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Brit woke slowly, luxuriating in silken sheets as she took a drowsy accounting of her circumstances: One, it was morning. Two, she was naked. And three, she was lying in a strange bed.
A real bed. Compared to the one in her quarters on board the CSS Vengeance, the bed was lavish, big enough for three or four. It appeared, however, that only one other person shared the mattress. What was his name again?
Brit rolled onto her side to view her bedmate. Did it matter what she called him? She'd tolerate his company for perhaps another night or so before he became another pleasant memory from shore leave like all the others before him.
She reached out and moved a curl from his forehead. No lines of worry marred that perfect, golden skin. He'd never needed to block out the screams of battle, nor grimaced at the horrors of war. No, this man existed in a sort of perpetual shore leave: all pleasure, no pain. He was almost pretty, she decided, but well-builtshe would not have chosen him otherwise. His dark hair was tousled; his lips were full, stopping this short of feminine. She preferred a more manly mouth. Ah, but he'd used it well. There was time for him to use it again, too, before she deserted him for breakfast.
On her belly, she slid closer and licked his jaw. "Wake up
" Whatever your name is
He stretched and smiled, then rolled her onto her back. Two long, thin slashes marred his shoulder. "I scratched you," she murmured as he nuzzled his way down her neck to her breasts. She hadn't remembered clawing him; she normally wasn't violent in bed. Well, not this violent. But it had been too long between shore leaves this time, and she'd been hungry.
hungry to remember.
With this stranger between her legs, she could cast her memories back and pretend he was Seff and she his young wife, innocent, full of hopes and dreams, all the things she wasn't now. They were only teenagers, married less than two years when Hordish marauders came. With this pretty stranger and all the others before him she could lose herself in the sex, almost believing in those moments of blinding, no-strings-attached passion that she was still human. That she could still feel.
"Come here." She took his head between her hands and kissed him roughly. He returned the kiss with equal intensity, crushing her to the pillow, but ear. Several tones told her that her voice required authentication before the identity of the person trying to reach her could be revealed. The procedure was typical for high-priority, classified calls. Except that Brit was light-years off the beaten track on a vacation planet. The connection could take a while.
In the corner of her eye, she caught the sparkle of her midnight-black, crisply pressed officer's uniform hanging in the closet next to an iridescent, gossamer-lace poolside cover-up. Who would dare to bother her on shore leave? This was supposed to be a few weeks' respite before she returned to the helm of the Vengeance to hunt down increasingly desperate Hordish pirates in the Borderlands. The war might be over, but there was cleanup to do.
over. It had been several months, and Brit still couldn't wrap her mind around the concept. Yet long ago, before time began, the galaxy was whole. The worlds of the Drakken Horde were the original cradle of the goddesses. Then, under threat of religious extermination, the goddesses were forced to flee their home. They found refuge on the ice planet Sakka, where they formed a new government, the Coalition, and essentially split the settled galaxy in two. The two sides, Coalition and Drakken, had warred ever since. Every schoolchild could recite that bit of history.
What no one considered, however, was the sheer number of faithful living across the border under Hordish rule who worshipped the goddesses in secretundocumented believers, billions, even trillions of them. When the young goddess Herself, Queen Keira, killed the Drakken Horde leader Lord-General Rakkuu to escape capture, she in effect broke the dam holding the faithful back. The warlord's blood hadn't even cooled when those secret believers began pouring out of the shadows. Thus, in an almost bloodless coup, the Drakken Empire had come crashing down, bringing peace to a galaxy that remembered nothing but war.
Peace with the Horde? Bah! It would never last. The only trustworthy Drakken was a dead Drakken.
Brit shot to her feet. Pacing away from the bed to find privacy for the call, her hair swinging just above her buttocks, she felt her bedmate's eyes on her nude body. She was older than him by a number of years, she was certain, yet, nearing forty, she looked better than women almost half her age. Then again, she allowed herself no excesses. She was disciplined, focused. She knew what she wanted, and that was to kill Horde.
