Book Two of
The Shape-shifting Priestesses
of Pygras

 

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Here's
the first chapter of my
Shape-shifter/Sci-fi
Romantic Adventure.
(Mainstream Romance)

 

    High Commander Kade Quil loathes everything about his former enemy world, Pygras. Ordered to assist a Pygrian priestess on a rescue mission, he explodes—until he meets the graceful shape-shifter priestess assigned him. Her enchanting pink eyes halt his warpath. What creature could she manifest?

     Scholar Willa Canatar must save her kidnapped sister, but tolerating the handsome but nasty-dispositioned investigator is torture. When tragedy blows their mission apart, the priestess and the cop become entangled in the turbulent forces of the universe.

     The invincible Master of Cig wants the shape-shifters dead, their magic stolen, so he’s experimenting on them, exterminating their prophecy of his fall. Before he accomplishes his evil plot, he’ll face a sneaky cop with few boundaries, a beautiful priestess, and a wolf-spirit from the Second Universe ready to prove the Master’s immortality a myth.

     Someone near the Master holds the secret to trumping the undefeated Kade Quil—take the priestess the high commander wants, and kill his people.

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Entanglement: An instantaneous link between particles that remains strong, secure, and undiluted, no matter how far apart the particles may be—even if they are on opposite sides of the universe.
—David Darling, Teleportation: The Impossible Leap

 

Chapter 1
I am the emperor’s teeth.

     High Commander Kade Quil leaned through the open doorway of the docked shuttle, immediately detecting an odd vibration within. Only green lights flashed from the auto-pilot dashboard. The shuttle lobby featured ten barren seats. Nothing appeared out of order. Except for the missing passengers, three children and their governess. The emperor’s eyes were already on this event, and that was why Kade stopped his day to inspect for himself what was a rare event in this safe empire. It was his job to bring down the emperor’s wrath upon criminals at every opportunity. So the high commander held full license to be a hardcore asshole.

     And he loves it.

     “Who would steal children?” he heard in a whine behind his back.

     He regarded the spindly built port smith using the high commander’s body for a shield in case serial killers sprung from the transport doorway and attacked. Casually observing the port smith for any sign of psychological weakness, indicating possible guilt of a conspiracy, Kade asked, “Who says they’ve been stolen?”

     But the missing passengers had been taken, and not killed. That was where Kade’s money lay. Preliminary investigation and standard tests had already eliminated most known possibilities. He’d viewed the shuttle security video before and after computer analysis, and there hadn’t been much to see.

     The port smith frowned in an utterly grief-filled droop. “One does not wish to consider the other possibility, High Commander.”

     The port smith wasn’t involved. One could not fake such a mournful pout. Kade agreed with that face. But it was his job to consider the other possibility. And he’d eliminated it.

     Suspicious of everything, the high commander stepped into the shuttle, filling the small doorway, by habit and training meticulous not to disturb anything, though his evidence team had already frisked the transport for clues. Now so much traffic traveled between planet Rhonta and her moon Pygras, the two formerly warring worlds used an automated shuttle transport to follow the route in a short eighteen-hour trip. The taxi had merely followed its preprogrammed pattern from orbiting Pygras to land on planet Rhonta, uninterrupted. And empty.

     He always liked the tricky cases, but he wasn’t at all happy to be dealing with any Pygrian problem. All-powerful MotherRhonta couldn’t make Kade like Pygras. But the moon was now his jurisdiction.

     Obsessive on the job, he examined all he could see of the shuttle cabin, taking in the full crime scene. Inside the governess’s sleep room, he searched obviously feminine belongings already stripped of evidence by his forensics team and left for later collection. If she’d been in on the kidnapping, she’d left expensive clothes and other possessions behind.

