Glimmering stars shine down on the palace. Floating through space, Bekke’s Pride hums with authority, a beacon of power and elegance in a turbulent galaxy. Staring out a massive viewport at the pinnacle of the palace tower, I gaze downward at the rest of the station, wondering what life thrives below. I’ve been hiding away up here for hours.
No doubt Father is somewhere haranguing the servants to find me and ensure I’m ready. He needn’t worry. A picoscope couldn’t spot a wrinkle in my silky, pure white dress. My stylist saw to my long blonde curls, ensuring not a single hair falls out of place. Sugary scents emanate from the sweet perfume hovering around me like an unshakable haze.
Crystal baubles reflect the starlight as they slowly turn, pulled back and forth by gravity and light. Trophies, gifts, and heirlooms hover in ornate display cases. I’ve seen them a thousand times, though I’ve never been permitted to hold them.
They’re fragile, Lizette. They mustn’t be disturbed.
I’d hoped that turning twenty might earn me some trust; I’ve handled reactor cores and filament fuses far more delicate than any of Father’s prizes. Even he never takes them out of their case, except to reposition them to make room for a new acquisition. Considering how rarely I leave Bekke’s Pride, I know the feeling.
“Lizette!” Father says as the lift doors open. He wears a brilliant blue tunic with matching trousers; his youthful skin and dark hair belie his years, thanks to his frequent regimen of rejuvenation treatments.
“What are you doing up here? Noximus will arrive soon.”
His brow creases. “Aren’t you excited?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Father returns my smile. “Just wanted to be sure, starlight. You know I couldn’t be happier for you—or more proud of you.”
“Thank you, Father.”
He takes my hand and leads me to a bench, where we sit.
“I understand if you’re nervous.”
“I’m not nervous,” I lie.
Father sighs. “Noximus is an intimidating man—”
“I’m not intimidated.”
“Good. You shouldn’t be. I know he’ll be a loving husband and an exceptional provider. But he’s a dangerous man, and his presence puts me on edge. I know this will diminish over time, once we’ve all become more familiar.”
I get up and pace across the observation deck, arms crossed in front of my chest. Father sighs and watches me silently until I stop, as he always does. His patience can be infuriating.
“How can you say that about Nox? He’s been nothing but polite and charming.”
“Yes,” Father sighs. “Too polite and too charming. It doesn’t sit well with me.”
He raises his hands in surrender. “Don’t be mad, Lizette. I’m probably just afraid of losing my little starlight. I have nothing but respect for Noximus and the entire Ikras family. You’ll see: when the news of your union breaks, you’ll be the envy of the entire galaxy. Together, the Ikras and Bekke lines will prosper for generations.”
My stomach squeezes, caving inward from the pressure. I try to reassure myself that all will be fine.
Who wouldn’t want a handsome, powerful husband who will protect me and provide for all my needs? And who better for that than the heir to the Ikrassian Consortium? Women throughout the galaxy have dreamed of being chosen by Noximus; I’m lucky to be the one he wants.
“I know, Father,” I mumble.
“Look,” he says, pointing at one of his treasures, a cube of intricate titanium lattices forged using the heat of a star and the gravity of a black hole. “That was a gift Noximus gave me just for the privilege of asking for your hand in marriage.”
I nod. “He’s a noble, honorable, and generous man.”
Father smirks. “And he has excellent taste.”
A pin on Father’s tunic emits a soft tone, and together we look out the viewport. Distortions in the stars swirl for a moment, then a massive ship emerges from faster-than-light.
“Look at that,” says Father. “He brought his flagship. A beautiful craft.”
But not as nice as ours, he keeps to himself. Bekke Designs make the best ships in the galaxy, even Nox Ikras would be the first to admit, but his ship is still very imposing. Triangular, with dozens of gun batteries and a ridge rising steadily up its length, it looks like a dagger cutting through the darkness.
Father points to a black mark running across the hull. “There’s some scoring. It must have faced battle very recently.”
I nod, hearing my heartbeat louder inside me. A battle! I’ll have to ask him about it.
