“If any of you men even touches one of these women, I swear I’ll castrate you myself.”
Dan reviewed the ranks of officers and squad leaders, all glowing in their dress whites, high-collared jackets sparkling with rank insignia, shoulders sharp with kring-plate pauldrons, chests shining with ornamental blue breastplates each bearing a stylized flight of gold kerchaxes. He eyed their battleknives, secure in their waist sashes, and fingered his own at his side, plain and utilitarian without a family to commission it for him. Dress uniform called for them, and many of his men would feel naked without them, but he wondered if going in wearing three hands of sharp steel wasn’t asking for trouble here.
One fight… but all the Warsisters he had asked said wear them. Whatever. His officers knew better than to start a fight. Especially start a fight and pull a weapon. It was only other kinds of trouble he really thought they might get into.
He scanned them again. They looked good. More than professional. Honorable. Capable. And that was why they needed the reminder to keep it in their pants. Just in case looking good got them an offer that might lead the whole company to trouble.
“What if they want us to touch them, Sir?” Koo asked.
Dan glanced at his friend, then gave him a nod.
“That’s a good question, Dangar Letenwi. We are guests in this province, and these Warsisters not only outnumber us, but they have nothing against killing us except for a promise by their commander. If one of you manages to insult one of them, or worse, gets entangled and then insults one of them, there might be nothing I can do to help you without getting all of us dead. So, if one of them does seem interested, just ask yourself, ‘Is this worth the Tegar watching me die?’ Because that’s what I’ll do when they kill you. Watch.”
He waited for that to sink in for a long ten seconds. Then smiled.
“Not to mention the sermon we’ll have to endure from Songman on the evils of fornication if any of you goes astray.”
There were a few chuckles at Brad’s expense. The de-facto chaplain rolled his eyes.
Dan shifted his gaze over to several ranks of women who stood next to the men. They wore skirted versions of the same uniform as the men, without the battleknives, and represented every single nurse, analyst, and technician with a rank that Dan had been able to spare from putting the company back together. They were here to keep his men from forgetting who they were while they were surrounded by a bunch of strange foreign women with strange ways. Even so…
“Ladies. I doubt you’ll have any problems, but keep an eye on our men and help them stay out of trouble. And, if one of these Warsisters propositions you, as I hear they might do, please find a polite way to say no without screaming.”
Kris was standing just beyond their group, her uniform the same as all the other women except for extra gold braid on the edges of the pauldrons and the HarRukora familial blade tucked into her sash. She looked even more beautiful than usual, with her hair in a fancy overlapped arrangement, decorated with blue kerchax feathers tied into her bangs, rather than her usual tight military bun. As Dan left his position in front of the two groups and approached her, she also looked angry.
“Are you sure they’ll be able to have any fun after a speech like that?” she said with a forced smile.
Kris didn’t normally do fake.
“I don’t care if they have fun.” Dan eyed her. She looked away from his gaze. “I only care that we get out of this place alive.”
“Are you ready to go in and meet the Warsisters?”
Her eyes hardened and the smile slipped. Something had been wrong with her since they arrived in Emprin, but he hadn’t been able to figure out what.
Was she mad at the Warsisters? They were weird and dangerous, but so far they hadn’t done anything to hurt the company. Aside from put their charge through a duel. But he’d survived, and normally it didn’t pay for mercenaries to hold grudges when no harm was done in the end.
Hmmm. Now wasn’t the time to ask. He waited instead.
Kris’ expression moved back to neutral.
The party was better than expected. And worse.
Better, because the Warsisters, or the goldhairs at least, worked hard to involve the mercenaries in the conversations. Within minutes of entering, they descended like a dedicated task force, split his men and women into small, manageable groups, and moved them into circles of Warsisters for talk, drinks, and food. The skill of it was impressive, and reminded Dan of how the Warsister warriors had dismantled the Imperials on the battlefield.
And worse, because Kris did almost nothing for the entire time except cling to his arm, glare at the white-haired women filling the room, and drink haxwine. Dan tried to think of another time when he had seen her like this, but couldn’t. Usually she was the one going out into the crowd and making connections with allies, suppliers, and prospective employers. Tonight, Dan had to haul her around and make conversation himself.
It would have gone horribly if one of the goldhairs hadn’t latched onto them and arranged introductions with people she thought they’d find interesting.
The last of those people was a shorter, compared to her sisters, thinner Warsister named Patalla Irtrinin, one of the bluehairs and the only Warsister Dan saw in the room with a long ponytail instead short or cropped hair. Their personal hostess identified the bluehairs as the mechanics and technicians and told Dan and Kris that Patalla was the head anchor mechanic for Dingo Pack, and the woman who would be fixing Commander Theron’s anchor for Rixken.
