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Bound to the Commander by Libby Campbell – Sample

Prologue

In the year 3817 CE, as Earth collapsed under the ravages of climate change, fleets of spaceships were launched in a last-ditch effort to save the human species. They traveled to far galaxies looking for another world to call home, carrying with them elements of earth cultures as well as Earth-based plants and animals.

A solar flare scrambled the navigation systems and scattered the fleet. One lone ship drifted aimlessly for months. With the crew on the brink of starvation and their fuel almost exhausted, the captain landed the ship on an uncharted planet where the readings indicated an ecosystem hospitable to human life.

The humanoid residents of Devmaer, of Devmaerean and Kedrant origins, nursed the Earth-born visitors back to health and welcomed them to their abundant planet. The humans quickly assimilated.

Chapter One: Night Visitor

Three hundred years later…

The stranger came to Pepper as she slept. Again. For the past few nights he’d been in the shadows of her dreams, waiting. She caught glimpses of a strong jaw and powerful shoulders but nothing fully formed. She wanted more, much more. He seemed to loom over her, always out of reach. A demanding presence, he watched her, radiating a fierce desire.

Tonight, for the first time, he was in her bed. As he lay beside her, he teased her throat with feathery kisses, before his mouth traveled down her collarbone to her breasts.

He was a stranger but somehow vaguely familiar. She knew she should stop him but every sensible thought was lost as this hungry dominant man possessed her.

He took a nipple in his mouth, sucking and nibbling it. His hand slid between her legs, opening her velvet crease, stroking her pearl, and driving her to the edge of orgasm. And then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.

Pepper flailed at her blankets in frustration as urgent knocking shook her out of her troubled sleep.

Rain hammered on the roof as the rapping grew louder. Her feet touched the cool floor and bleary-eyed, she noted the time. It was shortly past midnight, long after curfew. No one should be out at this hour.

Without turning on a light, she felt her way down the four steps from the sleeping loft.

“Sister Pepper!”

At the familiar voice cutting through the darkness, she threw the door open. Anna McGilvery, manager of the Rosemoor Clinic where Pepper worked, stood on the doorstep, wrapped in her rain cloak.

“Your services are required immediately.” Anna motioned with the slightest movement of her chin at two dark figures standing as still as statues on the sidewalk.

The blood drained from Pepper’s face when she recognized the unmistakable silhouettes of Tribunal Guards. With arms crossed over their chests, neither flinched as rain sluiced off the brims of their military caps and ran down their faces.

The pounding of her heart was louder than the thundering rain. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but Anna gave a curt hand gesture and mouthed the words shut the fuck up.

Anna swept past Pepper but left the door open so the guards could continue to monitor them. She pointed to the small closet and dressing area at the end of Pepper’s tiny house. “The Minister of Citizens’ Services is staying at the hotel. She wants you to attend her so get dressed, and be fast about it. Please.” Her voice held a shrill note of fear.

Pepper’s stomach turned to ice at the memory of the black hover-limo and the two escort cars that had crawled up Main Street late that afternoon. Only very senior government officials had private vehicles. Only the most senior of the senior traveled with military escorts.

In a few efficient moves, she shed her nightgown, pulled on a clean pinafore dress, and tucked her tiger-striped hair into a modesty cap. She wrapped herself in her rain cape as she looked around her cozy house with longing, wishing she could go back to bed.

“Why?” she whispered to Anna when she was calm enough to pose the question.

Like Anna had done many times since Pepper’s childhood, she took Pepper’s hand in hers. “She’s heard of your gift.”

How had the minister heard of her? Pepper tried to swallow but her mouth was parched. She lived in a small country town where there were few outside visitors. Who would have said anything to the minister?

She wanted to delay, to take a few minutes to compose herself. With effort, she managed to say, “I’ll need the portable table and my oils…”

“They’re being brought to the hotel now.” Anna’s tone was businesslike, but Pepper still heard a note of fear in her voice.

As they stepped outside into the storm, Anna nodded at the guards. One guard took the position in front of them. The other fell behind. Their heavy boots struck the wet pavement, beating out a rapid marching pace. After a few short minutes, Pepper’s soft moccasins, slipped on in a hurry, were soaking. They flopped about on her freezing feet, but she clenched her teeth and forced herself to keep up. The hotel wasn’t far away.

