War Bride – Cyndi Friberg

Maletta Estate, Hautell Region Planet of Bilarri Skyla fidgeted on the padded bench of her vanity as her handmaiden slipped the final pin into her upswept hair. Skyla was surrounded by splendor, had known nothing but wealth and privilege her entire life and still she felt incomplete. She knew it was selfish and shallow to be ungrateful when Mother Creator had been so generous. Then why did her soul cry out for more? Worst of all, she longed for something, or someone, she didn’t yet understand. A firm knock drew her attention to her bedroom door. Rona, Skyla’s handmaiden, rushed across the spacious room and opened the door just far enough to see into the hallway. “Is she ready?” Simolta’s tight voice revealed his anxiety. Skyla stood and adjusted the fall of her dressing gown, making sure she was modestly covered. “Let him in, Rona.” Simolta, her brother, had taken control of the family after their father’s death nine years before. For the most part he was loving and indulgent, but his latest obsession had put them at odds. Simolta stepped into the bedroom and looked her over with open assessment. “You look lovely, as always. Are you emotionally ready as well?” “Emotionally ready?” She allowed resentment to cool her tone. “Am I prepared to choose a life partner even if he is not my mate? Am I willing to abandon any hope of love and my longing for children so my family can benefit from my joining?” He crossed his arms over his chest, chin jutting out at a stubborn angle.

“I’ve given you much longer than normal to find a compatible male. Your search has failed. Now it’s your duty to accept a different life path. I’m giving you options, which is more than our father would have done.” She just glared at him. What he said was true. Most highborn females were given two years to find potential mates and if their efforts failed, they accepted whichever life partner their father, or in her case brother, chose for them. Skyla had begun her search six years ago and had yet to find even one potential mate. Simolta had selected three males for her consideration and each would attend the lavish festival planned for tonight. He expected her to spend time with each and decide which of the three she favored.

The male she chose would then become her life partner. She was not genetically compatible with any of them, so they would never have children of their own. They would never form a soul bond or experience the shattering intimacies only bonded couples enjoyed. Instead, their joining would strengthen some element of her family’s dynasty. Such compromises were common among the wealthy and powerful families of Bilarri. It was just such partnerships that had kept a few select families in power for so long. “I want children. You know that.” It was true. It was also her last argument, her only hope that her brother would release her from familial obligations.

“I have five children you can mother and there are sixteen more from our sisters. If they’re not enough, you can always adopt.” His firm tone and stern expression made it obvious he would not relent. “There’s no shame in this sort of joining. You need to accept that this is what Mother Creator has instore for you.” Unable to force an agreement past her tight throat, she nodded. “The men I’ve chosen are all wealthy and well-respected. They’re older than I’d hoped, but most young men are still determined to find their mate. Besides, I know you’re too sensible to be bothered by such trivialities. Did you look over the information I left for you?” “I did.

” The two tight words were all she could manage when what she really wanted was to scream. He’d left images and financial records for the three candidates. The reports read more like corporate mergers than the qualifications for life partners. As he’d said, all three males were at least ten years older than she. One was closer to twenty years her senior. Each seemed pleasant and affluent, but she’d hoped that the person she’d spend the rest of her life with would be more than “pleasant”. “Balentar has two children from a previous joining,” Simolta reminded her. “Maybe he would be the best choice for you. His children would not share your blood, but I’m sure they would grow to love you.” She choked on the lies that would put her brother at ease.

She was heartsick and angry and she wasn’t a good enough actress to convince him otherwise. After a tense silence, he sighed. “Well, our guests should start arriving shortly. I’ll let you finish getting dressed.” He pulled open the door then paused. “Your future will be secured tonight. I’m certain of it.” Skyla turned to Rona after Simolta had gone. “He knows nothing. Some loveless joining for the benefit of my family is not what Mother Creator has instore for me.

” Rona’s brows arched then her eyes narrowed. “Did you dream of the Rodyte again?” An image materialized in Skyla’s mind. The man was tall and imposing, vicious even, in a word, Rodyte, sworn enemy of all Bilarrians. His features were sculpted into harsh angles and dramatic hollows. Strange blue streaks threaded through his night-black hair and vivid blue rings smoldered in his dark eyes. She’d been dreaming about him for weeks and she still wasn’t sure if she should be excited or terrified. The second option was more rational. After all, Rodyte soldiers were known to hunt Bilarrian females, to capture and keep them as sexual slaves, hoping their offspring would possess the quality Rodytes coveted above all else, magic. The sort of magic only Bilarrians possessed. Rodytes considered the practice an act of war, acceptable, even encouraged as part of the centuries-old conflict.

