AMAZON

Chapter One

Zera blocked the thrust of her adversary’s sword with a skilled parry deflecting the weapon away from her chest. She recognized the bold gamble her opponent took to score, yet failed. She centered her concentration and advanced. A loud clash split the silence of the training arena; blades crossed at the hilts in a contest of strength. Her gaze locked with her challenger’s in a test of will; equally matched. She felt the shove from the other expert swordswoman even as she pushed her away. With a measure of distance between them, Zera loosened her wrist, slicing the air with her foil.

Her gaze level, she scrutinized her rival and noted just as keen an observation. She closed the space between them. Swords extended at shoulder level, blade tips met and tapped—testing. Zera pressed closer to her foe. Stepping with the agility of a dancer, she maneuvered in a circle to gain advantage and paused, readying for a change of assault.

She blocked and delivered abrupt, fierce overhead clashes and matched low slashes. Energized and fueled by the intense battle, both she and her challenger danced a graceful, choreographed, deadly ballet while their hybrid blades rang piercing the silence of a normally noisy practice.

Her challenger broke rhythm, delivering a beat blow attempting to create an opening. Their epées clashed with such force a numbing vibration surged up Zera’s gloved hand into her shoulder. She retained her blade. It would take a harder blow and a brasher move to dislodge her weapon.

Invigorated by the intensity of the contest, Zera prepared to end the drama before the gathered crowd. With a loud, lightning stomp and a flick of her wrist, Zera rolled her sword and flipped the weapon from her competitor’s hand.

Victor of another match, she worked to control her accelerated breathing, and, with practiced restraint, slowed her respiration. Zera ignored her clinging, sweat-sodden workout clothing, snapped to attention, and with respect, saluted her fencing instructor Senior Commander Aganoff. The intensity and artistry of their extreme practice session had escalated and drawn the attention of other warriors on the practice floor.

Zera sensed her instructor was tired of losing, even to the high lord’s sister and her best student. When her instructor raised the match to a more fevered pitch, Zera inwardly flinched. She didn’t want to embarrass her instructor, friend and commander, but to back down wasn’t an option. Zera knew Aganoff wouldn’t condone such action.  Their practice match had elevated to a more realistic, if not a serious duel, with spectators.

“You’ve trained me well.” Zera thanked her superior, trying to dissuade some of the irritation she saw in the woman’s eyes.

“Possibly too well; we’ll see how well you do with the more advanced weapons this afternoon…your Highness.” Senior Commander Aganoff baited her, using her salutation rather than her rank.

Zera was confident her abilities with Seti-Cronus’ advanced weapons were as accomplished, if not more so. She inclined her head, acknowledging Aganoff’s daring challenge. She considered Senior Commander Aganoff one of her best friends. Militarily, the commander outranked her, despite her royalty. She detected a tinge of wit in her commander’s otherwise strict tone. Aganoff wasn’t angry.

“I credit the finesse of my abilities to my instructor…” Zera’s voice trailed off, her attention diverted.

“Commander Zera!” Krax, first herald of High Lord Enos, her brother, appeared. His voice was barely audible above the loud chatter of officers resuming their workouts. Zera looked over the moving heads, watching her brother’s royal messenger evade the many hand-to-hand combat drills underway.

With competence, Krax deflected a misdirected blow to make his way through the crowd toward her.

“Commander Zera!”

“Over here, Krax.”

“Commander,” Krax stopped before her and bowed, gasping to catch his breath. “His Majesty requests your presence in the throne room.”

“As he wills it,” Zera responded in proper form and replaced her practice foil in the training rack. “Have I time to change?”

“He didn’t say, but the delegation from Alphxorn is waiting.” Krax smirked. Zera caught the amused gleam in his eyes.

“Five minutes, Krax,” Zera informed him. Excusing herself from her commander, she went to the women’s facility for a quick hyper-shower and uniform change.

Two minutes in a hyper-shower left her as refreshed as ten minutes in a normal shower, if not as relaxed. Zera brushed her long blonde mane and re-braided the heavy mass into an intricate long plait falling down the center of her back.

She slipped into her dress uniform of light linen. Instead of an adornment dress foil, she belted on her legendary jeweled sword, a weapon so old, the name of the metallurgical master who created it was unreadable.

Mystery embellished this weapon’s ancient past. It was presented to their first woman ruler and passed down from royal mother to daughter since. Fables of mind powers, psychic capabilities, and strengths channeled through the sword to its current owner surrounded the enigma.

Zera wore it with pride and wielded it, when needed, with deadly artistry. Even when it was sheathed, she sensed the power the weapon generated flowing into her. Strengthened, she smiled, confident in her skills, ready to meet the delegates from their estranged neighboring world on a fortified and sure-footed basis.

Without her realizing, a delighted smirk touched her lips. She anticipated the look of satisfaction on her twin brother’s face when she appeared dressed for court, wearing her dress uniform with the renowned sword. It would please Enos but irritate the Alphxorn Ambassador that she chose to appear in uniform. Alphxorns’ women weren’t allowed in their military.

She closed the crystal clasps of her honorary white cape, awarded for saving the high lord’s life, completing her uniform. A vivid and unbidden memory of the fierce battle fought at her brother’s side flashed through her mind and she shuddered remembering how close she had come close to losing Enos to the claws of a Grizeilian warrior lizard. She pushed the memory of how she earned the trophy aside and pinned the other metals on the right side of the cape to hold back the heavy fabric and allow her sword hand complete freedom.

Snatching up her helmet and gloves, Zera hurried from the women’s dressing area. Krax waited outside and she returned his respectful nod with a furtive smile, feeling the corners of her mouth twitch. She glimpsed the other warriors on the practice floor, their questioning stares tracking her. They apparently guessed something was brewing necessitating her change of attire before answering a summons by the royal herald. She disregarded them. They would find out soon enough.

She set a quick pace for the throne room and focused her mind on meeting the Alphxorn delegation. Unconscious of the determination shining in her eyes or the curiosity reflected there, her imagination tingled wondering at the purpose of the visit of the diplomats from their nearest and at times contentious neighbor. But her composure was unaffected by the visit from their ambassadorial delegation despite any attempts at coercion. She held complete confidence in her world’s defense abilities and wouldn’t be intimidated by their threats.

Passing a few equally ranked officers, Zera nodded acknowledgement, conscious their gazes followed her but unmindful she presented a formidable force and a disturbingly stunning figure in her uniform. Unaware of her effect on her male counterparts, she casually slipped her hands into her gloves as they went. Commander of an elite regiment of the Royal Guards, she was oblivious that the men who served with her also saw her as a beautiful, if unattainable, woman. She held their loyalty and respect; that was enough.

Around her, the ancient palace corridors helped to center and focus her thoughts on her responsibilities. The walls served as galleries for master works of art and were offset by widows overlooking vast gardens of blooming flora on alternate sides of the passages. The colonnades were formed by fifty-foot high, hand-carved marble columns with arches of triplat crystal painted by a master’s brush five hundred years past in Seti-Cronus’ history. Long before Alphxorn was found to be inhabitable, and their people divided.

Zera passed beneath these awe-inspiring ceilings every day, through the gleaming, spacious, pale rose, purple, and gray marble corridors of the palace. She and her brother grew up in the extensive network of passages, but she always remained in awe of the talent of the artists’ work.

In these regal corridors, she and Enos played hide and seek as children. Precocious twins, they scampered around nobles to conceal themselves in newly discovered, recently explored secret paths long forgotten by past architects of the palace. She treasured memories of carefree times when they ran laughing from their security guards, forcing them to chase their rowdy charges.

She and Enos, as twins, had been clairvoyant since birth, making catching them close to impossible. Their mental familiarity remained strong when they became adults.

At present, even distanced by long corridors, heavy doors, and the length of the throne room, Zera was aware of her brother’s impatience with the ambassador she was about to meet. She refocused and put her thoughts into perspective.

“Krax, how many in the delegation?” Zera addressed the herald on casual terms.

“Six representatives, My Lady, though I suspect one, the youngest, isn’t a diplomat at all. He is more like a young nobleman, perhaps sent to observe.”

“On what do you base your opinion?”

“His behavior isn’t that of an ambassadorial agent. The others treat him with more regard than Ambassador Thorax. His gaze takes in everything, but he’s watching his own people more than he watches ours. He says little.”

“You sound intrigued.”

“I suspect Lord Sarc sent him to watch Ambassador Thorax.”

“Anything else you’ve observed, Krax?”

“No, My Lady, I think you’ll read this delegation as well as me. Is My Lady already thinking of a way to embarrass the Ambassador?” Krax inquired, amusement in his voice.

