Was it only yesterday I’d called the men at the meeting sycophant pricks?
Yes, yes, it was. My mouth sometimes did things I disapproved of later. Satisfying though, as in very.
Dr. Juliette Domino. The lamp illuminated the card clipped to the top corner of the document. Gold-embossed, and terribly official looking. It was a shock whenever I saw it in the real.
I’d given those papers to the mayor of Ashen.
It had been such an informal gathering: myself standing, dressed in my Library Agent uniform, and four men seated, in a low-ceilinged room above the town tavern, with the sounds of drunken patrons filtering up through the plank floor. The entire décor, theme, aura—or whatever it was termed—had rumbled male at me. Aggressively so. From the moment I entered, I’d felt uncomfortable.
A tavern was an insult, same as the gravy marks on my papers.
It was supposed to be an official meeting of the town administrators and myself.
The mayor settled my papers on his lap then smiled at me.
The tavern owner, with his scarred and grizzled face. That man surely had no good reason to be present?
The police captain. He was an elected official, and unlikely to know which end of a law was up or down.
A fourth, unnamed man sat in the shadows, in the left-hand corner at the back of the room.
“Request denied.” The mayor’s words were emotionless when he handed back my documents. His only words, apart from when he greeted me.
The most important assignment from the Library since I qualified, and they dared deny it?
I frowned. “You cannot reasonably deny me access to the satellite crash site.”
The fourth man sat forward and said, “Yes, we can. Go home, Dr. Juliette.”
Their answer cemented my determination. The rumors seemed true—the Crown was encroaching on Library matters.
Simply using my first name was too intimate, and probably deliberate.
I glared, with my jaw muscles so taut it hurt. I told them they couldn’t do this, then I added, loudly and perhaps inadvisably, “You are simpletons if you think you can deny this.”
Huge Library was the prime education site on the planet, let alone the Kingdom of Montague. The day our world’s computer network was nerfed, on Quarantine Day, the knowledge held there was scattered and disconnected, but it was almost… almost all still there hidden away in the archaic systems. Dig hard enough and you could unearth tech buried for two hundred years. Monarchs did not deny my Library, let alone these paltry idiots.
Someone laughed. The tavern owner visibly leered. His gaze sauntered down me, dwelling on my chest and legs, and between them. Impertinent man.
The scarlet leggings, white shirt, navy-blue coat with the Library emblem on the pocket, and ankle boots suddenly felt as if they exposed too much. Wearing a sack would have been wiser, but also stupider. I narrowed my eyes, firmed my stance, no matter that it might thrust my chest forward.
Damn them. Damn them to Hades and back.
A woman should not have to bear such insults just because of her sex.
“Denied. Again,” Shadow Man said. “Fuck off home, girl. We have judged your request and it is not in the best interests of the town.”
I could see his face now—thick, vulgar lips and stiff white hair that sat up an inch from his head. The backs of his fingers bore tattoos that resembled those of a noble family.
Here was the Crown representative and doubtless the enforcer of some noble I couldn’t place.
“Judged? What do you mean judged! You sycophant pricks!” Oh, that was hasty and wrong.
Shaking with anger, I ripped the papers from the mayor’s hand, turned on my heel, and stalked out. As I shut the door, someone shouted, “Stay away from that area!”
How to make an enemy with one word? Call them a prick. Who was I fooling? They already despised me, even as they ogled my tits. God, how I hated that combination. Pricks indeed.
In the hallway and out of sight, I gave them the finger.
I was young, a well-trained agent, and I was in the right. Those pompous… men—even in my mind that came out livid—did not say no to me.
If they pushed me, physically turned me away, I would bring in Library lawyers and soldiers. Still, was I being foolish? Probably. But this was such an important find it brought tears to my eyes when I imagined deserting it.
Within a week, the crashed Overwatch satellite up in the hills outside of Ashen would be swarming with tech-scrap merchants. And possibly mauleon scavengers. The border with the mauleon Snaar kingdom was only a few miles away across the mountains, as the crow flies.
Mauleons were scarier than these men. Big, brutal, and barbaric. The three Bs, with added claws. And bite. Correction, four Bs.
Why would they want to stop me from preserving the wreck?
Money? It had to be that. Or power. Everything came down to money and power. I had learned that when a child.
It would be money or power, or both. I may have stepped into something dangerous.
I dragged my thoughts back to this night, to now. Beyond the dying embers of our fire, the riding and pack florses were restless. The hybrid horses ruffled their nonfunctional little wings, stamping their hooves. Faint gold tinged their edges, haloing their hair and wing feathers. Daylight fell somewhere between too early and too late in autumn, and the sky was very reluctantly fading into the yellows and grays.
