A royal alien warrior. Intergalactic traffickers hunting to recapture his fated bondmate. A surprise baby that will bring them together, or tear them apart.
Tai'ri rubbed the phantom ache in his wrist. There was no scarring, the embedded manacles from his months’ long imprisonment were healed.
“When a great evil has been done to you, you can still choose to move forward,” Bdakhun Ibukay said.
Her narrow face and intent eyes reflected in the panoramic windows that gave the medical suite a one hundred and eighty degree view of the city at night. Fliers whizzed by; singles, doubles, and late night ground transports. Pedestrians traversed air walks between buildings, the city transparent below their feet nearly four hundred meters down.
Tai'ri turned. “I want jokdaht.” He met her gaze head on, aware a layer of his customary deference was forever burned away.
“Jokdaht would not be the wisest course,” a deep, cultured voice said, entering the suite through doors that shimmered open silently.
Vykhan, the Bdakhun’s Head of Security, glided forward, a gray cloak moving around his body as if currents of air flowed underneath. Long black hair streaked with feathery silver was confined in a tight braid. He watched Tai'ri with calm, expressionless eyes. Not unfeeling, simply Silent.
Tai'ri had never met a warrior more in a master of his emotions than Vykhan—one day he hoped to be worthy of Adekhyun Numair’s presence, but this was not that day. Not until he achieved the same control, but for now shoving his feelings and impulses inside a sealed silver box in his mind would have to suffice.
Feelings and impulses urging him to seek vengeance. No—justice.
“Do you deny I have the right to hunt, to take vengeance?” Tai'ri stuffed down his flash of anger, an unfamiliar emotion he almost didn’t know how to handle. Even before Vykhan, his mother had taught him to allow his fiery bursts to flow through him. Over the years he had mastered the flow to the point where those who did not know him—and even thouse who did—would insist if asked that he was a quiet, diffident mannered male.
“There are more important problems to resolve. You suffered.” He shrugged. “Suffering is life.”
“Vykhan,” Ibukay interrupted, lips pressing together. She then sighed, shoulders relaxing. “Maybe we should give him some time.”
“Does the female have time?”
Ibukay winced. Vykhan never argued. Logic, he would say, was its own argument.
“What female?” Tai'ri asked. He had been . . . gone . . . for several months. He stiffened. “My sisters—my mother? Has something happened?”
Vykhan slashed a hand. “Your family is well. Did you think I would not watch over them during your absence?”
Tai'ri lowered his head, stifling his wince. “Of course not. Forgive me.”
The other male relented. “You have been through difficulty, and you are sane. I sense no permanent Disquiet in you. Some indulgence is allowed. If it were not for the circumstances, we would not trouble you at this time.”
“I am fit for duty.” He did not scowl, but it was close.
Ibukay inhaled, then let the breath out in a heavy sigh. She lifted her gaze to the ceiling, a certain sign she was about to deliver bad news. “You know you weren’t the only inhabitant of the pens.”
“Yes, I know. I heard others.”
Other people, male and female, Yadeshi and alien, in the pens that imprisoned them all, awaiting sale to buyers on the dark market or worse. He had infiltrated the traffickers’ pod after months of investigation and gotten caught in the web.
It had taken months to break out and send a distress beacon, and during those months . . . bile rose in the back of his throat. He closed his eyes and allowed the words to flow.
A voice rose in time with his, the chant clearing his mind and reclaiming his calm. He would never be Silent—he did not have Vykhan’s calling for it, but the Adekhyun had trained every person on his team in the basic precepts and chants. Necessary in Tai'ri’s line of work, when going undercover often meant becoming someone else. Which meant he must be able to completely clear his mind, wipe it clean.
Tai'ri opened his eyes, Vykhan and Ibukay falling silent once they saw his mind was present again. He nodded to indicate he was ready to resume the conversation. Vykhan eyed him with no condemnation, and the Bdakhun resumed speaking.
“There were several females. Human females,” she said. “Several of them are pregnant.”
Tai'ri stiffened, a hiss escaping his teeth. His incisors ached briefly, but did not release. “My sister would offer them all care in her birthing center.” He made the offer on his sister’s behalf, knowing she would honor it. The mission of their family was to facilitate every female’s desired birth experience.
“Her center is the best in the Province,” Ibukay said. “I thank you for the offer, Tai'ri. We will communicate it to the females.” Now she hesitated, exchanging a glance with Vykhan.
“How much do you recall of what was done to you?” Vykhan asked.
Tai'ri controlled his body’s physiological response. Faint perspiration, a tremble of adrenaline through his limbs as his muscles tensed for battle. Ached for battle. He had had to allow himself to be rescued. There had been no cleansing fight, no blood. Little honor.
