Retirees in Space (part 2)

Here’s Part 2 of Retirees in Space (originally published in Locothology 2013, an anthology about pirates). You can find Part 1 here.

Retirees in Space (part 2)

by Anne Marie Lutz (copyright 2013)

 

Hearing returned first. Familiar voices – Milla’s frightened tones, strained with tears, and Mike’s blustery objections to something. The carpet on the deck – carpet! On a ship’s deck! That was Iker’s conceit – scratched at Grun’s arm. Then awareness returned, and Grun barely stopped herself from rolling and grabbing for her gun.

Still, she must have moved. A foot prodded at her.

“Your pet soldier is awake,” a voice said. It was the same voice she had heard on the comm from the pirate ship. Grun blinked and sat up, coiled and ready. Her eyes searched for her energy gun and found it on the deck across the cabin. There were three strangers in the cabin, and one of them had a blaster aimed directly at Grun’s forehead.

The post-stun headache pounded behind Grun’s eyes. She was surprised they hadn’t just killed her – perhaps they had a use for a pilot.

“Don’t move,” said the voice, lilting with a spark that led Grun to think this was a man who loved what he did for the thrill of it. His dark eyes betrayed an unexpected humor as he stared down at her. His military-style boot rested on her ribs.

“I want up,” she said.

He nodded. “Slowly.” He backed off a little, blaster ready. Grun rose with a slowness born of caution and also of her aching ribs.

Hi, Milla and Iker sat at the table, under guard. Mike lay on the deck, out cold. The pirate leader saw her watching Mike and said: “He’s alive. Old fool tried to jump me. Might have done it thirty years ago, but not today.”

The rest of the cabin was in a shambles. Storage compartments spewed supplies everywhere. A bag of emergency rations had split open, trailing algae meal down the side of the bulkhead. As Grun watched, there was a thump from one of the sleeping cabins and someone inside threw a ball of rolled-up clothing out into the passageway.

“Nothing here, Jay!” yelled a woman’s voice from the sleeping cabin. She put her head out the hatch to glare at Grun’s pirate. “Not so much as a gold bracelet. Waste of time!”

“Not like we were gonna do anything else,” Jay said. He scratched at the stubble on his jaw. “Where’s the cash then, folks? People your age don’t run around between star systems with just cereal and a few extra clothes, do ya now? Where’s the cash? Where’s the prescription drugs? I know ya’ve got ’em.”

Iker said, “I could pay you to leave us alone.”

“Now you’ve got the idea.” Jay waved his blaster at Iker, who seemed unmoved. Grun tensed, but another pirate growled at her: “Be still.”

“You,” Jay said. His eyes narrowed at Iker. “Get up. Show us the safe.”

Iker nodded. “It’s in the sleeping cabin.”

Milla sobbed and clutched at his arm. “He’s just going to kill us and take the ship anyway!”

The woman in Milla’s room said, “Don’t trust us, do you? Sad. Send him in, Jay. You’re a handsome old man, aren’t you? Must’ve been a looker when you were young?” She held a gun steady as Iker and Milla preceded her into the sleeping cabin.

Grun’s mind twisted through scenario after scenario. She wondered if they would really just take the money and go, leaving this expensive little space yacht behind them. She didn’t think so. After the passengers had given away the location of any safes or secret compartments, she thought they would be tossed out the airlock so the pirates could take over.

She saw the exact moment when Jay’s dark gaze fixed on Hi.

“You,” he said. “What’s that around your neck?”

“Nothing.” Hi appeared sharp and alert. Grun recognized that look from combat training. Hi was ready for anything.

“Nothing, hell. You’ve got something good there. What is it, a special necklace? Hand it over.” The pirate stalked over to the table and put a hand at Hi’s silk collar and pulled it aside. “Shit!”

The alien rippled from Hi’s neck, lightning fast. It flowed up onto Jay’s wrist before the pirate could let go of Hi’s collar. It stretched, elongated, encased Jay’s hand, wrist, forearm.

The pirate leaped back. “Holy hell, what is it? Get it off!” He dropped his energy gun, trying to peel the alien off with his other hand. In just seconds, it glistened in a mucous mass up Jay’s neck to his mouth.

Everyone was watching Jay. Grun scrambled across the deck, grabbed her energy gun and got off one blast at one of the pirates. The man dropped dead before he sprawled to the deck. The other pirate swore and fired. Fire seared the edge of Grun’s arm, burning up her shoulder. The arm fell limp, but she was still alive. She squeezed the trigger one more time and the other shooter screamed and crashed to the deck.

Blackness tinged Grun’s vision, but she could still see that Jay had collapsed. He was enveloped in a sleeve of clear-and-rose alien, which had somehow grown and thinned to cover his entire body. Jay thrashed. His face through the distorting film of the alien’s body was purpling with hypoxia and grotesque as he fought uselessly against something that gave with his every blow.

Iker walked out of his cabin. There was no sign of the pirate he had gone in with. “This one’s dead,” he said. His voice seemed just as calm as usual. “I have her gun. Shall I – ?”

“Shoot,” Grun forced out. She could no longer see clearly enough to shoot. In fact, she was not sure she was even holding her weapon. “Kill it.”

Iker raised the weapon.

Hi sprung to her feet and leapt between Iker and the fallen pirate. “No, no! Leave it alone!”

Milla emerged from the sleeping cabin and sank to her knees at Grun’s side. Through the haze of faintness that cushioned her perception, Grun noticed that Milla was smeared with blood. The older woman held one of the emergency med kits. After a moment’s fumbling with wrappers and seals, Milla administered an injection of the pain medication. Then she wrapped a cool gel bandage around Grun’s forearm.

After a moment of almost indescribable relief, Grun’s thoughts sharpened. “Why not kill it, while it’s uh, otherwise occupied?” she gritted out to Hi.

“Because that’s not part of the deal! It won’t hurt us now. It has what it wants.”

“Holy God,” Mike grumbled as he sat up, holding his head. “What in hell can it want, Hi? And I never thought about divorce before, I swear I didn’t, but after this day – ”

“I love you, too,” Hi said. She bent over the twisting form of the alien-encased pirate. The man’s face had turned almost black.

Grun spared a moment’s hazy regret for the loss – he had been a beauty – but then wrenched herself back to reality.

“What does it want, Hi,” Milla pleaded. “Tell us for God’s sake!”

“Genetic material,” Hi said. “Human DNA. And not ours, it agreed, and not from the humans on Forst or the tourists it depends on.”

“What in hell is it going to do with human DNA?”

Hi stood up and took a deep breath, as if she were letting go of stress. She rubbed the skin of her neck and shoulder. When her hand came away, Grun saw her skin speckled with little dots, each one a clotted tiny wound where the alien had clung.