As stubborn as I was, really.
I sighed and returned to my task, leaning my elbow on my knee to steady my hand as I folded the papers and tucked them into an envelope. The red wax seal of Huge Library had been cracked when the mayor opened it. He’d left smudges on everything. Possibly gravy.
I should have called him an asshole too.
After turning off the lamp, I uncrossed my legs and stretched out on my sleeping bag, wriggling to find the best spots for hip, shoulder, and butt. I was fully dressed apart from my boots, just in case we needed to exit, fast. The rocks and lumps beneath my bedding had not been evident when we made camp.
“Fuck.” I muttered that softly, to no one. None of the men could have heard.
I wasn’t cursing the ground. Although I preferred my feather bed, I would rather be here beneath the stars than twirling about in a gown, gyrating to the latest music fad.
Five armed helpers were with me on this research trip. Three were hired locally, but the men the Library had sent were more dedicated to the cause. I sneaked the laz pistol from under my thin pillow, tapped and eyed the power button. The faint green glow of a sensor meant the battery was good for a few more days.
Everyone had bedded down, except for the man I’d placed on watch. His silhouette was reassuring. Cradling a laz rifle, he sat atop a heap of twisted metal—the remains of a missile-blasted car. I could almost distinguish the rest of the men by the sound of their snores.
We were only a few hours’ cart ride from the site, as long as the roads were good.
Tomorrow, I would send a man back to telegraph the Library for funds for greater armed protection. I’d question Joel who might have good advice. Jumping into this feet first would be stupid.
Stay away. Those emotive words echoed in a loop, inside my head, oozing foreboding. What were those bastards up to?
The Overwatch battle-sats were coming down one by one.
Two hundred years ago, they had obliterated our machinery, factories, and technology from above. One day to take out every car, truck, train, and plane with laser and missile. Factories had been turned into smoking holes in the ground.
The satellites still watched us. Anything that resembled large tech was zapped—Boom. Cottage industries had sprung up. Tech was created in houses and underground bunkers.
The sats had circled our planet for two hundred years, and yet nobody knew why we’d been rejected by the rest of the galaxy. Now, old age seemed to be killing the sats. I needed this one. I needed its data.
With that, I could calculate a more precise time for the last day, when Quarantine ended.
One day we would hold a tablet in one hand and communicate a wealth of knowledge to others with the tap of a finger. The ancient one in my second pack had no other devices to talk to. Batteries were scarce. Recharging it was dicey.
Two hundred years ago I could have bought a battery, easily, at a small corner shop.
Mind drifting into darkness, I shuffled my hand and recaptured that gun butt, nuzzled the pillow, then I sighed and let everything… go.
Remember. Tomorrow, message the Library.
Something woke me. A scuffle, a change of the shadows?
I sat up quickly, drowsy but shaking myself loose from sleep.
My eyes strained to see. Moonlight glanced off grass stalks and the canvas of the equipment cart, off trees, off the shifting florses. There, a glint of something moving?
The car wreck where the man had been stationed was deserted.
The sounds crystallized into something recognizable.
From the grunts and thuds and then the rolling figures several yards away, I realized a fight was happening.
And I’d lost my hold of the pistol sometime during the night.
Silently screaming, I scrambled to find the gun and instead found my pillow. I flipped it aside. With my palms, I patted the earth, the tufts of grass, my bedding. I hoped and prayed I hadn’t flung aside the gun too.
My hand slapped something hard.
A man grunted again, coughed, groaned. There were wet thuds. The sounds shot a chill through me.
The hard round shape of the pistol materialized and I wrapped my hand around it. My questing finger found the trigger even as I pushed myself onto one knee, my body lurching.
But there was nothing visible to shoot.
Silence swept the site.
No snoring or breathing, no noises at all apart from my quietly gasped inhales and exhales. The darker mounds where men had rested were flatter than they should be. They’d left or been dragged away. This place reeked of death or desertion.
I dared not speak, then I heard the slow thud of hooves. A jangle to my right made me adjust my stance and pivot on foot and knee. My wavering gun barrel pointed the way as I rose to my feet and advanced in a half-crouch.
Should I say something? Yell? It would draw attention and that was surely bad, for I was convinced I was alone except for whoever had been fighting. I could shoot a bullseye half a field away, maybe while standing on my head… if I could see it.
My hand felt cold and numb.
Where had they gone? Were they all dead? I should have listened, left the town, gone home.
I should’ve left this for someone else to sort out.
I bit my lip and tamped down the panic.
Be quiet. Get a florse, ride away.
That is what they wanted of me. I could return with reinforcements… though it would take me a week or more.