     On the unadorned dresser, he found a heavy feminine silver necklace beneath a caked combination of fingerprint dust and blood-revealing chemicals. The tests had unmasked only the governess’s fingerprints. He lifted the chain, wiped away the muck with his black-gloved fingers, and studied the only charm, an infinity symbol about the length of his thumb. Up close, he could make out swirls cut into its design. Something about the necklace felt important, too profound for him to walk away and leave behind, so he pocketed the item.

     Returning to the lobby where vacant seats spoke woe to him, he stroked his naked chin, finally adjusted to life without the beard he’d grown in Academy. Seemed clear someone out there possessed an illegal teleport, and was using it to kidnap ConsulateRhonta’s citizens.

     Kade would break that someone in half. And then the emperor would have that someone for all time. To punish.

     Done with his inspection, the high commander stepped from the shuttle, tugging off his black officer’s gloves as his sight combed the crowded port, witnessing ships being boarded by his search teams. Travelers and crews looked miffed, but that was just damned tough, isn’t it? No one’s getting away with kidnapping on his watch. He spotted his assistant, Lieutenant Gage Waswaki, heading for him as the young officer shuffled papers, a data chip locked in his teeth.

     Arriving at Quil’s side, Gage passed him the shuttle manifest without his having asked for it. The picture of proficiency and young for his earned rank, the lieutenant always anticipated Quil’s needs. Kade arrested the data chip from Gage’s teeth, and the high commander thumbed through the printed manifest, seeing only two surnames he didn’t know, nothing of immediate value.

     “Disturbing. Who would kidnap kids from a shuttle? And possesses a teleport?”

     Always a young man of few words, Gage shook his head while he shuffled papers from one folder to another propped awkwardly in his arms. He needed another arm. The port smith was now teary, typical of the betas of their world.

     His brain firing for the challenge, Kade took a cleansing breath over the next step and ran a splayed hand through his overlong bangs, not looking forward to giving his good friend, the governor of Pygras, a report containing so little concrete news.

     But he turned toward the port office with Gage and the port smith in his wake, and he entered the door behind the counter marked Private. Commandeering the tossed office, he wiped away everything atop the port smith’s cluttered desk, sat upon it, and ordered, “Computer, contact Governor Ty Draycie on Pygras.”

     The port smith stared at his desktop items on the floor. Lucky man, he now had the opportunity to review his organization strategies.

     A projected video display appeared in midair and flashed computer code for a blink-fraction of a second before a picture stabilized. His friend and fellow Consulate watchdog Ty Draycie appeared there. A large man, even compared to Kade. One of the most important voices in their empire.

     “What did you find, Quil?”

     Kade could see in his friend’s frown he’d read the initial report. “We have three children and a governess missing. No sign of struggle. No tampering with the shuttle’s computronics, according to initial exam. Computer and image forensics will confirm it.”

     Ty grumbled. “Teleport.”

     Kade nodded. “That’s my strongest theory, but I have an issue with it. This is the cam’s view.”

     The high commander pressed the data chip Gage had provided into the media slot on the desk, engaging the shuttle security camera files. The picture of Ty minimized to the screen corner. The main panel played the micro-cam’s sad record, its timestamp at the bottom of the view. It showed an overhead shot of three children safely seated in the lobby, and a fair-haired governess moving about the cabin.

     Kade pointed at the biggest tow-headed child yawning. Her braids were half her height, like the younger temple students. “The governess had probably been preparing the kids for bedtime.”

     Then they were gone, the children and their guardian all at once. That quickly, vanished into nothing. The view screen then favored Ty’s panel by filling the biggest fraction of the view. Pygras’s governor appeared more discomforted than Kade felt. Ty was a father, after all.

     “A blip generator could’ve been used to repeat blank frames and blind the cam, and the passengers could have been taken forcibly.”

     Problem-solving was a game between the childhood friends, in addition to being their job mandates.

     “It’s a possibility,” Kade admitted. “But carpet imprint analysis showed mostly small footprints. If the shuttle had been boarded, I would expect foot sizes much bigger, belonging to troops.”

     “Could have been a death ray, and they could be dead.”

