Sonya’s latest concoction oozed out of the carafe as she poured it into a serving mug. The soft floral color gave it a pleasing façade. The plopping sound it produced upon landing? Not so much.
“What is that?” Venna, a female of the Rutorian race asked, cringing away from the bar. Her dynamic skin morphed to a deep shade of amber, reflecting her trepidation. Oddly enough, the song flowing through the pub’s speakers ended and a more ominous tune erupted.
Sonya gave a wry smile and leaned forward, forearm resting on the bar. “You too coward to try it?”
Patches of red erupted over Venna’s skin, growing in size and overtaking much of the amber. It reminded Sonya of how her own dark demon horns became molten when enraged. Hell, even mild anger would sometimes do the trick.
Eyes narrowed, Venna snatched the glass off the counter and held it close to her mouth. She hesitated for only a moment before tilting it to her lips. The instant the liquid hit her taste buds, her face twisted in disgust.
Sonya laughed. “Tastes like shit, doesn’t it?”
Venna gagged. “What evil sludge is this? Why would you offer that to me?”
Sonya poured, or rather, plopped, a glass for herself and took a hefty gulp. “Because this little baby’ll do the job of five large ales. I call it cosmic oblivion. You get used to the taste.”
“Don’t bet on it. I’ll take something else.”
Sonya’s delicate tail flicked, and her shoulders sank. “Fine.”
No one appreciated her more unique mixes.
However, with her supplies dwindling, she had no choice but to dig down deep and conjure up some creativity. The ship had been in transit for weeks now and, under the current contract, no one was allowed to enter or leave the ship. Not until after the precious cargo delivery.
The irony of it all was that the ship’s pub, which Sonya had aptly named The Demon’s Punchbowl, was more crowded than ever.
“You know I’m running low on everything, Venna. I can make you something sweeter, but it will be weak.”
“That’s fine. I’d prefer anything other than that…muck.”
Sonya shrugged, admitting to herself that it did taste pretty awful. She’d save it for Marik or one of her brothers.
As she mixed Venna’s drink, she thought back to the mysterious cargo. So much trouble over such a small box. She wished she knew what it was they were freighting across space, but she wouldn’t dare jeopardize the contract for a peek. Something like that could instigate a war between Marada and the Serakians who had commissioned them, as well as with the pirates who were to receive the package.
Sonya had been aghast, and not a bit horrified, that her brother, Sebastian, had even agreed to deal with such filth as the Pirate King—a most ridiculous title that Ethanule, leader of the pirates, had probably given to himself—but the pay was too generous to refuse.
“How’s this?” Sonya handed Venna a pale-colored drink made from various liquors and a good deal of juice.
Venna took a sip before replying. “The flavor is adequate enough.”
Sonya nodded and then turned to straighten her backsplash of liquor containers, taking pride in the well-organized array.
Anya appeared moments later and claimed a stool at the bar, her typical sweet smile in place. “Good evening, Sonya. How are you?”
Sonya took in the lithe female’s odd blue eyes and lengthy blond hair. She reached out and gripped the point of Anya’s ear between her thumb and forefinger and gave a playful tug. It was possible that the rest of her people boasted ears like this. If only they knew who, and what, they were.
“Your hair is up today,” Sonya said, dropping her hand.
A soft pink entered Anya’s cheeks as she shrank in her seat a little. “I believe Sebastian likes to see my ears.”
Sonya couldn’t help but smile. Sebastian was smitten for his little Anya, and most of the crew privy to demon culture assumed she was his destined mate, though he had yet to claim her. “I’m sure he likes you any which way.”
Anya flushed darker, but concurred with a wobbly nod. “You’re probably right.”
“I know I’m right, but the style looks good on you nonetheless.”
“Thanks. I wish I had your dark hair though. It shines beautifully.”
“The grass is always greener,” Sonya replied.
“What does the color of grass have to do with hair?” Anya tilted her head.
“Never mind, hun.”
Anya was as naive as she was sweet. Often it was endearing, but at the same time dangerous. Space could be treacherous, from the gritty space cities to wandering ship. Threats lurked constantly, especially for one such as she. Lucky for Anya, she had fallen in with a protective and ruthless group of demons. If Anya accepted Sebastian as her mate, she would forever be safeguarded.