“Have you worked with Commander Theron for a while?”
Patalla dropped into a hipshot stance, spinning the stem of her glass between thumb and forefinger as she studied first Dan, then Kris, then their people scattered around the room.
At last her gaze returned.
“Four years. How many anchors do you have?”
Dan was a little shocked at the sharpness of her question, but he did the calculation anyway.
“We have forty-one up and running right now. Forty-four with three days of repairs, and my chief engineer tells me we can get to a solid forty-seven if he has a full week to fit salvage together.”
“I thought so.”
“You thought so?”
“I toured your maintenance section just after the duel.”
Dan felt Kris’ hand flinch on his arm.
“Patalla,” their goldhair said. “You’re supposed to ask before you go into someone else’s camp.”
Patalla glanced at her, then back at Dan.
“You’re in our base,” she said. “You should let us upgrade your anchors.”
“Let you upgrade them?” Dan perked his ears at that. “I know your First Mother offered some equipment, but I doubt she meant upgrades for close to fifty anchors.”
“She’s giving you full salvage on your kills. Not just what you hauled in. That’s ninety-three repairable anchors total, not counting tanks, light vehicles, and powered armor in similar condition.”
Dan blinked. Ninety-three? That was an insane amount of salvage.
“The Danag mark twos aren’t worth much, but we’ll take them,” Patalla said.
“Your people don’t use Danags. What will you do with them?”
“We sell rebuilds at Kellfro.” She looked at her drink, noted that it was still full, and drained a quarter. “You should repair all the Makegs and twenty of the Danag threes. That will bring you up to sixty. Trade the rest of the salvage for weapons and upgrades.”
Dan felt Kris’ hand tighten around his arm.
“Why do you care?” Kris asked.
Patalla looked at Kris and furrowed her brows. Almost glanced at the goldhair, but didn’t.
“You’re guests. And your Preparer won.”
“Stomping your commander.”
Dan covered Kris’ hand on his arm with his own. It wouldn’t pay to antagonize these people while they were utterly dependent on their good graces to survive the night.
Kris closed her mouth.
Patalla’s had become a thin line, and her ears were pinned back. She looked past both of them for a few seconds, then locked onto Dan again.
“We don’t hate winners. More importantly, the Preparer has to survive. Keep twenty Danag threes, sell the rest to us, ask for me to head the repairs. Without Commander Theron I’m free, and I’ll have you out in a week.”
Kris looked like she was going to lash out again. Dan squeezed her hand until she relaxed.
“Thank you, Patalla.” There was an assumption in what she had said, that the Kerchaxes would be continuing to escort the Preparer, but it wasn’t something he was going to deal with here. And unless Kris’ agitation had something to do with helping Rixken, the Warsister mechanic’s assumption about their future was probably accurate. “That sounds like very good advice. Is there a way we can contact you if we need you?”
She scribbled out her number on a notepad and tore it off for them.
“Your unicomms won’t work here. Our systems run on Irtrallan software. One of the technicians can get you an update, or you can use the comm system in your rooms.”
Dan took the note, made some polite excuses to Patalla and the goldhair, and lead Kris away from them. It was definitely time to find out what was going on with her.
Kris snagged another drink on the way out and drained it before they made the door. That was her sixth. Dan didn’t want to take his eyes off his men, but he trusted Brad and Koo to keep them from doing anything terrible, and the company owner looked like she was headed for a meltdown.
He found a sitting room down the hallway and steered Kris into it. Beautiful intarsia battle scenes covered the walls where there weren’t bookshelves, but he barely noticed. Art, books, and chairs said it was a place for talking.
Kris moved away while he shut the door. When he turned back, she was staring at the walls and fingering the hilt of her battleknife.
“What is going on?” he asked.
She straightened–was that a wobble?–and looked at him.
“Did my father ever tell you our family history?”
“A little. Not much, though.”
“You know, though, that we used to be in charge of a province?”
“Yes. The HarRukora line was a Warlord family.” As were almost half the families running mercenary units in Okend. The turmoil after the Night of Storms had dispossessed a lot of Rakash Darrs along with their militaries. “What does that have to do with you hungering for a fight?”
Kris snorted like he was an idiot and walked up to a section of the wall that showed an ancient sword-and-shield battle, complete with individual soldiers marching under a battle-standard decorated with gold leaf. She pulled her battleknife and held it up next to the standard.
The crests were the same.
