Falkon stared at the bloody bandage wrapped around his thigh, wishing the laser wound had pierced his heart instead of his leg. Wishing he was dead.
A prisoner on the mining planet of Tierde. It was a fate worse than death.
He came from a wild and untamed people. Never, in all his life, had he been forced to submit, to bend his will to the will of others. Never had he been confined in such small quarters; never had his freedom, more prized than life itself, been taken from him.
Lifting his shackled hands, he fingered the heavy collar that circled his neck, wondering what depraved monster had devised such a cruel instrument of torture. He could barely breathe, scarcely swallow.
He stared at the lynaziam cuffs on his wrists. He had spent an hour trying to pull the metal apart, but to no avail. The thick bands, held together by a powerful magnet inherent deep within the metal itself, held fast. His hands would remain locked together until the overseer decided to release him.
Falkon cursed under his breath. His shoulders ached. His back ached. The brand on his arm ached. His thigh throbbed dully, monotonously. He had spent hours, days, pacing the cold stone floor, wishing he could stretch his arms.
Lying on the thin straw pallet that served as his bed, he stared at the small square opening cut into the thick wooden door. Through it, he could see a slender ribbon of midnight sky. And a single shining star, twinkling like an ice-blue crystal suspended high in the heavens.
He had been imprisoned in this accursed place for ten days. It seemed an eternity. Onboard ship, the prisoners had been bathed with a strong-smelling disinfectant. He had been examined by a heavy-handed physician, who had poked and prodded every inch of his bruised flesh until he had wanted to scream. The laser gash in his thigh had been examined, and he had been pronounced in good health.
He had a vague recollection of being examined again after the beating he had endured while being collared. The mine doctor had rebandaged his thigh and looked after the cut in his cheek, saying he would be back to check on his wounds within the week. That had been ten days ago, and he had seen no one since then save for the scrawny, one-eyed man who brought him his meals twice each day.
He blew out a heavy sigh of resignation. He had known it was futile to resist, known he couldn't win, and yet the thought of submitting without protest had never occurred to him.
Ten days of isolation in a room no bigger than the storage locker on his ship. The closeness, the lack of sunlight, was driving him slowly insane.
Never, in all his life, had he been imprisoned. Rarely had he spent more than a few hours at a time within the confines of four walls. He was a fighter, a rebel, a mercenary. He had spent most of his adult life at war. Away from
home, his bed had been the ground, his blanket the sky.
He stared at the four cold walls of his prison, and prayed for death. Night and day, hour after hour, the same hopeless prayer.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes. The gash in his thigh ached anew with each breath. The wound, sustained in the heat of battle before he had been captured, was festering. He smiled into the darkness. With luck, it would kill him. Better he should die than spend the rest of his life, short as that was likely to be, imprisoned on Tierde. It was not in him to be a slave. He would fight to be free with every breath in his body, even though he knew he could not win. But he could not submit. To do so would be like turning his back on everything he had fought for, everything he had once loved��.
An anguished cry rose in his throat as he thought of his wife and infant daughter lying in a pool of blood in the wreckage that had once been their home, killed by Romarian sky cannon. Killed because he had gone to fight against the Romarian hordes invading Riga Twelve. It had not been his fight, but he was a warrior, the highest paid mercenary in the galaxy, and fighting was in his blood. He would have fought the Romarians for nothing. He had hated them all his life. They were a cruel, heartless people, determined to enslave every planet in the galaxy.
Their attack on Riga Twelve had been proof of that. Riga Twelve was a small farming planet, one that had been neutral for centuries. Its people had never posed a threat to any one. The ruling Jigahn of Riga Twelve had sent him an urgent message, begging him to come to their aid, promising to pay Falkon any price he asked if he would teach their people to fight. He had accepted the call even though he knew that, in the end, the people of Riga Twelve were sure to go down in defeat. The Rigan army had fought valiantly, bravely, and he had been proud to fight at their side.
The fight had been in vain; the end, when it came, came quickly. The ruling family and all those who refused to lay down their arms and acknowledge the new regime were executed, the Romarian army took over the capital city, and the fighting was over. The people of Riga Twelve, once a free and peace-loving people, now lived in bondage, slaves of the Romarian Republic.
Falkon had managed to escape from Riga Twelve. He had known he would be executed if the Romarians captured him; he had not expected them to take revenge on his family.
When they caught him, he had been prepared to die. Had wanted to die.
He had attacked the Romarian soldiers without mercy, boldly inviting death, and it had been denied him. Instead of executing him, they had taken him to see what was left of his home, his family, and then they had taken him to see Jayson Drade.
"Drade." The name tasted like bile in his mouth.
Drade, who had shared a room with him at the Training Academy, who had once been his friend. Drade, who had fought at Falkon's side until General Ralf lured him away to the Romarians with the promise of wealth and power.
Drade, who had ordered the attack on his family. Drade, who could have had him executed quickly and cleanly, but who had sentenced Falkon to life in prison instead, knowing he would find confinement worse than death.