My bare foot hit something soft. Crouching lower, I found a shirt, then a man’s chest, and higher up… were two staring eyes. Motionless staring eyes. The moonlight was weak but bright enough to let me see who this was.
He was a friend of sorts and one of the two soldiers who accompanied me from Huge Library. He’d carried my bags the morning I departed. We’d spoken at length about his wife, his pets…
My throat tightened at the memory, and I yanked my hand away. My heartbeats thundered.
Leaving became immensely more important. Whoever this was, these attackers, these fuckers, they had murdered my friend.
Living another day was better than dying here.
To panic or not to panic, that is the question.
As I scanned my surroundings, I paraphrased the ancient Earth scribe.
Panic, of course.
I resumed my slow, crouching walk and headed toward the hobbled florses. I only needed one. Pebbles and sticks hurt my feet and at least one pierced the skin as I walked, whisper quiet.
I flinched but uttered not a word, not a sound.
Whoever was out there, I prayed they were looking anywhere but in this direction.
With a rope found, I unknotted it from the ground peg and held out a hand toward the muzzle of the questing florse. It shied back a step, tossed its head.
“You know me,” I whispered.
Please, please, come to me.
It took a forward step, ducked its head for a pat. I reached out—
Someone wrapped their hand about my neck, the grip tightening until I retched. Then their arm hooked around me. They choked me as they hauled me backward into their body. Tripped then pushed, I was thrown into the ground, face-first. The gun was ripped away, almost breaking my finger. I yelped at the sharp pain.
A boot slammed into my back, air wheezing from my lungs.
In my head, I cursed them as they pulled my wrists behind me, tying them together with what felt like leather cord.
“Got her!” the man above sang out, casually grinding his boot into my back. “Got you.” He chuckled. “Smart bitch, hey? You almost made it onto a florse.”
I heard them approach. Men. Several men, from the heavy sound of their boots, and the snap of twigs and the crush of dirt underfoot. There was deep-voiced muttering, then laughter.
“Quiet! Pull her up. Let me see the girl.”
Dragged up by my hair and wrists, with pain spiking in my scalp and shoulders, I struggled to straighten myself, to get my feet under me.
“Ahhh, yes. It is her. Good. Hello, my foolish and stupid girl. What do you say now?”
Foolish and stupid mean the same thing, you idiot. My black humor reared its head. I said nothing, still hoping to escape.
A lamp was switched on and in the glare of yellowish light, with my eyes adjusting, I saw him.
White hair and sharply cut. Shadow Man, with four other men around him. I recognized two of my hired ex-helpers.
My legs shook violently. I’d never faced such fear.
“No words? You were so defiant. You just had to come here despite being told not to? Was that wise, to ignore our judgment?”
His contempt stirred me to answer. “The Library will have your head.”
“You think? Look where your defiance got you.” He gestured and beside his boots the blood-soaked pale shirt caught my eye.
Joel lay there, cold and dead. Stabbed in the chest, I supposed, from the damage to his shirt. What had happened that anyone, Crown or noble, thought they could get away with this?
“Murderer,” I said quietly, even though staying silent was the wiser choice. “Murderer! You will be judged! All of you!”
“Shut up.” He drew back a hand and swung it even as the man behind me tightened his grip on my hair. The slap smacked my face sideways, blasting pain across my skin. I gasped. Tears sprang up, blood stung and welled inside my mouth.
“You are going to be sold to our neighbors, unless you annoy me again. If you do, I will have you killed. Understand me?”
He meant the mauleons, who loved to sell and whore out humans. Not that humans behaved any better.
Never would I allow such dishonor to befall me.
I snarled then, lurching forward, spitting blood and saliva in his face, the red splatters across his cheek stark in the lamplight. I grinned at him. “Damn you! I don’t care!”
His anger flared, his lips drawing back from his teeth, nostrils dilated. Then he seemed to regain his composure. “You are a fucking little…” He took a gun from the man beside him, drew it high, and aimed at my forehead.
The man behind me stepped aside, somewhat briskly. I did not blame him. I steeled myself, determined not to show my fear.
He held the gun at my head for a long moment, then grunted. “Strip her. All of you can have her before we kill her. Aren’t you lucky?” He studied me, and I struggled to look unconcerned. Maybe that was stupid.
I was ready to pee myself.
“A small wound to make you regret your idiocy? This has bullets, not laz. Messy.” The gun was lowered until he targeted my knee.
The man was a sadist.
I shut my eyes and tensed, unsure if he meant it. With this close a shot, it would shatter my knee into a hundred pieces. I might even bleed out.
I had doomed myself and I regretted my words, and yet I did not. Bravery was when you did something despite your fears. If I had to die, better by this, by a human hand and a human gun, than sold and killed by being ravished by mauleons. The largeness of their male members would tear any woman apart.