“It took your blood,” Iker said. “It had your DNA. Why go to this extreme?” he gestured at Jay, who had fallen still.

“The alien swore to the ambassador it would not hurt me, but it has to have some means of staying alive.” Hi drew her silk collar over the abraded skin. “I am fine. It took nothing but a little blood.”

“But what does it need to consume that pirate for?”

“DNA,” Hi said. She sounded impatient, and finally a little shell-shocked. “Its species needs the DNA. It will take it back to Forst, to the containment zone.”

Mike put a beefy arm around her shoulders. “Leave her alone now. Can’t you see, she’s exhausted?”

“We’re stranded.” Iker looked at Grun. “Is there anything you can do about the navigation or communications back to Forst?”

Grun nodded. “Now that I have time.” The gel bandage and the shot had dulled the pain. She felt lightheaded from the drug, but there was no choice. She accepted Iker’s help back to the helm. The first thing she did was scan for the pirate craft, but sensors showed nothing nearby.

“Huh,” Grun said. “I think they left someone aboard, and they scrammed as soon as they realized there were problems.”

“Just as well,” Iker said. “Here, Milla has brought some hot tea for you.”

Grun sipped it and winced. It was loaded with sugar, cloying on her tongue. “I don’t like – ”

“I know. But you need it right now. Where will we be if you faint, and we’re left here with no comm or propulsion in the middle of nothing?”

“Hi knows how to work the comm,” Grun said. “Mike knows something about the drive.” A few minutes later, she had figured out what the accomplice at Forst Control had done to their ship. She entered code to free the comm. As soon as she began sending their location and a mayday, the comm spat a stream of gibberish that resolved into a frantic voice. It did not sound like the voice of Forst Control.

“Forst Control to Ramblin’ Days – ”

“This is Ramblin’ Days.” Grun winced again at the name Mike had saddled the little yacht with.

“Forst Control to Milla. Where’s Milla?”

Grun laughed. “Must be the ambassador. The old boyfriend,” she said to Iker. Then: “This is Captain Grun. We are fine, need a little medical attention but all are well. We need assistance in debugging our nav computer and yeah, also in transporting some dead pirates.”

There was a babble of confused voices and Forst Control came back online, cool and professional. “Pinpointing your location and sending rescue. What is the status of the pirate vessel?”

“Gone, but we have four of them here, three deceased and one – on storage,” Grun said. She raised her eyebrows at Iker, who shrugged. He didn’t know what to say about Jay either.

“Warning to Forst Control,” Grun added. “The pirates had planetside assistance. Someone capable of uploading course changes and weapons programming from Forst Control.” More than likely they’d done it themselves in order to appease the alien parasites and to kill a few pirates, but the diplomatic approach seemed prudent, now that Grun needed their help.

After the flurry of acknowledgments, Grun locked down the helm and went back to the main cabin. The pirate leader lay like some grotesque biology experiment on the deck, but someone had pushed him off to the side. Hi and Mike sat close together on the couch, and Milla’s voice contributed a jittery background as she ran through her feelings about the pirate attack, trying to relieve her stress.

“Milla, come here,” Iker said. “Enough now, you can tell the officers later.”

“They damn well better honor Hi as a hero of Forst,” Mike blustered, a drink in his hand. “She saved the alien species!”

“By helping them evolve, yes, dear,” Hi said.

“And they could fund a day at the casinos. That would be a nice mark of appreciation as well, don’t you think?” Iker said. “Milla rather likes the slots.”

Hi yawned behind one delicate hand. “Now I think I am very tired, and Grun needs to sit down. Would someone get my origami kit? Will you, Iker? I find it calms my nerves, to focus on detail.”

Iker bowed. “At your service.”

Grun settled with her feet up and the voices of her passengers droning in her ears – about origami, Iker thinking out what this would do to the tourist industry on Forst and the price of stock, and Mike looking for a vid of a football game in the locker under the couch, which had somehow escaped being looted. Grun smiled. Heroes of Forst, indeed. All ready for a nice meal, after the rescue ship came, and perhaps a nip of something before bed.

END

This was originally published in Locothology 2013, a pirate-themed anthology. A link to the Kindle version of the anthology is here.

Retirees in Space (part 1)

(This short story was originally published in the pirate-themed anthology, Locothology 2013. I’ll be re-publishing it here in two parts.)

Retirees in Space (Part 1) 

by Anne Marie Lutz (copyright 2013)

When Grun heard the shout from the main cabin, at first she thought Mike was watching another ball game. The man tended to get loud when he watched football, no matter that the games were old ones, long decided, transmitted to them after they had exited hyperspace. The man would turn on the vid in the main cabin and bellow at the teams as if he were still on Earth and the players could actually hear him.

Then she heard it again, and it was definitely a scream.

Grun leaped up from the pilot’s chair. She caught herself before she snapped the order to transfer command to a junior officer. Old habits died hard, and it was easy to forget this was a luxury yacht, in port on Forst, not the hard metal deck of the Defender.

She slammed through the hatch into the passenger cabins, her hand on the grip of her energy weapon.

Mike was backed up against the bulkhead, his usually-florid face drained of color. His wife, Hi, stood before him, wearing her silk pajamas. An odd lump bulged under the neck of her pajama top.

Grun squinted at it, unsure what was going on.

Mike saw her. “Kill it!” His voice rose, broke.

“No!” Hi shouted. She held up her hands, palms out, toward Grun. “Put it away, put the gun away!”

The odd lump wiggled, shifting the collar of Hi’s robe in a shimmering pattern. Something almost transparent moved, tinged with tendrils of pink, like blood dissipating in clear water.

“Holy hell!” Grun recognized it from the tour of the planet. The things were supposed to be contained, locked up behind a force field in a sanctuary where they could do no harm. Now here was an actual alien parasite on little Hi’s neck. Grun looked around for something to use, to pry the obscene thing from Hi’s body.

“Grun, stop. I’m all right.” Hi did not appear to be wounded or dying.

Grun blinked.

If anything, Hi appeared exasperated. “Would you quit your shrieking, Michael? We’ll have the others in here.”

Grun hesitated. She kept the gun trained on the alien. She could never risk killing Hi, but if the creature moved Grun would be ready. Voices came from behind her as the remaining occupants of the yacht filed into the cabin.

“Before you send it into defense mode, don’t panic!” Hi said.

“My God, you’ve done it again, woman,” Mike growled. His voice had descended to its usual register. He slid along the bulkhead, reaching for the drink he’d left on the table. “I need a drink. What have you done now?”