Falkon swore as the memories unfolded. He had managed to escape his guards the night before he was to be transferred to the prison, had managed to elude those who hunted him for five years. Five years of fighting against the Romarians, of trying to get close to Drade. Five years of seeking vengeance. And then he had lost his freedom for the second time. He had been wounded in a battle and taken prisoner by the enemy. Just his luck that one of them had recognized him. They had contacted Drade, who had instructed that Falkon was to be sent to the mines of Tierde. He could still hear Drade s laugh over the comport as he said, "Let's see if he can escape from there."
Sitting up, he ripped the bandage from his thigh and dug his fingers into the wound. Pain screamed through his leg. Stifling a groan, he dug deeper, relishing the agony that ripped through him, the sticky warmth of his own blood as it flowed over his hands and down his leg into the dirt beneath him.
Blackness swirled around him, beckoning him, and in the center of that endless void he saw a young woman dressed in blue.
A strange restlessness possessed Ashlynne during the next two weeks.
None of her former occupations brought her pleasure. Reading bored her.
Playing the piano had lost its appeal. Needlepoint seemed an enormous waste of time. She lost interest in sculpting. Her poetry, once light and brimming with the joy of life, was now filled with pathos and despair. She picked up her brushes and tried to paint, but instead of turning out sunrises, tranquil seas, or brightly colored birds, as had once been her wont, her canvases now depicted bleak landscapes and turbulent oceans beneath dark and stormy skies.
Only horseback riding held her interest. One afternoon, tired of riding in the corral, she snuck out of the jinan and roamed the island, carefully avoiding any path that led in the direction of the mine. He was there.
Number Four. The nameless man who now plagued her days and haunted her every dream.
She was almost caught returning to the jinan. Heart pounding, she put her hand over Artemis s nose to keep the mare from whinnying, praying her father wouldn't see her standing just inside the gate. If there was one thing her father was adamant about, it was his insistence that she not leave the compound unchaperoned. She blew out a sigh of relief when he turned and went in the other direction. Never again, she thought. Never again.
Two weeks to the day after she had seen the prisoner, her parents left for Partha. Her father had business in the city; her mother wanted to visit friends. Ashlynne pleaded the onslaught of her monthly flow and begged to stay home.
Her mother frowned and looked doubtful. Her father gave his permission.
"We will return day after tomorrow," Jadeleine said. "Be sure to stay inside the compound while we are gone. Carday will be here to look after you."
"I want you inside the house by dark," her father said. He gave her a perfunctory hug. "I had a letter from Niklaus today. He wants you to come for a visit this summer."
Niklaus Hassrick. Her husband-to-be. A man almost fifteen years her
senior. A man she had never met. "Do I have to go?"
Marcus nodded. "It will be good for you to meet him and his family before the wedding, don't you think?"
"I guess so. But why can't he come here?"
"He's a busy man, Ashlynne. He can't afford the time away."
Ashlynne forced a smile. "Have a good trip, Father. Mother."
She waved goodbye to her parents, sighed with relief as she watched them climb into the shuttle craft. For the first time in her life, she was alone.
Well, she amended, almost alone, with only old Carday in the house to look after her.
What to do first? With carefree abandon, she kicked off her shoes, peeled off her stockings, unbraided her hair and let it fall in wild disarray down her back.
Running upstairs to her room, she took off her dress and petticoats, then pulled on a pair of soft leather breeches and a loose-fitting cotton shirt that she had bought from a wandering band of gypsy travelers but had never had the occasion, or the courage, to wear.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she pulled on a pair of thick wool stockings and her riding boots, and then she ran down the stairs and out to the stables located behind the house.
She waved away Otry's offer of help, preferring to saddle Artemis herself.
For these two days, she would do as she pleased. She would wear pants and ride astride. She would let her hair fly free in the wind. She would go to bed late and sleep late, eat what she wanted when she wanted. And pray that Carday and Otry would hold silent and not betray her.
Swinging into the saddle, she opened the side gate and raced out of the yard and down the narrow, tree-lined path that led to the beach. When they reached the shore, she gave Artemis her head, and the fleet little mare lined out in a dead run, her dainty hooves flying across the sparkling golden sand, eating up the miles until Ashlynne reined her to a halt.
Ashlynne lifted her face to the sun and smiled. It was a beautiful day. The water was as clear and as blue as the sky. Tall trees grew along the shore, their leaves a bright emerald green. Tiny wildflowers bloomed on the hillsides. Beyond the tree line, she could see the high red sandstone walls that enclosed the compound where she had lived her whole life.
She let the mare rest for a quarter of an hour, then turned her toward home. Cresting a ridge covered with short yellow grass and white star daisies, she stared down at the mine spread below. She had not intended to come this way, but something - someone - she thought ruefully, had drawn her in this direction.
She looked at the dark cavern that led down into the bowels of the crystal mine. Was Number Four down there, laboring in the heat and the gloom? Had the wound in his thigh healed? Did he have a limp? Was his back scarred from the cruel beating he had received? Had he learned to submit, to bend his will to the will of Parah and the other overseers, or had he been terminated, his body unceremoniously tossed into the depths of the sea? Ashlynne shuddered as she remembered the way he had looked at her, his eyes filled with loathing and rage. She had an overpowering desire to know the color of those eyes.
