In the early times, Orius had been one of the highest ranking worlds in the Light Orbit federation. Over time, the planet’s economic growth had stagnated and corruption in banking and public affairs had become the norm. Laws had also become more restrictive as fear rose among its inhabitants that Orius would lose its status in the universe. Highborn men and women were expected to demonstrate loyalty to their home world by marrying within their own class to consolidate wealth and power. As such, young women had curfews to prevent an unsavory connection with off-world visitors or lower-born Orium men.
Zawri pushed her sandy blonde hair deeper into its jeweled clasp. She’d had to dress hurriedly, but didn’t want that to show. She stood silently outside the empty chamber where her younger sister had been kept prisoner the day before.
“Where is my sister now?” Zawri demanded, her heart thumping uncomfortably in her chest.
Urcolin, the banker magistrate, folded his arms over his rotund belly. “She’s made an accusation. And you’ve made a statement that supports it?”
Her sister, Gissandre, had been out after curfew. She’d been found in a state of undress in a cave with a foreign warrior. If she hadn’t claimed to have been abducted, she could have been publicly punished and made a slave. Even their family estate could have been in jeopardy if Zawri had been found negligent as Giss’s guardian.
The magistrate would have liked nothing more than to turn Giss into a slave girl on his own estate. Zawri would do anything to prevent that from coming to pass.
“It was a misunderstanding, no doubt. There was a terrible storm,” she said impatiently. “I’m sure the foreigner was trying to help her get to shelter.” The bankers were putting tremendous pressure on her. Her sister had been moved and was still being held. The accused warrior had also been taken into custody. He would likely bear up well under stress at least. He’d reportedly been trained by the fierce Ketturans who lived on a jungle planet full of raptors.
“You give him more benefit of the doubt than he’s entitled to under the law. Besides, she’s a beautiful girl. A foreign warrior took her into a cave and spent unsupervised time with her. His companions are unsavory looking. And one a former slave? I won’t be surprised if their papers prove false. How are we to know whether they intended to capture several girls to sell into slavery? It’s happened on other worlds, you know. And frankly, I call your judgment as guardian into question if you don’t want this investigated to the fullest.”
Zawri winced, swallowing against a lump in her throat. She was very neatly trapped. If she denied that her younger sister had been held against her will, Giss might be savaged. But if she asked for an exhaustive inquest, either the truth would be uncovered or an innocent man would be punished. “I’ve made my statement. I still assert that it could have been a misunderstanding. You’ll have the medical report that she was untouched and unharmed.”
“Can’t harm the goods if one is planning to sell them. Did he take her without her consent?”
She felt bile rising in her stomach. “Yes,” she said.
The young man Gissandre had been found with stood in the center of the square. He was tall with broad shoulders and tan skin. His piercing green eyes scanned the crowd. He had unruly sun-streaked hair and a face like those on the statues of mythic heroes in an Endricane museum.
“I want his sentence to be brief. He doesn’t speak our language. He may not have known he did the wrong thing. The examination proved she’s untouched; I’ll pay the fine myself,” Zawri said to the magistrate.
Two black-haired men approached. One wore a sleeveless skin shirt, his bulging arm muscles displayed. The other had a small star tattooed on his left cheekbone and a small silver ring studded with black stone chips in his earlobe. The face tattoo and earring announced to everyone who saw it that he’d been a slave who’d reclaimed his freedom. His dark eyes were dangerously sharp when they rested on her.
He spoke with a rough-edged accent. “He won’t need a fine paid if you tell the truth, seka.”
She winced. Seka was the slave word for a slave owner.
“My family doesn’t own slaves,” she said, certain that her expensive clothes, which marked her as wealthy, had made him assume she was like many others of her class.
“He didn’t kidnap the girl. He saved her,” the man said.
“Silence, foreigner!” Urcolin shouted. “Or you’ll join your friend. He admitted through an interpreter that he carried her into the cavern.”
“There was a storm!” the former slave said. Then he looked again at her.
“I believe that he didn’t mean her harm. But there are rules and he—” she said.
“She accused him. Do you stand by that? Do you claim to have seen it?” the former slave demanded.
“I—yes, he took her against her will.” There was nothing else she could say. The statement had been given.
The former slave whispered something. His companion’s gaze leveled on Zawri. The man raised his arm to show a gold and amber tattoo of a hunter’s blade on the inside of his bulging bicep. He pointed at it, and her heart pounded. There was an implied threat to the gesture.
“She’s young,” she whispered, not sure that the hunter understood. These men were likely her own age, making them in their early to middle twenties, but they were also clearly seasoned hunters and warriors. Gissandre would have to be hidden away because there was no doubt in Zawri’s mind that the hunter and the former slave were planning revenge.
The magistrate asked the accused whether he regretted what he’d done.
The young man spoke calmly. The translator cleared his throat. “He says, ‘No crime. Therefore, no regret.’”
