Prologue

The electric tremor of adrenalin alone almost made the confrontation worthwhile. Khyria, well aware of her own addictions, let the darkness flavour her smile.

“Kill me now, and you still require an envoy able to interact with humans—badly enough to risk a face-to-face meeting with the most junior of your recruits,” she said. The even tone was surprisingly hard to maintain with mechanical shields shutting down telepathy and empathy to the merest, seductive whisper of power. Harder with the blindfold swathed over her eyes, harder still with the acid burn of the forcer cuffs underscoring exactly how helpless she really was to do anything about the icy line of metal stinging against her throat.

The silence that followed was stifling, freighted with threat. It might have been more effective without the shields muting her Abilities, and that irony lent an edge to her expression. She doubted the influential leaders of Corina’s rebel faction appreciated it any more than they appreciated her refusal to follow orders as given.

Warmth trickled down her neck, the blade biting in, and she let her smile widen. Someone had passed a signal to make that happen, and that was telling. If they were trying to make her sweat, they were out of arguments, and if they were out of arguments and she was still alive, they were convinced they needed her. Her command, saddled with a human hostage for the duration of their Crossing, had both survived the Crossing and kept the human alive, which in the eyes of the rebel leaders apparently made her the best candidate they had to prejudice a newly-discovered humanoid population in favour of the Cortii.

“There is no assignment available at your level for a partial Cortia,” the female voice said ahead of her. “Where do you expect them to be sent, since you seem so concerned for their welfare on Base?” That dig was carefully deliberate, the phrases dripping acid. Unfortunately, it was also true. Wildcat Cortia, the most recent unit to join the active rankings on Corina Base, had acquired all their commander’s enemies and none of her allies in the few months since they’d emerged from basic training. Since the fact was as unavoidable as it was unpalatable, Khyria ignored the barb.

“I expect them to be assigned to a training rotation on the orbital station for the full duration of my assignment. Their training priorities will be intensive piloting and zero-gee operations, with all authorisations and their departure to be complete before mine.”

“You seem to imagine we have a great deal more authority over training rotations than we have.” This time it was the male voice. So far, those two had done all the talking, but with a blindfold deliberately secured to blur her hearing, there could be others present besides the woman currently holding a knife to her throat. That woman was the only one whose identity she was certain of; a Cortiora a few orbits her senior in rank, Verali Quha.

“I imagine nothing. Those are my terms. If you can’t meet them, then a slit throat now is undoubtedly a cleaner death than the Councils will give me as part of your following.”

The sharp intake of breath by her side was the most overt reaction her flat statement garnered, but the silence rang. Quha, unlike Khyria, had the advantage of knowing who she was dealing with, and also unlike Khyria, she presumably wasn’t blindfolded or shielded. Apparently the unsubtle implication that the rebel cause was facing a short and unpleasant future had had some effect.

The knife abruptly withdrew, and the slight, stinging impact of a hypospray was the last thing Khyria felt before the darkness swallowed her whole.

 

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