously aware something was up. Dax winced when he saw the twisted scars at her fingertips, where they had re­moved— none too carefully, it appeared—the retractable, curved fingernails. He held out the code key.

"I’d suggest you keep it hidden until you have all the combinations,” he said lowly. "You’ll have a better chance if you all stay together.”

She took it, quickly, then tilted her head back to look up at him, her eyes looking eerily pale in the shadows. "Why?” she asked, her voice harsh with the effort to lower her species’ normally loud tones.

Dax grinned. "Why not?”

She leaned closer, peering at him. Then she gasped. "Dax!”

Blast it, he hadn’t realized he’d become so easily recognizable, even here. He backed up a step. The guards were getting closer, he could hear them. Was this fanciful gesture going to cost him his life? If she gave him away—

"Skypirate or no, your name shall be held sacred in the house of my clan,” she hissed. "Go, and Eos be with you.”

"Good luck,” he whispered. He spun on his heel and took off running back to the opening he’d blasted.

He reached for the line, then stopped. He knew that as soon as they made the turn into the cell area, the guards would see the gaping hole at the end of the corridor, streaming sunlight into this place that hadn’t seen it in aeons. They’d head straight for it, instinctively. Hurriedly. With a crooked grin he moved back a few steps, swiftly adjusted the course of the line, then went back to the edge and over the side.

The adjustment he’d made had cost him in the cord’s length, making the fi­nal drop at the end nearly eight feet. Hoping that he wouldn’t break a leg, he let go. He hit at an awkward angle, sending a sharp pain shooting up from his left ankle. He slipped, then rolled, biting back grunts of pain as sharp-edged rocks—and the bow—dug into him.

"What in Hades took you so long?” Rina whispered through clenched teeth. "And what happened to the cord?”

"I’m fine, thanks,” Dax whispered back wryly as he limped out of sight be­hind the large outcropping of stone that hid Roxton and the Arellian.

Roxton looked him up and down before, apparently satisfied that he would live, he said, "What did happen to the line? It was long enough—”

"—to wrap around the bars of the opposite cell.”

Roxton blinked. "Huh?”

"Across the corridor. At about ankle height.”

Roxton blinked again, then grinned. "Son of a whisperbird, that’s what you—”

A scream cut him off, and they looked up in time to see first one, then a second prison guard cartwheel out of the opening above them and plummet downward, arms flailing uselessly.

As one, the four of them turned and took to their heels.


 

 

Chapter 2

"YOU’RE AN IDIOT, you know that?” Rina stood in front of Dax, her hands on her hips, glaring up at him with more ferocity than anyone of that size and age should have been capable of.

"I believe you’ve mentioned it on occasion,” Dax said amiably.

"Going back like that, they could have caught you—”

"They didn’t, little one. Let’s go.”

"But they could have! One of these days you’re going to take one chance too many—”

"It won’t work, Rina.”

She blinked up at him. "What?”

"You’re still in big trouble, and trying to divert all the attention to me isn’t going to change that.”

The girl colored, looking away. But after a moment, she looked back at him, all the ferocity gone from her face and voice. "I wasn’t just trying a diver­sion. You scare me, the way you take crazy chances, and—”

"I know, little one,” Dax said softly. "But now is not the time. We’ve got to make it to the shuttle and get out of here before they regroup.”

"Shuttle?” The Arellian reached out and grabbed Dax’s arm. "You have a ship here?”

"I did when I left it,” Dax said in a wry tone, turning to look at her.

He realized his mistake as soon as he’d made it. The Arellian’s eyes wid­ened as, for the first time, she saw his face in full light. Her gaze lingered a moment, as if assessing the jade of his eyes, then flicked to the long, thick mane of hair that gleamed darkly in the sunlight.

"Dax!” she exclaimed, the same way the Carelian had.

He let out a compressed breath. So she hadn’t known who he was, until now. She’d bluffed him. He shrugged it off; it had been a risk he hadn’t dared take, for Rina’s sake.

"I’m getting too bedamned recognizable around here,” he muttered.