They even called the victims “war brides”, as if that justified the savagery. The people of Bilarri found the kidnappings despicable, the worst sort of cowardice. Despite the unpleasant subject, an intense tingle shivered down Skyla’s spine. What would it be like to be at the mercy of such a man? Would she fight him, resist his carnal tricks with every molecule of her stubborn nature, or would she helplessly surrender? It was said these Rodyte soldiers studied the art of seduction as intently as they learned to fight. Her friends protested the uncivilized behavior in public. Yet in private, they whispered and laughed, fantasizing about all the pleasures they’d know if possessed by a “Rodyte master”. “Skyla?” Rona’s tone was sharper now, so Skyla dragged her mind back to the present. “Am I right? Did you have another dream?” Resignation calmed Skyla’s expression, while Rona still looked worried. “Last night it wasn’t the man. I dreamed about the little boy.

The first time I saw him, I thought it was the man back when he was a child, but now I’m certain they’re father and son.” Skyla had only seen the boy’s image twice, yet his features were even clearer than his father’s. “And are you…” Rona couldn’t quite finish the thought. “I don’t know if I’m his mother or why I’m seeing their images. But the urgency is growing. The images are clearer, each dream more detailed.” “Have you told your brother? He could post extra guards or—” “Simolta already hired extra guards for the party. Our guests are important and powerful people. Security is imperative for all of them.” “I meant for you personally.

” Rona smoothed a stubborn curl back into place near Skyla’s temple. Combined with the servant’s anxious tone, the gesture became maternal. “Your security detail should be doubled if a Rodyte soldier has targeted you.” Skyla shook her head and glanced away from her handmaiden’s compassionate stare. “Then they’d be tripping over each other. Four grown men already follow me around whenever I leave the complex. Besides, this conversation just informed them. Doubtlessly, Ditten is standing outside that door listening to every word we say.” “Good. You don’t seem nearly as frightened as you should.

” Looking at Rona again, Skyla said, “I don’t know enough to be frightened. I don’t know that the soldier has targeted me. I don’t know that he’s targeted anyone. I don’t know why I’m seeing his image.” Skyla crossed the elegant room, admiring the gown spread across her pedestal bed. The sumptuous garment of rich blue taffeta was elaborately embroidered in gold. It had once belonged to her mother, but had been altered to fit Skyla’s smaller frame. “I frequently see people I’m about to meet and have flashes of situations I’m about to experience. But the images are like still frames from a video stream. They don’t mean much without the surrounding context.

” “You’ve seen a Rodyte soldier and his child. What other context do you need? Rodytes must be avoided at all costs.” Rona lifted the gown off the bed and waited for Skyla to shed her dressing gown before carefully lowering the heavy garment over Skyla’s head. “And I still think you need to tell Simolta about your dreams.” Skyla held the strapless bodice in place while Rona firmly laced up the back. “Ditten is arrogant enough to think he can deal with any situation himself. This is too important. Tell your brother.” Skyla shifted this way and that, assessing her reflection in the full-length mirror beside her vanity. She knew Rona was right, but something inside her made her hesitate.

“He’d cancel the celebration and hundreds of people are already on their way. Even if the Rodyte has targeted me, I have no way of knowing if I’ll encounter him tonight or ten years from now. It makes no sense to raise the alarm without more evidence.” “I don’t think that’s it at all.” Rona waited until Skyla turned from the mirror and looked at her directly before she said, “I think you want to encounter this man. I think you’re infatuated with him and you think he’ll rescue you from what your brother has planned.” Skyla smiled at her overprotective servant, but guilt sped her pulse. Rona had started out as Skyla’s governess, then turned companion/handmaiden when Skyla outgrew the need for continual supervision. After more than two decades together, Rona knew her too well. “I wanted to find my mate, as does every Bilarrian.

But I also knew there was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t. Besides, how can I be infatuated with a person I’ve never met? That’s just silly.” Rona clearly didn’t believe her, so Skyla attempted to defuse the situation. “I’ll tell my brother about the dreams and I’ll make sure Ditten is aware as well. Satisfied?” “Thank you.” Rona’s dark eyes swept over her charge and then she returned Skyla’s smile. “You look lovely. Even more beautiful than your mother, and I didn’t think that was possible.” Thoughts of Skyla’s mother always made Skyla sad. Lavon had passed beyond when Skyla was eight, so she had only faint memories of her warm smile and gentle touch.

The video archive helped and her father spoke of his mate often, but now he’d passed beyond as well. “I’m sorry,” the handmaiden said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” “It’s not your fault. I just miss them all and I wish I’d known Mother better. I’ve always felt cheated by her early passing.” “She was warm and loving, like you.” Skyla laughed. “I can be warm and loving, but I can also be stubborn and ambitious.” Rona didn’t bother arguing.