Father and I ride the lift down to the docking bay to greet our visitors. When the airlock opens, Archon Noximus Ikras stands with his hands at his hips, staring straight ahead with a savage smile. His green eyes glow like radioactive rods. His long, angular chin and thin lips give him an aristocratic appearance at odds with his closely cropped blond hair. A jet black jacket, slacks, and belt comprise the uniform of the Ikrassian Consortium’s upper echelon. Twin compact pistols hang from his sides. Half a dozen members of Nox’s honor guard surround him. Dressed the same as Nox, they wear dark, bulbous black helmets and carry heavy rifles.
“Lord Jhan Bekke, it is an honor to see you again. Lizette Bekke, your presence brings me great joy.”
“Archon Ikras,” says Father, “welcome back to Bekke’s Pride.”
“Please, my lord, I’ve asked you before to call me Nox.”
“Very well, but only if you’ll call me Jhan, as I have asked as well.”
The two men grin and shake hands.
“Were you just in a battle?” I blurt out, immediately blushing.
Nox nods. “Yesterday my fleet captured the planet Wero. Its defenses offered only token resistance. My ship sustained light damage; nothing that can’t be repaired.”
“Good,” I say, trying not to let my sight linger on Nox. Broad-shouldered, tall, and muscular, he boasts the physique of a true warrior. Some people joke that the Ikras fortune buys a lot of artificial muscle stimulant, but I’m not complaining.
“In fact, I’d like to take you aboard World Breaker, Lizette, to see our spoils.”
“Spoils?” My nose crinkles at the word.
“Yes,” says Nox. “We plundered Wero before leaving. I wanted to bring you gifts, of course.”
I’ve never been to Wero, as I understood it not to be rich in resources or much else of interest. What could he have possibly taken from the world to impress me and my father?
“May I go?” I ask.
“Of course,” says Jhan. “I’ll leave you two alone in a moment, but first I’d like to present a gift to you, Nox.” He motions to a large shuttlecraft on the other side of the docking bay. “This is a Bekke 501, my newest design. Designed for luxury as well as speed and durability, with the right pilot it could survive an entire fleet’s battery. Perfect for leading an attack and striking fear into your enemies, while also being a joy to fly. I hope it brings you great success and aids in your conquests.”
Nox takes off one of his black gloves and presses his hand to his chest. “It’s lovely, Jhan. Between your ships and your daughter, everything you create possesses extraordinary beauty. I only hope the gifts I bring Lizette can match a fraction of your generosity.”
Father laughs. “Thank you, Nox. Now, I won’t keep you from Lizette any longer. I’ll speak to you later.”
“Bye,” I wave to Father as he goes.
Nox holds out his hand for me to take. “Come, Lizette. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time.”
“Me too,” I reply, feeling my face flush anew.
He leads me onto World Breaker, surrounded by his guards. They march in perfect synchronization and keep silent. When we reach the cargo hold, we hear the cacophony of thousands of men, women, and children. I cover my nose to mask an unpleasant odor and stare with wide eyes at the throngs of people huddled and milling about.
“Nox, what is all this?”
He squeezes my hand. “The treasure of Wero. Look around. Whatever you want is yours.”
Guiding me through the now quieting horde of Weroans, I see the hundreds of displays of goods. Jewelry, gadgets, artwork, and more rest on tables and stretched-out blankets. Gorgeous gowns and suits hang from racks that seem to go on for miles. Bottles of fine liquor and wine appear in short supply, but food is another story; carts of delicacies have been sorted and stacked high.
“See anything you like?” Nox asks.
“I can have anything?”
He laughs. “You can have all of it, if you want. What belongs to me will soon belong to you.”
Electricity tingles along my finger, where I expect to soon wear a ring.
Nox picks up a thin golden box and pops it open, revealing rows of sweets. “Try this, my love.”
I select a ruby red ball and test it with my teeth; soft and gummy, it releases a fruity warmth. “It’s delicious,” I say, letting the candy melt on my tongue.
He picks one out and chews it, his jaw working quickly. Grinning, he closes the box and tucks it into his arm. “Good choice. What else would you like? How about a necklace to hang over your lovely dress?”
I smile and give a polite nod. He means well, but I have plenty of clothes and jewelry. Father’s friends and associates always bring lavish gifts.