Iker’s dignified head peered around the corner. He blanched and dropped the Interplanetary Markets he had been reading. “Jesus, Hi. What have you gone and done? Does the ambassador know? Milla, look what Hi has gone and liberated from the planet.”

Milla shrieked. “Hi, get it off you!”

Iker held his wife’s arm close. “She did it on purpose, Mill. I don’t know why.”

Milla’s voice shook. “I don’t approve, Hi. There’s a reason those things have been kept isolated for the last fifty years. Remember that awful infestation, behind the containment walls? What do they say about Earthers barging into other worlds’ affairs, as if we think we always know best?”

“Oh, Milla, don’t worry. I’ll explain. I promise I didn’t steal it to make a point.”

“I hope not, Hi.” Grun had gotten the idea there was no immediate danger and put her gun away. Her nerves still thrummed with battle-readiness. She was hired to be a pilot for Mama’s retired friends, earning some money while she recovered from her wounds. But it was perfectly clear, if unspoken, that Grun would be the last line of defense for these civilians should it be needed. She wished she knew if it were needed.

The alien still pulsed on Hi’s neck. It didn’t seem to be growing any redder, and Hi was behaving just as Hi usually did – just now earnestly describing to Milla how unfairly the aliens had been treated.

“Imprisoned on their own planet, Milla!” Hi argued. “They’re on a reservation, kept from communicating outside the walls, and kept from their only decent source of nutrients – ”

“Us!” roared Mike. “Go on all you like about unfairness. What were we supposed to do, let them eat us?”

Hi frowned at him. “They can eat any warm-blooded creature, Mike. They simply prefer more evolved life.” One hand went up to touch the alien’s skin. It dimpled slightly with the pressure of her fingers, like soft plastic filled with gel.

Grun shuddered.

“She means it isn’t our planet, Mike,” Iker said. He drew closer to Hi, his feet in rich slippers scuffing a little on the carpeted deck. “I assume the thing has eaten recently?”

“Seems so,” Grun said. “It’s apparently not hungry.”

“I’m perfectly safe,” Hi said. “The ambassador promised. And this creature is going to help us get the drop on the pirates.”

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Grun snapped a final acknowledgement to Forst Control and slammed a hand down on the communications console. “They’re refusing us clearance to return. Hi set us up!” she said to Iker.

“No surprise there.” Iker sat beside her with his slippered feet stretched out before him, lounging in the copilot’s seat as if he were in his den on Earth. “Hi is a force to be reckoned with.”

“I thought she was timid.” Grun turned her head, listening. There was no sound from the main cabin, where Mike was standing guard over Hi with Grun’s energy gun in one hand and a stiff drink in the other.

Iker sat looking at the vastness of space.

“Well, we can’t return to Forst and offload this thing,” Grun said. “I wonder if we can pry it off her and fling it out the main lock?”

“I think Hi would resist us. And who knows what the creature would do in such a case?”

Grun shuddered. “What do we know about these aliens, anyway?” She scanned the displays. Everything was green for departure. The yacht’s expensive drive hummed. Grun tapped in a code and stood.

“Oh, don’t go without me.” Iker rose with measured grace. He drew a hand through his silver hair and smiled, as if nothing that happened here disturbed him very much. “I want to be there for this.”

Hi sat at the table in the main cabin, drinking hot chocolate. The alien curled around her neck gleamed clear-and-pink.

Mike wavered in front of her. He brandished the energy weapon at Hi. “I don’t wanna have to do this,” he said. “But I will. Because I love you, that’s why.”

Grun grabbed the weapon and put it back in the holster at her belt. “Enough of that. Sit down. Where’s Milla?”

The other woman walked back into the cabin. “What’s happening?” She took hold of Iker’s arm and clung. Iker patted her ringed fingers and looked at Grun, for all the world as if he expected her to entertain him.

Grun sighed. “We can’t return to Forst. They’ve refused permission.”

“What if we return anyway?” Milla asked. “What do you think they would do? We’re just a group of old people on vacation. Can Forst afford to antagonize Earth by taking action against us?”

“There’s always Surra,” Hi said.

“They say those pirates use Surra. It’s off the itinerary as of last week. They’ve even played havoc with Forst’s routes,” Iker said.

“Someone needs to do something about it. Did you notice how empty everything was down there?” Hi asked. “The temples, the alien catacombs, even the gambling halls? Forst is a rich planet, but only because of people like us.”

“Tourists, young rich people on wanderjahr, retired people with money,” Iker said.

“No one was there. The pirates are preying on Forst’s lifeblood. They want them caught.” Hi stroked the alien with her forefinger. Grun wondered if there was more pink in its gut than there had been before. But Hi seemed perfectly all right.

“So send out a warship!” Mike blustered. “Who does that ambassador think we are?”

“Warships have done no good,” Iker said. “I was speaking with an old business acquaintance who retired here. The pirates don’t bother the warships, or even the smaller ships sent out to chase them down. Somehow they know what ships to hit. Stock in Forst’s pleasure industry is down by half since we left Merrose III.”

“Damn their money, this is my wife!” Mike said. Grun had been despising him, but at that she felt her expression soften.

Hi reached out a hand to Mike. “My dear, all will be well if we simply do as I have agreed.”

“And what’s that?” Grun said. “If you’ll pardon me, we have to choose a course. Forst is forbidding us docking privileges. We have to go. I could set a course back to Earth, but – ”

“No, no!” Hi said. “It takes too long. The alien will have to eat by then.”

Even Iker went pale at that.

“All right,” Grun said slowly. “I suppose that means we head to Merrose III, where the authorities can – ”

“No, no!” Hi protested. “We’ll go where we intended to go, to see the rainbow cliffs of Surra before they fall into the chasm.”

“Honey, we aren’t exactly on vacation anymore,” Milla said. She reached out to pat Hi’s hand. The creature around Hi’s neck stirred for the first time, a pulsing motion stilled in the blink of an eye. Milla pulled her hand back fast.

“I said we would.”

“Without consulting anyone?” Grun shook her head. “I know I’m just the pilot.”

“It is just like her, dear,” Iker said. “I am sorry we’ve put you in this position. Best go set a course for Surra.”

“We’re going to take down the space pirates, with one alien parasite?” Mike asked. His eyes showed white around the irises. Grun wondered how he had been married to Hi for so long and not expected something like this. But then, they had never been retired in space before, with no obligations to anyone but themselves. Perhaps Hi was different here than she had been at home, with her tech job in the city and her children.

“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” Grun said. “I’ll get us as close to Surra as possible on the jump. They can’t interfere with us in hyperspace, you know, and the jump coordinates are closely patrolled to protect against just this sort of thing. Unless Surra is actively involved with the pirates, we’ll be safe there. Then we can figure out what to do with the alien without hurting Hi.”