“Possibly, Krax.” Zera’s voice was sweet, one unlike her. Her mischievous thoughts reflected as a gleam in her eyes.

Passing an occasional servant, Zera returned their nods and smiles as if they were family; none bowed. She cared for her people and dismissed them from such formality. Each went about their tasks, as did she. Excess court etiquette delayed them.

Nearing the throne room, Zera straightened her flawless uniform and placed her carved, triplet-steel-crystal helmet over her braided hair in preparation to enter her brother’s court. Before her loomed the heavy, double wooden doors, ornamented with the Great Seal of Seti-Cronus. Krax dropped back half a step out of respect and court protocol. She nodded in acknowledgement to the two formally dressed sentries who manned the mammoth portals and didn’t pause her stride as the two swung them open.

The booming voice of Krax’s deputy herald announced her arrival, “Her Royal Highness, Commander of the Royal Guards, Lady Zera Thealana Dueta Cronus.”

Always confident in her position in her brother’s court, she covered the polished alabaster floors in an assertive advance. She looked neither right nor left, passing towering columns supporting the higher, stained crystal ceiling of the throne room. Richly dressed courtiers parted, clearing an aisle before her passage before bowing on either side but none drew her attention. The sound of her boot heels resonated from the walls. Her steps, the perfect rhythm of a warrior’s grace, held the expectant nobles in pensive silence.

Ahead, she felt the charisma that emanated from her twin brother, Enos the Fourth. He sat waiting on the Crystal Triplat throne of Seti-Cronus watching her effect on the company present. Their gazes met, and her heart warmed at the delight and pride in his grin.

With supple, youthful poise, Zera paused at the foot of the dais, removed her helmet, placed it beneath her left arm and, meeting her brother’s gaze, knelt.

Observing with her peripheral vision, Zera chuckled to herself at the flabbergasted faces of the visiting Alphxorn diplomats. On Alphxorn, one submissively bowed their head to the high lord. Zera noted the young diplomat Krax mentioned and the unmasked amusement on his face clearly derived from his ambassador’s sour expression.

“Rise, Commander Zera,” Enos instructed his sister.

Zera rose, drew her legendary jeweled sword and sliced the air in a proper salute to her sovereign. Light flashed off every surface and gem before she sheathed the polished blade.

“Come, sister, sit next to me.” He indicated the smaller, portable throne next to his. After waiting until Zera ascended the dais and took her place, he introduced the Alphxorn diplomats. “These lords have come with a proposition for you from Alphxorn’s High Lord Sarc.” Enos turned to the delegation. “Ambassador Thorax?”

“Your Highness…” The Ambassador began moving to stand before the two thrones.

Zera held her hand up for his silence. “Ambassador Thorax, please address me as Commander.” The irritation on his face, clued Zera her interruption annoyed him. Alphxorn men were unaccustomed to bold women, one of the cultural differences which developed between the two worlds after the separation in relations divided the Crystal Triplat Thrones.

He bowed in apology. “I beg your indulgence, Commander Zera.” His apology rang insincere in her ears. “We bring greetings from High Lord Sarc. He sends his highest regards to you and His Majesty, Lord Enos. It is our honor to convey Lord Sarc’s proposal for Her Highness’ah, Commander Zera’s hand in marriage.”

Protest and immediate denial in her expression prompted him to quickly continue. “Please hear my words. This union would improve trade between us, and it would end the growing antagonism between our planets.”

She bristled at Thorax’s insinuations of possible hostilities between their worlds. Neither world was resolved to the split caused by Alphxorn’s High Lord, two generations past. “And your children would re-unite the split thrones.”

Zera noted the silence in the court as the nobles held their collective breath. The court had discussed the implications of such a match, and the issue of the succession to the throne could well create a disaster.

She looked down at the group, briefly gazing into each member’s eyes. All looked surprised, but one of the six, the young Alphxorn diplomat, looked abashed at what their ambassador implied. His displeasure with Thorax’s words was obvious. The ambassador’s proposal was unexpected. Zera wondered what Sarc’s true proposal was. She turned her attention back to the ambassador, making no effort to mask her contempt.

“Am I to conclude, Ambassador, Sarc considers me an object of trade to be bartered to the highest bidder, or perhaps, the strongest threat?” Zera sneered. She made no effort to hide her distain. “If Sarc wishes a bride, perhaps he should conduct his courtship in person.” She coldly questioned the proposal’s legitimacy, negating Sarc’s title, Lord.

“We were sent merely to open discussions.” Their Ambassador bowed in a contrite and courtly manner.

“Oh…I see.” Zera bestowed the group with a slight smile, cold enough to freeze boiling water. “Surely Sarc can find one of his own placid women who would be happy to be his wife. I will remind you, Ambassador, that My Lord Enos’ children will inherit his throne, not mine.” Her frigid stare unnerved him. “You also forget, sir, it was Sarc’s grandfather, Crayprous, who split the Crystal Thrones and our people.” Zera took a slow deep breath, her angry gaze focused on the ambassador. “Now you expect the people of Seti-Cronus to repair the rift. No! Tell Sarc that marriage is a moot question.” Zera stood and turned to her brother who sat smiling on his throne, amused by the entertainment. “By your leave, My Lord?” Again, she saluted with her sword, causing the ambassador to jump as she sliced the air with the exactness of her gesture. She turned with precision and descended the dais.

Thorax stood before the throne. He appeared mesmerized and humiliated, but moved quickly when Zera neared, lest she push him out of her path, her unsheathed sword still in her gloved hand. Her proud steps sharp and measured, she strode from the silent chamber, her exit a reflection of her entrance. Zera noticed most of the court wore amused smirks. Two lords, she marked with her cold stare, seemed more than pleased with her refusal.

Zera tried to return to her daily routine, but her mental disciplines failed her. Instead, she focused on the ambassador’s veiled threats and marveled Lord Sarc would trust such a slimy individual. Zera hoped the ambassador didn’t represent the high lord’s character. Later, she would stand guard duty in the main dining hall. She could analyze the ambassador and the rest of the delegation from a different angle.

“Commander Zera!” the sharp, beckoning voice of instructor Aganoff snapped her out of reverie. Zera realized the weapon’s trainer addressed her for the second time. At least she thought it was only the second time.

“By your pardon, I ah, didn’t understand your question,” Zera apologized, appalled she had allowed her attention to lapse so completely.

“Commander, I didn’t ask a question. I hope your attention in a battle situation will not be so compromised.” Her scathing voice cut like a sword.

Hiding her reaction, inside, Zera cringed. Before her peers and subordinates, she wouldn’t show emotion. “Of course not, Senior Commander Aganoff,” Zera replied, standing at attention. Royalty didn’t afford privileges. If anything, she drew harsher criticisms.

“Perhaps a two-mile run would clear your thoughts and center your concentration,” the instructor counseled from between clenched teeth, her face inches away.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Zera took off at a dead run. Senior Commander Aganoff did her a great favor. She wondered if her friend knew and glanced back to see a slight smile on the woman’s face. Aganoff knew. A run was just what Zera needed to think and clear her thoughts.

* * * *

Enos turned to the flabbergasted diplomats, noticing the young diplomat of the delegation appeared hard pressed to hide his amusement, his expression pleased.

“My sister is decidedly opinionated on some issues. Her marriage and the line of ascension are two of them. She can be most stubborn on other issues; her loyalty is unquestioned. The fact is, gentlemen, she has refused several good proposals already. My lovely sister has told me she does not wish to marry. As you see, she is quite independent, even for our women. I don’t think your lord could tolerate her,” Enos made an indifferent gesture. A low titter of amusement passed through the court. Thorax’s face turned red with supposed humiliation.

“Sire, I hoped to avoid offending the lady,” Ambassador Thorax stammered, doing a poor job of expressing his regret, failing to hide his anger.

“Commander Zera will be at dinner this evening. Perhaps you can make a more favorable impression then.” Enos dismissed the delegation. Ambassador Thorax bowed low. His entourage did so with respect, then made their exit in silence. Enos and his court suppressed their laughter until the throne room doors closed behind them.

High Lord Enos mused over his sister. Born first, he had preceded Zera by eighteen minutes. If she had been born first, she would have ruled. Fate determined who would rule Seti-Cronus, and sometimes he wondered if fate chose correctly. Her dedication and strength of purpose were overwhelming. Enos recalled battles fought side by side, and from somewhere in her smaller frame she summoned the strength and ferocity to wield her legendary sword that made him shudder. However, he never doubted her allegiance to him and wondered if this was why she declined marriage, waiting until after he chose a wife, allowing his children a clear path to the throne. He handed the Crystal Triplat scepter to his aide, and adjourned to the anteroom behind the throne. Enos took a short break before the next petition was presented. He thought about dinner; it should be an interesting evening’s entertainment. Smiling, he stretched and drank a refreshing glass of juice before he returned to his throne for the next session.