Rosemoor with its small population had only one hotel. Most citizens had been in it at one time or another, but few made it above the restaurant and reception rooms on the ground floor. Occasional travelers stayed in the general rooms on the second floor. The third floor with its luxury suites was reserved for the exclusive use of the country’s ruling Tribunal.

The guards led them past the reception desk where a night clerk bent over a book, her face ashen and eyes lowered.

The party of four rode the elevator to the executive level in tense silence. Pepper told herself to enjoy this rare privilege of seeing the restricted area but her rising terror made that impossible.

What if she couldn’t provide the minister the relief she needed? Would she be sent to the Healing and Rehabilitation Camp to be retrained?

The elevator doors sighed open on the executive level. Pepper blinked at the lavish surroundings. The light from sparkling chandeliers reflected off the dark marble floor. Bright paintings hung on the walls. Smart leather chairs stood on either side of a low table that held a vase of several dozen yellow roses. Compared to the worn carpet and old furniture in the rest of the hotel, this was another world.

Two more Tribunal Guards stood at attention by the door to the suite. In front of them, the county chief, the highest ranked person in Rosemoor County, paced. She heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of Pepper.

“Finally!” she said, adjusting the silver medal on the scarlet sash of her office. She took Pepper’s cape and pushed her toward the door roughly. “Go in,” she said. “Don’t keep the minister waiting.”

Anna handed her cape to the chief as one of the guards knocked on the door.

“Enter,” a curt voice called.

The guard opened the door and Pepper, stilling holding on tight to Anna, stepped forward. The guard dropped a hand in front of Anna.

“Not you,” he said. He was Devmaerean, blue-skinned and a foot taller than Pepper with her Kedrant-human bloodlines.

“The minister agreed,” Anna said, brushing his hand away. “I must be there to make sure that she receives only the best treatment possible.” Her voice was strong now. Any fear she felt was well buried.

Inspired by the older woman’s courage, Pepper drew back her shoulders. “Of course she must,” she said in a similar authoritative tone. “Sister Anna is the practice manager at the clinic. If my services are substandard, the responsibility will ultimately be hers.”

The guard hesitated for a moment, studying the two women. Pepper lifted her chin, acting much stronger than she felt. Her eyes met his and then, with a low growl, he motioned them inside.

The sitting room was opulent, far grander than anything Pepper had ever seen in real life. Her portable massage table had already been set up in front of a roaring fire that warmed the room in a deep comforting way.

There were two dark green sofas in a velvet-like fabric. A dining table, big enough for eight, had a large bowl of bright red vildehair flowers in the middle of it. Their sweet, intoxicating perfume filled the suite. That had to be Anna’s touch, Pepper reckoned.

Standing in front of the fireplace was the Honorable Daedra Mazrant, Minister of Citizens’ Services. She was the most beautiful woman that Pepper had ever seen. Her blue skin and height said she was part Devmaerean. Her blue eyes and copper hair spoke to her significant human bloodlines.

Her heart-shaped face was flawless with cheekbones that looked carved from stone. Her mouth was wide and gently curved. She had long, elegant limbs, and even in a plain white bathrobe, her hourglass figure was apparent.

Pepper cast her eyes over the woman, appraising her. She didn’t like patients to feel they were being stared at and she’d learned the art of taking in many details with a quick glance. The minister was about forty years old. Maybe older but well maintained. There was a coldness in her eyes that sent a chill over Pepper. It was rumored that powerful members of the Tribunal could have citizens sent away for any perceived infractions.

Daedra’s beauty was slightly marred by the lines of fatigue that pinched her face and the dark circles blooming under her eyes. They confirmed it. She had the Waking Illness.

Pepper could bring relief to cases of Waking Illness when all other methods had been exhausted. But this woman didn’t look like someone who was going to succumb to Pepper’s hypnotic therapy readily. With her hands bunched at her side she appeared to be primed for a fight.

Anna stepped between the two of them. “Honorable Minister, I present Rosemoor’s top remedial massage therapist Sister Piera Thornback. She’s known to her family and friends as Pepper.”