"The infamous skypirate known by just one name, with a face that’s on re­ward placards all over the system?” the Arellian asked. "What did you expect?”

"We’d best move,” warned Roxton, who had spent most of their lengthy run along the back paths of the outer city looking back over his shoulder.

"No.” It came from the Arellian firmly, with a snap that made Dax look at her curiously.

"No?” he asked, his voice giving away nothing of his rapid speculation.

"I thank you for the rescue, but I’ll be on my way. If you’ll just give me the controller?” She held out her hand, palm up. Her fingers were long, slen­der, and elegantly tapered, Dax saw. And she was older than he’d thought. Woman, not girl. More his age than Rina’s. He’d be very interested to know where she had developed that air of command.

"Just how far do you think you’ll get on your own?” His tone was light, one of idle curiosity.

"Farther than you’ll get,” she snapped out, as if irritated by his tone, "with half the planet after you for the reward, and the entire Coalition looking for the glory of bringing your head on a stake before Legion Command.”

Dax lifted a brow. "I think you’re forgetting something.”

He reached out to touch the gold collar that banded her neck. She re­coiled; he wasn’t sure if it was from the reminder of her status, or the fact that he’d inadvertently brushed her skin with the backs of his fingers.

"No,” he said, "I think this will likely get you caught long before any of us.”

"I’ll take my chances. Just give me the controller.”

"I think not.”

"Damn you to Hades,” she ground out.

After the last six years, Hades would be an improvement, Dax thought. But he merely shrugged.

"Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry. "I don’t want you left here to advertise my presence. You’ll be coming with us.”

"But they’ll think I helped you—”

"You should have thought of that before you opened your mouth back there.” He started forward, leaving Roxton to chivy along their reluctant company. Then he stopped, turning back to look at her pityingly. "Did you really think you could bargain with the Coalition and win? That they would free you once you’d given us away?”

The Arellian’s head came up sharply, and Dax knew he’d struck a nerve.

"If you believed that, then you belonged in that cell. Anyone who trusts the Coalition is a fool.”

The woman’s proud posture failed her; she slumped as if in exhaustion. She shifted her stance to take the weight off her weaker leg, a favoring she had denied herself until now, forcing herself to keep up with them despite the stiffness of the wounded leg. Defeat, Dax thought, sat no better on her than the collar of subjugation. He felt a pang of regret that he had done that to her. He took no pleasure in seeing spirit crushed. If she’d been in Coalition hands for any length of time, surely she had already suffered enough.

Without another word he bent and tore a wide strip of cloth from the bot­tom of his cloak. He straightened and handed it to her.

"Wrap it around your neck,” he said quietly. "It will cover the collar.”

She hesitated, looking at him suspiciously, then took it. She wound it around her throat until the attention-drawing golden band was hidden. It made little difference that he could see; she looked every inch the slave, now.

"What shall we call you?” he asked, avoiding asking who she was; it was an ill-advised question in his world.

"I... Califa. Just Califa.”

Her voice sounded as defeated as she looked. Perhaps that burst of spirit had been momentary, induced by the chance for escape. Or perhaps it had been a flash of what she had been before being captured and caged like an animal. Whatever the case, the sound of her now brought the pang he’d felt earlier back even stronger.

"Named after a Triotian legend?” He made his voice light with an effort as he said the rarely spoken words.

She lifted her gaze to his face then. The pale blue eyes, so icy before, had gone flat, hollow. "My mother,” she said slowly, "was an even bigger fool than I.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, so said nothing. And when they be­gan to walk again, she followed without a word. Like, he thought, a well-trained slave. The thought made his stomach churn. He wondered how many of the prisoners in those cells had a collar in their future. He hoped the Carelian found the door codes soon.

"WELCOME BACK, SIR!”

Dax stepped out of the small craft, checked that the shuttle bay door had closed and locked behind them, then nodded to Larcos, the tall, lanky man who served as the Evening Star’s engineer in flight, parts scavenger when aground, and as the most ingenious inventor Dax had ever seen all the time.