“Take him. Put him within the enclosure in the Wilds. After the imprisonment term concludes, he can buy his way out.”
“The prisoners in the Wilds have formed tribes,” a court officer said. “They don’t accept Linzens or Ketturans. He has the genes and the markings of both.”
“No Ketturan-trained warrior can be held for long in a walled prison. They escape or die trying. The Wilds is the only place for him,” Urcolin said.
“They’ll kill him in the Wilds,” the officer added with a grim expression. “His kind would interfere with the order that’s developed.”
The magistrate shrugged, and Zawri’s head swam. Not death! His sentence should’ve been light. She’d been willing to pay his fines. Her sister’s medical exam had proven he hadn’t raped her.
“This is wrong!” she said. “You can’t do this!”
Before she could say more, she was pulled indoors by her hired advisor.
“No! Let me go back out and speak. I want to change my statement.”
“No!” her counsel said, pushing her into a chair and physically preventing her from rising. “It’s too late. You did what you had to do to protect her. It’s over.”
She ducked under his arm and rushed out. But when she returned to the square, the accused was gone. On a distant glider, she spotted his friends.
“Wait,” she called to Urcolin, who was entering his bank.
“If your sister made a false accusation, please get her to correct it. Lying wayward girls need to be checked. Several of us have places in our households. I certainly do.”
Zawri felt the blood draining from her. The threat of an unwanted match was the reason her sister had been out past curfew in the first place. Changing a false statement would not only result in her being given immediately to the magistrate or a councilmember, but it would mean she would be subject to potentially extreme discipline. The banker magistrate was rumored to be very cruel to his slaves.
“I will speak to my sister about her statement to be certain it’s been worded exactly correct. A life is at stake, after all. Hold the young man in a cell until I can talk with her.”
He ignored her request, adding instead, “The council has called into question your ability to act as guardian. Several of us think you yourself should be under protection and guidance. Quicknon has started inquiry proceedings. If you want a quiet ending with the foreign warrior released now, then admit privately to her false statement and your own need for a guardian.”
This is what they’d been working toward. Getting control of the family’s financial and land resources and of her and her sister’s bodies. Becoming wards of Quicknon and Urcolin would be a sentence worse than death. She would have to find another way, aside from reneging on their statements, to save the young warrior.
Canypscan men generally fell into three professions: sailors, smugglers, or pirates. Because of the two latter lines of work, if even a child was caught out of bounds, they were often jailed or sold as slaves. Not having warriors or an army, Canypsco had no force to fight their unfair treatment.
Wex had been exploring beyond a stone boundary when he’d been taken and sold into slavery at fourteen. His brother, Tokurn, had liberated him from captivity at sixteen. They’d held many professions since. They’d worked on farms and as off-world tribesman or mercenaries at first in order to prevent detection while they earned money to buy Wex out of his slave bond. Realizing that even with Tok’s growing success as an elite hunter, it would take too long by honest work, they’d started raiding and robbing corrupt slave owners. That funded the purchase of their first spaceship and their career as successful pirates was established.
It took six years to pay off the slave bond. Now that Wex was a free man again, he and Tokurn had returned to the skies and the seas with a vengeance. Wealthy slave owners, particularly those who took children, were their favorite target.
At the moment, however, the treasure they were after was a teal-eyed liar with luscious breasts. It had been seven months since they’d seen her last.
“Let’s rob everyone,” Wex said, leaning back in his chair. “Plenty of slave owners will be on board.”
“We don’t have room in the walls,” Tok said, referring to the smuggling holds behind the navigation grid in the control room. The storage cubes were already full from their last haul.
“We don’t have to keep their wealth. We can scatter it in an asteroid belt.”
Tok sighed. “We could, but, for this, we want stealth. We already decided.”
“If the corrupt magistrate’s on board, Larsinc has a right to cut his throat,” Wex argued. “I say room-to-room search. When we leave, let them chase us. If they do, I’ll set a course and let them catch us in the outer banks where other ships will attack with us.”
Tok exhaled. “We’re not here to wage war.”
“Speak for yourself,” Wex said, stretching his legs out. “They deserve a full assault. Let Larsinc say he wants the magistrate, and I’m behind him.”
“I’ll find the magistrate in due time,” Larsinc said. “Tonight, I only want the sister.”
The brothers turned to find their friend standing in the doorway. He moved as silently as a bird in flight. That stealth had served him well. He was alive, no thanks to the magistrate’s sentence. But the seven months in the Wilds had whittled him down to skin and sinew. The animals and tribes had also left their marks on him.
Wex’s fury reignited every time he looked at him. “If she’s all you want right now, so be it. Your will is rule of law in this.”
The Orium First Families Council was being held on a luxury space liner, as it had been for the past three years. Zawri suspected that Urcolin and Orium Councilman Quicknon were being paid an incentive to lock in the unnecessarily expensive location.