Daedra smiled and the temperature in the room rose five degrees. She walked toward Pepper with her arms outstretched, “Sister Pepper. I’m so glad to meet you.”

The ice in her blue eyes melted into warm pools as she drew Pepper into a gentle hug. “Your reputation precedes you. I hope you can give me some relief. I haven’t slept through the night for a month.” Her voice was like honey. “You may call me Sister Daedra.”

Relaxing into Daedra’s tender embrace, Pepper’s fears lightened. The minister needed her. She inhaled the woman’s smoky scent of lemon and spice and decided not to be intimidated by her illustrious title. Sister Daedra it would be.

She allowed herself a tiny smile.

But the moment of relief evaporated as Daedra drew an unblemished hand around Pepper’s neck, scraping the skin lightly with her pointed, claw-like fingernails.

Daedra pressed her thumb into the soft flesh at the base of Pepper’s throat. She held it there as she spoke. “You’re not going to disappoint me, are you, Sister Pepper?”

Her eyes had turned to ice again.

Chapter Two: The Commander

Pepper clamped her fingers on the windowsill and hoisted herself in a determined chin-up. As she hung, suspended from the ground, she had a good view into her sister Lily’s tiny house. She peered past the kitchen and the narrow living area, all the way to the small bathroom at the other end. No one. She squinted to the sleeping loft above the kitchen, but it was impossible to see if anyone was up there.

Knocking on the door for a solid minute hadn’t got her anywhere. She wondered if Lily was sleeping heavily or in trouble. Damn. Lily had given her a key, but she couldn’t remember where she’d put it.

From what Pepper could see, Lily’s house looked exactly like it did the night before. It was tidy enough to pass a snap inspection.

Tiring, she lowered herself to the ground to catch her breath.

Lily’s case of the Waking Illness was progressing faster than anything Pepper had seen. Two weeks before, Lily had only complained about the usual symptom of sleeplessness that tormented all sufferers. But, for the past few days, she’d been plagued with joint pain, pain so persistent it was robbing her of the little rest she could get.

The night before Pepper had pulled out all the stops to try to ease Lily’s misery. She’d filled Lily’s small home with vildehair flowers, whose perfume was a natural relaxant. Using her most potent oils, she’d massaged Lily for over two hours, working first on her aching joints and then turning her attention to the sleep spots: the spirit gate, the three-yin intersection, and the bubbling spring points. As Lily relaxed, Pepper sang a low throaty lullaby, an ancient Kedrant song she reserved for her most desperate cases.

When she’d tucked Lily into bed, she’d shuddered at the chilling memory of how she’d done the same for Daedra only a few days before. She shook off thoughts of that dreadful night. No one had said anything to her after her session with the minister, and she’d forced herself to believe that no news was good news. If she refused to think about it, it could be forgotten, like a bad dream.

She and Lily had planned to go to the farmers’ market this morning. The biggest holidays of the year, the Harvest Feast and Bonfire Night, were fast approaching. Already a festive mood was spreading over their small town. Travelers from all around the county and beyond thronged to the weekly market. Almost as much fun as the feast night itself were the days of preparation, buying special food, decorating, and catching up with friends over mugs of mulled wine.

There was only one problem: no Lily.

Pepper bounced up again, hoping for a sign that Lily was okay. She raised her face level with the window, but her arms ached from the effort. She dropped to the ground with a thud.

“What do you think you’re doing?” a man said from behind her. His voice was as deep as thunder, authoritative, and vaguely familiar.

Pepper smoothed her lavender midi-dress and tucked a loose strand of hair under her modesty cap before turning to face him. Her hands went cold when she saw who had spoken.

Looking down at her from a lofty height stood a stately man, a blue-skinned Devmaerean. He was dressed in the gray uniform and shiny black boots worn by all male members of the country’s ruling Tribunal. But the red cuffs on his jacket and the scarlet scarf at his neck were worn by only one person: the country’s leader.

Commander Quinn Garrick’s face was impassive, and his amethyst eyes glittered with something like amusement. “Are you planning a burglary?”

His rich voice made Pepper’s insides tighten, but not from fear. The hair on her arms stood on end. Her toes curled, responding to his aura of power and authority. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.