"Brought the little rapscallion back, did you?” Larcos asked, grinning at Rina.

"Against my better judgment, yes,” Dax returned dryly. He felt the Even­ing Star begin to move, following the orders he’d given from the shuttle before they’d docked: get them out of this sector, and fast.

"Eos,” Rina said, a distinct note of disgruntlement in her voice. "It was just a little game of chaser. How was I supposed to know the mark was a Coalition Officer?”

Dax whirled on the girl. "Just a little game? You could have gotten all of us killed. Risking your own life is one thing, but did you really want Roxton to die for you?”

The girl paled. Dax knew it was a harsh blow; Roxton was one of the few men Rina trusted. She’d seen past his gruff exterior and gone straight for his heart, and the old man had treated her like a daughter since the day Dax had brought her aboard three years ago, a shaking, frightened child who’d wit­nessed horrors no child should ever see.

"I didn’t mean—”

Dax cut her off. "You never do. If you want to rig a game, that’s your busi­ness. But getting caught, for God’s sake, at something you’ve been doing for years!”

"I was distracted,” Rina protested. "That officer was talking about how he was going to be the one to capture you, take your head, and present it to General Corling on a pikestaff—”

Rina broke off as Dax went utterly still. He thought he heard a smoth­ered sound from, oddly, the Arellian, but he didn’t look at her.

The name of the man who had destroyed Trios was never mentioned aboard the Evening Star, by anyone, let alone by Rina, who had more reason than most to abhor the man who had wiped out her world and her people. It had been an unspoken rule for so long that most of the crew had forgotten that it had begun long before Dax had brought the young Triotian aboard, and attributed the ban to her presence.

"I’m sorry,” Rina whispered. "It just slipped out, I—”

"Never mind.” His voice was low, flat, and much harsher than when he’d been lecturing his young navigator. He looked at Califa. "Take our... guest. Clean her up, and find her something”—his nose curled expressively—"else to wear.”

None of the spirit he’d hoped for—he wasn’t sure why—flashed in the Arellian. But Rina was quick to yelp, "But I’m needed on the bridge—”

"I think I can manage this time without your help.”

Rina glared at him. "Is this my punishment? Playing maid to a slave?”

Dax’s eyes narrowed. "If you hadn’t earned it before, you just did.”

The girl flushed. "I didn’t mean that,” she said, sounding chagrined. "Not that way. It’s just—”

"What it is,” Dax said, his tone severe, "is time for you to learn how to think before you speak. As you should have in that cell.”

Looking chastened, Rina nodded quietly. Cheeks flaming now, she led the unprotesting Califa away.

When they’d gone, Dax let out a long breath; he felt exhausted. He felt someone’s gaze, and looked up to find Roxton grinning at him.

"Easy to humble them when they think the universe of you, like she does,” the old man said.

"She doesn’t,” Dax corrected. "She just knows she was wrong. Tell me, old man,” he added ruefully, "why in Hades do people have children?”

The grizzled first mate’s smile faded. He tugged at his beard. When he spoke at last, there was no trace of humor in his voice.

"Hoping for one like you, I suppose.”

On the last word, the first mate turned on his heel and strode out of the shuttle bay. Dax gaped after him. Roxton was as stingy with praise as Ansul, his old tutor had been. He forced his mind away from those memories; Ansul, like all others from his past, was dead, long dead.

That must be it, he thought. The old man must have really feared him dead in those moments before he’d come down the cliff, to shake that kind of compliment out of him. And how like Roxton to fire this salvo, and then retreat before Dax could react. Before he could tell the old man he was crazy, that no parent anywhere would want a son like him. And that Rina, of all people, couldn’t possibly think the universe of him. Because Rina, alone of those aboard the Evening Star, knew the ugly truth about him.

"Sir? Will you be going to the bridge now?”

Yanked out of his grim reverie by the words, Dax looked up to see Larcos standing in the doorway of the shuttle bay. Where, Dax realized suddenly, he’d been standing for some time, waiting.

"Sorry,” he muttered. "Let me get out of this thing.”

