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"What exactly do you remember?" Torkra lifted his head to look at her curiously.
Borga watched her closely, staying silent.
"Uh ... we were outlawed." It was how she'd ended up on the slave block. She swallowed. She remembered that much. "I don't remember much before that."
Torkra shook his head. "Crying shame, lass. Never mind, Reya and Tenia and the other warriors will fill you in on happenings." He turned his attention back to his electronic book.
Liane took a deep breath. Maybe he was right, maybe reading this would make things clearer for her.
Looking up at Borga, she asked, "Will this also tell me why the Daamens claimed the Reekas?"
"Claimed?" His brows rose. "You mean Reya and Tenia?"
"No. All of them."
"All of them?"
"Outlaws are claimed by anyone who can buy or capture them." At Borga's puzzled expression, she added, "The Reekas are outlaws, yet you say the Daamens have wed some of them. It's ... unusual. I thought your race must have claimed them."
She became aware, then, of the utter silence that had filled the cabin. Looking around, she saw a mixture of expressions on the traders' faces. Shock. Bewilderment. Horror.
"Oh, shit," Findel muttered.
"Uh..." Shamon swallowed, then rubbed his beard abstractedly. "Uh..."
"Surely she must know..." Kel looked from Liane to Borga and back again. "Oh, suns."
Misunderstanding their shock, Liane looked at Borga. Seeing the stunned expression on his face, she asked, "Only a few have survived? I guess that's to be expected. We've been outlawed for so long, it was fortunate that the Daamens even claimed those they did."
There was something wrong. Torkra was lookingat her with a stricken expression. The tension started to build in the cabin, and she stiffened. Slowly she closed the book.
The traders were looking amongst themselves, and Shamon was rubbing his beard worriedly.
"Liane," Borga began carefully, "Are the Reekas still outlaws?"
After placing the book onto the low table, she slowly rose to her feet and looked down at him. "What game are you playing?"
"No game, lass." He remained on one knee, looking straight up at her. "I just need you to answer my question."
"You know we're outlaws." She looked around at the traders, bewildered. "What's wrong?" A sudden thought occurred to her, and a chill shivered down her spine. "Have the laws changed? Am I in danger of being recaptured by slavers until safely on your planet?" She took a step back. "I won't go back to the prison! I won't!" Panic started to build inside her. "Borga, no!"
"Easy, lass." With one powerful surge of his thighs, Borga pushed upright. His tone was soothing. "The laws haven't changed. Outlaws can still be claimed. You're in no danger of going back to the prison."
"Then what's wrong?" She tried to calm her suddenly hammering heart. "It's about me being an outlaw, isn't it? It's about the Reekas being outlaws! It's--"
Reaching out, he took her shoulders in a firm but gentle grip. "Liane, I have something to tell you." He glanced towards the table of watching men, then back at her. "Come with me."
"Borga, I don't understand. What--"
"I think this needs some privacy." His eyes reflected concern. "Please. Come with me to the solitude cabin."
She didn't want to go. In the face of every trader, she read sympathy. Something was going to happen up in the solitude cabin. Something was going to be told to her, and it had to be something bad. Something horrible.
"Trust me, Liane," Borga said. "Have I lied to you?"
"No." She couldn't stop the trembling of her hands, so she pressed them flat against her thighs.
"You need to know this. Come with me."
Foreboding filled her, and she swallowed once more. Whatever it was, it was better to be told. If she wasn't in danger of being taken back to the prison, and that was the worst scenario as far as she could see, then surely whatever he had to say couldn't be that bad? Could it? What could be worse?
She wouldn't know until he told her. "Can't you tell me here?"
He picked up the history book. "Nay. I think 'tis best I tell you while we're alone." Placing his hand on her shoulder, he steered her towards the door.
Just before they went through, she saw him glance at Simon, and saw the captain give him a nod.
What was happening? What had wiped the smiles off their faces, the laughter from their lips? The silence was heavy in the cabin behind them.
Borga said nothing as they stepped onto the platform lift, and the clanking of it as it ascended to the floor above seemed to ring with foreboding. Her nerves were stretched taut, and by the time they entered the solitude cabin, she was ready to scream.
Borga pressed one of the buttons, and the light came on. Music was playing softly in the background, making a mockery of the tense moment.
"Mayhaps you'd like to sit, lass." Borga gestured to the chair.
"No." Watching him warily, she moved back.