Her face burned with embarrassment at her body’s primal response to him. Wasn’t she the woman who could say no? And usually did say no. Wasn’t she the one who was rarely tempted by desires of the flesh?

Until now.

Her breath came fast and shallow as the axis of her world shifted.

“Uh. No, sir.” She gulped.

She glanced around for the Tribunal Guards who should have been close. Curiously there were none nearby. Neither was there was a film crew on hand, recording their encounter. It was just the two of them standing in front of Lily’s place.

Pepper swallowed as icy fear edged out her initial sensation of lust. The commander was known to be a rigid enforcer of the rules that made their country safe and stable. And he’d just caught her peeking into a house that wasn’t hers.

Dread fluttered in her chest. As she broke eye contact with him, she noticed the broadness of his shoulders. A cinched belt emphasized the trimness of his waist. She glimpsed the healthy bulge at his groin. In spite of herself, her fingers twitched at the thought of touching that beautiful muscle, teasing it to its magnificent fullness. His strong thighs flexed under his tailored trousers.

“Step out of the flowerbed, please.” An order disguised as a polite request.

Pepper’s heart tried to hammer its way out of her ribcage as she moved onto the lawn.

“Please look at me when I’m talking to you. What do you think happens to burglars?”

She raised her eyes back to his and shrugged.

He folded his arms, nodding at her to speak.

“Detention?” Her voice squeaked, betraying a mix of fear and wonder.

“At the very least. Women offenders often get the switch.” The corners of his mouth twitched in a small smile.

Flames of embarrassment burned up Pepper’s neck as she imagined this man baring her bottom to stripe it with willow branches. Now another part of her body was swelling and clenching. As his eyes bored into her, she dropped her head to study her feet. The toe of her right boot was muddy from the garden. She rubbed it against her left ankle.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Before she could answer, he said, “Let’s start with our names. I’m Quinn Garrick, Commander of Elsinania.”

Everyone with working eyes and ears knows who you are. Pepper bit back the sarcastic reply. The man appeared hourly on the viewing screens that ran nonstop in all the public buildings in every street in the entire country. “I’m Piera Elin Thornback, massage therapist, citizen grade four. People call me Pepper.”

He nodded again, indicating he expected more of an explanation. She wondered if he would demand to read the CitizenBand on her left wrist. The fine gold and silver bracelet carried her name, address, education, occupation, blood type, along with the day of her last cycle and the fact that the contraceptive option had been activated.

“It’s my sister, Lily. I can’t wake her.” She jutted her chin toward the window as her voice drifted off. Somehow her explanation sounded flimsy when spoken out loud.

“Let me have a look.” He touched her lower back as he stepped around her. As quickly as he removed his hand, she wanted it back on her again.

Pay attention. She noted the way he didn’t have to trample the garden to get close like she did. He was tall enough to see in the window from three feet back.

As he turned, she saw that his thick blue hair was tied back with a leather thong at the base of his neck. The length of it took her breath away; it was almost as long as hers.

The Handbook for Proper Conduct, which set out the rules every person in Elsinania was supposed to live by, decreed that men’s hair shouldn’t reach past their shirt collars. Quinn’s would fall to his elbows when it was untied. Members of the Tribunal made rules; they obviously didn’t follow them.

“There’s no one in there,” he declared, regarding her with a look of gentle concern.

Suddenly the autumn sun felt unbearably hot. A bead of sweat ran down the back of her neck. She longed to tear off her modesty cap, loosen her long heavy hair, and let her scalp breathe.

Before she could answer, she saw Lily approaching from the direction of the forest. Her arms were full of kindling, gathered for Bonfire Night. Pepper sighed with relief when she noted that Lily’s eyes were no longer bloodshot. The black circles under them had disappeared overnight.

“Hello!” Lily sang out as she drew closer. Then she caught sight of Quinn and her mouth dropped open. The kindling tumbled from her arms. Small pink circles rose in her cheeks… She adjusted her cap before dipping a curtsey to him.

Damn. Pepper had forgotten to curtsey, but she smiled with momentary relief because Quinn had turned his hawk-like gaze away from her to Lily.

“This is my sister, Lilian Bernadette Thornback. Lily, this is the Honorable Commander Quinn Garrick.”