He shrugged off the heavy, enveloping cloak, tossed it over his shoulder, and then strode past Larcos into the companionway.

The Evening Star was a brigantine class ship, built as a light cargo carrier by the Clarion Starworks. She had been built for maximum capacity and speed; Dax had made some renovations to up the capacity, then handed her over to Larcos, who had turned her into the fastest thing in five sectors. Able to run, thanks to some computer adjustments Dax had made, with a crew of twenty rather than the usually requisite fifty, she was the perfect ship for his purposes.

Not bad, Dax thought as he came onto the bridge, for a ship won on a role of the dice.

He stopped for a moment to replace the flashbow in its case. It was left un­secured; everyone aboard knew it would do no good to take it; only Dax could fire it. He tossed the cloak over the back of the command chair, and asked for a position report from the navigational computer. The report came back instantly, but no faster than Rina could do it. And without her usual flair.

"Looks like a clean getaway, sir,” Larcos said. "Easy, with us parked on the dark side, away from the checkpoints.”

"We nearly didn’t make it,” Dax said with a grin at the engineer. "Shuttle came in on vapor, after all that low level flying to get out of range of their sensors.”

Larcos frowned, his brows lowering on his long, thin forehead. "Did it mal­function? You should have had exactly enough fuel.”

Dax’s grin widened. He’d known that engineer’s brain would immedi­ately take over. "Relax, Larc. You figured perfectly. Don’t forget, we had some unexpected extra weight. There may be only a hundred and twenty pounds or so of her, but it made a difference.”

The engineer’s brow cleared. "Of course. I should have made allow­ances.”

"It was already fueled to the maximum,” Dax assured Larcos, beginning to wish he hadn’t tried to tease him; the man had absolutely no sense of hu­mor about his precious equipment. Which, Dax reminded himself, has saved your ass more times than you can count.

"I could have rigged something, temporarily, to—”

"Cease and desist,” Dax ordered with a laugh. "We made it. Let’s just con­centrate on making sure nobody’s on our tail, all right?”

"They’re probably still trying to figure out that hole in the wall,” Roxton put in with a grin. "I’ll never forget the look of them two, flapping down that cliff like a pair of crazed rockfowl. ‘Course you weren’t exactly grace itself after you ran out of—”

"Dax!”

Rina’s shout came across the ship’s comlink with no lessening of its fer­vor. Dax spun back to the command chair and hit the button.

"What’s wrong?”

"She’s gone crazy!”

"What?”

"We were just walking along and all of a sudden she went demented on me.”

Dax saw Roxton tense, and waved the older man back. "Did she hurt you?”

"Yes—no, not really.” Rina sounded confused. "She just stopped and re­fused to move. When I tried to grab her she did... something. It didn’t really hurt, but—”

"Where are you?”

"On the gangway from the sub-one deck.”

"On my way. Stay there.” He raised his voice. "Califa, you hurt her and I’ll sell you to the lowest bidder.”

He snapped off the comlink. It was a bluff, but the Arellian didn’t know he’d sell himself before another human being, such was his distaste for the whole system of enslavement. He just hoped the threat would hold her long enough for him to get there.

He grabbed his hand communicator, motioned to Roxton to follow him, and headed off the bridge at a run. Once clear of the bridge, he activated the small device.

"Nelcar! Meet me on the sub-one deck gangway. Bring something—we may have to sedate an Arellian.”

"Yes, sir.”

The snappy reply was a holdover from the young man’s days serving as medical officer aboard a Clarion transport, about the same time the Evening Star had been built on the industrious planet. But Nelcar and his ship had fallen to the Coalition just as his home world had, and the bloody process had cost Nelcar an eye, making him worse than useless to his conquerors. They had given him the choice of immediate execution or slave labor, and sent him off to die a slow death in a labor camp.

It was there Dax had found him and, despite the campmaster’s incredu­lity, had paid enough for the man to look the other way as he led the gaunt, half-blind young man out of Hades. He’d never regretted it.

Except when Nelcar’s deference brought back memories Dax would ra­ther keep buried. And buried deep.

