Peering down from her hiding spot behind the steeple of the temple, Avalon figured she had little chance of being seen. The mauleons patrolling below were of the usual mindset, as in they rarely looked up. They’d searched the building from crumbling top to rubble-strewn bottom and that was all.
She was safe. Probably.
Since they were prone to being over-muscled and heavy of body, she’d long ago figured they disliked climbing. Well, too much muscle as far as she was concerned. If she had a male partner, she’d choose one who wasn’t as preoccupied with the rippling of his chest as he was with being clever and talkative, and kind.
Kindness got bonus points from her.
They’d pass by, leave her with the prize, their silly Claw of Truth. She squeezed the cloth-wrapped artifact, reassuring herself she still possessed it and it hadn’t rolled off the tiled roof and smashed into fragments of gold, steel, and horn. There were no gemstones. Which did not compute, according to her Avalon definition of regal artifacts.
Their old royalty had claimed this to be some special war trophy, passed on for thousands of years. Until that laughable day two hundred or so years ago when Quarantine began on this planet and the mauleon Remargien dynasty of royals were left stranded off-planet attending some la-de-dah event, while their Claw of Silliness was still here.
Sucked for them.
For her? It meant a bonus from her uncle when she handed it to him. That and no prison sentence, with her criminal record wiped clean.
Just wait this patrol out. Her binocs had revealed them to be a bunch of wounded soldiers, not battle-ready mauleons. They must have happened on her team’s track by accident.
She would wait and let her two team members, Darva and Junis, lead them astray.
So went the plan.
Until someone tossed a flare onto the roof beside her. It rolled and fell into a hole in the roof. That someone had shot it up actually, judging by the flat trajectory. This was a human-made flare. Standard issue for the army. Not at all standard for mauleons. One of her team’s.
Avalon pinched her lips together.
Her team was meant to use it once they reached the border.
Betrayal sucked too.
She rolled behind the steeple and prayed.
Why would they do that?
It’s a distraction, of course, her ever-present analytical brain told her. I am the distraction. They want to get away and are happy to let me be the bunny in the glare.
Some mauleon soldier had probably spooked them.
If she were caught, the mauleon idea of justice might get her killed. Yeah. Not nice. She’d kinda sorta bonded with those two. For all three of them, volunteering for this mission had been close to asking for death.
She knew her reasons for saying yes: Uncle and a disgusting need for his approval despite everything—and how she hated herself for that. And then of course there was also her curious need to escape a prison sentence in the Kingdom of Montague.
Summed up that way, she’d been insane to say yes.
Maybe she did have a death wish.
“Fuck them!” She banged her palm into her forehead a few times, felt her hood shift on the spikes of her hair.
Stop. She wriggled the hood back into place, tried to settle herself. Red hair in a flare light would be far too striking. Calmness was the blessing of the thief.
Shading her eyes from the flare, she ducked her head out far enough to see what was going on below. The patrol had left their florses in the care of one male. Four soldiers in total? She catalogued them by the characteristics she’d spotted.
One. Multiple braids, fair hair, with the broadest shoulders.
Two. Lean, black hair, ponytail at the back of his head, and loped like a predator. Slinky. She should watch him.
Three. Holding the florses. Ugly. Brown hair springing out like a crazy mop. He was the one she needed to lure away the most.
Four. Where was four? Ah. He was at the back of the temple. Limping mauleon. Gray hair in a mane. A red-and-gray–coated scythefox lithely scampered at his heels.
The flare was already sputtering out, though smoke was rising from where it lay somewhere beneath roof level. A supporting beam may have caught alight.
What if she too made a distraction?
A flame licked upward from where the flare lay, died away, then more flames flickered up and began to eat at the roof, gobbling the edges of the hole in the tiles.
“Just what I don’t need.” She had to move, get off here.
The back of the temple yard held the least mauleons, but if any caught sight of her, she’d not outrun them. Those florses…
With the florses loaded with equipment, their tiny wings were never going to create enough lift to let her do that odd fly-hop some of them achieved, but they’d move faster than the soldiers.