Quinn held out his hand. “Lovely to meet you, Sister Lily. No need to curtsey. I’ve eliminated that formality in the latest version of the Handbook.”

Pepper and Lily exchanged wide-eyed glances.

“What about twenty years the same, always a fair game?” Pepper narrowed her eyes, suspecting a trick. That mantra was one of the first rules in the Handbook: good manners and polite conduct didn’t change. Shouldn’t change.

The Handbook had been written by Garrick the Elder, Quinn’s father. It was considered the foundation stone of a civilized land.

Quinn laughed, a pleasant rumbling sound. “I’ve been working on social justice and proper norms for our county probably longer than you’ve been alive. I think our great nation can allow moderate changes in etiquette without falling back into the lawless chaos that once defined it.”

Lily giggled because she giggled at everything. At only eighteen years old, Lily often covered up her nervousness with fits of inappropriate, childish laughter.

Pepper grinned, a true, happy smile, triggered by Lily’s musical laughter. Meeting Commander Garrick, or Quinn as Pepper decided to think of him now, was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to either sister. For one thing, he was as handsome as a god. His strong posture, unflinching gaze, and thick, luxuriant hair all exuded power. Here he was, talking to her and Lily like any good neighbor might have done.

She and Lily would relive this moment many times in the future. Pepper imagined herself slipping the event into conversation at the weekly communal dinners. She’d have to change tables so she could tell it more than once.

As quickly as that thought rose in her head, she realized his presence in Rosemoor might not be so random after all. Maybe he was here because of something the minister Mazrant had said about her. Daedra might have complained and he’d come here to arrest Pepper for a crime she didn’t even know she’d committed. The blood drained from her face.

“Maybe you ladies can help me,” Quinn said.

“Yes?” Pepper lifted her chin, acting more confident than she felt.

“Yes, sir,” he corrected. “Yes, sir or yes, Brother Quinn.”

Pepper’s chin dropped slightly. “Yes, Brother Quinn?”

Chapter Three: Thunderstruck

When Quinn first saw Pepper from behind, she’d looked like any small-town woman, enveloped from head to foot in unflattering clothing designed to minimize any evidence of feminine beauty. But then she’d turned around, fixing him with a thoughtful stare. He’d tensed at the vision of her delicate, oval face. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman to catch his eye, but she had an ethereal quality that struck him like a lightning bolt.

He’d caught a glimpse of the tiger-striped hair that attested to her Kedrant roots. Her eyes, both the same dark brown, spoke to her human heritage. It was those eyes, almost black and sparkling with lively intelligence, that captured his attention. Her full lips were shaped to make a man happy. With porcelain skin and pale roses in her cheek, she radiated an inviting sensuality.

An unexpected burst of arousal disconcerted Quinn momentarily. He’d met thousands of women, many young and ready for plucking like this one. But none of them had enthralled him like Pepper did with a single look.

He didn’t like the feeling one bit.

He’d seen pictures of her before he came to Rosemoor, even had some stored on his CommBand. After all, she was his reason for being here. When he hadn’t found her at home, her sector captain had suggested he try Lily’s house.

Still, he hadn’t expected the sweet image that smiled at him from his CommBand to be so alluring in real life.

To hide his initial unease, he quizzed her on why she was spying on a house he knew to be her sister’s. He’d seen a flash of vulnerability cross her face when she first laid eyes on him. He didn’t want to admit to an unexpected stab of pity that had pierced his defenses and caught him like a barbed hook.

He’d read her records and knew that Lily was the only family she had. The sisters had been orphaned three years before, when Pepper was twenty and Lily only fifteen. Pepper had looked after Lily from that day forward, so it was no surprise to find her at Lily’s house, worried over her sister’s whereabouts. Pepper had taken on a big responsibility for someone who wasn’t much more than a girl at the time. Her sector captain reported she’d carried it well; Lily had developed into a fine young woman.

Quinn pushed the troubling feelings of lust and concern for Pepper out of his thoughts. He returned to the purpose of his visit. “I’ve heard this area has had an unusual outbreak of Waking Illness. What can you tell me about that?”

“An unusual breakout of Waking Illness.” Pepper rolled the words around her mouth as if she was tasting them.