Sonya in no way required protection—badassness ran in the blood—but some nights, the ones that felt colder than most, she did long…for something. Not that she was looking for a mate, just something. But, thanks to her aggressive, overprotective, and all around frightening brothers, males admired her from afar and nothing more.
Sonya caught Anya’s studying gaze and tempered her emotions. “Would you like a drink?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Sonya bypassed the cosmic oblivion in favor of a lighter mix. They’d found out the hard way Anya couldn’t handle a stiff drink. The poor girl hadn’t even heard of alcohol till she set foot in Sonya’s pub.
After filling Anya’s glass with something weaker than even Venna’s cocktail, Sonya poured a small amount for herself and raised it in the air before drinking it down—a gesture of trust and friendship among demons, and one of the few rituals they carried on from their despoiled home world.
Anya took the offered drink and sipped it gingerly, then proceeded to compliment Sonya with a string of gratitude and thanks.
“Enough, enough,” Sonya chided. “Anyway, where is our oh-so-diligent Captain?”
“Bastian is in the control room. I believe we are to arrive at our destination soon.” Anya’s shoulders hunched.
“Is that so?” Sonya studied Anya’s sullen expression. “What’s the matter?”
Anya’s frown deepened. “He said once the contract is complete, he would leave to hunt down Darius.” Her lip quivered. “You must talk him out of it.”
Sonya already knew of Sebastian’s plan and was in full support of it. Darius seemed intent on reclaiming Anya and enslaving her once more.
He obviously didn’t realize one simply did not pursue a demon’s mate and expect to live.
“I’ll talk to him,” Sonya lied.
“Good.” Anya’s expression lifted a bit before turning stubborn. “And if he goes anyway, then I’m going with him.”
Sonya clamped her teeth together, struggling to school her features. No way would Sebastian allow Anya to go with him, but this wasn’t Sonya’s battle to fight.
Sonya decided to change the subject. “Why don’t you come with us when we deliver the package? We could all stand to get off this ship for a bit.”
Anya considered that a moment, then nodded. “I would like that.”
The crowded control room buzzed with anticipation as Marada reached the rendezvous point where they were to meet the pirates. However, beyond the protective walls of the ship, there was nothing except endless space.
No sign of Ethanule or his pirates.
Sonya shared a wary look with Cale. What if he was right, and this was nothing more than a trap? If so, it was an overly elaborate trap beyond the cognitive functions of a common pirate. And really, to what end? It wasn’t like Marada was swimming in riches. In fact, the opposite was true.
But it wasn’t like they could cut and run. The cargo must be delivered to Ethanule before the Serakian’s wards would dissipate, allowing the crew to finally leave the ship. Besides that, reneging on the contract meant war with the Serakians, and no one wanted that.
The wall-sized front window flashed, and the starry view of space vanished, replaced by an image of the pirate in question.
Sonya glared at Ethanule, her lips peeling back in a sneer. His appearance boasted everything she hated. White-blond hair fell over pretentious dark-blue eyes, framing a face dripping with conceit. The color and cut of his hair matched that of her father’s murderer, and she was suddenly bombarded by horrific childhood visions she hadn’t considered in ages.
She shook the memories away, but could not unclench her jaw.
His facial features differed, however: even skin tone, straight nose, and sharp jaw. His deep green coat with gold trim and buttons fell open, revealing a black undershirt.
He perched on a chair with a tall back encrusted with red, green, and blue jewels. Intricate gold vines wove around each stone, rising to the top. It looked ridiculous and lavish, and had most likely had been pilfered from some wealthy family on some far-off planet.
Both of her brothers, Sebastian and Cale, mirrored her disdain for Ethanule. Pirate blood was only worthy of staining their boots. Why the Serakians, with all their so-called power and wisdom, would align themselves with such scum, Sonya would never understand.
Sebastian addressed the pirate. “Is this some kind of trick? We’ve followed your directions. Why are you not here?”
“Well, we’ve moved, of course,” Ethanule drawled, as if that wasn’t clear to everyone.