When they reached the gangway, Dax slowed to a walk. The woman he knew only as Califa was leaning against the bulkhead, nonthreateningly, submis­sively slavelike, yet radiating a stubborn determination that reminded him of the fire he’d seen in her in the prison. For a reason he didn’t under­stand, since it was clear it meant nothing but trouble for him, he was glad to see it again.

Rina stood to one side, watching the Arellian warily. "It’s not my fault, Dax, really, we were just walking—”

"She speaks the truth,” Califa agreed. "She did nothing but try to follow your orders.”

Dax eyed her, one dark brow raised. "But?”

"I can go no further.”

His eyes narrowed. "Why?”

She crossed her arms across her chest, saying nothing. Dax noticed a faint sheen of sweat on her brow and upper lip, as if she were under great strain. Yet she would not speak. He smothered an exasperated sigh; females,he thought.

"You began willingly enough,” he pointed out.

"I can go no further,” she repeated.

Dax’s temper, always on a tight rein, snapped. "I should just dump you right back where I found you!”

"You cannot do that without risk to yourself.”

"It might be worth it to get you out of my way.”

"I can go no further.”

Dax swore. Nelcar joined them then, a boyish-looking young man on whom the eye patch he wore jarred. "Will you be needing this, sir?” he asked, gesturing with the medicator he’d prepared to Dax’s order.

"So it seems,” Dax said with a grimace. "Looks like we’ll have to carry her—”

"No!”

For the first time, Dax saw real fear in Califa’s eyes. Even when she had seemed beaten, defeated, there had been no fear. To see it now struck a deep, hidden chord in him. A woman afraid stirred up hideous thoughts, images that haunted his dreams far too often.

He forced his voice to steadiness. "Give me another choice.”

"You don’t understand—”

"Believe me, woman, I’ve been downwind, and you need a good soaking.”

She lowered her eyes. Had he embarrassed her? It didn’t seem possible, not the woman who had virtually forced him into helping her make her es­cape. Or had that woman been born only of desperation? Was this, the compli­ant slave, all that was really left?

"I know,” she said, so low only he was close enough to hear it, "but I—”

"—can go no further. So you’ve said. Why?” he asked again, this time in the voice of the commander, a voice he used rarely but to great effect.

Califa looked around a bit wildly, then turned her gaze back to him. "I... I’ll tell you. But only you.”

Roxton protested immediately. "Don’t do it, Cap’n. We don’t know who she is, or why she was in that stinking place. Could be she’s a murderer, or worse.”

"Puts her right on the level of the Coalition’s best, then, doesn’t it?” Dax remarked. "I think I’ll be safe enough.”

"Dax, no,” Rina put in. "She did something, pushed right here”—she ges­tured at her neck—"and I couldn’t move.”

Dax’s brows shot up once more. "The Daxelian clamp hold? This be­comes even more interesting.” He looked at the others. "Go.” When they protested, he added, "I’ll yell if I need help.”

"By then it may be too late,” Roxton grumbled.

"Then you’ll own the ship at last, won’t you, my friend?”

When they realized he was serious, they reluctantly left. Dax turned back to Califa. She was back in nearly the same position she’d been in when he’d arrived, but he got the impression that this time she was leaning against the wall for its support, not as a statement of her unconcern.

She closed her eyes, and Dax could have sworn she suppressed a shud­der. Was he so frightening, then? Or was it merely helplessness that made her shake? He had a feeling it was an emotion foreign to her. Had they all felt so helpless—his mother, his sister, all the women he’d known—when the end had come?

He recoiled from that line of thought as a muckrat dodges the kick aimed at its head. Don’t think of those women—think of this one, he ordered himself. You can do nothing for them, so deal with this one; she is the problem now. How long had she been a slave? What had she been before? Who was the woman he’d seen only glimpses of—tough, reckless, and brave to the point of foolhardiness?

"Well?” he said, folding his arms across his chest in an action that mim­icked her own.