He looked at her broodingly for several seconds, then nodded abruptly. "Very well, lass. Now I want you to listen. 'Tis going to be hard for you." Hesitating, he shoved one hand through his hair. "Hell..."
She watched the thick length tumble haphazardly over and down past his shoulders as the tie holding it back was dislodged. She'd never seen him at a loss for words since he'd come to her rescue at the prison.
"Borga?" she whispered. "What is it?"
"'Tis no easy way to say this." He paused, took a deep breath, and said softly, "I need to ask you this again. I need to be sure. Liane, are the Reekas still outlawed?"
"Yes." Bewildered, she stared at him, wanting to understand.
"Are they still being hunted?"
A muscle twitched in his strong jaw. "Are they still being imprisoned, sold, hung?"
"Yes. Borga, what--"
"Liane, the Reekas were pardoned nine years ago."
"The Reeka warrior women. Your race. They were pardoned by the Intergalactic Peace Council nine years ago."
She frowned. Pardoned? The Reekas were pardoned?
"No," she finally said, and shook her head. "No, you are mistaken, Borga. We are outlaws."
"Nay, you're not." Borga's eyes held a sincerity that frightened her. "Your race is free. The Reekas live full lives on Comll and Daamen. Some have wed, but all are free."
"Free." She tested the word on her tongue. "No. You can't be right, Borga."
"I speak the truth."
"You have to be mistaken, for if that were true, why was I still in the prison?"
Another muscle in his jaw jumped. "No one knew you were there, lass. I'm so sorry, but no one knew you even existed until a bounty hunter happened to catch sight of you."
The Reekas were free. It didn't make sense. The Reekas had been free for nine years? And she'd remained in prison? It was inconceivable.
"You're lying." She lifted her chin. "I don't know why, but it's a cruel trick to play, Borga."
"'Tis no trick." Opening the book, Borga flicked quickly through the pages, stared at the place he held open, then slowly held it out to her. "Look. Read where my thumb is."
She didn't want to take it. The look in his eyes ... the book that suddenly seemed to contain secrets she didn't want to think were even true ... she'd been in prison for eleven years. Eleven long years. If what he said was true, nine of them...
She couldn't touch the book, but she looked down at it. The words didn't focus immediately, but then she took a deep breath and read it silently to herself.
The Reeka warrior women were found innocent of the crimes they'd been charged with. Once it was found that Shari of the Inka Empire had framed them all in a hate-filled vendetta for his son having wed the Reeka warrior leader, the Reekas were granted a full pardon on 2nd April, 6995. They have since returned to their settlement on Comll--
Unable to continue, she numbly reread the one section of sentence that leaped out at her.
...the Reekas were granted a full pardon on 2nd April, 6995.
Her breath hitched, her heart stuttered. The year was now seven thousand four.
She stared blankly at the page. She'd been in prison for nine years longer than she had to be. Nine years because...
Stricken, she looked up at Borga. "They forgot me."
"Ah, lass, I'm so sorry." He stepped forward, halting only because she shoved the book into his hands and backed away.
Nine years that shouldn't have been. Nine years of fighting for her life in a hell hole, of being pushed into solitary confinement, of having the darkness clawing at her soul. Dying a little bit every day, just a little bit. Not enough to kill her, but enough to make her aware of every tiny piece being torn away. Leaving her incomplete.
It didn't have to be that way. It shouldn't have been that way.
"They forgot me," she whispered again.
"Liane, they didn't know," Borga replied gently. "As soon as they knew, they sent us to get you. They--"
"I was forgotten." She looked up at him, and felt the hot tears fill her eyes. "I died a little bit every day, and no one even knew."
"The dark came so many times. So many times." Her voice shook.
Concerned, Borga tossed the book carelessly to the floor.
His face blurred before her eyes, and both rage and sorrow swept through her, a feeling of abandonment flooding her so suddenly it felt like she would choke on it.
"I didn't have to be there." Her words whispered out, and a single tear slid down her cheek.
The pain, the degradation, the bone-numbing fear. The insanity that had picked at her tattered soul for eleven years. Nine of those years stolen.
"Lass, come here." Borga reached for her.
At the first touch of his fingertips, she shoved him away violently.
"No!" She screamed. "No! Don't touch me! Don't ever touch me!" Tears burst forth, blocking her vision. "You forgot me! Goddamn you, you forgot me!"