“Obviously.” Sonya shifted her stance, resting a hand on her hip.
The pirate quirked a brow and openly scanned the length of her body. Cale stood to his full height, and Sebastian moved to block the bastard’s view of both her and Anya.
Sonya pushed him aside and brazenly crossed her arms in challenge, flicking her tail.
“Nice tail.” Ethanule smirked.
Sonya whipped her tail again, irritated, and held his stare with equal contempt.
“What’s your game, pirate?” Cale snapped.
Ethanule replied with a wave of his hand, “There’s no game. The move was unavoidable. You’ll see when you get here. I’m sending you a secure signal. Trace it. I’ll expect you soon.”
The screen switched off.
Sonya coughed in disgust. “What a pompous ass!”
“Well, that pompous ass is going to get us our pay and get these wards down so we can get the fuck off this ship already,” Cale replied.
“Captain,” Aidan, the pilot, called from his console. “I have a trace on the signal. I’d say we can be there in two hours.”
Sebastian replied, “Good, let’s finish this. Approach cautiously. Keep your eyes open for anything.”
Anya turned toward Sonya and mouthed, “He looked nice.”
“Sweetie,” Sonya replied, eyeing both Anya and Sebastian, “your record with men is one-in-zero, and your taste is questionable.” She ignored Sebastian’s humph, but couldn’t do the same with the crude gesture he gave her. She returned the gesture before continuing. “Trust me, that pirate has one hell of an ego on him.”
Cale interjected, “His ego couldn’t possibly be bigger than yours.”
“Bite me, Cale.”
“Not if you were the last female left in the universe.” He feigned gagging.
She rolled her eyes as she tossed a lewd gesture his way.
Aidan followed the pirate’s directions until a thick field of space debris appeared outside the window. The control room became quiet as they all watched Aidan weave the ship through a cloud of scattered rocks and boulders. The boulders grew larger and larger, until they were as big, if not bigger, than Marada itself.
Asteroid fields were havens for pirates, who would hide their ships among the space junk and attack unwitting crafts that passed by.
“I think we’re here,” Aidan declared, bringing Marada to a halt.
Sonya scanned the area, but spotted no ship, nor a space-port, only more asteroids, the largest of which drew her attention. She narrowed her gaze on a suspicious notch in the rock that appeared to have been manufactured. It was big enough to fit a ship three times Marada’s size.
“His base is inside an asteroid?” Sonya gaped at the sheer size of the thing, then scoffed. A fitting lair for pirate scum.
Asteroids were considered the trash of the universe.
Aidan guided the ship past the opening into a well-lit docking bay gleaming with smooth surfaces. He set the ship down with only a slight thud.
The vibration of heavy grinding reverberated through the room, indicating the thick metal wall closing behind them. Loud hissing followed as the enclosure sealed and pressurized.
Then there was silence.
“Alright,” Sebastian said. “Let’s go. Anya stays behind me. The rest follow behind her.”
Sonya pushed past the assembly of crewmen and positioned herself beside Anya. Aidan and Cale took up the rear, with Cale carrying the parcel intended for delivery.
As Sonya glared at the small box, a strong sense of foreboding crawled over her skin. Whatever resided inside the package held the interest of this notorious faction of pirates, and that couldn’t be good for anyone. She wished Sebastian had refused the contract.
After the group descended the ship’s ramp, two grim-looking males with light colored hair and deeply tanned skin greeted them. Sonya recognized their race instantly. Denaloid: a unisexual breed where males took on the role of mother and father. Females did not exist.
From what Sonya knew, it was unusual for Denaloids to give loyalty a leader not of their kind, and Ethan was no Denaloid. The Pirate King must truly be no ordinary pirate—probably much more ruthless than she could even imagine.
The men didn’t speak, merely gestured for them to follow. They headed into a dim cavern carved into the rock, dirt, and ice of the asteroid core.
A string of lights hung garishly along one side of the cave, illuminating their way. Sonya’s boots crunched against bits of loose rock that covered the floor. Only monsters could live in a hovel like this.
The two guards led them through a maze of dark passages until they reached a brightly lit room. The ceiling arched high above, and guards lined the walls. Sonya counted twenty, taking note of where on their person they might be concealing weapons.