     “Hm…” Kade perked a brow, and then he shook his head. “The shuttle tested clean for organic scraps. You can’t just incinerate four people in an enclosed room without leaving some sign.”

     “But then, one can never estimate the properties of unknown alien technology. Even our best guess would still…only be a guess.”

     That was true. Kade would solve this mystery. Nothing slid under his radar.

     “So, what’s your problem with your teleport theory?”

     “Can’t find the teleport. All ships in near-space are landed and enduring searches, as we speak, but nothing will be found. I doubt one could operate a ship-to-ship teleport we couldn’t detect in orbit scans. Teleports require huge amounts of energy, and a power buildup that big would have been detected.

     “This is something else. I’ve a gut feeling we have an interstellar teleport here, Ty, one with a damned far and precise reach. Did you note the timestamp at the moment of their disappearance? Halfway into the trip by the exact second.”

     Ty replayed the event to find the first frame of the passengers’ disappearance. The timestamp at the bottom of the frame showed exactly nine hours from lift-off, nine hours to landing. Then he tapped his finger against pursed lips.

     “Exactly half. It was a programmed snatch, the furthest distance possible for the shuttle to be from both worlds. The precise timing could only be an effort to lessen the chances of sensors from either world picking up any unusual occurrence.”

     Ty growled the way he’d done in Academy just before he started a fight. “This would require help on Rhonta, port schedules, some internal networking. If there’s a spy somewhere, he’s working more courage than brains. The day Joren was enthroned, he’d vowed to watch the execution of any insurrectionist found. Pretty brainless to cross the emperor.”

     “Stupid people are everywhere. Consider that an interstellar teleport would require no traitor,” Kade proposed.

     The furrows in his friend’s brow grew deeper. “I always feel better when I can find a person to choke.”

     Another tap of the screen sent a digital version of the shuttle manifest to Ty, and he examined the document. “The name of the governess seems familiar. I must have Zia look it over.”

     “I’ve already queried the heliosphere alarms,” the high commander reported, while checking his palm computer for updates from his office. “No unaccounted-for breaches. The port smith tells me it’s a slow day at the port, so we should receive an all-clear soon on the grounded transports and freighters. We’ll eliminate every open source. I’ll have Breckin flip the satellite and analyze our airspace to see if there’s any measurable disturbance we can find, some residual effect or a disruption in cosmic radiation we can follow.”

     “Do that right away before we lose that window.” Ty tapped his screen. “Zia, could you come here for a moment?”

     Kade leaned over to Gage to relay the satellite orders as he heard the automatic door of his friend’s office hum open, and a moment later, he saw through Ty’s glass desktop the giant white tigress nudge the governor in the ribs, then she set her great chin on his thigh as he reviewed the manifest. Ty gave the felina an affectionate stroke of her head, and he passed the document into the tigress’s view. Her pink eyes glittered.

     “Zia, it appears our kidnapper used a teleport to take the children.”

     Always fascinated with the transformation though he pretended not to be, Kade watched as the gorgeous white tigress returned to her human form, a trick Ty’s shape-shifting wife had reluctantly demonstrated for her new government only a few times. The low-built and powerful hunting predator appeared to melt into a shapeless and fluid kind of silver, like mercury reflecting light. As though it were matter returning to its primordial form. The beast’s striped coloring was still visible on the silver, her pink eyes still defined.

     Then the sterling reshaped itself, growing in height, narrowing in width. The beast’s silver that had been white fur now recrafted into Zia’s ivory-white complexion. What had been black stripes on the beast receded into coal-black and glossy tresses that fell down her slender back. Slowly, she reformed into a tall young woman of stunning beauty. Her black hair highlighted her pink eyes, a trait all Pygrian women shared, and the pairing made both her hair and eyes glisten. Kade would one day have to admit aloud he found the priestess’s practice of her shape-shifting talent a mesmerizing sight to behold.