Quinn couldn’t look at her; she was too distracting. Instead he turned to Lily. “Sister Lily?”

Lily shook her head. As if saying it wasn’t her place to comment, she crouched and arranged the kindling into a tidy pile.

“What do you call unusual?” Pepper asked, her tone cool. “What would be usual?”

Quinn studied her for a trace of impertinence, but her attitude was professional, detached. He’d come to Rosemoor after learning of Daedra Mazrant’s miracle session with Pepper. Not that Daedra told him directly. He’d found out about her visit from the spy he had planted in her home. He’d waited for Daedra to tell him directly but when she didn’t mention it, days after the event, he’d decided to visit Rosemoor himself. Why Daedra had withheld her good news was a question to be asked later.

For now, he hoped that Pepper might be one of the country’s rare super healers who only showed up once in a generation. As she stood in front of him, asking him to clarify his notion of unusual, he had to think about life from her perspective. In country towns like this, the newspapers and viewing screens featured little of importance. Lost dog reports made front page news. Feel-good stories were pumped in from the capital city of Rosewyld.

Other news content included sports, weather, and farm reports, along with sewing patterns and recipes. It had been that way since the revolution. Unusual to Pepper probably meant more than a dozen people with Waking Illness.

She probably didn’t know how widespread the sickness was. If he wanted her cooperation, he’d need to bring her up to speed on the state of the nation outside this rural county.

He began with an undeniable fact. “The illness is now spreading faster than ever before. Last spring there were only three known cases in all of Elsinania.”

Lily looked up from where she was tying a length of hemp rope around the kindling. “Really?”

Pepper bit her lip. “Three? In the entire country? Rosemoor is a small town, only twenty thousand people and we get that many new cases—”

She stopped talking as a handsome man with thick wavy hair came trotting around the corner.

Dressed in gray fatigue pants and a fitted black shirt that indicated his rank as a sector captain, he winked at Lily before saying in his most pompous voice, “I’m glad you were able to find Pepper and her sister, Commander.”

The corners of Pepper’s mouth tightened.

“Thank you, Sector Captain Vachon.” Quinn’s tone was detached.

“Please call me Brinley, Commander. I’m always ready to help the Tribunal.” He gave an unctuous smile.

“Thank you, Brother Brinley. These two young ladies are helping me with my inquiries. In fact, I came to Rosemoor specifically to find Sister Pepper.”

Pepper’s head shot up at that statement.

Hooking his thumbs through his belt, Brinley frowned. “Sister Pepper is in my sector, which makes her my responsibility.”

“Brother Brinley, I’m pleased to see you take your work so seriously, but I am happy to be responsible for Sister Pepper for the moment.”

Cutting a fierce look at Pepper, Brinley said, “Keep your eye on her. She’s full of mischief.”

“Thank you for the caution. In the meantime, I need to talk to her and her sister alone.” Quinn pointed to the stack of kindling at Lily’s feet. “Sister Lily has gathered firewood for Bonfire Night. Perhaps you could take it to the fire site for her.”

Brinley snatched it from where it lay and glared at Pepper before turning on his heel without another word.

Quinn had dealt with enough sycophants to recognize one at twenty paces. He’d smelled the power lust on Brinley when he’d first spoken to him. Now, seeing the man’s hostility toward Pepper, he liked him even less. A strange protective feeling toward her burned in his chest again.

“Now where were we?” Quinn asked.

“An unusual outbreak of Waking Illness.” Pepper gave a little shake as though throwing off Brinley’s hostility. “And something about you coming here to find me.” Her statement ended on a high, questioning note.

From the corner of his eye, Quinn saw Lily’s next-door neighbor coming outside with a bucket and squeegee, ready to start washing windows that already gleamed in the sun. She wasn’t the only neighbor stretching both eyes and ears to try to catch what was going down.

Quinn rubbed his chin. “Sister Lily, I’ve been up since before dawn. I don’t suppose you could offer me a cup of coffee?”

“I came to Rosemoor specifically to find Sister Pepper.” Those words turned Pepper’s spine to water. She needed to sit so she gratefully followed Lily into her immaculate little house. Once there, she filled the kettle from the instant hot water tap and it started to boil almost as quickly as she laid it on the two-burner cooktop. While she set out three mugs, Lily took an assortment of teas and instant coffees from the cupboard.