“You’re not impressed, are you, Lizette?” Nox asks, taking my chin in the palm of his hand.
My body tenses, as his gaze bores down on me. “It’s… wonderful. Really!”
Nox sighs. “What was I thinking? You’re used to finery. Forgive me.”
He lets me go, looking out at the cargo bay and shaking his head.
“I’m just happy to see you,” I say, brushing his arm. “I’ve been waiting to spend some real time with my future husband. I don’t need all these gifts, Nox. You’re the gift.”
Leaning over, he kisses my hand. “I could say the same about you. And I promise, my conquests have only just begun. The life I will give you will be richer than any ship full of plunder. Leisure, beauty, and security—you’ll have everything you desire. The galaxy is ours.”
I smile again, blinking quickly.
Just what I’ve always wanted. The galaxy.
It is literally impossible to ask for anything more. This has been my destiny from the day I was born: to be courted by the greatest men in the galaxy, to be wed to the bravest, strongest, and most powerful one of them all. I’ve been patient, though my body has protested. My yearnings have cried out for relief; I long to surrender to a man’s touch. It’s going to happen soon. Oh, so soon. With Nox. The man I love.
“Yes, my love?”
Nox waves his hand across the room. “I didn’t bring all this here for nothing. You have the finest possessions already. But you will need new servants. Pick out a few.”
I look around, trying to spot Consortium staff among the guards. “What do you mean?”
He chuckles. “Them! The Weroans,” he replies, smiling proudly. “Find a few to serve in our new home. Whoever you like.”
Acid surges within my chest and my head fills with air. All these people… they’re not merchants. They’re… I don’t know what they are. Prisoners of war?
“Nox… I don’t think I can.”
He frowns. “You have servants on Bekke’s Pride, don’t you?”
“Yes, but they’re well paid, and it’s a job they chose.”
“I see,” says Nox. “You feel guilty. Don’t. These are Wero’s warriors—they’d kill you if you could. They killed many Consortium soldiers and pilots in their Resistance. In defeat, they chose subjugation over annihilation. Take whomever you wish. They are ours.”
Swallowing bile, I gasp for air. “Warriors? Many of them are children.”
Nox smirks. “Children make excellent servants. They do as they’re told.”
“Lizette, children or not, they’re enemies of the Ikrassian Consortium. If it makes you feel better, bringing you wine and sweets in a palace would be a much finer life than toiling in a Weroan mine. You’d be doing them a favor.”
I turn my back on Nox and march for the exit. “No, thanks!” I call out over my shoulder, wiping tears from my cheeks.
Is this what the galaxy is like outside of palaces and starships? Father kept me so in the dark! Maybe this is just business for the Ikras family, but right now I could weep. The second I get out of earshot, that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Glancing over my shoulder, I see Nox jogging toward me, his guards keeping pace. I stop, sniffing deeply, trying to stay composed.
“I’m sorry if this came as a shock—”
Before Nox can finish, a blast thunders through the ship. The ground beneath us rises sharply, tossing us like fabric dolls. I instinctively throw my arms over my head, protecting my face as I hit the floor. Nox crashes into the ceiling, as do several of his guards. I don’t see them land, as the ships’ lights go out for what feels like forever.
Adrenaline pours through me, and the world moves in slow motion. Thousands of Weroan screams reverberate through the ship, followed by the squawk of emergency klaxons. Then shots ring out.
Sliding on my bruised backside, I scuffle my way to the wall, then lie flat as dozens of soldiers emerge from the docking bay. Except they’re not from the Consortium.
“Nox!” I shriek, seeing my paramour still shaking off the initial blast. “We’re under attack!”
His guards grab him and start dragging him away, but after a second he regains his footing and flees.
“Where are you going?” I shout, my body growing cold. He’s heading in the wrong direction! I’m here!
Then a series of blue bolts sizzle through the air, striking several of Nox’s guards. They crumple to the floor as enemy soldiers swarm around me.
Long green cloaks hang from their silver uniforms. Wearing transparent tactical visors over their eyes and black bandoleers slung from their shoulders, they carry heavy energy rifles. Men and women circle me, their guns pointed.