     But, by policy, he refused to like the Mathari witch who’d snagged his best friend into marriage, despite Ty’s pointless self-incrimination that he’d bribed her into becoming his wife. Another Pygrian enchantress now owned the emperor’s heart and mind. Joren, often crowned with amazing wisdom, favored the priestesses for their dangerous tricks.

     Inordinately, inappropriately, and undeservedly. Do the Pygrians call the shots, now that the two most influential men on Rhonta have married Pygrian spell casters?

     Joren. Kade snorted contemptuously for one of his best friends. The man had gone from playboy prince to emperor at his own coronation as sovereign of their world, Rhonta. Joren paid too much attention to a needy Pygras’s transformation from worldwide radiation sickness to good health. The emperor held way too much reverence for the priestesses.

     Spell-casting witches, the women were, Kade spitefully branded them, watching the tigress disappear to be replaced by the Pygrian beauty Ty had put his name all over. Spell casters who owed Joren their very lives, but still wouldn’t part with the secrets of their craft to the government that now ruled them. The frigid little nuns owed ConsulateRhonta those secrets, after all Rhonta did to save their world from radioactive poisoning.

     Only Joren’s order expressed from his throne kept Kade from mapping out a step-by-step process to see the priestesses give up their secrets, even if he needed to use the mind-sweep to do it. Still, as a daydream waste of time, he often formulated the task in his mind, plotting each step of the marauding of their magical secrets. The Rhontaian mind-sweep was cruel, but he seldom gave that much concern.

     Returned to her human identity, Zia took up the shuttle document and scanned it, her eerie pink eyes blooming in size. “The governess is Veena Canatar, Ty. We’d been raised in the temples together. You’ve met her sister Willa many times.”

     “Yes, I remember Willa well.” Ty rubbed a worried brow. “I’d recognized the last name, but couldn’t place it.”

     The high commander grew perturbed at the clues. “Ty, are we talking about Mathari priestesses here?”

     Ty nodded.

     Kade’s gates of tolerance blew, and he pitched the manifest to the floor, seething. “Ty, you know I can’t stand those haughty little shape-shifting witches!”

     Zia scowled at him, shooting him her livid pink eyes. “Shut up, Kade Quil! Who asked you for your opinion, anyway?”

     Ty interrupted. “Kade, teleport here right now.”

     The transmission ended before the high commander could issue a dissent.

     He turned to his assistant and grimaced. “Contact the satellite control room for travel. Pack your bags, Gage. I can already tell we’ll be the guys fixing this one. I can’t stand those haughty little witches.”

     A light smile touched his assistant’s face. “I think they’re kinda cute.”

     Quil cast the young officer a sneer. “I haven’t heard a word from your mouth all day, and the first thing you say has to be a compliment to the Pygrians?”

     A tall, good-looking man of twenty-two summers possessing big brown eyes and two honor medals earned in duty, Gage just shrugged his shoulders.

     Disgusted. Kade was disgusted by his assistant’s soft-hearted liberalism, new to ConsulateRhonta’s collective military mind.

* * * *

      Two hours later, High Commander Quil and Lieutenant Waswaki stood before Ty’s massive glass-top desk, the governor’s priestess wife at his side, ready with a disapproving frown.

     “Zia, leave the room,” Ty told her. She turned her pink glare of disbelief onto him, and he faked a sober expression. “Because I do not want you to hear the names I’m about to call him.”

     “I want to listen to you call him names!”

     Ty shook his head. “It’s against Academy rules to dress down an officer before an audience. Joren would never forgive me.”

     “I won’t tell!”

     Ty shook his head again. “Contact Willa, and update her on the latest news. Wherever she is, get her here. Now.”

     Fists pressed to her sides, Zia threw a hateful scowl Kade’s way, then she marched from the room, muttering something in Pygrian he was fairly sure meant he was a despicable Rhontaian jerk. It was a common phrase among the frigid little nuns when he was around. He didn’t care what kept the Pygrians away from him, as long as it lasted the next fifty years.