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Somehow, Grun was not surprised when the ship’s sensors blared a warning and dropped them out of hyperspace into the vastness between the stars. She hit the intraship comm. “We’re in normal space. Verifying our location. I’d prepare for problems if I were all of you.”

“Forced out of hyperspace? I thought that was impossible.” Milla’s voice shook.

Grun didn’t blame her at all. “I don’t see how. The route is well mapped. The drive was just maintained. There are no anomalies that would – ” A readout blinked red on the console, and Grun’s mouth twisted. “Unless, of course, Forst uploaded something to drop us out. The computer is saying it received programming while we were docked.”

“Those sneaky bastards!” Milla’s voice shook. “The pirates have an ally in Forst Control! Wait until I tell the ambassador. He’s never really gotten over me; he’ll nail that spy to the wall for me!” She twisted one carefully curled strand of hair in nervous fingers.

Grun told the ship’s computer to fire on the attacking vessel. There was no response but a series of flashing yellow lights. “Guns are unavailable,” Grun said. “Guess they disabled those, too.”

A red light flashed. “Proximity warning.” Grun hit the comm again. “Here they come!” She locked down the helm, put the hailing channel on comm and stood up, loosening her energy gun in its holster.

Milla vanished into the living quarters.

“Let us in, little piggy,” said a voice through the comm. “Give us what we want, and there’ll be no one hurt.”

Hi stood before the table in the main cabin, Mike flushed with tension and drink at her side. Iker and Milla were nowhere to be seen.

“Yes, let them in!” Mike said. “We’ll give them our money, and they’ll let us go on to Surra. My company can send us cash there.”

Milla poked her head out of her sleeping quarters. “Don’t listen. They’ll kill us and take the ship. Didn’t you pay any attention to the news while we were on Forst?”

The ship rocked to an impact off the bow. An alarm beeped on the bridge, transmitted over the ship’s comm. Grun winced.

“Let us in, sweet little yacht,” said the voice from the hailing frequency. “I won’t hesitate to blow a hole in you if you don’t let us dock. No loss for us, after all.” The voice hardened. “Let us in. Five minutes.”

Grun looked at Hi. She appeared as calm as ever. Hi had drawn her collar up to cover the alien. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would never know the horror she kept around her neck.

“I don’t know what the plan is,” Grun said to Hi. “But get ready. Our weapons are unavailable, and we have no choice.”

Hi nodded.

“Holy God,” Mike said.

“Go in the cabin, dear,” Hi told Mike.

The red-faced man shook his head. “Not leavin’ you, Hi.”

Hi’s face softened. Then she nodded at Grun. “Open the lock.”

Grun ordered systems to open the outer lock. The computer warned they were in deep space – “Confirmation requested” – and Grun overrode the safety.

“That’s more like it,” said the voice from the pirate vessel. “I’ll see you in just a moment. I’m warning you, we have plenty of weapons, and we’ll take out any of you who lifts a gun to us. Be smart now.” The channel closed.

It seemed forever while the lock cycled through. Grun flattened her back against the inner hull next to the airlock, sighting along her outstretched arm to her drawn energy gun. Still, she was undecided. Should she shoot and kill as many of the bastards as she could before they killed her? What good would that do the others? Tactics streaked through her mind as she waited. Then she shrugged to herself and squinted along the gunsight. She would not let Mama’s retired friends be taken without a fight.

The readout showed the lock was occupied. The pressure crept upward. Grun heard a sob from the direction of Iker and Milla’s cabin. The muscles in her side twinged where she had been wounded in her last action. Then the airlock hushed open.

Grun sighted, but no one came through the lock. Instead, a round metal thing rolled, fast, out on the deck. Grenade, Grun thought, then No … not in a pressurized cabin. As she stared after it, someone rounded the corner of the airlock, crouched to waist level, and fired at Grun. Bright light flashed in Grun’s eyes. Massive sound breached her eardrums. Blackness folded over her eyes, and she fell before she could fire at the boarding party.

Part 2 here

Daughter of the Righ — Part Three

This is the final part of my short story Daughter of the Righ, set in the fantasy world Righar where my novels Color Mage and Sword of Jashan take place. For more information on the novels, see the links at the bottom of this section or follow the links on the sidebar to the right. Here’s a link to Part One and Part Two.  Enjoy the story!

 

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Daughter of the Righ, Part Three

by Anne Marie Lutz, ©2014

 

After the servant left the parlor, Hira hurried to stand with her back to the papered wall to one side of the great carved doors.

The embers in the fireplace snapped at her as if they were alive. Outside in the entry hall, voices murmured. She heard the hollow sound of boot heels on the wooden floor, coming closer.

The great door swung open. A familiar voice began: “Lady Hira – ”

Hira swung out away from the door, which had concealed her, and leaped at Laikon. Her arm held strong as she aimed the dagger at his neck.

The sharp edge glanced off the gold Collar. Her wrist wobbled upward, the knife scraping Laikon’s chin before his hand grasped her wrist. Then her hand with the weapon was being borne down with iron strength.

Laikon flung her away. A shield like a skin of swirling color sprang into existence around him as magery sparked from his hands.

Hira felt a chair against the backs of her knees. She had been thrown back almost to the other side of the room. A muscle in her neck twanged in pain. She took a step away from the chair to face Laikon and the mage shield that enclosed him.

The knife felt slippery in her hand, as if she had drawn blood after all. She pushed back her shock and examined him. His neck was undamaged – she had missed the narrow span of skin that was unprotected by the Collar – but blood dripped from a cut on his chin. If it scarred, it would merely add to his rakish look. That was all the damage she had done.

Laikon’s breath was coming short. He raised his hand to daub at the cut on his chin. “Rather a disgrace, are you not? All that will change when you are my wife.”

“Why? If I disgust you so much?” Hira held on to the knife. The image of Brecon rose in her mind. She had failed to avenge him, who had lost his life for her. His killer stood before her in silks and jewels, unreachable behind his mage shield.

“Oh, you do not disgust me.” Laikon took a step forward.

Hira could not help herself – she stepped back until the chair hit the backs of her knees again.

The Collared Lord smiled. “You are fierce, and defiant, if misguided. Your spirit will make strong righ sons – color mages all. Also, you will not bore me in our chambers, I think.”

Hira forced down a shiver of fear. “I will not marry you.”

“All your objections simply make me more determined.” Laikon leaned back against the closed doors. There was no way out. The front windows opened upon the drive, but Laikon had guards there watching for Southern incursions. They would be equally happy to apprehend a runaway fiancee, she was certain.

“I won’t marry you. You killed my friend.” She heard her own voice and realized it sounded nothing more than petulant.