* * * *

Zera drew on her formal uniform designed for social occasions. She savored the rich feel of the heavy, lined garments constructed in the traditional dark blood-red velvet of the Seti-Cronus Royal Guards. Only a regimental commander was entitled to wear the entire uniform in this color. Zera merited her rank. She wore the uniform with pride, having earned the right to wear it, not because of her station.

Tonight Zera allowed Lornus, her lady in waiting, to rebraid her flaxen hair into a more intricate arrangement. In the severity of the style, her delicate features became more striking, her bluer than blue eyes more piercing. A trait she used with considerable efficiency to her advantage in both battle and the interrogation of captured prisoners unfortunate enough to find themselves one of her subjects.

She buckled on the legendary heirloom sword, a sign to the delegation she would tolerate no nonsense. Last, she donned her white cape. Her uniform bore no insignia of royalty, but she wore the red-white edged sash of a commanding officer, her commander’s bars in her cap and on her collar along with her other medals of valor, all earned.

Planning to arrive early for a private talk with her brother, she turned the last corner before the reception area, and two on-duty Alphxorn guards accosted her. Neither realized who she was, and, unaccustomed to women in the military, they disregarded her rank. Both attempted tactics to pick up Zera for an after-duty date.

“Move aside and allow me to pass,” Zera ordered, her voice low, cold, and authoritative.

“A woman commander?” the first Alphxorn lieutenant questioned, seeming finally to notice her rank but amused at such a novelty.

“Oh yes, on Seti-Cronus their women serve in the military,” the other responded, also amused. Both laughed.

“Why don’t you meet us after duty, honey, and we’ll show you what a real military man is like.”

Zera affixed both with an icy stare. “Allow me to pass. I will be late for my duty station.” Sickened by their innuendo, Zera would have preferred to show them what real military was. In the interest of diplomacy, she held her temper.

The first one quipped with disrespect in his tone and a leering, sickening smile, “Commander, is it? We just want to buy you a drink after we’re off duty, for interplanetary relations.” They laughed together.

Zera’s stare turned stony, and she replied with controlled anger, “I wouldn’t go with the likes of you or any other Alphxorn male if you’re the measure of their character.” She started to walk past them. Again, they blocked her path.

“Oh now, missy, we’re try’n to be friends,” the second one explained, his lewd grin not winning favors with Zera.

“If your stay on Seti-Cronus was longer than the evening, I would officially call you both out for your lack of manners. Now move aside and let me pass!” Zera demanded with a low growl. Still, they stood in her way and attempted to use manners more persuasive and physical.

With a quick kick, she broke one Alphxorn’s knee when he put a hand on her shoulder to detain her. The second one she removed from her path with a roundhouse kick, delivered with her other foot. Knocked into the wall, he sustained a concussion. Both Alphxorns lay on the polished floor, incapacitated. Feeling duty bound, she called for medical aid and waited until it arrived.

Zera arrived on time at her duty station behind the high lord’s chair with scarce seconds to spare. She composed herself, snapped to attention, and watched her brother enter the room. Feeling the flush from exertion warm her face, she noticed Enos’ attention center on her. Zera met her brother’s gaze. They shared a moment of telepathic revelation. By means of their connection, she was aware Enos knew of the encounter, but not the details. His curiosity would have to wait until after dinner for explanation.

Conversation throughout dinner began formally and remained stilted. Tension in the air was palatable, ruining the diners’ appetites. The servants removed the delicious cuisine untouched. When the party was nearing dessert, the dialogue returned to the Alphxorn delegation’s main reason for visiting. Princess Zera.

“Gentlemen, my sister has already given you her answer,” Enos told them, his voice firm. “What makes you think I would commit her to a life she would not wish? On Seti-Cronus, our women are not mere pleasure objects to breed our sons. They are our partners in life. She is my twin sister. I love her and care for her happiness. Be honest. Would your high lord be content with a woman as out-spoken and forceful as she?” The last statement Enos tipped with amusement. Zera couldn’t smile, react or in any manner break her pose while on duty except to defend him. Catching his glance in her direction, Zera worked hard to suppress her mirth. Her brother returned his attention to the ambassador.

“Lord Enos, the tension between our planets is quickly reaching a zenith. If a peaceful solution regarding our trade difficulties isn’t reached soon…well…conditions will continue to deteriorate.” Ambassador Thorax rendered a vague threat, allowing it to hang, his stare level with Lord Enos’.

“Do you dare sit at my dinner table and threaten my sovereignty?” Enos growled, his humor gone. “Your trade proposals are ridiculous. Your minerals are overpriced, and you expect our grains and foodstuffs for a pittance. Now you come here with a proposal of marriage, and to back it up, you threaten us with what? War? We both know the pirates are massing. Is Sarc that big a fool?” Enos’ temper peaked, Zera heard his restraint. “I would hope his proposal would be for an alliance, not to threaten war, or is war your solution—Ambassador?” Enos stood, leaning forward to place his brawny hands solidly on the table, his stare piercing Thorax’s. “I think this evening is at a close before you go further than protocol can repair. Good evening!” Enos turned and departed. The Alphxorn diplomats and Seti-Cronus courtiers hurried to stand. None missed the tightening of Zera’s hand on her sword hilt as she and three other guards followed her brother from the dining hall.

The dining room’s doors closed with careful, deafening silence, instead of a loud slam by his escort. Enos left the delegation standing, humiliated, on the other side. The High Lord of Seti-Cronus knew the value of dramatics.

He turned to his sister. “You are dismissed from further guard duty this evening, Zera. Summon our generals and advisors. We’ll prepare for whatever Sarc is planning…if anything. I suspect his ambassador has overstepped his authority. Nevertheless, we will be vigilant and ready. The young man among their delegation was an observer. Intelligence informs me, he is Prince Phorx, Sarc’s younger brother. I doubt he was sent to observe us. I suspect he was watching Ambassador Thorax.”

Zera, following her brother’s request, dispatched aides to summon their council and generals. Most were already in attendance at the state dinner and witnessed the Alphxorn Ambassador’s poorly-masked threats. In a show of support, they exited moments after Enos, allowing their lord to precede them. Intentionally rude, courtiers left without comment to the group from Alphxorn. Some tossed their napkins down in disgust, leaving the Alphxorns alone at table attended by stewards with sour expressions.

* * * *

Entering the high lord’s private briefing room, the advisors were already gathering. A loud, heated discussion regarding the Alphxorn Ambassador’s unwelcome proposal was in progress. Their main topic of debate centered on the origin of the proposition presented by the ambassador.

Calling the informal meeting to order, Enos addressed each councilor, commander, and general’s opinion on the situation. Zera, normally outspoken was quiet, her gaze distant. Her disposition didn’t go unnoticed by Enos or the participants.

“Commander Zera!” Enos drew her attention, his tone stern, addressing her the second time.

“Yes? Your pardon, Sire!” She bowed slightly, dismayed at her lack of attention. Glancing at the scowl on Senior Commander Aganoff’s face, Zera winced, reminded of her earlier, similar slip.

“Commander! You have been silent throughout most of the evening’s discussion; what is your opinion of the Alphxorn’s proposal, since it involves you directly?” Annoyance with her lapse was obvious in his voice.

“My Lord,” her voice was yielding, unlike her, “if marrying Lord Sarc will prevent war…” she paused and snapped to attention, “I am prepared to do so.” Sadness filled her eyes. Thinking of moving closer to the heat of the two worlds’ mutual star, Seti, was already draining her strength. Leaving the beautiful green world of Seti-Cronus for the dry deserts of Alphxorn parched her throat. She glanced at the pitcher of water on the table but remained at attention, hoping her brother would refuse such a sacrifice.

“Nay, sister!” Enos’ lips drew his handsome face into a fierce visage. “No! I’ll not hand you over to them regardless of what the Alphxorns threaten.” He shook his head.

“I thought that was what you were considering. What would they threaten next when they wanted to steal another treasure from us?”

He sneered, obviously trying, and finding it difficult to suppress his amusement at Zera’s embarrassment.

Around the table, the gathered group made their instant and genuine feelings known. They agreed with those of Enos.

“My Lady, there are those here who would welcome you as wife. Loving you truly, as a husband should,” one of Enos’ younger generals stated, catching and holding Zera’s gaze with his. His stare deepened with meaning and desire.

Her eyes widened in naive surprise. She realized for the first-time, men saw her as a woman, not just an officer and a royal.