"I... can’t go any further.” She held up a hand at the look he gave her at the repetition yet again of that phrase. "Because of this,” she said, gesturing at her throat, at the strip of his cloak that wound around it.

Dax’s brows furrowed in puzzlement. In response she tugged the cloth free to reveal the collar.

"The yellow light is glowing,” he said, certain it hadn’t been that way be­fore.

Califa laughed, a short, harsh sound. "I know.”

His gaze went back to her face. "Which means?”

"It’s activated when I reach my limit.”

"The light?”

"The yellow system.” She gave him a twisted, sour smile. "The pain sys­tem.”

Dax blinked. "You were right. I don’t understand.”

The smile, for the briefest instant, became a real one. In the moment be­fore it faded, Dax caught himself starting to smile back instinctively.

"The collar isn’t just worn... Captain.” She sounded as if she wasn’t sure what to call him, but he waved her to continue. "It’s implanted. With probes directly into the brain.”

Dax winced at the thought. "Probes to cause pain?”

"For control.”

He stared at her for a moment, nausea churning in his stomach at the evil simplicity of it. Her desperation, her fear made sense now, as did the sweat of pain on her face.

"The controller,” he said softly. She nodded. "That’s what you meant by your limit? Your distance from it?”

She nodded again. "It has a range. It was set for the length of the prison wing.”

"That’s why you had to take it with you.”

"Yes.”

"And why you can’t go any farther now. Because it’s on the bridge, in my cloak.”

She nodded.

"Can’t you change the range?”

"No. It takes a special seal to activate that system. Only Coalition offi­cials have them.”

"What are the other two systems? The red and the blue?”

"You don’t know?” Her eyes widened in apprehension, as if she were afraid the question would anger him. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to question you, I—”

Her fear irritated him. "Stop looking like you think I’m going to beat you or something.”

"It is the usual punishment for a slave who questions the master.”

His stomach knotted at her words. "I’m no one’s master,” he ground out. "I merely asked about the other crystals.”

"You truly do not know,” she said, and he wondered if that, too, would have been a question instead of an observation had she not been afraid—or too well trained?—to make it one.

"Forgive me for not being familiar with the details of Coalition enslave­ment,” he said, his repulsion at what had been done to her making his voice sharp. "I’ve been gone a long time. Please explain.”

At his tone, the wariness, the fear reappeared in her eyes. She hesitated, studying him. Suddenly, he understood. And his irritation faded away.

"Never mind. If I don’t already know, you’d be a fool to tell me.”

She gaped at him, clearly startled once more. "But if you order me to tell you, I must—”

"It would give me a power no one has the right to have.” He tried to shrug off his distaste for what she had told him, and said lightly, "I’m just sorry you didn’t explain this before. You’re lucky Rina didn’t try to knock you out and drag you the rest of the way. You are a little... pungent.”

"If she had,” Califa said, her tone grim, "it wouldn’t have mattered. We’d all be dead.”

Dax stared at her. "What?”

"I told you there’s a set limit. When you reach it, the pain system acti­vates. If you go past it... it blows up.”

Dax’s gaze shot down to the collar. "It’s explosive?”

"Very. The core is nitron propellant igniter.” Dax whistled, long and low. Califa’s mouth twisted into that acid smile again. "Yes. They call it permanent discipline.”

"Permanent is right,” Dax muttered. "It would take your head off, along with the top of this ship.” His gaze lifted to her face. "How long have you been... ?”

"A slave?” She laughed, that harsh, humorless sound again. "Over a year.”

He sucked in his breath. For her to have withstood this for a year and still have any spirit left at all, amazed him. She must have been a most amazing woman, before they began to try to break her. His gaze flicked to the collar once more.

"How do you get it off?”

"You don’t. Unless you happen to have a good laser surgeon handy.”

Dax shook his head. "Nelcar’s good at what he does, but he’s no sur­geon.” He might have become one, once. But the Coalition had put an end to that dream.

"Captain,” she began hesitantly.

"Dax,” he corrected. "Only Roxton calls me Captain, and only to irritate me.”

"Does it?”