“I admire your loyalty. And your fire. But my girl, the weight of the world is arrayed against you in this. And you will breed fine sons, I think.”

Hira did indeed feel the weight of the world against her. The knife hilt still felt hot and slippery in her clenched hand, but she knew she could not reach him with it.

And if she killed him – what then? Laikon was a Collared Lord, a man at the highest peak of the nobility. If she killed him, the King would spare no resources to have her tracked and killed. Then he would strip her father of his lands and maybe even his Collar, dooming Harkold to a painful death.

She had no power. Just as Brecon had no power, slain for a fault he did not even commit. Just as Laikon’s cast-off concubines had no power, or families with influence to protest their deaths.

The wash of colors in Laikon’s mage shield blurred his features. His dark eyes, which had seemed so covetous before, now seemed to weigh her with curiosity.

“You could make me marry you, I suppose.” She admitted it. “Or I know His Majesty can force it, even if I somehow managed to convince my father. But will you keep that shield up at night, when we’re alone? Even in our bed?”

“I’ll tie you to the bed,” he snarled. “I need heirs from you, nothing more.”

“You can’t always be on guard.” She saw her opening and held the knife up before him. “I’m not a silly debutante, afraid to protect myself. Let me go.”

“You think I cannot keep a chit like you safe locked up?” Laikon smiled.

“So you plan to imprison me?” She thought she saw the way out. “Is this the way a daughter of the righ is treated?”

He shrugged. “I would prefer it otherwise, but I will do what I must.”

“My father won’t stand for it.”

He gave a bark of laughter, with no amusement behind it. “Your father, that weak gray man still in thrall to the memory of his dead wife? He is eager to be rid of you, my dear. He will not raise a hand to see you released from me. You must give up this misguided rebellion. It will not be so terrible, to be the wife of a Collared Lord.”

“But he will most certainly not put up with the daughter of that same dead wife, held in prison! Are you ready for war, my lord?”

There was an arrested look in the man’s eyes. The corner of his mouth drew downward. A war between two Collared Lords was not unheard of in Righan history. But such a war threatened the security of the kingdom. The King would do all in his considerable power to defuse such a conflict and make sure his mage lords were doing their bound duty of looking outward to protect against magical attack.

It was well within the King’s power to nullify a marriage.

“My lord,” she said. “I am more trouble for you than I’m worth. Let me go.”

“And show myself so weak that a girl like you can overcome me?”

“Is it weak to show human concern for the daughter of your righ neighbor? Is it contemptible to respect her, and release her when she requests it? I think showing a bit of human sympathy will earn you respect.”

He sighed, and did not speak for a moment. The shield shimmered and faded, energy retreating back into his hands. Hira twitched at the man’s sudden vulnerability, but forced herself not to move. He could destroy her with a thought, she knew.

“I see what you want me to do.”

“Your life will be a misery if you do not.”

“I see that.” A glimmer of humor sparked like color magery in his eyes. “You are indeed a Fury. I must admit I prefer not to do battle with my wife every day and night.”

“If you let me go now, I swear you’ll never see me again.”

“What, not even to avenge the merchant’s son?”

“I see it’s beyond my ability to reach you.” Hira took a breath and closed her eyes for a second, praying forgiveness from Brecon. “There are other ways to honor his memory.”

Laikon’s eyes narrowed. “I am to trust your word, I suppose.”

“It’s up to you.”

He raised his eyebrow. “So it is, then. I will send word to your father I have released you. What will you do? Go back and play loving daughter to a man who doesn’t want you around him?”

“What do you think?”

Laikon smiled. “I think you will not be seen anywhere around here again. I hope your lord father does not demand some kind of recompense for your loss.”

“He won’t.”

“You have won, then.”

“Is that what it is? With my home lost to me and my oldest friend dead?” Hira swallowed the urge to weep. “You have an odd idea of winning, my lord.”

“I suppose. I am a Collared Lord, after all.” Laikon gestured toward the door. “You may go. You may be satisfied in whatever odd place you end up, that you have earned my respect. A rare thing for any woman.”

“It will be no comfort,” she tossed back at him. “Respect is only valued as well as the one who gives it.”

Laikon smirked. “Ah. You had better go, quickly. I could still change my mind.”

Hira cut a wide circle around him as she went to the door.

“Goodbye, my lord. Do not forget the message to my lord father.”

“I will not. I am eager to see his reaction,” Laikon said. The smile that twisted his face then was not a pleasant one. “Now go. Your horse is still out front. You may tell the groom I allowed you to leave.”

Hira slipped out of the room. She ran down the wide front steps to where the groom held her horse.

“My lady,” the groom said. He looked nervously up at the parlor window. “Should you be leaving? Should I – ”

“You should take this,” Hira said, slipping a coin into his hand. “All is well. My lord has allowed me to go.”

“But you should have an escort,” the man said. “Lord Harkold would not permit you to go unattended.”

Hira accepted a leg up into the saddle. The pack she had put together that morning sat on the mare’s rump, loaded with supplies.

“Thank you, but no,” she said. She gathered the reins and nudged the horse forward with her heels. The mare tossed her head as Hira guided her down the lane. The dark woods in the distance beckoned, unknown and dangerous. There were no righ in those woods, and no protection. Hira’s hand felt for the dagger strapped to her belt. Her heart lifted as she rode into the wilderness.

 

The End

 

Color Mage and Sword of Jashan are available from Amazon and other online booksellers. Here’s a link to the Kindle editions: Color Mage and Sword of Jashan. Hira Noh appears in Sword of Jashan, which takes place about twenty years after the events of this story.

The image used throughout this story is ©Elizabeth Lutz, used with permission.

 

Daughter of the Righ — Part Two

This is Part Two of my short story, Daughter of the Righ — set in the same fantasy world as my novels Color Mage and Sword of Jashan. Part One was posted yesterday. For links to the novels, please see the sidebar. Here’s a link to Part One.

 

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Daughter of the Righ, Part Two

by Anne Marie Lutz, ©2014

 

Brecon’s father had long gone. She did not know what Harkold had ordered done with him; she hoped her father had shown some compassion to a man who was grieving over the loss of his only son. Silence hung over the manor house. Hira could not stop thinking about Brecon and about the terrible mistake her father had made.

But it was really Lord Laikon who had ordered this done. Hira knew her father, weak and submerged in old patterns of grief for her dead mother, slave to the demands of the Collar the King had placed on him when he was a young man. He lived half out of the world, which was why Hira had been free to live as she chose instead of how society dictated she should be raised.

Harkold would never have gone so far. It was Laikon who would pay.

A board creaked outside her door. There was a guardsman there, and another on the muddy grass below her window. She was a prisoner.