Well, that explained things. And Dan did feel like an idiot. Although the Old Man really had never mentioned where his family came from in Dan’s hearing. That he could remember.
So… Emprin had once belonged to the HarRukoras, and now the last of that line was attending a party held by the people who had stolen the province.
“I see. How did it happen?”
Kris put the blade back in its sheath and stepped away from the wall. Definitely a wobble there.
“Same way as everyone else. My ancestor had his army fighting down in the Southwest for the Emperor when the Storm happened. By the time he made it back here, the Warsisters had already been in charge for a decade. He decided it wasn’t worth killing all his men trying to retake it.”
Dan nodded. With everything in turmoil and the Emperor demanding that all military units work to maintain order in a world suddenly without most of its technology, it would be easy for a small army to get stuck away from home.
“I thought you said the HarRukoras had learned to accept brutal realities like this?”
She looked at him. Her eyes were shining with moisture.
“So did I.”
Dan crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder.
She shook her head.
“I’m fine. It’s just seeing how far my family has fallen. We built this place, long ago, and these madwomen took it from us. For no reason.”
Dan watched as she scrubbed at her eyes and tried to stop the tears from flowing. They wouldn’t.
Kai. This wasn’t Kris. Kris was always strong. She never cried. Except when her father had died. But even then she had stayed strong. He looked around the room and found a couch. He guided her to it, lowered her onto the cushions, and sat down next to her.
The tears got worse. Kris started sobbing.
“Dammit.” She pounded her knee. “Why couldn’t he have just made it five more years? Why did he have to die in a stupid accident? He should be here, fighting with the Preparer. Following the sword like he always talked about. He should be here for this!”
Dan looked for something to say, but there was nothing.
Kris bent over her knees.
“My family has dreamed of this for two centuries. I used to dream of it when I was a child. Coming to Emprin. Marching the Kerchaxes back into Wayren Base. But Jareg was alive then. Father was alive then. The HarRukoras were still a family”
She looked up at him, eyes red and streaming.
“We’re finally here, and I’m all that’s left. I’m the end, Dan! Nothing comes after. When I’m gone, the HarRukoras will be no more.”
Gazing into her eyes, his whole body ached in response to the pain he saw there. He put his arms around her and pulled her close, tucking her head against one shoulder, careful to keep her face toward his neck and away from the armored pauldron on his shoulder. Military dress uniform was not built for comforting people.
She returned the embrace and moved closer. Long minutes passed while the tears and sobbing continued.
Eventually, slowly, the shaking stopped.
Hot breath washed over his neck as she sighed. He gave her another squeeze and let go so she could sit up. Kris was back to being Kris.
She pulled away a little, only a handspan, and met his gaze. Her eyes filled his vision.
Warm brown irises ringing wells of endless black.
His blood began to pound.
In the next moment she leaned in and pressed her lips against his.
He pulled her close again before he knew what he was doing. Delicate fingers combed through his hair, a small hand pressed against his back.
His whole world filled with Kris, with her smell and her heat and everything he knew she was. Beautiful, incredible, reliable. Always there for him and the whole company, year after year. Wise. Calm. Kind. Fierce. Deadly. Brilliant.
Their breastplates met, resisted, held them apart.
Her hand slid around his side and found one of the straps.
Consequences flashed through his mind. A flutter of wings in a hurricane.
Secrets. Divisions. Distractions. Shame.
Only one mattered.
He turned his mouth away and pressed his cheek to hers. Caught her face with a gentle hand when she tried to kiss him again.
“Stop,” he gasped in her ear. “We agreed not to do this.”
She turned her head so her breath was hot in his ear.
“I don’t care anymore. There’s nothing left to hold onto.”
He shivered. Kept his other arm tight around her as much to continue holding her as to keep her from starting anything more. He tried to think, but his blood was roaring in his ears.
She slid a hand up onto his breastplate and pushed. He let her move back.
They stared at each other, vibrating, panting.
She tilted her head slightly.
“Do you still want me?”
His heart twisted.
She saw his thoughts and smiled. Started to lean in again.
Now. Now or never.
He shook his head and covered her lips with his fingers.
She pulled back again.
“What do you mean?”
“If you still want this tomorrow, I’m all yours.”
She studied him. Her eyes started to fill his vision again.
He dropped his hands to her waist and gently pushed her away. Then stood up from the couch.
“But until then, I’m taking you to your room and leaving you there.”
He stepped back and held out his hand.
Kris continued to stare.
She put her hand in his and nodded.
He lead her out of the room, wondering if the next day would reveal this as the worst decision he had ever made.
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and thematic elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki or Isaac Hooke’s Atlas series and sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.