Against the farthest side of the room, Ethanule sat on that same ridiculous chair she’d seen on screen. She suppressed a scoff at the ostentatiousness of it, and then narrowed her eyes.
There was something about him, here in person, that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Something that spiked an odd degree of curiosity and made her heart flutter, but not in fear.
She scrutinized him further, tilting her head to one side.
The arrogance was there, of course, on display and unabashed. He seemed to wear it like a second skin. Only now the air around him sizzled with deadly menace, making the hair on her neck stand up—or was that just the disturbing fact that she found him somewhat…handsome?
She clenched her jaw.
The pirate raked his gaze over the group, lingering briefly on Anya, then Sonya, then finally the package in Cale’s arms.
His expression lit up. “Thank you. Your services are much appreciated. You have no idea how important these are to me.”
That sense of foreboding returned.
Sebastian replied, “You’re welcome. I trust the wards were taken care of when we entered?”
“Of course, of course. There is nothing to worry about.”
“I assume that our pay is ready as well?” Clearly, Sebastian wanted to get out of here as badly as she did.
Ethanule’s lips curled upward, revealing a subtle air of malevolence. Behind her ribcage, her heart called out a stuttered warning.
“Bastian, the guards!” Anya cried.
Sebastian bellowed before crumbling to the ground, a tiny dart stuck in his neck.
The fury of the Edge flared as pure rage gushed through Sonya’s veins, providing a concentrated burst of adrenalin. Her fangs descended, aching to sink into the flesh of her brother’s attacker. Clear thought drained away as she now relied on instinct.
She snatched a hidden dagger from inside her boot and sprinted headlong for Ethanule. A guard threw himself in her way, but she planted her heal hard in his chest and booted him into two of his comrades, sending the three of them to the ground.
Without slowing, she leapt into the air and twirled her body in a wide arc over a group of forward-rushing Denaloids, landing on the other side of them, still zeroed in on her target.
Through her murderous haze, she reveled at the surprise coating Ethanule’s expression.
Unexpectedly, her vision blurred, darkening around the edges as if she peered through a tunnel. She ignored it as she lashed out and another guard fell at her feet, clutching his neck to hold back his blood. From nowhere, a long sword cut the air toward her. Bowing backward, she caught her reflection in the face of the blade as it hovered over her in a near miss. Red eyes blazed back at her. Her horns had never burned so bright.
Before the Denaloid could pull the sword back for another strike, she leashed her tail around his wrist and pulled him forward. He let out a staggered cry as her knee made nice with his face, knocking him unconscious.
She scanned for Ethanule. The bastard hadn’t even bothered to move? As if he had no doubt she would never reach him.
She started for him again, but stumbled. Her heart pounded in her skull as though it was housed there instead of her chest. A sickening wave of dizziness followed.
They must have darted her.
The thought fed her fury, and she fought against the coursing poison, vowing she would have her kill before she succumbed.
Just before she reached Ethanule, he rose from his seat. She tightened her grip on the hilt of her weapon and stabbed at him. With too much ease, he sidestepped her maneuver, and she cursed her weakened state.
His hand slipped around her wrist, and with the slightest tilt of his fist, the dagger fell from her sluggish fingers. A wave of exhaustion assailed her.
Black seeped over her vision. When she forced her eyelids open, he was towering above her, his face too close to hers. Was he holding her up?
She gnashed her teeth and growled, but the sound was not as terrifying as intended. The poison had won.
Her last conscious thought was meant for Sebastian. I told you so.
Ethan gazed down at the black-haired female demon in his arms. He’d managed to catch her before the sedative had sent her crashing to the ground. Why had he even bothered? The wench had taken out four of his men and wounded three others.
Her horns still glowed with the fury her kind called the Edge. Amazing. He never could have imagined it would take a triple dose to subdue such a tiny thing.
He plucked free the two darts in her right arm and the one in her left hip.
He may have just tranqued her team for now, but that didn’t mean they were saved from death. That would depend if they were the ones the king had warned him of.