“There were times I was not conscious.” Something had been done. The antiseptic scent of a low tech medical bay assaulted his nostrils as he woke after fumes released into his pens rendered him unconscious.
Ibukay sighed and took a seat on the divan in the center of the room. Her shoulders slumped in an uncharacteristic display of weariness. A Bdakhun, youngest daughter of their Province ruler and trained to a level of poise and control at all times. Something troubled her.
Tai'ri approached, crouching in front of her. “What is wrong, yadoana? You need not trouble yourself for me.”
He had protected and obeyed this female since she was a small girl and Vykhan first recruited him. She was as dear to him as any of his own sisters by blood, though he would never be familiar with her in a way that would disrespect her rank over him. But it was not in him to simply ignore a female’s distress.
She looked up, a sheen glittering in her eyes. Her cropped shoulder length hair was more tousled than usual, something he had not noticed until now, and her face was thinner.
Tai'ri’s brows drew together. He glanced up at Vykhan. “Has she not been eating? Who has been caring for her?”
Vykhan gave him a look, and Tai'ri subsided.
“It’s not his fault,” she replied hotly. “And you know what a nag he is. We’ve been looking for you for months. We thought you were—” she stopped talking, composed herself and straightened her back. “Tai'ri . . . they took your seed.”
The words made no sense. “What?”
“The times you were unconscious and awoke in a med bay,” Vykhan said, a flash of something akin to pity in his eyes. Not quite a pity, because his precepts would not allow it. Not when life was always to be celebrated. If one lived, there was hope. “That must have been when they operated on you. Your genetic material was extracted and used to impregnate at least one human woman. We don’t think more than one. The others have undergone testing as well.”
Tai'ri did not move, staring at him as if he was speaking an earth language. Or hissing like one of the odd snake warriors. “I don’t understand.”
She reached out and took his hand, gaze soft with compassion. “You are the genetic father of an unborn halfling, Tai'ri. One of the females who was imprisoned in a pen near yours.”
Vykhan was at his side in a flash, kneeling. “Breathe, Adekhan.”
He began the chant and Tai'ri grasped the words. They slid through his mind like water through open fingers, but he caught them and held on for life as he knew it as the words penetrated, settled into his gut.
Incandescent joy. Black, searing grief.
The chant crashed through his mind, Vykhan initiating a mental link as he rarely did. Established during training, it enabled their Adekhyun to guide them when mere words and demonstrations would not do. It only worked in proximity.
When Tai'ri returned to himself, he realized he was grasping Vykhan’s hand, crushing it under the strength of his emotions. Vykhan said nothing, ignored what must have been searing pain as bones creaked.
“You have a few choices to make,” Ibukay said from several feet away. She must have moved, or Vykhan must have moved her, when Tai'ri blanked. Her warriors were devoted to her, but each of them was dangerous when not in control. Despite Haeemah’s Precepts of non-violence, they were all trained to kill.
“There is only one choice,” Vykhan said.
“Vykhan.” Steel in her tone.
“Does the female have a choice?” Vykhan asked pointedly.
“Yes, yes she does. She does not have to carry the child to full term.”
Vykhan stood, facing their Bdakhun. “She is already full term. In human gestation she will give birth in four to six weeks.”
Tai'ri rose, feeling like an old warrior, but straightened his shoulders and waited until the feeling of being repeatedly punched in the stomach resided.
“Has she . . . has she asked for an induction?” He had to recall the term. Technology had all but eradicated the need for such procedures centuries ago. But consdiering his family’s genreations long calling, he understood mroe than most males about such things. “They are so small at this stage.” So small. His baby yadoana had barely fit in the palm of his hand, half-formed, perfect limbs as fragile as brittle stems. Eyes that never opened. First tears never shed. A voice never raised in an angry cry.
She had been silent when she slipped into the world, and silent when she slipped away again.
Tai'ri made a sound, but controlled himself immediately. There was no time for old grief. No time for the old, aching guilt. He normally had better control than this. What was wrong with him? This was not the first time a mission had cost him. He’d been tortured, beaten, enslaved . . . none of it had touched his heart until now.
“Tell me about the female,” he said. A cool sheet of calm slithered over him as he focused. He had not been able to save that child. He would save this one, even from its own mother if need be.
Ibukay spoke after a moment. “She is from Earth, human. We don’t know the circumstances of her abduction yet, she hasn’t been willing to go into detail and I—I don’t want to press her, or any of the others until they are ready.”
“We need that intel,” Tai'ri said. “We need to know how the traffickers are operating. They’ve changed methodology again, that was how I made a mistake.”