He drew back a little, surprised by the question. She looked equally sur­prised that she’d asked it. "Yes,” he said after a moment.

"I wonder why,” she said.

It was a rhetorical enough question—or another question safely phrased as an observation—that he didn’t try to answer. That he didn’t deserve that or any other title was not something he wanted to discuss with this woman, a stranger. When he didn’t speak after a long moment, she did.

"Dax... would you...”

She stopped, biting her lip, her eyes lowered. He wanted to snap at her, to tell her to show some of the spirit he’d seen before. But he restrained him­self, and kept his voice even.

"Am I so frightening that you can’t ask a simple question?”

As if unconsciously, her hand crept to her throat, to finger the gold band. Her eyes met his. "It is... the first thing they train us in. A slave never ques­tions, never looks, never thinks...”

Train. Not teach, but train, Dax thought. Like an animal. "I am no one’s mas­ter,” he repeated. "Ask what you will.”

"I... would you... give me the controller?”

His first instinct was to say yes, to show her he meant what he’d said, that no one should have that kind of power over another being. But he had more than just himself to think of. He had a ship, and a crew. He might not deserve the title, but he knew that crew looked to him as they would a captain. And trusted him.

He let out a long, weary breath. "I can’t, Califa. I don’t know you, or what you were in there for—”

"The usual Coalition assumption of guilt by association,” she said bit­terly.

"I’m sorry. But I can’t. I can’t risk the safety of my crew.”

For a long moment she just looked at him, and he had the oddest feeling that he had somehow hit upon the one argument that would work with her. Why it did, he didn’t know, but she only said stiffly, "Then you’d better stay upwind.”

"I didn’t say we couldn’t compromise. This is the range? From the bridge to here?” When she nodded, he did some quick figuring. "I’ll move it to my quarters.”

She inhaled quickly, her eyes widening.

"Something wrong with that? It’s just forward of amidships. You’ll have to share quarters with Rina, but you’ll be able to go anywhere forward of the weapons stations, and aft of the bridge. You get half the ship, and I get to sleep at night.”

She relaxed, as if she’d misunderstood what he’d meant at first, although he didn’t see how. But then, he was still trying to figure out why his reference to the safety of his crew had quieted her arguments.

"All right. I... thank you.”

He had the feeling that hadn’t been easy for her to say. "Wait here. I’ll send Rina back when I’ve moved the controller.” He gave her a sideways look. "You will take a soak, won’t you?”

"With pleasure,” she said, giving him a real smile that echoed the glimpse he’d seen earlier. She could, he thought in surprise, be passable-looking under all that grime.

He turned to call for Roxton, who was, if he knew him, waiting just out of sight beyond the next bulkhead. Before he could, Califa spoke again softly.

"Dax?”

It sounded quite different from the first time she’d said his name, besides just the volume, but he wasn’t sure exactly why. He looked back over his shoulder at her.

"I... thank you for taking me with you.”

His mouth quirked. "Did I have a choice?”

"No, I suppose not. But neither did I.”

"So you said.”

"They were going to ship me to Ossuary. Because I wasn’t... cooperat­ing.” He saw the shudder again, and her instant effort to control it. "I know what happens there.”

"So do I,” Dax said softly.

He had seen the place, when he’d taken Nelcar out of the labor camp next to the infamous prison. Huge, hulking, dark, and ugly, the screams ech­oed from its walls day in and day out. It was where those worn-out or useless to the Coalition were sold, where the stubborn were broken, the proud crushed. He’d never been so glad to leave a place in his ion trail.

"I had to do it,” she said.

"I suppose you did.”

"I knew if you were half the man the girl said you were, you would pull it off.”

He lifted a brow at her. "Was that a compliment?”

"If you wish.” She raised a brow at him in turn. "I’ve never seen a weapon like that crossbow you used.”

His face lost all expression. "And you probably never will again.” He turned his back on her then, and shouted for Roxton. As he’d expected, the man popped out from behind the next bulkhead, grinning.

"Stay with her until Rina gets here,” he ordered, and walked away with­out looking back.

 

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