“Thank you…all of you,” she uttered in embarrassed modesty, showing a softer side few saw. Amazed by the passionate fire in the general’s appraisal, she felt her face burn, heat deepening her color from a flushed pink to bright crimson.

“Tonight, we rest. In the morning, three generals and I will go on an inspection tour of our outer defenses. Commander Zera will act in my absence on all matters, as my heir.” Enos paused and glanced over the group. “Until tomorrow…goodnight, my friends.” He dismissed the company, turned and left the room. Zera retired to her chambers, to return later.

* * * *

Zera knocked on her brother’s private chamber door connecting their suites. “Enos are you there?”

“Enter, sister.”

“I came to see to your safety. I don’t trust the Alphxorn. Besides I wanted to thank you for saving me…from my own stupidity.” She stood before him like a nervous child.

“Zera, you astound me. The man who does marry you will have to be highly perceptive. You have many facets. Like a diamond.” A loving, brotherly smile lit his eyes.

“Thank you, brother, but I don’t wish to marry; you know this. Your children will inherit the throne, which is fine by me.” Zera, still dressed in her formal uniform, flicked an imaginary speck of dust off her sleeve.

“Oh, Zera, how do I tell you? You are my sister, but I’m not blind; you are a beautiful woman. Your uniform enhances your beauty, where as many of our female warriors complain their uniforms distract from their looks. It isn’t any wonder those two Alphxorn guards tried to convince you to see them after duty.” He laughed hard and wiped a tear away. “Couldn’t you see the truth in General Trup’t’s eyes after what he said? Perhaps I should leave him here tomorrow.”

“He is a valiant and brave warrior. One who will guard your life with his own. Take him. What comes when you and he return…we’ll see.” Zera shrugged. “Well, Brother, I see you’re secure, so I’ll wish you a pleasant night’s sleep. See you in the morning before you start your inspection tour.” She kissed his cheek and he hers.

“Goodnight, Sister,” he called as he turned so she didn’t see the worried frown on his brow. He must tell her of the petitions for her hand but aware of her views on marriage he remained undecided on how to approach the subject. General Trup’t’ who had commented in the meeting was one of those who had sought his permission. He knew she wouldn’t consider marriage until he formed a union. Enos sighed, knowing he had yet to face this problem.

Shame Sarc doesn’t have a sister instead of a brother.

He hadn’t found a woman he cared to marry but knew the time drew close when that decision would be made for reasons other than love.

* * * *

Before retiring, Zera stood in her garden gazing at Alphxorn, thoughts of Sarc haunting her. Despite the warmth of the night, a shudder shook her. A wave of strong curiosity washed over her, and she wondered if Sarc was looking at her world. Her intuition warned he was persistent. Intelligence reports confirmed he didn’t accept defeat or rejections easily.

Bed beckoned. Her tired eyes burned; she closed and rubbed them. Zera turned and went back inside. She slipped out of her robe and slid beneath the sheets. Despite her exhaustion, sleep was long in coming and troubled when it did.

Her maid and companion since childhood, Lornus, woke her as usual. Zera woke with a start. Her heart raced from an unremembered dream. An anxious need to hurry drove her. She dressed with care, but quickly. Enos wouldn’t leave until she arrived to bid him a fair journey. But an unreasonable feeling drove her. Zera felt she was delaying him.

She met her brother at the spaceport. “I see you’ve completed your preflight.”

“That we have, sister,” Enos assured her, indicating his three generals were also ready to leave. General Trup’t watched her with a gaze more daring than before and more eager now that his interest was open and known. Zera nodded to him, her cheeks grew warm, and a slight flush lit them. His looks always held respect, but now they were filled with something more and conveyed a message having nothing to do with military affairs. He bowed. Zera smiled modestly, not knowing what else to do. Flirting was an area she wasn’t familiar with. He seemed pleased with her response.

“I wish you a safe, successful, and speedy tour, but would prefer you’d allow me….” Zera conveyed, turning her attention back to her brother, unaware of the slight smile that remained on her lips or the warm glow of her face. “I’m concerned about your safety, brother.” Her demeanor grew serious. Like her, Enos piloted his own ship.

“You’d deny me a little time away from the tedium of ruling and the thrill of the freedom of flight, Sister?” Enos teased with a mischievous smile, attempting to ease her fears. It didn’t work. He gently touched her face. “Besides, you know I need the flight time to maintain my leadership skills as a squad commander. You fly more often with your squad than I do with mine.”

Taught to lead by example, in front, not from the safety of the Command Center, was one way the rank and file warriors’ respect was maintained.

“Enos, I wish you’d allow me to accompany you. Brother, please…let me go in your place,” Zera begged. Sick fear for her brother nagged at the back of her mind; the same fear had ruined her sleep during the night. A feeling of dread swept through Zera, and a chill rose in her heart.

* * * *

“Are you still thinking about Lord Sarc?” Enos taunted. Enos kept Zera innocent of Kudious’ intentions for her. It would have further slanted her decision to marry Lord Sarc to unite their worlds. He hoped his sister could marry for love. From warnings gathered by his networks of spies inside the pirates’ ranks, he had been told Kudious wanted his throne and considered his sister as his link to the lordship of Seti-Cronus. Should she be captured, Enos couldn’t ransom her. He couldn’t meet Kudious’ demands for her safety; the marriage of Zera and control of Seti-Cronus.

Lord Sarc might help, but with a similar price, possibly not as steep; marriage to Zera uniting their worlds, a union he couldn’t agree to unless Zera did. He doubted Lord Sarc would demand lordship of his world or his death. From reports, the Lord of Alphxorn was honorable, despite his slimy ambassador. United, the two worlds could withstand the pirates’ attack.

Lord Sarc, why didn’t you come instead of sending that slimy ambassador? It could have made such a difference.

Enos smiled at his sister.

“He did cross my mind,” Zera admitted. She met his gaze.

Enos smiled when her face burned with a self-conscious blush. Slipping past his conscious thoughts, his brotherly love reflected and betrayed his concerns in his gaze.

Enos looked at his sister, signs she had slept poorly obvious in her eyes.

“Only marry for love, sister, never politics.” Enos kissed her cheek.

“Yes, My Lord,” she answered capriciously.

“See you when I get back. Take care, Zera.” Then whispered for her alone, “I love you, sister, and I always will.”

Without time for other words Enos entered his ship and lifted off, disappearing through the atmosphere with the others. Their ships bore no distinctive markings of royalty. They looked like all other Seti-Cronus’ patrol craft. They should be safe.

Chapter 2

 

Ambassador Thorax was anxious in his preparations to return to Alphxorn, thankful there was little to coordinate. This trip was not meant to be a long one and what transpired at dinner destroyed any hospitable feelings from Lord Enos. He smiled to himself, careful not allow anyone to see the mote of gratification that stirred. Glancing at the other members of his contingent and noting their quiet and somber mood, he assumed they felt their assignment incomplete. However, he was in charge. Despite their reservations they would return to Alphxorn tonight. His concern was his humiliation and embarrassment before what he considered the lesser Seti-Cronus court. That thought quelled his satisfaction. He frowned not attempting to hide that expression.

His people’s roots and culture began on Seti-Cronus. The first rulers of Alphxorn intentionally changed many customs from the home world, despite those traditions being time-tested over thousands of years. Alphxorn residents wanted a more conservative, if to some, a more restrictive society.

Stepping from his suite, Thorax hid his distain at what he considered a further insult. Two Seti-Cronus nobles waited to escort him and his contingency to the departure port. Such courtesy was regarded as proper diplomatic protocol but disregarded unless the delegation appeared antagonistic. Despite Enos leaving the diplomats alone at table after the ambassador’s veiled, offensive threats, the High Lord of Seti-Cronus demonstrated he wanted it understood he took their visit seriously. While he had left the door open to a political alliance, he would tolerate no coercion.

Thorax looked over the two nobles assigned as guides to their ship. He knew from his sources on Seti-Cronus they were secret informants for the pirate lord. Perhaps Enos knew they were traitors, and watched to see what happened when they met, judging his and their loyalties. Thorax was sure the two would report his departure to the pirate lord.

“How considerate of Lord Enos to send ushers,” Thorax’s tone was degrading.

Loke ignored the insult. “Lord Enos is careful to maintain diplomatic courtesies.”

“So I noted when he left the table at dinner.”

How loyal will these two cousins of the royal twins continue to appear? Each has aspirations of retaining their positions and seeks to elevate their standing when Kudious be- comes high lord. Neither likes Lord Enos nor wants Lady Zera as sovereign, should some disastrous fate befall Enos. Both are in collusion with Kudious, or so my sources on Seti-Cronus inform me. In exchange for secure positions, they’ve made a secret deal to turn Zera over to the pirate lord should something happen to Enos.