They both knew it was true. “Those qualities come from your father. The Hautell family has always been an ambitious lot.” “I should get going.” Skyla smoothed down her full skirt and checked to make sure not too much cleavage was showing. “I’m sure the guests are starting to arrive and I have a decision to make.” She slid her feet into matching satin slippers and gave Rona a quick hug. “Choose wisely. Your partner will be with you for the rest of your life.” Skyla opened the outer door to her suite and found Ditten in the hallway as she’d expected.

With long dark hair swept back from his sharp-featured face and incandescent rings separating his black pupils from his equally dark irises, he looked unmistakably Bilarrian. The rings in Ditten’s eyes were red, denoting his birth in the mountain region of Hautell. He was lean and agile rather than heavily muscled—like the Rodyte soldier. “We should use the walkway,” he told her after offering the perfunctory bow. “It’s safer than crossing the yard.” The elevated walkway leading from the private apartments of Maletta Estate to the entertainment wing was enclosed and stuffy. Skyla had always hated the claustrophobic tube. The night would be long, the ballroom crowded. She hated to deprive herself of the final few minutes of tranquility before the mid-summer festival began, but she had never been one to take foolish chances. “All right.

” With a frustrated sigh, she started off down the corridor, Ditten half a step behind. “How much did you hear?” “All of it.” His answer didn’t surprise her. As well as having excellent hearing, Ditten was a powerful telepath. He routinely scanned her mind, per her brother’s orders. Simolta insisted the practice was necessary for her protection, but Skyla felt violated by the overreach. But then Simolta had many policies she considered excessive. “And did you inform my brother?” This question was almost as unnecessary as her first. Ditten worked for her brother, not for her. “Of course.

” She looked back at her bodyguard and allowed her annoyance to show. “I know you feel like we smother you, but we really are trying to keep you safe.” “I know.” Her statement neither agreed with nor argued against their approach to her security. * * * * * General Kryton Lux eased his shuttle another centimeter closer to the security grid surrounding Maletta Estate. The external shields of the shuttle had been meticulously tuned so they mimicked the energy signature of the security grid. Energy would be deflected around the shuttle without disrupting the flow or setting off perimeter alarms. He’d used this trick countless times before and it had never failed. The maneuver took patience and precision, but once the shuttle was in place it would act as a gateway, while the security grid remained intact. “Almost there,” he muttered, more to himself than his companion.

“Take your time. We’ve got all night.” Amusement rippled through Tonn Fyvre’s tone, drawing an annoyed glance from his commander. “Have you located our target?” Kryton countered as the shuttle finally settled into position. “I have and she’s on the move, so ignore my smartass remark. We don’t have much time.” Kryton paused long enough to ensure that the shields were doing their job, then lifted the arm of the pilot’s seat and slipped out into the narrow aisle. “You have the suppression collar?” “Affirmative.” Tonn stood and followed as soon as Kryton was out of his way. “I know the bodyguard can throw fire, but he likely has other abilities.

I’ll let you strike first.” “Or you can collar the guard and let me capture the girl?” Tonn wiggled his eyebrows with a hopeful grin. “No one touches her but me.” Tonn’s buoyant mood evaporated and he inclined his head. “Of course, sir. I understand the plan and I’m prepared.” “Then let’s go hunting.” Kryton triggered the hatch and drew his sidearm. Stealth was the name of this game, but it never hurt to be prepared for the unexpected. Their strike had to be fast and focused.

He wanted to be long gone by the time Skyla’s absence was noticed. The estate had been built in a valley, so the ground had a distinct slope. Even though his pace was brisk, he placed his feet carefully, not willing to reveal his position. The sun had set, though it was not yet fully dark. Indigenous tree cover gave way to manicured bushes and neat rows of smaller, flowering trees. They’re headed for the elevated walkway. Tonn’s voice sounded within Kryton’s mind, transmitted there by com-bots. Many Rodyte technologies simulated Bilarrian abilities. Kryton had hoped she’d walk across the yard. Close-quarter confrontations were always tricky.

Even so, he’d planned for this choice as well. An emergency evacuation stairwell midway through the walkway would provide their access point, but only if they were in position before Skyla and her bodyguard arrived. Kryton reached level ground and took off running. Though Tonn moved silently, Kryton could feel the slight breeze created by his pumping arms and legs. Kryton reached the door to the stairwell and pulled a small device out of his pocket. Unlike most of the doors on the estate, which were protected by biometric or telepathic locks, this lock required an antiquated alphanumeric code. It was an oversight Kryton was happy to exploit. Within seconds the code generator provided the appropriate combination and the locking mechanism released. According to the information Kryton had paid a small fortune to attain, there were no motion sensors or intruder detection systems in the stairwell. Still, he paused long enough to confirm the fact with his armband scanner.