Before Ethan had set out on his mission to find the Faieara princesses, King Alastair informed him of the terrible fate that had befallen Princess Analia. Naturally, Ethan assumed these demons were the culprits. After all, he knew their kind to rejoice in barbarity.
But after hearing the way Princess Analia had yelled out her warning to the captain, Ethan now had doubts. There had been a desperate concern in her tone and Ethan’s magic had picked up on her strong protective intent.
Ethan looked over to where Princess Analia lay unconscious, draped over Sebastian’s body.
“Damn,” Ethan muttered, then yelled at his brood, “Whose dart was that!”
Ion stepped forward, jutting his chin. “It was mine.”
“Had I not ordered the princess be untouched? It will take days for the serum to leave her system!”
“I thought it best to take them all down and sort them out later. What does it matter if she sleeps a few days?”
It mattered greatly. Not only would he have a harder time smoothing things over with her, but he would have to wait to get to the king’s next instructions. He was sick of waiting.
“The problem with that sentence, Ion, is that you used ‘I’ and ‘thought.’ I am the leader, and I do the thinking.” Ion shrugged.
This wasn’t the first time Ion had challenged his authority, but it would be the last. Ethan would not risk the life of the princess now that he’d finally found her.
Ethan gently settled the female demon on the rough ground, then stood, drawing his sword. Ion pulled his blade as well, and other Denaloid backed away.
Ethan stood still, using his Faieara gift to anticipate Ion’s first strike. Ion’s swing was swiftly executed with well-trained arms, but Ethan simply stepped out of the way.
Ethan swiped his bade out so swiftly it left a ghostly trail behind as the metal slashed into Ion’s neck. Ion shoved his hand against the thick gash, but blood spurted from between his fingers. His gurgled gasps echoed off the bare cavern walls as his knees hit gravel. His sword fell to the ground in a clatter.
Ethan sheathed his sword and stepped away. He could quicken his foe’s death, but that was not the Denaloid way. They would wait for his last breath before celebrating the victor.
Ion’s torso dropped to the ground, and after a few moments more, choked on his last breath. The Denaloids erupted in cheers. Ethan’s second in command, Oxnel, came forward to drag Ion’s body out of sight.
Ethan faced his men. “Put the captain and his crew in a cell together. Do it quick. We have no idea how long the demons will remain under. Their metabolism is unique. My bet is they will be the first to wake.”
The Denaloids rushed to obey.
Ethan crossed the room toward Princess Analia. Her blond hair tumbled in waves over the dark ground. He pulled the dart from her shoulder and lifted her in his arms. Her hair fell aside to reveal one of her pointed ears, the only obvious Faieara trait.
For a moment, he considered putting her in his bed while she recovered—respectfully, he would take the couch—but he had no doubt that when she regained consciousness, she’d be disoriented and afraid and would most likely try to escape. And, if he and the king were correct in their assessment of her magic, she would need a special cell with a lock that her gift could not breech.
He disliked the idea of locking her up, especially considering what he knew of her past, but he would do what he could to make it as comfortable for her as possible.
Unbeknownst to her, their courtship had already started.
Sonya awoke to an agonized bellow of rage that spurred the splitting pain in her head. She groaned and mumbled, “Shut up,” to whoever was making that awful racket.
“It’s no use,” Cale grumbled from somewhere close by. “He’s been at it all day.”
She squinted her eyes open and took in her surroundings. Cale leaned against the far wall. On the opposite side of the room, Sebastian snarled and bashed at the door with his fist. The bodies of the other still-sleeping crew members littered the floor.
One of Aidan’s legs rested heavy over her thighs. His light breathing indicated he wouldn’t be moving of his own accord anytime soon. She shoved his leg aside and heaved to a seated position, taking in the musky scent of soil wafting off the pebbly ground. Thick stone walls closed in on all sides.
They must still be deep within the asteroid. That bastard had betrayed them, after all.
She stood and hopped over a couple of unconscious crew members, heading toward her raging brother. “Sebastian, where is Analia?”
He responded by bashing his shoulder into the door. His horns gave off a brilliant crimson, and if he’d taken a second to acknowledge her, she would bet his irises were the same. The Edge had him in its mad embrace.