Thorax maintained his diplomatic attitude, suppressing his amusement. These were foolish men. Kudious would never leave witnesses to such an arrangement alive. He was closer to the pirate lord, and privy to the fate Kudious planned for them.

Loke glanced at the ambassador, a smirk on his face, his hand resting on his sword. “Did you expect him to sit at his own table and disregard insults?”

Thorax’s expression turned grim. “I merely stated facts.”

“If those are the facts the way Lord Sarc sees them, then…” Lord Praum, the second escorting noble sneered leaving his answer hang.

These two didn’t appear disloyal. They neared the departure port curtailing their conversation. “Perhaps the evening started on the wrong level.” Thorax shrugged, bowed and boarded his star cruiser.

Over all, Thorax was angry. He didn’t look forward to telling his sovereign of Lady Zera’s adamant refusal of his marriage proposal. His hopes were for a rejection, just not such a final one—more of a diplomatic doubtfulness, a delaying tactic, until Lord Kudious positioned his fleet to attack Seti-Cronus. But Thorax’s pride suffered from the tone of Lady Zera’s refusal. He was unaccustomed to a woman so forceful or authoritative. Her ability to insult him before his delegation and the Seti-Cronus court was cutting and had goaded him. Had he presented the proposal as instructed, he might have gotten irresolute results, or worse, an affirmative. Reeling from the cut of her tongue and fearing an agreement, he had gone too far and hinted at the possibility of war. Aware he had exceeded his authority, his own pretentiousness didn’t concern him. A breach between the two sovereigns couldn’t suit his cause better. He just hoped Lord Enos’ over-reaction didn’t cause Sarc to take matters into his own hands.

He was confident Lord Enos and Lady Zera were unaware how close the impending attack of the pirates was. With Kudious’ forces already massed just on the edge of their solar system, he waited for the two moons to align. Thorax hoped Lord Enos would remain as unaware as he thought Sarc was. It was important to keep them unprepared and off-balance, making it easier for Kudious to take Seti-Cronus.

For his assistance in the conspiracy, Kudious promised him control over Alphxorn as regent after he gained control of both planets. The last thing Thorax wanted was Lady Zera married to Lord Sarc. Kudious wanted the beautiful and spirited princess. After his own encounter with the little firebrand, Thorax would enjoy humiliating the arrogant princess before her own court when he placed her in Kudious’ hands.

Thorax was sadistic. Zera was a beauty, but in this case, his interest wasn’t sexual. His pleasure would come watching the pirate lord break her spirit. Thorax secretly savored the thought of her beaten, her uniform in rags, kneeling at the pirate’s feet before the conquered Seti-Cronus court. But thoughts of retribution against the royals of Alphxorn gave him more satisfaction.

“Pilot,” Thorax snapped, “what delays our liftoff for home? We should have been halfway to Alphxorn by now.”

“Ambassador, Prince Phorx has yet to board.” The pilot nodded toward the prince, just walking toward their transport. Phorx casually made his way up the three steps into the ship.

“You can leave for Alphxorn now, Captain.” Phorx saluted the pilot in a casual manner as if he were head of the delegation, not Thorax. The newest member of his diplomatic team, Prince Phorx delayed their departure and interrupted his musings.

Thorax scowled in the direction of Lord Sarc’s younger brother.

Such arrogance!

Assigned to his delegation supposedly to learn negotiation skills, Thorax had smirked when told of his addition. He knew Phorx’s true assignment was to watch him and provide an account of his conduct. He shrugged. It wouldn’t matter when Kudious was in control and Phorx and his brother, Lord Sarc, were dead. Thorax smirked again at the thought, sure of himself. He made a slight gesture toward the prince after he boarded, ignoring Phorx’s scrutinizing gaze. He saw and dismissed a small device the prince carried as he took a seat in the main cabin of the craft. Royalty and their toys!

Shortly after leaving Seti-Cronus, Thorax, his posture supercilious, approached Phorx. “Prince Phorx, what were your impressions of Lady Zera’s true feelings of the marriage proposal?”

Phorx’s piercing gaze made Thorax flinch. As a royal, the prince remained seated, and, before answering turned his gaze out the window. He didn’t bother to lookup again, apparently not caring if the ambassador was insulted.

“From the way you misrepresented my brother’s intentions, I doubt Commander Zera would consider marriage with him if he were the last man alive in the galaxy.”

“Misrepresented? Certainly not! It is well your brother assigned you to learn diplomacy skills. These are just the opening maneuvers for a royal marriage. Often the first proposal is declined. Pointing out the harshest of possibilities will help her reconsider for the good of her people,” Thorax instructed with condescending humor, sounding amused by Phorx’s lack of experience, insulted by his manner. “Zera is being a willful child.”

Looking disgusted, Phorx stood, forcing Thorax to look up at the taller man. “Thorax, you are a fool! You not only embarrassed yourself and our people, but you insulted Lady Zera and overstepped your authority.” The prince walked away to the small private compartment allotted him as royalty, leaving Thorax open-mouthed at his candor.

The trip from Seti-Cronus to Alphxorn was short—within the hour the delegation arrived on Alphxorn. Phorx strode toward his military billet instead of going to the palace, a confident grin on his lips. Thorax wondered. Why isn’t he going straight to his brother to report?

Ambassador Thorax bowed before Lord Sarc in his private receiving room. As he expected, Lord Sarc wasn’t pleased with his report. Thorax knew Sarc neither trusted nor liked him. He returned the feelings. However, until sound proof of his inability to handle his duties or of his treachery surfaced, though Sarc was high lord, he was unable to dismiss him. Secure in his position, he felt confident that the blithe smile on his composed face hid his treachery against his sworn sovereign.

Sarc regarded him with a cold stare from behind his ancient hardwood desk before he spoke. “Ambassador Thorax, did you in any way threaten war with Lord Enos, should Lady Zera refuse my offer?”

“I…I pointed out the benefits of marriage, sire. Of course, one such benefit w-would be the reduction of the possibility of such an unfortunate event,” Thorax stuttered, trying to cover his blatant over-use of authority. His poise slipped a bit.

“I see.” Sarc’s gaze didn’t waver. “Did you suggest that Lady Zera’s and my children would supersede those of Lord Enos?”

“The lady mentioned that wouldn’t be a possibility.”

“Thorax, your account does not agree with what is on this recording disk of your meetings.” Sarc tossed a copy of the disk on the desk between them. “I sent you with an offer of marriage. You turned it into a threat of war.” Silence held the room for a moment. “You are dismissed from your duties at court. You have my blessing to retire to your home estates. Because of the loyalty of your family, and the love my mother bore yours as a close friend, I choose to retire you from court…permanently. Your last official act will be to draft an official apology to Lord Enos and Lady Zera. You may leave.” Sarc’s gaze had turned to fire with anger.

Thorax stood still, stunned, in shock, having never suspected Prince Phorx had recorded the meetings with Seti-Cronus’ nobility. Thorax dared not argue for fear he could lose everything, including his life. He left his sovereign’s presence after a courtly bow, which Sarc ignored. Drawing on all his reserves, he managed to refrain from shaking.

Thorax was disgusted with Sarc and his brother, Phorx. Alphxorn possessed a weapon to render Seti-Cronus neutral and assume control of the planet without loss of life, but Sarc would not implement it. Instead, Sarc tried to convince Enos to progress diplomatic relations past trade to possibility of a marriage between himself and Zera and allow Enos to retain his throne. To Thorax it was ridiculous. It made more sense to take over aggressively. Sarc could have Zera at his command and her brother be damned. It was just as well; those actions could jeopardize his plans. Tired of waiting, he contacted Kudious by way of a secret transmission.

* * * *

Sarc considered his next move and sought his younger brother’s thoughts. “You know, Phorx, marriage to Zera would solve a multitude of problems for both our worlds. Neither of us agreed with our grandfather on splitting our peoples. We need each other.”

“Agreed, and Enos and Zera are perceptive enough to concur. Enos indicated as much. However, Zera is an independent and proud woman, loyal to her brother. She is also a patriot.” Phorx sighed. He poured two small snifters of brandy and handed one to his older brother. “After the way Thorax presented your proposal, her pride wouldn’t allow her to accept, not after his insinuation about the succession to the throne of Seti-Cronus.”

“According to both planets’ laws, either royal twin can produce the next heir by having the first child. Zera wouldn’t supersede Enos’ rights by marrying first and having that heir. She would deny herself, allowing him to sire the first child, waiting until he chose to wed.”

“If…she desires to wed,” his younger brother teased. “From what I’ve heard, Lady Zera holds the opposite sex at a distance. She isn’t interested in women either. Mainly, she’s dedicated to duty. Reminds me of another royal I know…well!” Phorx looked at his dutiful brother and saluted him with his brandy.