     Ty scrubbed the furrows from his forehead. “I can feel the love in the air.”

     “Maybe your wife should get a better attitude!”

     Ty burst into a grin. “She’s a kitty-cat for me.”

     “Very funny.”

     The governor appeared to issue a silent plea to MotherRhonta above. “Kade, you’re the only one who brings it out of her. You, on the other hand, have yet to give up your prejudices against the Pygrians. You should both declare a truce.”

     “Not in my lifetime.”

     Ty rolled his eyes. Then he looked to Gage, who smirked and shook his head. Then the governor drew another troubled breath, and he warned, “All of this has just become much worse. Minutes ago, I received a call from Joren. The missing children belong to Vandartay.”

     “Congressman Vandartay? Tell me this is a joke. I didn’t see his name on the manifest.”

     “They are his sister’s children traveling to Rhonta to visit him. Different last name.”

     Kade ran a hand through his hair, hardly believing the teleport’s choice of victims, and doubting he could escape this problem. “I don’t know how this case could have gotten worse.”

     “I agree. We won’t have a residue analysis report from Breckin for several hours. As soon as we get the report, we’ll meet with Joren. If we can get a fix on from what direction it came, Breckin can trace it.”

     There was no way Kade was escaping this case. He had known the day Joren had brought home the Pygrian princess all knocked up and ready to burst with double royalty, Kade would deeply regret having grown up best friends with a sovereign. Not always as good a choice as it appeared to be. Joren secretly relished playing Fate in the lives of his men. Knowing it did not protect one from the emperor’s power.

* * * *

      Four hours later, Kade and Gage stood again in the governor’s office. The computer projection showed Joren Deauxdatryx, twelfth sovereign of a united Rhonta, first ruler of a three-world empire, going over the report already read by the other men. Breckin stood beside the emperor, his brow bent and rereading the report over the emperor’s shoulder. His Excellency’s frown was profound.

     A satellite specialist and expert on space weapons, Breckin reported, “I traced the residue until it scattered, but I didn’t recognize the tech signature.”

     Joren rubbed his royal black-blue brow. “I was counting on that.”

     Ty pointed out, “I think the direction from which it came says much, Joren. Two stellar systems over.”

     Breckin gave an ominous nod. Kade noticed the scientist and his good friend looked a wreck with his prematurely white hair awry, his countenance crashed, but notice of his state receded to the gravity of this meeting.

     Kade regretted having awakened this morning. It was probably written on his face. “This is planet Cig’s next strike.”

     Distempered by the great probability, Joren shook his blue-black Deauxdatryx mop of hair, a prominent feature of his genetic line. “When we’d squashed Cig’s covert actions five years ago, we’d known it wouldn’t be the last move made against my kingdom.”

     “Pretty disrespectful, Joren,” Breckin commented. “We don’t need to wonder if he’s stopped believing the prophecy of Mathari magic ending his reign.”

     Joren flashed a pearly smile of challenge, sparkles in his deep blue and strategy-filled eyes. Kade recognized the look from memories of the emperor as a boy-prince anticipating his win in some new competition, which he usually did win by his own talents. Joren always was a cunning competitor, never to be underestimated, and perpetually on a forward drive.

     “Let’s make the myth come true,” His Excellency tossed into the conversation with his three best friends. “Let’s attack his attack. Eliminate the Cig threat to the priestesses and the Consulate Empire for all time.”

     Breckin looked intense, his darker brow risen under a shock of disordered white bangs. Ty’s mouth bowed in positive consideration.

     Kade loathed the idea. It was no loss to him if the Cignite came and took every one of the witches. Joren didn’t yet realize his kingdom was better off without them. Perhaps the threat of interstellar war would sway the emperor’s will after a few hours of considering this strategy.