“Who’s this, Dakara?” asks one of the soldiers. With my head down, all I can see are his gigantic boots and thick calves. “She’s not Weroan.”
I hear a woman’s laugh. “That’s Lizette Bekke, Nox’s bride-to-be.”
“Really?” says the soldier. “Interesting. Squads Beta and Delta, secure the rest of the ship. Alpha, press on for the bridge. I’ll see to our hostage.”
When I look up, it’s just me and him. Massively tall and built like a tank, the soldier regards me with sharp disdain. Strikingly handsome despite his hostile expression, I forget for a moment that he’s a member of the army attacking Nox. Tanned and muscular as if from working outdoors, he looks more like a farmer than a soldier. I could stare at his full red lips and perfect, chiseled cheekbones all day. He glares at me with dark, creased brows that match his short beard. Thick and wavy brown hair reaches down to his shoulders. I get one look at his captivating gray eyes before he picks me up like a toy and throws me over his shoulder. He’s so strong, he lifts me with one hand, keeping the other free to hold his rifle.
“Let’s move,” he tells his squad, holding me in place around my waist.
I can’t tell how many members there are in this squad—the soldier carrying me stands behind the rest, and I’m facing backward. But from the sound of boots on steel, there have to be at least six of them. My only shot is to get loose, run as fast as I can, and look for an escape pod. It’s a drill I’ve practiced hundreds of times, I know where to go. Maybe they won’t catch me. But first I have to free myself.
Feeling the lead soldier’s hard body beneath me, I shout, “Hey, I can walk—”
A hard slap to my backside cuts off my complaint. Through my dress I don’t feel a great deal of pain, but blood rushes to my face, darkening my cheeks.
“Did you just spank me?” I growl, trying to wrench out of his iron grip. Pounding a fist into his armored back does nothing but hurt my hand.
Not breaking his stride, he smacks my ass again. Bucking against his grasp, I hiss, “Put me down now, you—”
“Quiet!” he snaps, giving my rear another firm stroke. “This is still a combat zone. Would you prefer I shoot you now and leave you to rot?”
Unbelievable! Who does this guy think he is? He’s a savage! A brute! Even my father’s bitter rivals treated me with respect. This man knows who I am, and he doesn’t seem stupid; he should have sense enough to know powerful people will fight to rescue me—including Nox.
“I asked you a question,” he says, peppering my ass with stinging swats.
“No, don’t shoot me,” I mumble, my fury growing. Serious or not, how dare he even suggest hurting me?
He spanks my ass again, harder. “Ask me nicely, princess.”
Writhing from the heat and soreness, I huff loudly. He can’t see my sneer, but he will as soon as he puts me down. At least he sent the rest of his squad away, and no one else is here to witness my humiliation.
“I said, ask me—”
“I heard you,” I cut in. “You know what? Go ahead and shoot me, you scum.”
The soldier’s laugh and gait end abruptly, as his squad comes to a halt. I hear a series of buzzing shots as they fire their rifles, followed by two loud thuds.
“Clear,” announces one of the other soldiers.
They continue onward, this time in silence. After a moment I see two Consortium soldiers lying on the floor, energy burns still smoking from their chests.
Shutting my eyes, I try to unsee the grisly image, but it’s too late. Whoever those men were, they’re gone now—they didn’t even have a chance to shoot back. Did they even see us coming? Did they have time to realize they were about to die? I know war leads to unimaginable horrors, and that my father built his fortune on selling ships capable of subjugating entire worlds, but to see even a microcosm of it up close…
“Did you have to kill them?” I say, blinking away tears.
“We didn’t come here to take prisoners.”
I snort. “What about me?”
“You weren’t supposed to be on board,” he replies.
“I wasn’t—What is this? Who are you?”
None of this makes any sense!
“How did you even get on board Nox’s ship?” I ask, my mind racing now. “How did you attack without them spotting you?”
The soldier chuckles. “Such an inquisitive kitten. I’d tell you, but I doubt a pampered princess would understand.”
I have half a mind to bite him or claw out his eyes, to show him I won’t stand for this cruelty.