Sarc sighed, turning his attention to an official photo of Zera posed in her dress uniform. He tossed it back onto his desk. He picked up another less formal picture from the collection of intelligence shots taken by his agents, well placed in the Seti-Cronus court. He settled on one photo he liked, a clear close-up of Zera taken by his brother. Her confidence obvious in the picture, she strode from the throne room after facing down Ambassador Thorax. Her sword held tightly in her gloved hand.

What a beauty!

He noted her spirit evident in her demeanor. Sarc kept this photo for himself, put the others back into the folder and handed it to his aide.

He’d never met either Enos or Zera. “Perhaps it’s time I took a trip to Seti-Cronus.”

“Zera did say you should have presented your proposal yourself.” Phorx’s tone was sour as he sipped his brandy.

Sarc threw him a pained look. “Lessening the price of our minerals as a show of good faith might help—we need their foodstuffs badly enough. Father raised our mineral prices unreasonably.”

Phorx nodded in agreement. “Until our new irrigation system is in place, we need their grains and still will, but less so, though that’s a few years away. For now, unification against the pirates is our immediate problem.”

“True.” Phorx walked over to look out the double garden doors at the setting sun. “You’re going to need a new ambassador.”

“I’m going myself, first. I hope to repair the damage Thorax did. I’ll leave you here to run things. Should the pirates attack before we can unite the two worlds, it’s conceivable both could be lost. Lord Enos was correct in his assessment. We need to unite. I suspect Thorax of treason. After reviewing your recording, I can see Thorax overstepped diplomacy. He appeared to make an intentional attempt to ruin diplomatic ties with Seti-Cronus.”

“I agree. Thorax’s attempt was obvious, and Enos saw it. I believe that was why he said what he did and ended the evening without losing his temper…completely.” Phorx snickered. “You should have seen Zera, her hand on her sword. For a piece of triplat, I think she’d have relieved us of Thorax with one stroke of that legendary weapon.”

“She’s good with that sword, so our agents say.” Sarc smiled, thinking of a duel with her, but not with swords.

Phorx guffawed. “Sarc, your eyes tell me many things, and they aren’t of sword duels.”

Sarc scowled at his younger, wittier-tongued sibling, and changed the subject. “I’m waiting for an information transmission from our operatives inside Kudious’ organization. Several spies have infiltrated high up in the pirates’ military. They should confirm our suspicions of Thorax’s collusions with Kudious, but those messages won’t arrive until tomorrow around noon. By then Lord Enos could be in grave danger from the pirates. According to our moles on Seti-Cronus, information on Lord Enos’ inspection plans of their outer defenses will place him in range of the pirates and a possible ambush.”

“That could be serious. If they ambush Enos, it’ll put Zera on the throne.”

“I’ve already assigned two patrol contingents of fighters to maintain undercover surveillance on the pirates in the area.” Sarc’s concern showed on his face and echoed in his voice. “Those squads were stationed on a small planet, under cover of a camouflaged terra-dome, in the outer area of their solar system to boost border security. I’ve ordered them to assist the Seti-Cronus squadron in any way needed and to identify themselves promptly.”

Phorx held his older brother’s stare. “It will help the ships are painted with a small version of the Alphxorn emblem on their nosecones, though they are otherwise unmarked

Sarc nodded seeing his brother’s angst and knowing why. He wanted to go, but as next in line to the Alphxorn throne, he couldn’t put him in unnecessary danger. “It’s all I can do at this point…” Sarc all but whispered, but then voiced his fears louder. “I’m concerned Kudious might attempt to destroy the Seti-Cronus mission and blame Alphxorn, thereby causing a serious split between our two worlds. Now I wish those fighters bore full-size emblems. I hope by instructing the two patrols to fly assistance we can form a bond between our planets and bring our relations closer.”

With a last, lingering look at the picture of Zera, sitting in an upright position on his desk, he declared, “Let’s get some rest, Phorx. I think we’ll need it.”

Both men retired to their chambers. Sarc found sleep elusive, his mind on pressing matters.

Chapter 3

Dread threatened to overwhelm Xellos when Kudious strode back onto the command bridge. The pirate lord’s step was haughtier than usual, and his confidence appeared high when he glanced Xellos’ way. Caught spying for his world, Seti-Cronus, he’d refused to reveal military information regarding his world despite the vicious beating Kudious had inflicted on him. His lack of cooperation in the less-than-successful interrogation hadn’t dissuaded the bastard. The pirate lord boasted he’d break him while he laughed in his severely-damaged face.

Kudious sneered. “Oh, how I’ll enjoy brutalizing you until you do break.”

Xellos had spat in his face. Kudious hit him with his fist so hard he’d knocked him unconscious. He’d lost track of time, with no idea how long he’d been out cold. He shivered. Now he was awake and Kudious had returned to his command bridge.

“Soon you die, spy.” Kudious laughed callously. He stepped up to the prisoner restrained on the magnetic torture table set in a special, darkened corner of his bridge. Kudious sneered, leaning maliciously close. Xellos’ pain didn’t sate the pirate lord’s seditious blood lust. Instead, the gleam of his cruel, dark, and furtive eyes betrayed his true nature. “Tell me what I wish to know, and I can make your death…quick.” Xellos doubted Kudious would keep that promise if he revealed any information, but he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

Xellos hung limp, his weakened appearance deceptive. His breathing while a prisoner of the complex persecution device looked slight and labored. Pain racked his sweat-drenched body stuck on the advanced device like a bug on the forward window of an in-atmosphere plane. However, death wasn’t as close as Xellos allowed Kudious to think.

“I’ll see you in hell…pirate…before,” he coughed, “I betray my world,” Xellos wheezed in labored words.

Kudious struck him with his fist instead of using the more advanced forms of persuasion the table offered. Xellos’ stomach roiled. A sudden knot twisted his insides when Kudious’ fist knocked the air from his lungs. He coughed, growling at the obvious enjoyment the feel of striking him gave the pirate, but he couldn’t keep the look of surprise off his face. Kudious snickered, smearing the warm blood trickling down the spy’s chin gently with his knuckles. Kudious then brutally snatched a handful of Xellos’ long brown hair, wet with blood and sweat, and held his head up.

“Look out at the stars and your home system. Beautiful, isn’t it? Draws your gaze right in. Soon it’ll all be mine,” he promised the captured spy with a self-assured sweep of his hand. “I vowed to my people at my coronation I’d give them a world of their own.”

“By steal’n another peoples’ world? You’re a tyrant, Kudious. Your people think so too.” Xellos coughed, clearing his lungs, bruised from the mechanical beatings he’d endured. The table’s robotic systems were set to inflict pain and injury at a controlled level. It was a clean method of torture. The operator didn’t have to touch the victim, unless he enjoyed it, and Kudious did. Xellos spat blood onto the gleaming deck just missing Kudious’ worn, but polished boots.

“They don’t understand the harsh measures I’ve implemented are needed to accomplish the goal,” Kudious rationalized. His face fixed into a harsh, grim expression emphasizing and reinforcing the severity of the traditional royal tattoo of the poisonous Thorn of the Primosa flower. The brilliant purple, mono-color ornamental icon decorated his face from the squint of his soulless black eyes, over his cheek and down to the corner of his thin lips hidden beneath a black mustache to serve as a visible reminder of his ruthlessness. “My measures, over the years, have kept my people together.”

“Your people hate you, pirate…” Xellos rasped and braced to be stuck again. “You explain yourself to me? Trying to elicit sympathy…” His weak laugh caused another cough; he gasped for enough air to finish, “for more information since torture don’t work?” Xellos’ body slumped, drained and sweating in the cool air of the command bridge. Now the pirate lord was trying psychology. Xellos knew from Kudious’ tone of voice, his anger and bitterness went deep. He’d turn that knife a little more to learn all he could, then escape and get back to Seti-Cronus.

“My actions are necessary to sustain my fleet’s discipline and protect the remnants of my people. Those who threaten my rule receive a heavy hand, and a brutal fist.” A small tic of his facial muscle drew the thorn tattoo into a sharper image emphasizing his displeasure just before Kudious’ fist ground into Xellos’ gut, again. “As you just found out yourself.”.

Xellos coughed. Kudious turned to scan his command bridge, lit in low light during battle stations. Before Xellos was discovered as a spy, he’d watched Kudious punish crew members in this spot. It seemed to give Kudious satisfaction to humiliate his errant crew before the others but now, he seemed to find nothing on his bridge to lighten his foul mood.