She peered out of the window to see the guardsman Anulf, who had been her companion around the estate. He was devoted to her. Perhaps she could convince him to turn away as she fled. But then, what would Lord Laikon do to the man?

Voices murmured outside her door. It opened to admit a woman in her middle years. Her face was masked with powder, and her hair dressed with the same kind of sparkling jewels that adorned her bodice.

Hira met the visitor’s compassionate blue eyes. All her anger dropped from her. “Aunt Silva!”

The door closed and Lady Silva Mar opened her silk-clad arms and welcomed Hira into her embrace.

“I’ve missed you, Aunt Silva,” Hira said. Her voice shook.

“I do not know why Harkold did not summon me sooner,” Silva replied. She released Hira and handed her a delicate handkerchief. “Wipe your tears, Hira. This is unlike you.”

“It may be,” Hira sniffed. “Did he tell you what he has done?”

“You know your father had nothing to do with it,” Silva Mar said. “Harkold could never bring himself to do anything so violent.”

“Lord Laikon, then,” Hira said.

“Indeed. It is your own fault, my dear, for being a beauty like your mother. I wonder if Laikon knows what a wildcat he will be taking to his bed?”

Hira bared her teeth and watched Silva Mar draw back. “I will never be in his bed, Aunt. I swear – ”

“Ah, do not swear!” Silva said. “Not in this rage. You do not know where the gods may bring you.”

“Never to that man’s bed!” Hira said.

“There are worse fates,” Silva said.

Hira stared at her. Silva sat on the only chair in a cloud of expensive fabric.

“Do not stare as if I have turned into a stranger,” Silva said. “I am here to help you think, my dear. You have always known your destiny is to marry and bear righ children.”

“I knew I must marry a righ,” Hira said. “I was taught the bloodline must remain pure.”

“So we may breed more color mages, yes. How did you suppose that was going to happen? Do you think they will make pilgrimage here, to beg for the hand of a girl they have heard is rebellious and wild?”

“I am not wild. I – ”

“You are. You refused to be paraded around for marriage to the holds of the Collared Lords, or presented at Sugetre. What did you think would happen if you refused all offers to present yourself?”

“I thought I would be left alone!”

Silva waved a smooth hand. “It is impossible for a daughter of the righ to be left alone. If you would not go to them, then they will come to you. Thus Lord Laikon has done.”

“I will not marry, then.”

“Your father will require you to. If you somehow overcome his orders, the King himself will get involved and give you as a chattel to whomever he might wish. Is that what you want?”

“No.” Hira took a shawl from the foot of her bed and wrapped it around her arms. The early spring was cold now, or maybe it was Bree’s death and her aunt’s advice that made it so. The candles flickered in their silver holders as a draft came under the door.

“My girl, I know you have been allowed to do as you will here, but you knew all this.”

“Yes, but I didn’t think it would apply to me!”

Silva took a deep breath. The jewels on her dress moved with her, reflecting the candlelight. “I told Harkold it was wrong to raise you like a son. It is all the more shock now.”

“But why Laikon?”

“The man has taken a fancy to you. He likes your defiance – thinks it will help you bear strong sons.” Silva ignored Hira’s instinctive flinch. “He thinks he will tame you, perhaps. You will bear him strong righ sons, Hira, color mages all – and then you will enjoy the true advantage of marriage to a Collared Lord.”

Hira almost spat. “I will not!”

“You will bear his sons and give them over to him. And then, my dear, you will go to Sugetre – or Five Rivers – or wherever your desire takes you, knowing that he will not follow.”

“I know the Collared Lords can’t leave their lands,” Hira said. “Even father never did so. Wouldn’t he send men – or his representative – to return me to him?”

Silva laughed. “He would have no support. Once your duty is done, little Hira, you may please yourself, as long as you do nothing to publicly diminish him. We are not powerless, my dear. This is what we’re due for our compliance, and the righ men know it well.”

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The caravan master gave her a scornful stare. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?” Hira almost looked over her shoulder, sure that her father’s men or even Lord Laikon’s men would be creeping up on her. “I can pay,” she added. “I have more than enough kels. You should be glad to take me.”

The man snorted. He lifted the mug and took a swallow. He wiped the foam from his lips with a sunburned hand. Then he looked up and seemed surprised to see her still there. “I know who you are, my lady. Ye’ll find no one here will agree to help a Collared Lord’s property escape from him.”

“I am no one’s property,” Hira snapped.

The man nodded. “Look, you seem a determined young lady. I wish I could help ya – I could use the kels. But nay, my life would be forfeit if anyone found out. And they would, ya know. It’s not like there are a lot of other options to get out of this rural region.”

Hira shoved back her chair and stood up. The serving maid who had shown her into the common room startled. “I thought you would hear me and help me. Brecon said – ”

The caravan master’s jaw tightened. “Don’t say that young man’s name to me. It is you who killed him, my lady. I remember him well – he tagged along with his father on more than one journey with us. He would’a made a fine man and a rich trader someday. Are you pleased with what ya’ve done?”

Hira stared. She knew her face had lost all color. “I didn’t – ”

“Go home. Be glad ya live a smooth life and can afford what ya want. Marry yer Collared Lord and quit whinin’ about how unfair life is. You’re much better off than that serving maid, or yer tenants, or yer slaves. Spoiled, that’s what ya is!”

Heat rushed to Hira’s cheeks. “How dare you!”

“I don’t know, how dare I? Ya came here and asked for it, m’lady. Prove me right now, about how privileged ya is, and report me to yer lord father or yer husband to be.”

“I won’t.” She wouldn’t do that to anyone, just for expressing an opinion. “But I don’t have to like it. All I asked was for a place in your van, and offered to pay for it. You wouldn’t treat anyone else such. Why so bitter toward the righ?”

“Because ya killed my young friend,” the master said again. “Go, now. Out of my sight!”

Hira stared for another moment, uncertain what to do. But she had no choice: she could not make this man accept her money. And there was no chance she could sneak on board a wagon when the caravan left. Bree had given her a tour of the wagons once, and she knew exactly how full they were packed and how well they were guarded from loss. She would be discovered before the day was out, and there would be nothing to keep the master from throwing her out alone into the wilderness.

She walked out of the tavern to her waiting horse, ignoring the eyes that followed her. She refused to ask for a servant to help her, so she was forced to use the block to mount. She rode away, wishing she could go anywhere else but back home.

As she left the straggly outbuildings of the village behind, she saw movement in the woods. She spurred her mount faster, wondering if bandits were hiding there, waiting for travelers with money. She kept a hand on her personal dagger as she rode by, eyeing the tree line, but whoever waited there made no move to intercept her. It was just as well – if she went through with the plan in her mind, she might have to join them.