Sonya rolled her eyes and turned to Cale. He appeared to be calm, but she knew better. Inside, he had to be seething that they had been so easily captured. Same as she.
“We don’t know,” Cale said. “Woke up here just like you with no word of her.”
She threw her hands in the air. “Didn’t I say this was a bad idea?”
Cale gave a bitter smile. “I recall you giving Analia permission to come along.”
Sonya slammed her teeth together before countering, “I meant dealing with a pirate.” She flung her back against the wall next to him and slid down till her ass met the ground. “I almost had him, too.” She clenched her fists.
“Sure you did.”
She shot Cale a sharp look, but didn’t respond, imagining instead what she would have done to that pirate had the drug given her just a few more moments.
It would have been bloody and oh, so satisfying. Unfortunately, all she could do was play back the moment of her failure and contemplate what she should have done differently. How she could have drenched her blade with his blood.
For some reason, the last image of the pirate gazing down at her intruded on her ruthless fantasy. For an instant, there was something in his expression, something she couldn’t fully recall, but at the time—even with the drug slowing her mind—it had made her heart thunder.
It made her heart thunder even now.
* * *
Ethan dropped the small, yet heavy, package onto his desk and set to opening it. He was quite surprised to discover the demons had not tampered with the package. In fact, they seemed to have kept their word on all aspects of the contract.
A second box resided within the first, made from the most exquisite dark wood and inscribed with Serakian strengthening spells. The inner box was secured by a lock that could not be cracked, even by the finest of locksmiths. Only the code-holder could open it.
He scrutinized the hieroglyphs on the lock before sliding the correct sequence into place. Then he pulled a small knife from his pocket and pricked his finger. After a bead of his blood welled, he pressed it into the Serakian’s seal.
A light rumbling of gears sounded, followed by a soft click.
He lifted the lid.
Inside rested a thick leather-bound book, lined with an intricate gold weave.
He let out a breath and smiled. “Finally.”
Three hundred and fifty years, and his mission was nearing its end. A heavy dose of gratification coursed through him, and he leaned back in his chair to soak it up.
Then he set to examining the book.
He pulled at the flap, then chuckled at himself when he found it impossible to budge. As with its container, the book had been bespelled. However, no mere code would allow him to open this lock. No knife could pry it free. A world-crushing explosion would do little but apply a generous layer of dust.
Only three people in the universe had the power to unfasten the flap and reveal the secrets inside. Currently, one of those three rested peacefully in a nearby cell, bundled in the finest blankets he had to offer.
The princess had been so young when she and her elder sisters escaped the invasion. He wondered if she even remembered him. Before his constituents had rendered her unconscious, he thought he saw curiosity toward him in her expression, but nothing that might suggest recognition.
A knock sounded at the door, then Oxnel entered. “We’ve received a transmission from a male named Darius. He demands to speak with you.”
Ethan pushed to a stand. “And who is this Darius to make demands?”
“I know not, but he’s contacted us by way of the ancient argot.”
The ancient argot was created by some of the oldest and most revered pirates in history—the private language of the underworld. It comprised of several tongues, as well as algorithms and symbols, and was used primarily for surreptitious communication. This Darius knew something of pirate culture.
Ethan pushed the book aside. “Tell me, have our guests awakened?”
“Only the demons thus far, as you predicted. But I suspect the sleep serum may have had an adverse effect. They are very belligerent.”
“No, my friend,” Ethan muttered while tapping a code into his desk console. “Demons are belligerent on the best of days.”
On the surface of his desk, a panel slid open and a small screen emerged. Nodding his dismissal to Oxnel, Ethan opened the transmission, bringing up the face of a dark-haired male with a chilling gaze.
“Darius, I presume?”
“Yes, and you are the Pirate King?”
Inwardly, Ethan smirked at the moniker. “I am.”
“I seek a female who was abducted from my ship. I suspect she and the culprits who took her may be within your territory.”
Ethan noted the male’s dark expression and instantly disliked him.
Darius continued. “She is petite with long blonde hair and blue eyes.”
“I’ve seen no such female.”