“Stop! She is promised to us, and I will have her.”
Those words were barked out, with an assumption that all would obey.
Who was that?
I knew though. I just willed it not to be true.
“Promised?” Shadow Man seemed amused.
I looked past him.
This was why the moonlight had lessened. This creature had blotted it out like a storm cloud shrouding the sun, but I couldn’t yet make out much more than that.
“Yes,” the creature said.
“You were paid, not promised.”
“Either way, it’s done. You go back on your word?”
“I was never going to shoot her,” Shadow Man muttered. “I just wanted to make her wet her panties. You can have her. Take her to the man in Snaar whose name I gave you. The rest of the price will be paid when he receives her. She must never return, never be able to speak of this.”
“Everything we agreed on will be done.”
Shadow Man raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
My focus rose shakily, trying to follow and decipher the dark form. The lamplight barely reached where the newcomer stood and the lines and hollows left me guessing. He was much taller than Shadow Man. The contours on his lower body were fashioned by muscle not cloth. His gray leggings clung intimately to the hard edges of muscle—and to groin.
My pulse thumped and my mouth remained open. I knew what was in front of me.
He came forward into the lamplight, and I swallowed in fright.
Wide cheekbones, fangs denting his lower lip, and the hand that weighed on Shadow Man’s shoulder brandished black claws. Those claws slid half a finger length from their sheaths—those were death-dealing weapons. They pricked my lesser enemy. Shadow Man twitched as the points dug in.
This creature though? Not so good.
I’d met them before, as well as huleons—the human-mauleon hybrids. But this was something quite different than merely passing one in the town square or market.
He looked as solid as a mountain. As he stepped closer, leather creaked, the butts of his pistol and shoulder-slung rifle swayed. The heat of his body reached my skin. “Are you afraid of me, human?”
I took a few seconds to rally myself. “It’s, umm, Dr. Juliette Domino. And no, I am not.”
“Juliette Domino, you are a liar. I can read humans. The quiver of your lip, the way you stare at my fangs. Other… things.” He smiled and his long teeth pressed deeper into his lip. “The rigidity of your nipples?” His hand reached out, and he anchored a claw at the neckline of my shirt. With a small tug, he split my shirt down the middle. “Though perhaps that has other causes?”
My cheeks flamed hot. I’d not blushed like this since I was a teenager.
Shadow Man chuckled.
Saying fuck you would surely get me killed for real, this time, so I held my tongue.
Flustered, I looked everywhere but into the mauleon’s eyes. His thick neck was like wrought iron where it met his shoulders, curls of tawny hair escaping his pale shirt.
His claw remained, weighing down my shirt.
I’d become property. It was not legal, but no one was ever likely to know what had become of me. If I ran, he could catch me in a few strides. Or someone might shoot me.
Which was preferable here? Being dead or a captive?
I imagined soil being thrown on my eyes as they buried me, still alive and in pain from some horrible wound. My resolve drained away. I did not want to die, nor did I wish to be taken to Snaar to become a whored-out slave.
Thankfully, the mauleon removed his hand from my shirt.
Perhaps if I begged, Shadow Man would take me back and allow me to live?
“Please?” I croaked. “Not this. I am human as are you… Sir. These are our enemies!”
“We’re not at war anymore.” Shadow Man smiled thinly, handing the weapon back to his man, who holstered it and retreated.
“It’s an interesting request, Dr. Juliette, but as Rom said, the deal is done. You’re his until he delivers you. I will be imagining your fate—being reamed by random mauleons with huge cocks—and using it to lull myself to sleep, for months to come.” He did an elaborate hand gesture as if we were at court, then he backed away.
That and his air kiss had me fuming.
The lamp’s illumination receded along with the humans, though a mauleon turned on a flickering light of some sort.
Shadow Man meant to wank himself to sleep over this. Me and this… I regarded the daunting creature again. His name was Rom.
My betrayers were leaving and, irony of ironies, I wanted to go with them. Though murderers, they were at least human.
As a woman I was sometimes forced to recognize that I was weaker than men, but here and now was entirely new territory.
Two other mauleons loomed into view behind Rom. Most humans thought their race fearsome, arrogant, and lesser in intelligence. If they won a battle against us, it was by strength or luck. Given time, perhaps I could outsmart them and escape.
I tested the leather fastening my wrists, strained against it, but nothing gave—if anything it tightened, and my hands began to throb.
I heard my previous captors ride away. It was as if, with the last jingle of tack, clop of hoof, and murmur of their voices, they took with them the last of my tenuous connection with humanity, my grounding in reality, my world.
I felt tiny, scared, and so very alone.