     The hiss of the automatic office door sounded, and the high commander looked up from the residue report to see Zia escort a stunning green-robed priestess into the room. The new woman possessed milky-white flesh that appeared to have never seen the sun. A mane of cookie dough-colored spirals, highlighted with occasional almond-colored streaks, had escaped the giant clip trapping the mass to her crown. Locks were sprung down her shoulders and arms. The nun possessed more hair than any woman should own. Her features were soft, her expression shy, her movement reserved. Her pink eyes were intelligent and reverent.

     Eye candy. What a concentration-breaker. The shapeless green robe gave no hint to what treasures it hid. Shame.

     Not wishing to break the grim mood of the meeting, Kade suppressed a renegade smile inspired by his notice of the green-robed beauty. Under any other circumstances, he’d want to investigate what hid beneath the green robe. The fact that she was Pygrian shut that drive down.

     The young woman cast her pink eyes to the view screen and bowed deeply toward Joren’s image. “Greetings, Your Excellency. My love to your wife and family.”

     The emperor returned a benevolent smile. “Greetings, Willa. I’ll pass the message on. I appreciate your participation in solving this problem.”

     “I am ever at your service, Your Excellency.”

     “Willa,” Zia introduced, “you know my husband, Ty.”

     The pretty young Green Robe with pouty lips turned to Ty and offered her hand. “Good day, governor.”

     Ty shook her hand in friendship. “Welcome, Willa. Unfortunate you should return to my office under a sad calling.”

     “Aye, my lord,” the meek young lady returned.

     Kade watched her untamed spiral locks bouncing from her every subtle movement. He thought her eyes possessed a more mauve and demure shade of pink than most of the Pygrian eyes he’d encountered. She pressed wrinkles from her green robe. “I’m glad to be placed where I may help find the children and Veena. She is my sister.”

     “This is Breckin,” Zia continued, “ConsulateRhonta’s head of interstellar technology.”

     “Greetings, director.” The priestess bowed to Breckin.

     “Good to meet you, Willa,” the scientist replied, subdued. And still staring at the girl. Clearly, he’d noticed the priestess’s quiet beauty, but the effect on him looked more like trauma for some reason. “I’ve heard much of you.”

     The mildly confused look on her face said she’d never met him.

     Ty turned to Kade and offered an introduction. “Willa Canatar, this is High Commander Kade Quil, the head of the Consulate police, and his assistant, Lieutenant Gage Waswaki. If all clues continue to point to Cig, these soldiers will escort you there.”

     Kade put his foot down. “Oh, no. No, Ty. No.”

     He overheard Zia whisper to the seemingly thunderstruck Green Robe, “He’s the one I told you about. Avoid him every moment you can.”

     Kade addressed his emperor on video. “I refuse the mission, Joren. Pick someone else.”

     “I’ll go, Joren,” Breckin put in, his eyes suddenly bright with the possibility.

     “No, Breckin, I need you here. You’ve got too much going in the labs, too many projects at crucial points. Besides, you’re too close to it. Kade’s going.”

     The scientist deflated.

     More despot today than most days, Joren rebutted, “You’re my best investigator, Kade. You’re the sneakiest bastard I know, and you have a nose for trouble like no one else. If anyone can find these missing people on Cig, it’s you.”

     The high commander posted his hands on his waist, objecting. Joren, Ty, Breckin, and Kade had attended Academy together, had known one another since forever. Kade had known Joren, the youngest of the four men, when he’d been no more than a measly, dirt-faced crown prince scheduled to inherit the throne of most of their home planet. Kade was one of a very few who could face Joren on a nearly even level of respect.

     “Your Excellency.” Kade rubbed the misery from the planes of his face, and moderated his voice into a tone more appropriate for negotiation. “I’ve no tolerance for dealing with the Pygrians. You know this. What about the other thirty million Consulate soldiers you could call upon? I’ll give you recommendations for twenty good investigators by sunset. One of them is bound to loath the Pygrians less than I do. It’s statistically probable.”

     “I’ll go, Joren,” Breckin offered a second time, but the Crown of Rhonta shook his head.

     Those two witches began to whisper again in Pygrian, buzzing like insects in a nest and getting on the high commander’s nerves.