“If you or your…clan…come across anyone who even remotely resembles this female, I am willing to pay a handsome sum for her return. Can I count on your assistance in this matter?”
“For a handsome sum, indeed you can.” Ethan forced a grin as realization hit him. This was the swine from the Faieara king’s vision—the one who’d been holding the princess against her will—not the demons.
“She may very well be on a ship called Marada,” Darius went on. “If you encounter this ship in passing, I wish to be notified of their location immediately.”
“It will be done, as long as we agree upon proper compensation.”
“Price is of no consequence.”
Ethan gave a humorless laugh. “Now, I’ve come to believe people who say things like that are usually greatly overestimating their finances.”
Darius leaned forward so his duplicitous face took up the entire screen. “I don’t overestimate anything.”
“We shall see,” Ethan countered, knowing full well he had no intention of finding out.
Covertly, he attempted to hack Darius’s location, but his ship was either too far away, or the transmission well encrypted.
Darius continued to prattle instructions until he ended the transmission with an abrupt, “See that it is done.” Moments later, Oxnel returned with news that the princess had awakened.
As Ethan made his way through the dank passageways, he caught the tail end of a conversation between the demons and the princess, separated by their cell walls.
“What about Marada? What of the people on board?” the princess asked.
“We don’t know,” the demon female replied.
Three loud bangs echoed from the cell, followed by a succession of snarls.
“What was that?” Analia screeched.
The demoness answered, “Sebastian and Cale have been taking turns getting intimately acquainted with a five-inch thick metal door.”
Ethan almost chuckled at her blasé tone.
Then a male asked, “Analia, can you…you know…with your lock?”
“No!” a second male snapped. “We’ll find another way.”
The princess replied, “What do you mean? The locks need a key.”
Her statement was followed by a brief silence.
“Your lock isn’t electronic?” A male said.
“What’s the matter?” Analia asked.
Faieara gifts often followed the bloodline. Their interest in the state of the locks confirmed Ethan’s assumption. The princess yielded the same gift as her father’s father, just as the king had predicted.
“Dammit,” the second male snarled. “Analia, I’ll get you out of there.”
“Actually,” Ethan interjected, entering the cavern housing the cells. “I’ll get her out of there.”
A string of harsh curses flew from the three demons, all aimed at him. Demons had a talent for creative threats, and Ethan had to chuckle when the female promised to rip out his guts through his anus.
“Energetic bunch you all are.” He ignored the rest of their graphic threats, as he stepped forward to unlock Analia’s door.
Face to face, she appraised him with a timid eye, taking in his long dark coat, black pants, and thick black boots. The gold bands on his fingers drew her gaze before she settled back on his face.
Ethan smiled and bowed. “You like?”
He actually did hope she found him handsome, but hid the desire with a sarcastic tone.
Her uneasy expression transformed into fierce disdain. “Why have you locked us up?”
“To keep you from leaving, of course.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
He shrugged. “To answer that, I’ll need you to come with me.”
Sebastian bellowed, “Let me out of here, you traitorous vermin. I will rip your head from your body.”
Ethan murmured, “Well, now I will definitely not be letting him out.” He smiled at Analia. “Follow me. My chambers will provide some much-needed privacy.”
Analia stepped out of her cell and took note of the two guards against the far wall. Without another word, Ethan headed back down the hallway.
Thankfully, she followed after him. He didn’t want to have to drag her with him as if she were a common prisoner.
Sebastian continued to yell, “If you harm her in any way, you will regret it!”
The other demon added in a controlled tone, “That’s not a threat, mate. That’s a fact.”
“Fascinating. Loyalty in demons is difficult to inspire.” Ethan gave Analia an admiring glance and walked on. “I apologize about the tranquilizer. I hadn’t wanted you to sleep quite so long, and that particular dart was not meant for you, but…no harm done.”
“Thank you for your concern,” she replied with a surprising amount of venom. “Why don’t you get to the point?”
“Just as impatient as your demons, aren’t you?” Ethan stopped and opened the door to his chambers, gesturing for her to enter. When she hesitated, he said, “Come on, I will not harm you.”
“You’ll understand if I don’t believe you.”