There was one thing that would make those soldiers move—the Claw of Frickin’ Truth. Their symbol of dominance over the universe. Hah.
It meant something to them.
Enough to make them run.
Before her and to the left the flames consumed more of the roof. Crackling, the heat was scalding her face, and the gaps between the darkened tiles were lighting up in a pretty and dangerous pattern of outlined rectangles.
She’d burn if she stayed. Or fall through the weakened roof and be crushed and burned.
Avalon put both hands to one of the old tiles, heaved upward with all her might, then heaved again. The tile broke loose. She threw it, spinning, into the rear yard onto a pile of rubble left by whatever had half destroyed the building in the past.
The crash drew the four prowling mauleons.
She unwrapped then tossed the Claw after the tile, hoped they’d see the glint as it rolled through the air.
Someone whistled. A mauleon, the one with the numerous braids, did a stupendous high leap to catch the relic before it hit the ground. His braids fanned out as he dropped, then he landed in a crouch with the Claw in his hand.
Taken aback, she sat unmoving for a far-too-long, stupid moment.
They could jump after all. She should’ve listened more in biology class.
The holder of the florses dropped their reins, pulled out a handgun, and sprinted around to the side of the temple, heading toward the back.
“Dumbasses,” she muttered.
A click of her fingers drew Nibbles to her. He scampered up her arm and tucked himself into the hood at her neck. On the journey to the capital, when the team had camped near the wreckage of a satellite, the mouse critter had adopted her. He’d stuck with her even when they lurked in the mauleon capital, figuring out how to steal the Claw and she’d decided he was cute and probably safe, even if the patches of underfur metal-skin said he was not a real mouse.
Since she was not a true human, they were even.
Stealthily she crept over the roof, avoiding the fire, slipping, sliding, leaping onto the remains of guttering and a drainpipe, and sliding down. It held. Most of the way.
With the last ten feet or thereabouts to go, the pipe under her gloved hands cracked and gave way and she had to do some massive impromptu scrabbling at the façade to get to the ground safely.
Landing with a curse and a clatter of guttering, Avalon folded into a crouch then sprang upright, bolting for the nearest florse. Her boots were soft and she was light. The soles made little noise. She prayed the soldiers would think the guttering had fallen due to the fire.
Please, please let it be so.
The florses were all dark of coat. White coloring was bad news in the armies of both human and mauleon.
The small one would be easiest to handle. Except when she drew closer, she realized she was wrong. Small, only if compared to the others here. Big compared to mounts she was used to. What did the mauleons feed their florses? Nuclear material? It was a mare, she guessed.
With one hand on the saddle and a toe in the stirrup, she fumbled to launch herself. Nibbles scampered up her arm and chittered at her from his superior height.
“Shhh!” She smiled up at the creature, then did another hop, was swinging her leg over when—
Someone thumped into her body with a massive arm, wrapped it about her waist and dragged her off the florse, then rammed her into the ground.
Coughing, blacking out, she barely had time to register that the lean mauleon had her, before he flipped her over and held her face down in the dust while he wrapped something about her wrists and tied them.
“Here!” he yelled. “I’ve got the human!”
No matter how she struggled to rise, he easily held her down.
He pulled off her gloves, yanked back her hood, patted her down, and removed every weapon, even the sheathed blade at her ankle… also the lock picks, the spare ammo and, last of all, the miniature smoke bombs. Then he felt along her fingertips.
“Well, well. You are not quite what you seem.”
More boots arrived, surrounding her. Four mauleons. Though genetically close to human, with their heavy catlike claws and their paired fangs, they were deadly even without their metal weapons. They could disembowel her with one swipe.
Her stomach squeezed in, as did her chest. She swallowed, flexed her fingers, hoping Nibbles had gone somewhere safer than her hood.
The florses squealed and trampled the ground until one of the soldiers talked them down from panicking.
Once the hooves stopped stamping, a mauleon squatted before her, cramming his clawed hand into her hair. He hauled back her head, tucked her hood neatly onto her neck.