Zawri had declined the previous invitations twice before being forced to accept by her neighbors this time. Her presence was necessary for a full quorum for several of the votes. She never wanted to see Magistrate Urcolin socially, let alone to dance with him, but avoiding him after dinner would be an issue. She knew he would grill her with questions about which school Giss had been sent to. She pushed away her drink. She had no intention of letting her guard down in such treacherous company.
On principle, she’d requested that she not be served food that was harvested on four of the worlds with the most barbaric practices for capturing and keeping slaves. She suspected her restrictions had been ignored, so she was contemplating the dilemma of whether to waste her food by leaving it untouched or to eat it and resolve to block further travel on a luxury liner.
One of her neighbors made a disapproving face at her full dish. She didn’t care about their disapproval. She had always been against slavery, but she’d worked actively in opposition of it only recently. Now she’d garnered the help of freed slaves to slip resources to the tribes in the Wilds in exchange for their promise not to hunt and kill the young Ketturan warrior. It was the best she could do. No mercenary had been willing to enter the Wilds to ally with him.
The rail-thin, sharp-featured Quicknon stroked his pointed beard as he leaned forward. “If you’re not hungry for food, what are you hungry for, girl?”
A flush stained her cheeks. Quicknon, Urcolin, and her neighbors had gotten increasingly aggressive in their interactions with her. It had been a mistake to turn to her neighbors for help in housing and concealing Gissandre early on. Zawri had been worried about a quick return of the warrior’s friends, so she’d relied on others of her class until she could make more permanent and safer living arrangements for Giss. It was getting increasingly perilous for Zawri to be alone on Orius.
Urcolin took a vacant seat next to her. “I anticipate that Gissandre will be home for the festival season?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so. She’s settling into school. A transfer is hard.”
He frowned. “You know, she and I had come to an understanding. I expect to see her before year’s end.”
“An understanding? That’s not legal without my consent.”
“It will be legal now. She’s come of age. A nineteenth birthday just days ago.”
Zawri stiffened. In an instant, she made her decision. After the end-of-year trade, she would collect her sister from the off-world school and sell their estate on Orius. It would be a heart-wrenching endeavor to leave their home and its memories, but she would not risk either of them falling under the control of a vicious man.
“If you don’t intend to bring her home, perhaps I’ll make a trip to see her. Upon which world is her current school?” he demanded. “I’ve been making inquiries, but you can save me time.”
“Forgive me. I’m tired,” she said, pushing back from the serpentine counter where the food was displayed to advantage.
“Sit back down, girl,” Quicknon said, reaching for her arm.
She ignored him, snatching her arm out of reach. She fled, hurrying to her room before anyone could stop her.
She locked the door. In the morning while they slept in, she would get off the dreaded luxury liner. She would travel for a time so she wouldn’t be available for her neighbors to call upon. It was a game of avoidance and retreat. To win, she must escape.
She didn’t remove the silky gown because she worried Quicknon might pay a servant to unlock her door during the night. She didn’t want to be caught in a shift that could be torn away easily. Claiming her body and reporting the union as consensual would be the quickest way to take possession of her permanently. Others might help him with false statements. At the moment, no one could be fully trusted.
She lay down under a light blanket, still in the expensive jeweled layers. She wished again bitterly that she’d taken action sooner, long before Gissandre ever went to walk by the sea after curfew.
Zawri woke to a hand over her mouth. She screamed against it and fought, but strong hands dragged her up.
No! No! No! she screamed in her mind, struggling hard to free herself. She kicked and scratched like a valley cat.
In the end, she was bound within her sheet and something earthy and cylindrical was forced into her mouth and secured, rendering her mute. A length of fabric wound around the lower half of her face, muffling her furious sounds.
She vowed to kill Quicknon when she got the chance. He might rape her, but he wouldn’t kill her. And that would be his mistake.
She was swung over a shoulder and jostled as she was carried. Certainly it wasn’t Quicknon carrying her. Predictably, he’d hired men to do the physical work he required. She swung her legs, trying to dislodge herself. A sharp swat on her backside gave her pause.
The feel and sound of rushing air startled her. Why were they in the hold? Only the captain could launch a pod to the surface. It required permission. Was Quicknon planning to abduct her and force her to marry him? Had he paid the captain of the vessel to launch a pod?
Her eyes adjusted to the low light, and she became still. She was not in a pod. She was being carried through a retractable docking hall. The legs of the man who carried her were long, muscular, and covered in stretch-weave. Quicknon and his friends never wore skin suits. They claimed it was because it was worn only by the lower classes, but she suspected the real reason was that they were too fat and soft or too thin and self-conscious to wear the fabric that revealed without mercy how fit a man was or wasn’t.
A metal door slid open at the end of the temporary docking hall. Entering a ship, she stared down at the braided metal floor. The design would have been excessively expensive on any private ship other than that of a kinsman to a craftsman who could work the metal in such a fashion.
With a sinking stomach, she realized what that must mean. She’d been kidnapped. By pirates.