“We will know in time. In the immediate present, the mental health of the aliens is more important. Especially while pregnant.” Tai'ri nodded, and she continued. “She is young for a human, the tests we ran show her to be around thirty to thirty five Earth years.”
“I know,” Ibukay said.
“She has opted not to return to Earth at this time,” Vykhan said. “We can place her in the shelter with the other females, but as we know the identity of the genetic father of her child, I thought you would wish to be informed so you can make more suitable arrangements. Naturally.”
“Whatever he decides is the most suitable arrangement, Vykhan,” Ibukay said, expression darkening. “You will not bully him into doing what you think is right.”
Vykhan was unmoved, simply stared at Tai'ri. “I know what this means to you.”
Tai'ri sighed. “It is not my choice. It is hers.”
Vykhan sniffed. “The human female is in no condition to make these kinds of decisions.”
“Vykhan,” Ibukay growled.
“This is a second chance,” Vykhan said, gaze unwavering.
Tai'ri rubbed his sore stomach, the words another verbal knife. A chance to redeem himself for the pain he had caused in the past. A chance to replace the life he had lost.
“I will not coerce her. But if she wishes to keep the child, they will have a home with me. If she wishes to birth the child and give it away, I will take my son or daughter. That is my right, no matter how it was conceived.”
Ibukay nodded. “That much we can give you, even if she decides to induce birth now. The child is developed enough that it would survive. But I don’t think that’s the choice she will make. I’ve spoken with her some.”
“May I see her?”
“I already asked, and she agreed to a meeting if you wished it.”
“You will have four months of leave,” Vykhan said. “That will give you time to acclimate your female and child to their new home. There are—”
A beep sounded, first on Vykhan’s comm unit and then a split second later on Ibukay’s. The Bdakhun glanced at the incoming message and cursed. She whirled, Vykhan at her heels.
The doors shimmered open, letting in the blaring sound of the med bay alarm. Tai'ri knew that sound, knew it in his bones. Someone was dying.
He ran after them, propelled by instinct.
One look at Ibukay’s face and he knew.
A human woman lay pale in a bed surrounded by the normally silent tech and medics who, with the calm urgency of emergencies, tried to stabilize her.
“You can’t be here,” someone told him. Tai'ri snarled.
Ibukay glanced at the medic who subsided, then snapped, “Don’t get in the way,” muttering something under her breath about ‘royals’.
Straight dark hair, a face of strange skin the color of his mother’s spicy sweet herbal tea. And under the sheet, a swollen belly.
“She’s seizing again.” Someone cursed. “I don’t understand these vitals. Where are the downloads? I can’t do my job without data!”
“Fetal tones dropping,” another medic said in a monotone.
“We should have put her in a tube. Why are we providing manual care?”
“You can’t tube a gravid alien, newbie. Who authorized residents on this floor? Get out.”
“Order an emergency surgical birth. And get me those downloads!”
Tai'ri stepped forward, not thinking, not even feeling, propelled by a fierce need to do something after months of being able to do nothing. The marks on his arms flared to life as he seized the female’s wrist.
“Oh shit,” someone said. “What the fuck is he doing here? What are you doing?”
His marks split, flaring to life. He didn’t question it. Perhaps they recognized his blood in the child, nestled inside this woman and about to leave the world before he even had a chance to hold this one in his arms. Not again. Never again.
“Well, fuck me, it’s stabilizing. Blood pressure dropping back to its baseline.”
“She, you fish bait. We can’t call aliens ‘it’ anymore, remember your sensitivity training?”
“I didn’t know the marks could do that with an alien.”
“Oh, Goddess. Where have you been? Why do you think . . . .”
Tai'ri tuned their bickering out, his grip on the female unbreakable. It could not be a bond, not quite, because mate bonds required consent and intention. But perhaps the marks recognized the need for healing and acted in response.
He held her wrist long after the newly formed marks had slithered up her slender arms and settled into grayish blue strokes onto her skin. Her skin stopped looking gray—not a good color for humans, he recalled—and her strained breathing and thrashing eased.
Her eyes opened once, dark and fathomless, then closed.
“The baby?” he asked.
“Heart tones normal,” a medic said. “You saved their lives. Congrats.”
“That’s the father,” someone whispered in a hushed tone. “He initiated a bond.”
“Great. We can finally fill out the damn forms then.”
Tai'ri let go of her finally, stumbling back. Vykhan caught him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.
“Well done,” he murmured, releasing him once Tai'ri was certain his knees would not collapse.
When she woke, they would speak. But staring down at the bed, at the sleeping, vulnerable female, he knew he could not coerce her into making the decision that was already made in his heart.