A pang of irrational jealousy speared through Pepper when Quinn put a hand on Lily’s shoulder and studied the selection offered. Didn’t he say he’d come to see her?

“Green tea will be fine.” He pointed to one and sat on the sofa, a few steps from where Pepper and Lily were assembling tea.

“That’s what I’m having too,” Lily said. “I stopped drinking anything with much caffeine when I got the ill—”

A swift kick from Pepper stopped her midsentence.

Quinn shook his head. “When you got the Waking Illness, you mean? Please don’t keep secrets from me, either of you. Especially not you, Sister Pepper.”

Pepper poured the tea without letting it steep. She handed a mug to Quinn and set the other two on the tiny coffee table. She dragged one of Lily’s two kitchen chairs to sit opposite him.

Lily handed around three generous slices of carrot cake with cream cheese icing and candy carrot decorations. The second kitchen chair made a loud scraping noise as she drew it beside Pepper’s.

Pepper watched as Quinn ate his first mouthful.

“Wonderful,” he said.

“What do you want from me?” Pepper asked bluntly now that he had food and drink. Her words sounded confident, which was not how she felt.

Quinn’s lips quirked in a slight smile at her impatience. “Do you remember a woman who visited your clinic recently? She was Devmaerean-human. Blue-skinned but also blue-eyed.”

“Of course,” Pepper said. “The Honorable Minister Daedra Mazrant. She’d be hard to forget.” She set her fork down without tasting the cake. Her appetite had vanished.

Quinn broke off another chunk of cake with obvious relish. “Sister Daedra raved about the treatment you gave her.” He paused to chew and swallow. “Do you know how the illness progresses?”

The question was insulting. Of course she did. Pepper forced herself to remain civil. “Officially, yes. It starts with being unable to sleep. People fall asleep fast, but they wake up often. They never get truly deep sleep, no REM rest, so they get up in the morning more tired than when they went to bed.”

“Continue.” Quinn forked more cake into his mouth and chewed silently.

“Like all sleep deprivation, that pattern can deteriorate into light sensitivity, slow physical reflexes, impaired thinking, even hallucinations.”

Hoping he didn’t notice the slight tremor in her hands, Pepper set her mug of tea on the coffee table. She wished she hadn’t said hallucinations. The first patients she’d worked on had taken months to deteriorate to that state. Lily had her first hallucination within a week of contracting the illness.

Hallucinations were the marker point for when some people were sent to the Healing and Rehabilitation Camp. Since the disease arrived in early spring, a dozen or so people from Rosemoor had been taken to the camp. Not one had come back.

That was why Pepper had been working with Lily to try to move her past this dangerous stage. Worse still, Lily displayed symptoms that Pepper hadn’t seen in other patients. Besides the joint pain, she’d been occasionally delusional and deeply depressed.

Looking at Lily now, it was hard to believe that only a few days before she’d been as feeble as a ragdoll. The owner of the shop where she worked had sent her home early, telling her to stay away until she was substantially healthier. When Pepper saw her at the weekly communal dinner that night, Lily was in tears, worried to the point that she couldn’t eat.

“Have you observed anything else?” Quinn laid his fork on his plate. His cake had vanished.

Calmer now, Pepper picked up her mug. She wrapped her hands around it, enjoying the warmth, as she prepared to lie. “Like what?”

“I’m asking the questions.”

“Nothing special.” She swallowed the other things she could have named: loss of appetite, lack of impulse control, and now, for Lily, delusions. She didn’t want to name those symptoms in case she doomed innocent people to removal from their homes and family. Fighting what she sensed to be true, she told herself that Lily’s joint pain was temporary and had nothing to do with the Waking Illness.

By happy coincidence, Quinn had arrived the first day in many that Lily looked healthy.

He crossed his left foot onto his right knee. “There’s something you’re not telling me. You’re either lying by omission or you’re just plain lying. I’m unsure which.”

His eyes bored into hers and she looked away, easing a dainty morsel of cake onto her fork. For a long moment, no one said anything.

“I’m willing to let that go. For now.” Quinn folded his hands behind his neck. “I’m here to take you back to Rosewyld with me.”

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