He blinked the blood out of his eyes from an earlier blow, raised his head and made note of the soft, colorful glow of violet and fuchsia lights haloing each crewmember’s face indicating the ship’s current alert status. The low lights served to highlight the anxiety on their faces. His vision had grown accustomed to the light level. The crew efficiently, yet with nervous actions, scurried about their tasks. He saw Kudious narrow his scrutiny. Their efforts weren’t competent enough to please him. His stare seemed to mark each person, judging their proficiency, or lack of it. Despite the diffused light, Xellos observed each member cringe when their lord’s analysis found them.

Kudious turned back to him with a smirk. “Each knows what punishment incompetence affords. They know it’ll not be tolerated, and why.” Kudious shrugged. “The lacking will pay for their ineptitude.” He marked two; one, an attractive female, with his cold stare. “Her discipline I just may enjoy allotting myself—in private.”

Xellos saw her shiver. She obviously felt Kudious’ gaze on her and glimpsed the leering gleam that slipped over his cold face. He pitied the girl, Xellos couldn’t see anything lacking in the performance of her duty but he saw the glitter in Kudious’ eyes.

He observed Kudious and knew where his power rested—in his military. He kept his senior staff loyal and close, as well as a small but powerful group of well-trained, personal bodyguards. Kudious remained confident in his mastery over his people by whatever methods needed. He strode to the center of the bridge flanked by two armed bodyguards, each a step behind.

Xellos was left alone, for now, though he still hung on the body-magnet table. A trained observer, he noted not a head turned but it was obvious by the crews’ body language they were aware of Kudious’ position on the bridge. From his time as a spy on this ship, Xellos was knowledgeable of normal bridge etiquette. Kudious’ return to the command position was greeted with a salute. On alert status, all stayed on station and on task.

Xellos watched Kudious signal one of his guards and heard him issue quiet instructions. “Bring those two to my office later, when their watch ends. Both are on discipline call for lack of attentiveness to their duties!”

“Yes, My Lord,” the guard answered, bowed and strode in their direction to inform the unfortunate two crew members of their impending after duty appointment.

Xellos saw the stricken look of fear spread on both crewmembers’ faces, but the girl’s gaze locked with Kudious’ when she was told. A cold smile touched Kudious’ lips, her face whitened in the dim light. She averted her gaze and returned to her duties. Xellos’ blood burned to gain his freedom and strangle Kudious to save the girl. He didn’t know the female pirate, but no woman should be treated as he suspected Kudious planned. If the opportunity was presented allowing escape, he first must think of his duty to his world. Possibly Kudious’ death would serve such a duty.

Xellos, alert despite Kudious’ torture, watched the bridge. Kudious assumed a dominant stance on the raised dais, before settling into his command chair. His bodyguards took up positions on either side of their lord, assuring his authority and safety. The rest of the bridge crew seemed to snap-to, and become more precise in their duties, lest they too be found inadequate. Kudious acted satisfied with their performance, yet something seemed to agitate him, and Xellos knew it wouldn’t be long before he was again the brunt of the man’s discontent. He rested while he could.

* * * *

“My Lord,” Kudious’ communications officer addressed him. “I have a secure and scrambled transmission from the Alphxorn Ambassador, Lord Thorax, requesting an audience with you.”

“Good, put his transmission through,” Kudious smothered a pompous smile and assumed a deceptively pleasant one.

“Lord Kudious,” Thorax said and bowed. “I’ve just returned from Seti-Cronus and as promised have an update for you. I think you’ll be interested in my information.”

Kudious’ smile waned. “I hope you aren’t going to tell me Lady Zera has accepted Sarc’s proposal?”

“No…no!” He shook his head. “Lady Zera refused to marry Lord Sarc.” Thorax snickered with satisfaction. “After the way I presented the proposal, backed up with a threat of war should she refuse, her pride wouldn’t let her accept.” Thorax and Kudious both enjoyed a laugh. “I have another piece of information you might be able to, ah…use.”

“And that would be?”

“Lord Enos will be traveling with three of his generals within a few short hours to inspect his outer territorial monitoring installations. It would seem prudent to camouflage your fighters, My Lord.”

“True, I’m not ready to take on Seti-Cronus’ defenses. Not until I’m sure Alphxorn won’t aid them. You are sure she was sufficiently insulted?”

“Quite sure. She thinks Lord Sarc is an overbearing dog.”

“And Sarc’s opinion about this situation?” Kudious smoothed his black mustache between stubby fingers. His dark eyes glistened.

Thorax shrugged. “If he wants Zera he’ll have to take the planet. The relationship isn’t good. Sarc is thinking of a price change on their metal exports to Seti.” Thorax neglected to say Sarc planned to lower them.

“Good, I want them at each other’s throats. When I attack Seti-Cronus, Alphxorn won’t aid them even if they beg for help, which I doubt they will,” Kudious theorized.

“I have one problem, Lord Sarc sent his brother, Prince Phorx, with my delegation. Arrogant, snotty little bastard reported the way I presented the proposal. Lord Sarc has dismissed me as ambassador.” Thorax looked sulky.

“Now that could cause difficulties.”

“One request, My Lord—when you take Alphxorn and honor me as your regent, allow me the pleasure of removing the prince’s head from his shoulders—myself.”

“I haven’t a problem with that, Thorax.” Kudious laughed in a conspiratorial way. “I’m sure we can arrange it. I’ll keep you informed about Lord Enos. Perhaps an accident will befall him while he’s out here. Nothing obvious…”

“Thank you, Lord Kudious. Either way we need Enos out of the picture. I’ll keep you updated from this end. I still have reliable eyes and ears at court. You won’t lack for information,” Thorax promised the pirate and signed off.

Kudious sat in pensive silence for a few minutes. On the bridge, tension became a tangible entity, with the pirate lord at the nexus. More information about Seti-Cronus’ military was needed, and this damned spy would provide it or die a torturously slow death. A malicious frown spread across Kudious’ blunt features. He gestured the bodyguard on his right closer.

The guard leaned over to hear his lord’s orders. “Adjust the controls on the magnetic table to a moderate overall pain setting. I’ll return to our spy in a few moments. I want him fully conscious when I do. Should that not alert him, turn it up until he is in a useful amount of…discomfort.” He’d let the spy simmer a few minutes while he relaxed.

Kudious’ attention returned to the spy who had never entirely left his thoughts. He reconsidered his position and that of his people. He rose from his command throne, once a plush command seat, but after three generations, wear had taken its toll. Now covered by the skin of a ferocious striped and spotted animal Kudious pirated from another ship, the pelt managed to give the chair a regal, warrior’s throne appeal if it wasn’t closely examined. Kudious deliberated how best to proceed with his prisoner hanging on the torture table. The corners of his mouth turned up in a cynical manifestation of a smile. Proud and egotistical, he showed no weakness before his subjects, nor compassion—he didn’t possess any. His reputation for severity was well-earned. Before he could resume his sadistic assault on his prisoner, his communications officer again requested his attention.

“Lord Kudious, the two, ah lords, on Seti-Cronus are waiting on the communications link for you.”

With a bored sigh, Kudious went back to his throne, resumed his casual air, and accepted the second message. “Put them on,” Kudious instructed with an irked gesture.

“Lord Kudious,” the pair chimed, bowing almost in unison.

“Lords Loke and Praum, you have news for me?” Kudious sat back, his manner relaxed. He casually draped one leg over his command chair’s right arm. The animal skin was draped to cover a tear in the heavy fabric.

“Lord Enos is leaving in a few hours to inspect our outer bases,” Lord Praum informed him smugly, obviously believing he’d given him a pearl of information.

“Very valuable news.” Kudious acted pleased, leading the two on. “I’m not yet ready for Lord Enos to know how close my ships are to your world.” Pausing as if in thought, he asked, “What reaction did Lady Zera have to the marriage proposal from Lord Sarc?”

“She laughed in the Alphxorn Ambassador’s face. Lady Zera’s pride will never allow her to marry Lord Sarc. She thinks he is a pig.” Lord Loke smirked.

“Good, the better for me. I won’t care what she thinks when I take her.” He chuckled with false amiability and shifted in his chair. He found it necessary to change his position to ease the sudden tightness in the crotch of his pants. The thought of Zera, naked, and submissive beneath him in bed was arousing. “Don’t worry, gentlemen, I’ll treat your lady well. Given time,” a leering grin appeared on his coarse, serious face, “and with suitable…treatment, she’ll come to see the situation my way. I know how to pleasure a woman.” He suppressed a smirk, noting his statement pleased the two.

“I’ll have my ships well-hidden when Lord Enos comes through. Thank you for the warning.” Kudious terminated the transmission.