“Regardless, I can’t tell you that,” he continues. “You don’t tell the enemy your tactics and battle plans. I’m not a moron.”
No, just an asshole. I may as well refer to him as that, seeing as how he hasn’t told me his name. Maybe that’s another one of his tactics.
Moving quickly now, the squad stops at the gateway to the bridge.
“Should we blast it?”
“Try the switch first,” says the leader, setting me down. He doesn’t release my wrist, he clasps it with a rough hand as firm as titanium; he could no doubt snap my bones with a single twist, so I don’t fight.
A soldier tries the control panel, and sure enough the unlocked gate opens, revealing an empty bridge.
“Cowards,” spits the leader. “They ran. Dakara, report.”
“We’ve met little resistance,” she says over the com. “Most have fled, including Noximus. Escape pods are gone. Engine room, batteries, hangar, cargo, and barracks are all secure.”
No! That can’t be! Nox has to be here somewhere, waiting for the right time to strike and save me.
“Very good. Have your team finish up and join me on the bridge right away. World Breaker is ours,” the leader announces, eliciting a chorus of cheers. “Engineer Vur, get us full control of the ship’s systems. Anyone you need to help, they’re yours.”
“Everyone else,” he adds. “See to the Weroans. Distribute food and medical supplies.”
“Yes, Commander!” they shout, then scatter to their tasks.
Commander? I thought this man was just another soldier, or at most a squad leader. He’s not armored or armed more heavily than any other person here. Since when does a high officer enter the fray with common soldiers? It’s idiocy. Even I know that.
“We could go after Nox,” suggests Dakara as she arrives on the bridge. “He wouldn’t be expecting it.”
The commander lets go of me and strokes his beard, and I can see the gears turning in his head. Hopefully steam won’t pour out his ears from the strain.
“No, we wouldn’t know what we’re facing,” he says at last. “It’s too risky. As much as I want to get Nox, that was always a secondary objective. The mission is a success. We have what we came for.”
“Uh, excuse me,” I say. “I thought you said you didn’t expect me aboard.”
The commander nods. “Correct. You think we came for you, Lady Bekke? Typical. We came for the Weroan captives taken by Nox. Or do you not know about the thousands of innocent civilians aboard this ship?”
I turn away, hiding from his gaze. Gritting my teeth, I nod. “Yes, I saw them. If you’re letting them go, you should let me go too.”
“I don’t think so,” he says, tugging my wrist and taking a band of synth weave from a compartment in his armor. “You’re staying with us.”
“Hey!” I cry, now trying to get away, but he holds on and finishes binding my hands behind my back. “You can’t do this!”
He takes me by my shoulders and looks me in the eye. “I have to. I’m Commander Ondru Hok of the United Galactic Resistance, and I’ll do anything for my people—including using a wealthy heiress as a commodity.”
Shit. This morning if I’d been told the UGR had the power to assault and capture a Consortium war cruiser, I would have laughed. Last anyone knew, Ondru Hok was a hopeless vigilante at best and a delusional space pirate at worst. He didn’t have the means to launch a real war against the Ikras family. Calling his collection of buffoons a resistance didn’t make it so—he’d never amounted to more than a thorn in the Consortium’s side. Something had changed, and apparently no one had any idea—least of all Nox.
“Have you even heard of me?” he asks, fixing a metal band around my neck.
“Yes,” I mutter, trying to back away as Ondru attaches a leash to my collar. “They say you’re a joke.”
Ondru smiles, and I can’t help it: my heart skips a beat at how attractive he is. “I’ll bet they’re not laughing now. Dakara, take her to the brig.”
“With pleasure, Commander,” she says, taking the leash and giving it a tug.
“Move, princess,” Dakara grunts, using the leash to force me onward. If I don’t follow, I’ll fall over. With my hands bound, there’s little I can do against an armed soldier. I have no choice but to let her lead me away. But I don’t have to go quietly.
“You’re all going to pay for this,” I seethe. “Nox is going to crush you.”
“Not today, he won’t,” Dakara grunts, yanking my leash again.