 

Here’s a link to Part Three.

 

Daughter of the Righ — Part One

This is Part One of a short story about young Hira Noh, a character from my novel Sword of Jashan. It’s set about twenty years before the events of the novels, so there are no spoilers. Links to parts two and three are at the bottom of the story. (Please click the links on the sidebars for info about the novels.)

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Daughter of the Righ

by Anne Marie Lutz, ©2014

Hira Noh stomped hard on the graveled drive near the manor’s front door. Mud was jammed into every crevice of her boot soles. She grimaced at the encrusted stuff and began to walk around to the servant’s entrance.

The footman who had been waiting for her grinned. “I’ll get a boot brush, my lady.”

She had reached the garden on the west side of the manor when she heard a deep voice.

“Lady Hira! I am glad you have returned. May I have a word with you, if you can spare me a moment?”

There was a brazier lit on the terrace. The tall man who lounged on one of the benches before the brazier was dressed as if for court. Jewels sparked from his coat in a manner unsuited for the country. The afternoon sun, brilliant in spite of the early spring chill, deepened the harsh lines on his face and made his eyes seem even harder. Or perhaps that was just the contrast from the gold Collar bound around his neck.

Two household servants stood near the door. One bore a tray holding precious green glasses dark with wine.

She arranged her face into the smile that she knew was expected. “Lord Laikon, I didn’t know there was anyone here.” She watched his eyes travel down her person. “I’m afraid I am not suited to receive anyone just now. I just got back from a visit to one of our farm tenants.”

A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Lady Hira, it is more than a minor inconvenience for me to be away from Southgard. Surely you can join me for a few moments.” Color magery, red as blood, wreathed his hands.

The man was angry at her. What right had he? It was not Hira’s fault her father had ignored her express distaste for this man, who was well known to be a tyrant to his people.

She lifted her chin at him and saw his teeth clench. A fine foundation for a life together, this veiled confrontation during the supposed courtship. Hira bit off a quick refusal and strode toward the back door. She felt Laikon’s eyes following her until she rounded the corner.

Inside the mudroom, the footman awaited with the boot brush. Hira thanked him and made a token effort to wipe the mud from her boots, but she was too angry to do a thorough job. After just a few moments she dropped the brush and stormed through the kitchen, heading for her father’s study.

“My lady!” squawked one of the scullery maids. The girl clattered to her feet as Hira rushed by.

Her lord father’s study was sunlit and warm. Books leaned against each other on the polished shelves. A mirror, tool of the color mage’s art, stood draped with a silk covering in the corner of the room.

Her father was not there, but the door stood ajar and she heard his voice from downstairs. She sat in the stuffed chair she usually occupied when she visited her father here, and hoped he was giving the arrogant Lord Laikon a piece of his mind.

By the time her father walked through the door into his study, Hira’s resentment had only grown.

Her father stood in the beam of light thrown from the late sun falling through the window. She noticed for the first time how old he was looking. The gray at his temples had spread, and his eyes looked weary. His gait was stiff as he went to his chair behind the ledger-cluttered desk and sat down.

She refused to soften at his apparent weariness. “Is he gone?” she demanded.

“For now,” he said. “I have blamed your recalcitrance on the foibles of women. He doesn’t know you don’t have such weaknesses.”

“Father.” Her voice hardened. “My lord. I will have nothing to do with him, as I’ve told you. You know what is said about him.”

“So he takes concubines.” Lord Harkold shook his head. “This is not unusual. A Collared Lord must have some relief from being practically imprisoned in his fief.”

“You never did so.”

He sighed. “No. I have held true to your mother, as if she were still alive. I will never be with another woman.” His fingers touched the gleaming Collar at his neck. Hira noticed the skin wrinkled on either side of the metal, as if the Collar were too tight.

“Well, it’s not the concubines that offend me anyway. It’s what he does when he is tired of them. It’s what he has done to his slaves and his tenants. He is a cruel man, Father. I won’t marry him.”

“I would not see you given to a cruel man. He is nothing more than stern, and hard with his slaves. He will treat you as a righ lady should be treated, Hira. Have no doubt.”

“I won’t do it.”

Lord Harkold glared at her. “I have clearly made a mistake in letting you think you have a choice. You will do as you are told, girl. You are done with the stables and the tenants – you’ve been a blessing to me, but I shouldn’t have let you become so willful. Look at you!” He gestured at her and she looked down at the sheepskin coat, the mud on her boots that now smeared the carpeted floor. She knew her hair was windblown and her cheeks flushed.

“I’m not a giggling debutante, father. Do you want me to behave like one?”

He shook his head. “No. I treasure you as you are, Hira. But I am a man of weak resolve when it comes to my daughter. Because of that, I have failed you. Your place is not in the study, or the office or the tenants’ fields, no matter your intelligence. Instead, your duty is to bear righ sons and color mages. This you will do, with the lord I have chosen for you.”

 

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Hira stood in the little stable. She ran a hand over Star’s shoulder, and the old mare whickered in pleasure. The stable doors opened onto the back of Hon Mithon’s house, with the merchant’s insignia hanging above the door.

The door creaked open. Brecon slid out, closed the door behind him and strode toward the stable. The sun lit his hair and his faded leather coat. He walked until his wide shoulders filled the gap in the stable doors.

“They said there was a message for me,” Brecon said. “I didn’t know it was you, Lady Hira.”

“I had to speak with you,” she said.

Star rumbled under Hira’s hand. Brecon’s face relaxed. He had always loved Star, who had been a gift when he was just a boy. Brecon and Hira had ridden the mare barebacked and barefooted, letting her pick her surefooted way down to the creek where they could wade in the shallows and find little water creatures under the benevolent eye of Hira’s tutor.

Those days were long gone.

“My father doesn’t want you here. He says it’s unfitting.”

“And do you do every little thing he orders?” Hira said. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke her voice was firmer. “I feel as if I have nowhere to go, Brecon. Can’t you just listen for a little while?”

He came further into the stable. “You know I will. But Hira, I hear you’ve been promised now, and I don’t want to cause you any difficulty.”

“I am not promised!” Hira spun to face him. She knew her eyes were wet.

Whatever he saw in her face softened him. “Hira, what’s wrong?”

“Lord Laikon, Bree,” she said. “That’s who my lord father wishes me to marry and bed with, to make little righ who will be just as bad as Lord Laikon. I told him I wouldn’t do it, but he holds stern.”

“Unknown God! He agreed to wed you to Laikon?” Brecon’s face reddened. “I thought he cared for you!”

“He does. But he gives no credence to the rumors. I see nothing else to do but leave here, Bree.”