He quirked a brow at her bravado. Her boldness reminded him of her eldest sister, Kyralyn. “Pirates honor.” He grinned.
After another moment of hesitation, the princess entered the room.
His chamber was magnificent. Red, orange, and green linen draped the entire room, floor to ceiling. The ground was not dirt and dust, but a spread of lush burgundy matting. Lanterns lined the walls and hung from the ceiling, giving off a warm glow.
In one corner, three large chairs surrounded a small table. His desk sat against the opposite wall, the book resting on top.
She came to a halt in the middle of the room. Just as he closed the chamber door, she whirled on him, her gaze fierce. She looked as though she were ready to beat him senseless.
“Brave little one.” He grinned and stepped forward.
Without warning, she lunged at him, and he almost didn’t dodge the attack in time.
He grabbed her wrist and twisted her around so that he was at her back with her hands locked behind her. Securing both her wrists in one of his hands, he raised his other to her face. She flinched, and he paused, not wanting to alarm her further.
Then, slowly, he brushed her hair aside, revealing one distinct ear.
“What?” Her body grew tense. “Never seen pointed ears before?”
He smirked. “I’ve seen ears like yours more often than you might think.”
She stilled, and then gave him her profile. “You have?”
“Yes,” he replied, excited to find interest layered beneath her anger. “I’ll tell you about it if you like, though I much prefer conversations face to face. If I let you go, will you promise not to attack me again?”
She seemed to consider this for a moment before offering a tight nod. As soon as he released her, she darted to the other side of the room.
He took a seat in one of the nearby chairs and leaned back. “Please have a seat,” he encouraged. When she didn’t, he added. “I’ve already given my word that I will not harm you.”
“My friends are locked up against their will. Some of them are still unconscious from the drug you shot into them. The word of a pirate does not hold much weight with me at the moment.”
“Touché,” he said with renewed admiration. She had a fiery spirit.
He wanted to ask about Darius, about what sort of threat he posed, but she seemed too skittish for the moment. There were other matters to discuss first, anyway.
Silence reigned between them, but to his delight, her expression became curious. “Tell me, where have you seen ears like mine?”
“Before we get to that, would you like a drink? Something to eat?”
She raised her chin, but did not reply.
“You must be hungry after two days of restful sleep.”
She continued to stare.
“Suit yourself.” He stood, and she jumped back. He gave her a chafed look as he walked past her to the desk. Placing a hand on the large book, he said, “This will tell you everything you need to know. All you have to do, Analia, is open it.”
Her eyes widened at the use of her name.
“Yes, I know who you are. I know more about you than perhaps you do.”
“Like what?” She narrowed her gaze.
“You don’t remember your people? Your home planet? What happened there?”
She looked at the book and then at the empty package on the floor. “Is that book what we came to deliver?”
“And it holds the answers that I seek?”
“But you seek these answers as well?” She tilted her head.
“Why, then, do you need me? Why not just open the book and see for yourself?”
“It’s been enchanted to open for only three people in the universe.”
“And somehow I’m one of the three?” Disbelief coated her words. “Where are the others?”
“That’s what I hope to find out.”
She seemed to digest the information, glancing between him and the book as if she didn’t know which one worried her most. Finally, she took a step closer. “How do I open it?”
He nodded in encouragement. “You must only touch the lock.”
She ran her fingers over the cover as though it were a delicate piece of artwork, her eyes entranced. Perhaps she felt the power flowing off it.
“Tell me,” he said, unable to hold off his curiosity a moment longer. “What do you know of a man named Darius?”
She yanked the heavy book up with both hands and heaved it off the desk. He saw rather than felt the book connect with his head. The ground came next, then blackness.
His eyes fluttered open. He pulled himself off the ground and pressed his palm over the throbbing bump on his skull. A quick survey of the room told him Analia was gone. And she’d taken the book.
Remarkable! Her intention had been completely hidden to him.
He pressed a set of buttons on his console to bring up his computer and opened a direct connection to Oxnel’s handheld.
Before he could relay the events, Oxnel bellowed, “They’re escaping, sir.”
Ethan suppressed a groan. “Gather the men and meet me in the docking station. That’s where they’ll head.”
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