“Soon! He’s going to find us and rip you apart!” I keep on launching invective at the woman, but after a while I think she’s tuned me out. I can’t see her face; is she laughing at me? Is she bored? By the time we reach the brig, I still can’t tell. She’s pretty disciplined for a seemingly ragtag insurgency.
“I swear, Nox will be the end of you!” I finish as Dakara removes my leash and seals the energy grid of my cell.
“Enough!” she barks. “A piece of advice, princess: Noximus Ikras is a cruel, craven monster, a cowardly stink on the galaxy’s back. He’s not going to risk his life, his fleet, or his fortune to rescue you. Get used to it.”
“Screw you,” I mutter, squeezing my eyes shut.
Dakara draws a baton and bangs it against the energy grid, causing a wave to ripple across its length. “Listen up. Do as you’re told and your time here will be reasonably painless. Disobey us, and you’ll be punished—severely. Any questions?”
I turn around and show her my still bound hands. “You can’t untie me?”
“No,” she replies, then walks away. I watch her go, half hoping she’ll come right back. Now I realize I should have offered her a deal: smuggle me off this ship and my father will reward her. He must be beside himself right now! He’d pay any ransom to get me back, I know it. But would Dakara accept the deal, or stay loyal to Ondru? I have no idea.
Adrenaline still flowing, I find myself full of energy and no way to use it. I pace back and forth the handful of steps I can in my compact cell, but it only fuels my anger. Grunting and muttering under my breath, I kick at the energy barrier repeatedly, but to no avail. Having my hands restrained adds to my frustration at first, but as I struggle against the tight synth weave, it feels oddly soothing. It actually passes the time a little and takes my mind off my greater predicament.
I try to focus. If I can’t escape, I could die here. What if that bitch Dakara is right, and Nox doesn’t come for me? I have no idea how, but I have to find a way out of here myself.
My feet start to hurt after a few hours; I can’t say for sure how long it’s been. I’d complain, but if not for the ache in my soles, I wouldn’t have any sense of time. I was already hungry, seeing as how I was supposed to eat with Nox, and now my stomach rumbles constantly. I could sit, but I don’t dare. Something could happen at any minute—what if I get my chance to flee but I’m too slow to my feet to make it?
I’m being a moron, I realize. In my fine white heels and dress, I can’t run very fast. Still, my addled mind refuses to concede the idea of escape. It takes Ondru returning with a dozen of his soldiers for dread to fully drag me into the pit of reality.
“Lady Bekke, sorry for keeping you waiting,” he says with a smirk.
“Are you? Are you really?”
He laughs, holding up pinched fingers. “Just a little.”
I narrow my brows and grit my teeth.
“Commander Hok, as a galactic citizen, I have rights that you are violating—”
Dakara snorts. “Nox’s betrothed wants to talk to us about rights.”
“And therefore I demand to be set free,” I continue. “I will need a ship so that I may return to Bekke’s Pride. If you provide one, I will forget this incident occurred and will do my best to convince Nox not to hunt you down.”
Ondru steps up to my cell’s energy barrier and dismisses it with a wave. “You’re not going anywhere.” Unsheathing a knife from his belt, he adds, “Turn around.”
Grateful to be freed from my binding, I do as instructed. He snips the weave with a single, clean stroke—like he’s had practice.
“Now, hands in the air,” he says as Dakara passes him a pair of heavy titanium manacles connected by a short chain.
“Wait,” I sputter, backing into the wall. “You just untied me!”
Ondru nods. “We need to search you for trackers.”
I shake my head vigorously and pat the sides of my dress. “What? No! Where would I hide one?”
Jamming my hand into the first manacle, Ondru sighs. “They could be implanted under your skin. Microscopic devices could be woven into your dress—or even your hair.”
“You are not touching my hair,” I snarl as he slips the chain through a ring bolted into the ceiling. This forces my arm to extend fully over my head. When he secures my other wrist into the cuff, the chain isn’t long enough for me to rest on my already sore feet—I have no choice but to lift onto my toes.
Ondru runs a hand through my long tresses. “You have beautiful hair, Lizette. It’s true, cutting it off would be a travesty. Hopefully, we won’t have to.”
“Fine,” I grunt. “Scan away.” I think I would know if there was a tracking device on me.