"Authentication verified," a computer announced. A familiar voice came on next. "My sincere apologies for the interruption, Brit," soothed Prime-Admiral Zaafran, her commander-in-chief. "However, it is with good news that I do."
She closed the veranda door behind her. "The treaty has broken down." Her hopes soared.
Zaafran's deep chuckle crushed those hopes. It didn't sound as if he shared them, either. He doesn't have the reasons you do. "I have orders," he said. "A new shipbrand-new, state-of-the-art."
A bolt of surprise shot through her. "And the Vengeance?"
"She's being retired."
Her warship had the best record out there, winning more battles than any other. She loved that hunk of luranium; it was as much a part of her as her skin and bones. The merest whisper of the word Vengeance struck fear in the hearts of the Drakken. They knew that she, Admiral Brit Bandar, was in command. They knew that she held no mercy in her soul for them. "Admiral Stone-Heart," they called her.
The nickname amused her.
Over the years, countless Hordish war leaders had lusted after her capture. Oh, the things they'd dreamed of doing to her, most of them related to sex and tortureshe'd learned a few choice scenarios from listening to Drakken prisoner confessions during interrogationsbut they'd never caught her. Now they never would. The entire Drakken realm lay vanquished at the Coalition's feet. A victory that for Brit wasn't satisfying at all. She wasn't done with the Drakken yet. No, nowhere close. "It will seem odd, commanding a new ship, Prime-Admiral."
"One foot on the bridge and you will change your mind. I've seen her. She's more impressive than any ship in our fleet, even your beloved Vengeance."
"I look forward to you convincing me of that, sir," Brit quipped, though an expanding ball of tension sat cold in her gut. Regardless of the reason, Zaafran planned to remove her from her ship. Even if she was trading up, as he'd implied, it was an unsettling event. It would be for any captain of any ship, let alone tearing her from her beloved Vengeance. The warship had been the closest thing to home since Arrayar Settlement.
"Convince you, I will," Zaafran assured her.
"What is the ship's name? Give me that, at least."
"Have patience, Admiral. Report to the Ring. I'll tell you the rest."
Patiencebah. Brit frowned as he ended the call. A summons to the Ring to trade ships seemed odd. The usual procedure for a new ship captain was to proceed directly to the shipyard or port, run through the usual change-of-command formalities if taking the bridge from someone else and be off. Yet, the Prime-Admiral wanted to see her in person. He was hiding something. But what?
She let herself back inside the room and shoved the veranda door shut. Morning sunshine streamed between the slats of shuttered windows. The Ring was the Prime-Admiral's headquarters, a space station orbiting Sakka, the Holy Keep of the Goddess and the seat of the Coalition government. Of late, the Ring had been the location of the Unity Peace Conference where Coalition and Earth leaders were meeting to determine the fate of a vanquished Drakken Empire and its newly liberated citizens. And, Brit surmised, carve up what was left of any value for themselves.
It was a giddy, hopeful timefor everyone else but her. While the galaxy celebrated the Drakken surrender, Brit had prowled the bridge of the warship she commanded, cursing it. Dreading it. She wouldn't know what to do in peacetime. She wasn't ready for it. Peace meant unfinished business with the Horde. She could never reverse what they'd done but she could keep it from happening to someone else. She'd spent her entire career doing exactly that.
Now they were taking her ship away, replacing it with a new one. Taking her mission and replacing it with
what? The mighty Vengeance was to be retired. Would she be forced into retirement next? Brit tore the PCD off her ear and stalked back to the bed.
"It's about time," the man-toy murmured with come-hither eyes. But it was a wasted effort. The mood had passed.
"Get dressed." Brit reached into the closet and removed a few extra credits from the safe. She'd paid the man in advance, but his performance last night warranted a tip. She tossed the credits on the table.
"And be gone before I return."
She closed and locked the bathroom door, and stepped into the shower, letting the streaming water fool her into believing the moisture on her face wasn't angry tears.