     Kade turned to them and shouted, “Do you mind!”

     The women instantly hushed, their pink eyes swollen in woe of him.

     Good.

     Kade returned his regard to the Crown to find Joren’s royal blue and serious focus on him.

     “In my three best friends, I’ve three weapons with which I may use to keep my people free. Weapons none can match. Ty is my muscle, Breckin, my brain. You, Kade, are my teeth, sharpened into fangs. I want to drag my enemy from his hiding place with my sharp teeth around his neck.”

     The vision lingered in the mind, like His Excellency had intended. Kade so desired to bring ConsulateRhonta’s enemy low.

     “Not me, Joren.”

     “It’s you, Quil. Period.”

     Dammit.

     It was stated in His Excellency’s most uncrossable tone, pulling regal rank over his friend’s rebellion. When Joren held that look in his eye, no force short of fate could stop him from seeing his plans to their goal. It was why he was a great ruler.

     Ty explained, “Willa, you’ll also need Gage to talk to Cig’s computers, figure out their computer technology. He’ll be extracting digital secrets, if he can manage it.”

     “Then Gage and I’ll do the job on our own,” Kade bitterly cut in. “I don’t need the noose of a priestess hanging around my neck.”

     Breckin volunteered for a third time, but got no response from the emperor. Why not choose Breckin, a perfectly good Consulate-trained soldier capable of the mission, the high commander did not know.

     “Willa can track her sister,” His Excellency informed Kade. “Think of how much Zia helped Ty flush out the Desert Viper.”

     “Zia got captured, Joren.”

     “And led Ty straight to the enemy’s lair.”

     Kade laughed sardonically. “I don’t need help from Mathari crash cadets.”

     Zia scowled and took a pace forward to issue some snotty rebuke, when Ty stepped in front of her, and the governor shook his head.

     “Step aside, Ty,” his wife suggested, her fists flexing. As the Pygrian princess’s former bodyguard and a martial artist, she was not afraid of much when she should be. “I’ve an attitude adjustment for your friend.”

     Kade snapped, “Is it the same attitude adjustment you’d given Ty the day you met him? I’ve seen what your dangerous little hands can do. I’ve never seen a blacker eye.”

     Ty shook his head to his wife. “We’ve no time for the healing, Zia.”

     Apparently stripped of her purpose, she sent a caustic squint Kade’s way, and then she returned to her friend’s side, joining the pretty new Green Robe in her sour glare.

     Kade cast a warning eye back.

     I swear. Is there a lower rung of punishment than being forced to assist the Pygrians? Not in my book. At least the nun isn’t hard on the eyes. It bores me to spend time with a woman I can’t screw.

     The ruler of three worlds was done hearing the high commander’s dissent.

     “I trust you to do your job without emotion, Quil. You and your mission partners leave tomorrow. Breckin reports the new teleport trick is ready for service. It will get you to Cig faster than you can imagine. While you’re there rescuing my citizens, study their military might, and come back with information that will defeat Cig. Good luck and good battle.”

     Then Joren signed off, and the projected screen disappeared.

     Kade closed his eyes, summoned calm, then reopened them onto his friend, the governor of Pygras.

     “This is what I get for doing my job so damned well? Some guys get pay raises.”

     Ty only blinked and tossed the high comander a twisted smirk.

     Miffed, Kade paced the room to burn off energy. He wanted the case, but there was no excising the Pygrian element when their citizens were taken.

     “Joren. I should never have listened to a peace-filled word he’d said. Hand a guy a few worlds and see what he does to you… I’m damned glad to hear him speak of war now.”

     With a deep breath of defeat, Kade regarded the new Green Robe with whom he’d been saddled as a new responsibility. She was very pretty, soft-featured, and he grimaced at the beautiful nun. She appeared considerably more fragile to him in this second inspection, knowing she was now his mission partner. Whatever tracking talent she commanded, it had better be worth her weight, which couldn’t be assessed beneath her shapeless robe. What was her name, Willa?