“But, you are a gently-bred righ. Where will you go? Who will protect you? Hira, you know I can’t join you or my life will be forfeit. Laikon would pursue me all through the south!”

“I don’t ask you to, friend. I won’t let you. Look at me.” Hira waved a hand across her sheepskin coat, the dagger belted at her waist. “I’m well able to fend for myself, and I – I will take a servant with me, if you insist. But I must go. I refuse to be a sweet for Lord Laikon.”

Brecon cast a frowning look back at his house. “I wish I could invite you here, but my parents warned me. They say the righ should be left alone, that you don’t belong here.”

“I don’t belong anywhere,” Hira said. The truth of it rose up inside her, clear and stark. “I don’t belong with the other righ ladies who are raised to look pretty and serve their lords. I don’t belong among the merchants or the tenants, and even my lord father doesn’t understand me. He says he’s sorry he raised me so.” The tears came again and she forced them back.

Brecon stood looking at her uncertainly. “I’m not sorry,” he said. “You’ve always been a good friend, Hira. I wish there was more I could do.”

“You’re the only one who knows me,” Hira said. “Someday you may have to explain me to my future husband.”

He snorted. “I can imagine the look on his face.”

Hira imagined that conversation and laughed with the tears still in her eyes.

“Look, I know a caravan master. He comes through in a sennight. He owes my father, and I think he’ll agree to take you with him. He’s an honorable man, Hira, and he’ll see you safe along the way.”

“Where does he go?”

“Does it matter?” Brecon watched her. “He’ll be returning from Leyland and stopping at villages north of the disputed lands. He heads to the Five Rivers.”

“From there I can go anywhere.”

“If you have money, and if you hire guards so you’re not waylaid in the streets. Five Rivers is dangerous, Hira. You shouldn’t go there unattended.”

“I swear I’ll hire a guard when I arrive there.” She stepped forward and hugged him. “Bree, you are my savior. I knew you would think of some way out.”

“If you’re troubled in any way in Five Rivers, I won’t forgive myself.”

“I’ve heard stories. I won’t dismiss them lightly.” Hira smiled. “Thank you Bree. When I have a chance, I’ll send you word. And I’ll always remember my truest friend, even if I am welcome nowhere else.”

 

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Hira opened her eyes on the heels of a cluttered dream to realize she had overslept. Her maidservant had not come to awaken her, and the rainswept morning was almost as gray as the night had been.

A wailing sob rose through the air, making her skin prickle.

Hira went to the window and looked outside. It had almost been like an animal’s cry, that keening sound. As she stood, straining to hear, the sound came again, resolving itself into a human voice.

She needed no maidservant to get dressed in the loose clothes she wore for working on the estate. As soon as she was dressed, she went down the hall and descended the main staircase. A few candles were lit on the mantel, brightening the gloom. A manservant vanished through the doors to the servants’ quarters as she peered around the room.

It was now clear to her that the sound was that of weeping – the mourning of a man who had no familiarity with gentle grief, wrenched out of him in response to great agony. It was coming from her lord father’s study.

Hira strode toward the doors. A man in servant’s brown appeared between her and the doors.

“Lady Hira,” said the footman. “Please don’t go in there.”

“But Lord Harkold – is he all right?” She almost turned away from the sympathy in his eyes.

“My lord is well,” the footman said. “But he has a visitor. You’re not wanted in there right now, Lady Hira.”

Hira brushed past the man. There was nothing he could do to stop her. She was privy to all the business of the estate, and she would find out what caused a visitor to sob in her father’s study as if death was on his heels.

A portly man was on his knees on the red-patterned carpet in the center of her father’s study. It was Hon Mithon, his usual rich clothing rumpled and awry. His cheeks were wet with tears, and he held a small, wicked-looking knife in his right hand.

Lord Harkold had been standing behind his desk. Now he stepped hurriedly around it, a look of urgency on his face. “Hira! Go back upstairs!”

She stared back and forth between Brecon’s father and her own. Something inside her did not want to know what was going on. She pushed it aside and asked. “Hon Mithon? Is something wrong?”

“Hira! I warn you.” Harkold sounded desperate. “Go. Here, I will take you myself.” He strode around the desk, reaching for her.

“Yes, something is wrong!” Mithon croaked. “My son, my beautiful son, is dead and I can’t go on without him!”

Hira felt as if the cold gray rain had swept over her. She floundered. “He is – Brecon is dead?”

“Now Hira, go upstairs. Take your woman with you, and I will be up to see to you,” Harkold stuttered. He was as pale as the candle wax.

“No. I won’t. Hon Mithon – what has happened to Brecon?”

“Ask your damned father!” The merchant struggled to his feet. “Ask him who murdered my son!”

Hira turned shocked eyes to her father.

“No I did not murder the boy!” Harkold blustered.

“It was done at your bidding,” Mithon said.

“Look.” Harkold abandoned his attempt to get Hira out of the room and turned to his accuser, keeping a wary distance from the knife. “I will pay you a weregild, because I am a compassionate man, and you and I are longtime associates. But Mithon, your son could not be allowed to aspire above his station.”

“Aspire – ” Hira stood with her mouth half open. “By Jashan’s eyes, father, he did nothing!”

“I told him to stay away from the accursed righ,” Mithon wept.

“Let’s not be foolish,” Hira’s father said. His hands went up to touch the golden Collar. “You cannot be allowed to run away with a mere merchant, Hira.”

She shouted, “He was just a friend!”

“You ran to him after Lord Laikon was gone.”

“You followed me?”

“No, I did not. But your betrothed sent someone to watch where you went.” Harkold flushed. “He sent a message to chastise me for your wildness, Hira. A very unsuitable communication from one Collared Lord to another!”

“Then it was Laikon,” Hira whispered. “By all the gods, if he wished me to reconsider and marry him, this was not the way.”

Mithon’s reddened eyes turned from Harkold to Hira. Through her stunned grief she saw his expression change. The knife came up.

“Stay down,” she said. “Stay where you are, Hon Mithon, or you will not live through this day.”

“None of this would have happened but for you,” the merchant said. “Always wanting to be where you should not be, dragging my boy into your – ”

“Guards!” shouted Harkold. The door slammed open and two armed men burst into the room. Harkold’s hands were red with color magery ready to be loosed.

The merchant crumpled to the floor again.

“People like us have no chance against you,” he moaned. “Oh my Brecon, my only son!” He held out the knife to one of the armed men, who took it and presented it to Harkold hilt first.

“Take lady Hira Noh upstairs,” commanded Harkold. “And station a man outside her door to see she stays there.”

“Father!”

“I will deliver you to your betrothed, willing or unwilling. You are a lady of the righ, Hira. It is time to grow up and do what you were bred for!”

Link to Part Two