Turning to his second-in-command, Commander Lo-mar, he grew thoughtful. “I think we’ll monitor Lord Enos carefully. Should he encounter a fatal accident, Lady Zera would assume the Seti-Cronus throne, giving us an advantage. While Seti-Cronus grieves for a couple of weeks…” he paused, planning aloud, “…their moons will come into alignment…” He paused again, pensive. “Do we have any fighters resembling Alphxorn’s fighters in our possession?”

“No, milord, I am sorry to say, we don’t. We haven’t managed to acquire any. Our one asset, Lord Thorax doesn’t have access to them, and a lesser agent isn’t yet in position to obtain anything more than common intelligence.”

“Damn!” Kudious swore. “If Enos had waited another two weeks to pull this surprise inspection… Thorax’s impetuous actions triggered this. He thinks far too much of himself. Something I will remedy a few minutes after he removes the young prince’s head.” Kudious growled with disgust. “Hopefully, Zera will think Lord Sarc has arranged her brother’s death. If no one who sees our ships lives to tell the story, or manages to get a distress call off identifying their attackers… That would be the best-case scenario. The earliest we can be ready to take the planet is ten days—two weeks is preferable. As we’ve planned, using the moons as shields, it may be possible to take the planet with a minimal loss of our people. With Enos out of the way, Zera will pose a much lesser opponent. I’ll claim my bride and the throne with ease. Alphxorn will, of course, be next.”

“How can we arrange for Seti-Cronus to think Alphxorn and Lord Sarc are to blame?” Ragon, his third captain, commander of his third fleet, questioned.

Kudious glowered in Ragon’s direction. “That is the job of my subordinates. Get busy and think of a way. Simply putting the emblem of Alphxorn on the ships won’t work. We’ll have to take out the entire patrol or not be seen at all. It may be best to remain hidden so our numbers and location aren’t known. I planned to kill Enos when we took the planet anyway. For now, see if you and my other captains can formulate a plan. Go.” He waved his captains away.

Kudious, unaware of Lord Sarc’s abilities to infiltrate his ranks, didn’t realize within minutes of his orders, Sarc received a secret, coded transmission, detailing the conversation.

* * * *

Xellos was semi-lucid when the sound of the Ambassador from Alphxorn’s transmission grabbed his attention. He focused hard on his voice, fighting against the pain, trying to hear anything that might help his world, should he escape. He overcame the lure of the blessed void of unconsciousness to escape the pain being inflicted on his body and listened. One of Kudious’ guards solved his dilemma and prompted him to waken by elevating the table’s pain level. He refused to show his distress and focused on the wealth of intelligence discussed around him. Ambassador Thorax of Alphxorn was aiding Kudious—he missed the beginning of the communication and assumed Lord Sarc was working with the pirates. When the two lords from his world appeared, he was fully conscious.

“Traitors!” he growled but wasn’t heard.

Seeing Kudious rise from his chair, the second time, he suppressed the trembling that threatened to race through him, knowing the sadistic bastard was coming back.

He wouldn’t betray anything about his world’s defensives. His family had served the royal family and in the military with pride for many generations. His rank, because of birth, placed him close to their sovereigns. He considered his duty an honor.

Xellos was determined to remember everything heard since they’d turned up the table’s pain level, despite his agony. Now he was awake and heard clearly—before it was in fuzzy patches.

He drew a deep breath and readied himself for whatever Kudious would do in an attempt to force information from him. He felt the stares of most of the bridge crew on him, those who dared to look openly and those who watched without notice.

“You will tell me what I want to know…one way or the other…spy.” Kudious’ voice came out in a stern order—threat.

He wondered who he was trying to convince. “Can’t tell you what I don’t know,” he rasped and readied himself for the pain or blow that was coming.

A thousand bites of an insect known as a fire wasp seemed to sting him at once, injecting their burning venom into the tender areas of his body. One of the effects of the table was pain inflicted without damage to the victim. Xellos gritted his teeth, refusing to scream.

Gods, the pain seems to go on forever!

He’d held his breath against it, without realizing, until dark spots appeared before his eyes and unconsciousness loomed. The pain stopped, and he gasped.

“You don’t get off so easily,” Kudious informed him in a sadistic tone. “Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you off the table. Where are Seti-Cronus’ outer planetary bases located?”

Xellos was panting. Sweat ran down his entire body, it buzzed from exertion against the pain. “Don’t know. You think…Lord Enos would place a spy in your ranks who knew such things?” Kudious turned up the level and hit him with the same effect again, but longer. Xellos’ world went black, for how long he didn’t know. Water hit him in the face, an actual relief until the electrical shock zapped him, and he was instantly awake. Xellos was glad for the water. It washed away his loss of control. The groan he heard was his own but it sounded distant.

“Take him back to his cell,” he heard Kudious order. “We’ll get nothing more for now.” Kudious grabbed a handful of the prisoner’s long, matted hair. “Don’t think I’m done with you–spy. Before I am, I will know everything and you…” He laughed. “You will…beg for…death.”

Two guards dragged him back to the cell in the bowels of the main pirate ship. Xellos let them drag him. Let them think he was much worse off than he was. He memorized every passageway and every exit they passed. He wouldn’t be here much longer. He’d either escape or die in the attempt. From what he heard, escape was imperative. Two days earlier the other agent, a woman escaped, barely. He hoped she made it home, thankful at least Kudious hadn’t caught her.

* * * *

Damned spy kept passing out. He’d find another method of getting the information he needed. Drawing a deep breath, Kudious made a conscious effort to relax, rested his square hands on the animal skin of his throne and sat back. He was a prince born in space without a kingdom. His parents made sure he knew his lineage and the kind of people he descended from. Nevertheless, the harshness and suffering of his people’s lives affected him. He swore to find them a home world no matter the cost to the inhabitants of the chosen world. Kudious became ruthless and devoid of compassion, even toward his own people. The drive to establish a home world with him as the ruler remained his ultimate goal. Later rulers could concern themselves with such luxuries as benevolence. Kudious’ reputation became one of a harsh, brutal, and unscrupulous leader. One of his first deals was with a woman on the world of Luitha.

Aluora was second in line for the throne of her world and coveted being first. Kudious advanced her aspirations by removing her older sister. Had he possessed the assets to conquer the female-dominated world, his goals would have been achieved by taking Luitha. Instead of attempting to conquer their world, he made a deal with Aluora. He needed a royal wife from a different DNA pool, and the crowned princess was a beautiful woman. Abducting her to serve as his wife, elevated Aluora to the position she coveted. To seal the deal, she furnished the fighters his people needed. Unfortunately, Aluora’s sister was a warrior and wouldn’t submit to his masculine domination. She didn’t live long after he kidnapped her, but left him with a daughter. He considered her a stupid girl, and treated her like a slave. What should he expect of a child from the genes of a woman-dominated world—really?

Before him, finally, lay not one, but two promised worlds ripe for conquering if handled correctly. Kudious’ spies informed him the ruler of each world concerned themselves with their own internal problems, and because of their animosity toward each other, stood a hair’s breadth from war. Instigating them to fight each other would be easy, distracting them from seeing his forces coming until it was too late.

His forces weren’t in place, yet. It would take a little more time, another ten days to two weeks until the two moons of Seti-Cronus came into alignment to cover his attack. That time also gave his spies time to stir up tensions between the two worlds. In this manner, neither would aid the other.

Originally, both peoples were from Seti-Cronus, the main planet—a bountiful world, green and blue with life, and Kudious’ first target. Alphxorn, rich in mineral wealth, populated later after their people achieved space flight, was his second prize. One at a time they were beatable; together they weren’t. Kudious’ spies and agents on both worlds occupied key places to stir up trouble and keep them at odds. He’d orchestrate their hostilities, then sit back and watch. If it worked as planned, he’d be the king of both worlds and have the High Lord of Seti-Cronus’ sister, Lady Zera, for his own. With a satisfied smirk on his thick lips, he contemplated the next two weeks. Information from the captured spy would be most helpful. Wishing he could move faster, Kudious stood and paced his bridge. He couldn’t speed up the moons’ orbits. Kudious was patient, the one thing he’d learned. A sinister grin touched his lips. He appreciated the view his command bridge afforded him. Of the twelve planets before him, only those two-supported human life without alteration. Imagining the two worlds made Kudious’ mouth water.

When both worlds were conquered, his people would reap the benefits of the ruling class. The indigenous peoples would become their servants, more like slaves. Kudious growled low and nearby crewmembers cringed.

I’ll rule both worlds and have a beautiful, spirited wife to breed my sons on—a royal wife unaffected by our genetics which have become too close.

Plans filled his mind and lust burned in his body. Kudious considered which he found more arousing, riding between Lady Zera’s thighs or ruling the two planets.