“It’s clear,” he told Tonn, who was scanning as well. Tonn nodded and Kryton bolted up the stairs, his long legs clearing the obstacles three at a time. He reached the upper doorway just as Skyla and her bodyguard entered the walkway. A large window in the door allowed him to see into the walkway and he watched their progress in a simple convex mirror hung from the ceiling. Tonn held a stun wand in one hand and the suppression collar in the other. Kryton had already checked to make sure his sidearm was set on stun as well. Damaging the bodyguard was an acceptable risk, but nothing would harm Skyla. His heartrate increased with each step she took. Weeks of planning had led to countless nights of tossing in his lonely bed, dreaming of a future he’d yet to achieve. He’d quickly chosen Skyla from a short list of possible targets.

At first he’d wanted her because her abilities were impressive yet nonthreatening. Clairvoyance could be extremely useful and still a clairvoyant was easy to control. At least physically. So he’d dug deeper and became more intrigued with each fact he learned. If the information he’d compiled was accurate, she was the perfect combination of cool logic and fiery spirit. She wouldn’t cower before him like a child, but neither would she despise him simply for being Rodyte. He’d experienced that phenomenon once too often in recent years. He was ready for a mature female with whom he could reason, rather than just rut. He grasped the door handle as his target neared. Tonn shifted to the other side of the doorway, ensuring that neither Skyla nor her bodyguard saw him.

As Skyla drew even with the door, Kryton swung it open and Tonn went after the guard. Kryton grabbed Skyla around the waist and pulled her firmly against him. In less than a second, the bodyguard was unconscious, collared, and lying at their feet. Kryton heard Skyla inhale sharply and realized she meant to scream. He raised his sidearm and reluctantly stunned her. She collapsed into his arms, her weight insubstantial even with the elaborate gown. Nice work. Tonn grinned. More than anything Kryton wanted to savor having Skyla in his arms, but first they had to escape this gods forsaken planet. He draped her over his shoulder and turned toward the stairwell, one of his arms securely wrapped around her legs.

Tonn held the door open and they rushed down the stairs. They flew out the door and sprinted for the relative protection of the trees, all the while listening for shouts or alarms. They’d left the hatch open in anticipation of their hasty return. Maneuvering her through the opening and up the steep stairs tested Kryton’s strength and agility. Her billowy skirts sabotaged him at every turn. He finally managed to guide her entire body into the shuttle. Tonn dove in after him and secured the hatch. They switched seats. Kryton sat at the navigator’s console and arranged Skyla on his lap. She lay securely in the cradle of his arms, head resting against his shoulder.

Tonn slipped onto the pilot’s seat and drew the systems out of standby. The engines rumbled and the small ship vibrated as Tonn carefully eased out of the security grid. Once free, he blasted away from the complex with breathstealing acceleration. Their exit would create a momentary fluctuation in the security grid, if it showed up at all. Kryton smiled, finally allowing himself to relax. This had been almost too easy. When Rodytes first claimed war brides, all of Bilarri went on alert, making the simplest capture a challenge. Now, nearly a century later, few Rodytes had the patience or the resources required to maintain a war bride, so Bilarrians had grown complacent. His captive shifted restlessly, momentarily drawing his gaze. Several strands of her long dark hair had escaped, trailing along her neck and into the valley between her breasts.

Her thick-lashed blue eyes had widened when she saw him, the rings separating her irises from her pupils bright red. “She really is beautiful,” Tonn muttered then quickly turned back to his controls. Kryton’s gaze lingered on his lovely captive and his body hardened in anticipation of the conquest to come. Capturing her might have been easy, but he had no doubt Skyla would challenge him every step of the way. * * * * * Someone slipped their arm under Skyla’s shoulders and lifted her slightly. Then something cool and smooth pressed against her lips. “Drink. This will help revive you.” The voice was deep and resonate, obviously belonging to a man, but he spoke Bilarrian with an odd accent. Dread rolled across her shoulders and down her back.

A tangy liquid slid over Skyla’s tongue and she automatically swallowed, and then swallowed again. She blinked several times, then slowly lifted her lids. The stranger’s familiar face awaited her, as she knew it would. He sat on the edge of the bunk, his arm supporting her shoulders. His gaze was narrowed, the blue rings barely visible in an endless sea of black. He appeared every bit as savage as he had in her dreams.

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