“It’s a girl,” he observed, his eyes scanning her face and lower, surely checking out her breasts, as if those and she were a rare curiosity. “You’ve done a bad thing, girl human.”
“My name,” she ground out, “is not girl.”
“Huh.” He shrugged. “Well, not-girl, stealing the Claw of Truth was a mistake. The courts will not gift you with a mild sentence. There’s a peace treaty being hammered out and this was foolish. Even humans will find you in the wrong.”
“Fuck you,” she snarled.
“Tsk.” He slapped her face lightly. The pain made her eyes water. She blinked to clear them and saw the many blond braids flopping at his shoulders, the gun holstered at his hip. With that in her hand, she’d leave them all dead. “No curses. Save them for the judge. Though it would not be wise to curse him either.”
He rose, leaving her to lower her head to the dirt.
“They’ll have her impaled,” another said.
She froze. Her hands grew instantly cold, reminding her to strive to break the bonds. Nothing moved; she only wore a line of pain in her wrists. Her heart bumped urgently, telling her to run. As if.
She’d known. She had. They punished lawbreakers harshly in Snaar. All sorts of facts piled into her brain, as if it knew she needed to think about anything except the here and now. Snaar was the only mauleon kingdom on this continent. Maybe on the whole planet. Who knew what happened on the other side of the world? Tech had turned to rust since the Quarantine. Mauleons seemed to like making examples out of wrongdoers.
“Yes,” the fair one who’d talked to her agreed. Scars distorted parts of his face. “Impalement. A pity. She smells good. And has a nice ass.”
They laughed. An unwelcome heat burned her cheeks—both from anger and embarrassment.
“No one will care if we fuck this morsel before we hand her in, Captain Takk. We found the Claw. It’s our right.”
“No. She’s not ours.” Takk again, who must be their leader. His boots turned as he addressed the others. “No. Let the courts handle her. We are headed home.”
Avalon shut her eyes. One blessing. Now all she needed was a thousand more of those.
All this because she wanted to impress Uncle. She’d known it was the wrong choice. A compelled choice but wrong. If she hadn’t, he’d have let her be sent to some faraway prison, to be forgotten to the family.
But she would’ve been alive.
“Bring her, Zo.”
The sneaky one who’d caught her, the one with the black hair in a single tail and the narrow face—and that was unusual for a mauleon—hauled her up by her arm and made her walk.
Zo and Takk. Knowledge might help her. Even their names.
They slung her over a florse, cinched her to it. The leader mounted behind her and set off at a trot. The scent of him was overwhelming. Male mauleon stink. She turned her face to the front where the small dark wings fluttered. The heave of muscle under her belly and chest winded her whenever the florse jumped to clear small obstacles or jumped just because it was a florse. The creatures were flighty. It kept her breathless, made her gasp involuntarily now and then.
The mauleon leader laid a hand over her ass but said nothing.
Once, he lifted his big hand and brushed it through and over her spiked hair. He gripped her there and his claws unsheathed. The points dug into her scalp.
A novel and unwelcome heat simmered to a rise, stirring between her legs. It made her hate him all the more.
She grimaced then had to part her lips. A need sprang up to breathe harder, faster. She clamped down, denying her body that desire.
“You are a strange one. You set your hair into peaks? Why do this to yourself? It makes you look uncomely and this red…” His voice lowered. “It’s pretty.” He released her hair. Where her hands lay bound at her back, she felt him run his fingers over her, over those baby claws of hers. “You’re huleon?”
Huleon. Dirty mauleon bastard. Those words had haunted her childhood and brought only sad, detestable memories.
Wriggling, though she knew she could not get free, she cursed him again, running through a whole litany of swear words, making poetry out of it as only she could do.
Above her something rasped then a belt of leather was pulled between her teeth, wrapped around her head, and fastened firmly.
Panting, she attempted to chew the belt and wished it was Takk instead.
“You are lucky you are not mine, girl, or I would do worse to you than this. You have a dung-heap mouth on you.”
Her tears splashed the flank of the florse. Her anger fell to the ground they traveled over, as useless as her tears.