Dakara retrieves an omniscanner and leers as she waves it in front of my face. The machine only whirs softly, so she moves on. Sweeping the scanner back and forth, she works her way up and down my arms, then across my chest and down to my waist.
“I told you, there’s no tracker,” I spit.
She continues downward, taking her time and making several passes, listening to the device for any sign of a signal.
“Could you hurry up?” I ask. The muscles in my arms burn, and my toes feel like they could fall off.
“Quiet,” Dakara replies, stopping the scan at my knees. “Listen.”
The scanner emits a faint pulse. Before I can react, the woman lifts my dress and bunches the fabric in her hand. She scans my legs, but the sound goes away, so she tries the cloth again; the pulse returns.
“It’s the dress.”
Ondru retrieves his knife once more. “Hold still.”
“No, no, no!” I shriek, squirming in place.
He presses the flat of the blade between my breasts. “I said, hold still!”
Groaning, I look down at the knife; the cool metal makes me shiver, but I stay myself as best I can. Ondru pulls on my dress and drags the sharp edge into it, shredding it down the center and exposing my bare body.
This is so screwed up. Tears wet my cheeks as Ondru slices through the dress and tears it off of me.
“Throw this out the airlock,” he commands a soldier, who takes the garment and leaves.
“Stop!” I shout. Out the airlock? Do they have any idea how much a dress like that is worth? “Please, stop!” The soldier doesn’t listen though, leaving without a word while the others stare at me. I try to twist around to hide my sex. I’m so exposed; Ondru and his people can see everything, and there’s no way I can prevent it.
The worst part, however, is not my nudity or helplessness; it’s not the pain in my wrists or feet, either. My thighs grow slick as warmth trickles down, my core churning despite the horror of my circumstances, like some kind of stress reaction I’ve never felt before. Having these miscreants see me naked is embarrassing enough; I can’t have them seeing the glisten of moisture between my legs. I press them together, hoping they haven’t already noticed.
“Please, just finish this and let me be!”
“Dakara, anything else?” Ondru asks.
She gives the scanner one last wave, then shuts it off. “We’re clear.”
“Good. Are there any medics available? She should be given an examination.”
“They’re busy tending to the Weroans.”
Ondru runs his hand up my side. “I’ll see to it myself then. I know the basics.”
“Hey, I’m fine,” I grunt. “I don’t need a doctor, or whatever it is you think you are.”
He steps around me, feeling and poking me nearly everywhere. When he grabs my knees and spreads my legs, I gasp and try to force them back together, but Ondru’s too strong.
Looking away, I try willing my fluids to stop dripping as his finger runs across my sensitive folds. Giving in, I turn back to see him examining the shine on his index finger. He smirks, but mercifully keeps his mouth shut, moving on to the rest of my body.
“You didn’t sustain any injuries in the attack?”
“No. I’m fine.”
He reaches up to the cuffs on my wrists, but then clasps my hands in his fists. “Your skin is very soft. If I had to guess, I’d say you’ve never done a day of hard labor in your life. You’ve never toiled in a field under the hot sun, not even for a day, have you?”
For some reason, my cheeks flush with embarrassment. He’s right—I haven’t. What child of a starship magnate would? This should be patently obvious. Yet, his speculation stirs a fresh sense of outrage and hatred.
“What do you think?” I snap. “It’s not my fault I was born into greatness. I won’t apologize for it.”
Finally, Ondru releases the cuffs and catches me before I fall. His massive arms hold me up like I weigh less than a pillow. I sigh, letting my body go limp—so much of me hurts, it’s a relief not to have to stand.
“No, there’s no need to be sorry for that. But why do you think Noximus attacked and plundered Wero? Why do you think he brought his haul to your doorstep? It was to impress you. He committed countless atrocities to win your father’s blessing to marry you.”
Now I twist until I fall out of Ondru’s arms, landing on my hands. I crouch down and back into the corner, covering myself. “That’s not true. Nox is a good man.”
He turns to his soldiers and gestures for the door. Without a word, they march out. “You still really believe that?”
Ondru retrieves my leash and more synth weave. “Then it’s time to open your eyes.”