     The pink-eyed witch. The curse itched to spill from his mouth. His gripes with her kind plain to see in his posture and hear in his voice, he demanded to know, “So, priestess…what do you change into?”

     The cookie-dough-tressed beauty refused to answer him, but her narrowed eyes and pinched lips said she contemplated a slap which, taken along with Zia’s first stinging greeting for Ty, appeared to be a Pygrian mating ritual.

     Permanently livid now, Kade pointed to his assistant, whose eyes fixed on his boss.

     “You! Kinda cute, did you say? You’re fired for that remark!”

     Then the high commander stalked from the office, planning a hard workout at the gym.

* * * *

      Willa watched Kade Quil pound from the governor’s office, and she did not look forward to spending any time at all with that man. In fact, she disliked him intensely, and counted herself lucky his more pleasant assistant would come along for the ride. The young man couldn’t possibly be as hot-headed as his bigoted boss.

     Rhontaians. If they could send a man to the center of the galaxy, why can’t they send them all?

     The temperamental high commander proved looks deceived. When she’d entered the room and noticed his swarthy complexion and dark hair sun-kissed into coppery highlights, she’d thought him handsome, not the bone-deep ugly she’d expected of the monster Zia had warned her of. Typically Rhontaian, tall and wide with a proud posture, he wasn’t physically unattractive like Willa had wanted him to be. In fact, first sight of him in the death-black and noble-looking Consulate uniform had given her a rash of super-awareness, and she hadn’t the mind to move her sight from him after their introduction. She’d found him a compelling kind of handsome that dislodged her mild world.

     But then he opened his mouth. And ruined splendid good looks.

     “I’ve never seen Quil so uptight,” the governor stated, his comment cast to the high commander’s assistant whose collar carried a single blue bar telling all he was a part of the civil arm of the ConsulateRhonta’s military. Willa did well now to recognize the Consulate rankage.

     “Does Kade hate the Pygrians to such a great degree the man is losing his focus?” the governor asked the lieutenant.

     Gage shrugged his shoulders. But Willa had felt the high commander’s hate for her people. It was pernicious.

     Zia snorted. “That man hasn’t spouted a kind word since I met him.”

     The governor shook his head. “Kade will never be accused of being the nicest guy in town.”

     “Let’s hope something changes that,” Willa wished aloud. “Overnight.”

     The governor turned to the high commander’s assistant, a good-looking and quiet young man with chocolate-pudding hair and eyes. “How often does he fire you?”

     Gage held out a hand and wiggled fingers in silent count. “About twice a week.”

     Ty stroked his bare chin. “You’re doing well, Lieutenant. The number’s going down.”

     Gage nodded and smiled, setting his hair in motion. “I have the most secure job in the police department. I don’t know what he’d do if I actually did not show up at work the next day. Probably send agents to detain me and torture the next offender through the door.”

     Surely the young man jokes.

     Willa rolled her eyes, unexcited to learn she must drag this ogre along the way to her sister’s retrieval. She could easily track her sister, didn’t need Consulate bulldogs past getting her to the right city. But then she thought of Gage, a computer professional, and she’d need that skill in any advanced society.

     She just hoped the despicable Rhontaian jerk didn’t get in her way.

     “Kade will cool down,” the governor assured her. “He’ll resign himself to the job, and then he’ll be your best asset. Off with you, Gage. Take a room at our home. Tomorrow comes early.”

     With a salute, the sharply pressed young officer spun and went on his way to his evening.

     Willa regarded Zia, expressing a negative anticipation. “Who’ll tell your fiery high commander I’m the leader of this rescue mission?”

     Both the governor and Zia laughed in a way almost wary.

     “If you’re clever,” her sister-priestess advised, “you’ll never let him know.”

     Willa sighed. How would a simple, temple-trained scholar, unused to men at all, handle the sneakiest bastard the emperor knew?

 

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