She studied the mine. It was late afternoon, and there was no one in sight. At this time of day, all the overseers and the prisoners were likely deep within the cavern. Magny had told her that the slaves were driven into the mine shortly after dawn, where they toiled until midday, at which time they were given three-quarters of an hour to eat and relieve themselves.
They never left the mine during the day; at nightfall, they were herded into their cells.
She could hardly imagine such a life, a life of constant hardship and misery, a life spent in the bowels of the earth, never seeing the sun, forced to submit to the will of another�� Ashlynne frowned. Wasn't she being forced to submit? Forced to wear dresses and shoes when she preferred breeches and boots, forced to walk when she wanted to run, to be docile when she wanted to be rebellious? Forced to marry a man she had never met? Funny, she had never thought of it quite like that before.
Feeling reckless and defiant, she reined Artemis down the hill and across the wide wooden bridge that led to the mine.
Ignoring every dire warning she had ever heard, she dismounted near the long row of small stone cells that housed the prisoners. She had never seen the prison cells close-up. She had never been allowed to come here to visit Magny; Magny always came to her.
Dismounting, she walked toward the overseers residence. It was not nearly so large or so fine as her own. Only when she knocked on the door did she remember that Magny had gone to Partha the day before and wouldn't be back until the following night.
She was about to climb back into the saddle when she saw the row of cells on the far side of the compound. Looking quickly around to make sure no one was watching, she tethered Artemis to a post and went to get a closer look. The cells, each one fashioned from dark gray stone, reminded her of play houses for children. Surely a tall man could not stand erect in one of those squat, flat-roofed dwellings.
There were thirteen cells. Thirteen heavy wooden doors reinforced with thick iron straps. Thirteen, she mused. Bad luck. All the doors, save one, were open; the cells empty. Each cell was numbered in bold black numerals.
Curious, she stepped into the nearest cell. It was dark inside, rank with the odor of old sweat and excrement. Grimacing, she covered her nose with her hand and looked around. The roof was only inches from the top of her head. There was a pile of dingy gray blankets in one corner, a covered chamber pot in another, and that was all. No table. No chair. No light of any kind, not even a candle.
Shuddering with revulsion, she backed out of the cell. Why did her father permit the slaves to live in such squalid conditions? Even though the prisoners were, for the most part, criminals condemned to life in the mines, surely they deserved at least a modicum of comfort. At the very least, they deserved a candle to turn away the darkness of a long night, a fire to turn away the cold. There wasn't even a window, only a narrow slit near the top of the door. She knew somehow that the opening was so the guards could look in, not so the prisoners could look out.
With some trepidation, she walked down the row, coming to a halt in
front of the door marked number 4. It was closed, and locked.
She took a deep breath and then, standing on tiptoe, her hands braced against the rough wood, she peered through the narrow opening at the top of the door.
He was there. She felt his presence before she saw him. He was lying amid a pile of ragged blankets. Even in the dim light, she could see he was shivering, his body racked by chills. A low groan reached her ears, a sound of such pain, such exquisite anguish, it made her heart ache.
Turning on her heel, she marched toward the overseers office. She could see Dagan sitting inside. She had met him once, and thought him a nice young man. He was second in command to Parah.
Lifting her head and squaring her shoulders, Ashlynne marched into the office as if she had every right to be there.
Dagan glanced up, the color draining from his face when he saw her standing there.
"Lady Ashlynne," he gasped, obviously appalled by her presence. "What are you doing here?"
"There's a sick man in cell number four."
"Begging your pardon, Lady, but how would you be knowing such a thing?"
"You should not be here."
"I want you to look after Number Four."
Dagan shook his head. "That prisoner was a dangerous mercenary who escaped incarceration before. I have no authorization to change his treatment."
"I'm authorizing you."
"I mean no disrespect, Lady Ashlynne, but I don't take my orders from you."
"I should hate to have to tell my father that your negligence cost him a valuable worker."
Dagan scratched his cheek, obviously judging the weight of her threat.
And then he sighed. "Very well, Lady Ashlynne."
Rising from his chair, Dagan picked up an emergency medical kit and followed her across the compound to Number Four's hut.
Withdrawing a flash key from his pocket, he unlocked the door. "I'm no doctor." He thrust the kit into her hands, then drew a controller from his pocket. "You do what needs to be done. I'll keep watch."
Ashlynne hesitated, but she had come too far to turn back now. Taking her courage in hand, she stepped into the cell.
With the door open, she could see the prisoner clearly. It was obvious, even to her untrained eye, that he was ill. His face and chest were sheened with perspiration, his dark eyes were glazed with pain. She wrinkled her nose against the abominable odor that emanated from within the cell.
Ashlynne glanced over her shoulder at Dagan. "Why hasn't anyone looked after this man?" she asked, her voice heavy with accusation.
"I don't know, Lady. The doctor said he wouldn't be fit to work for two weeks." Dagan shrugged. "I thought Parah was looking after him."
Ashlynne grunted softly. Crossing the room, she knelt beside Number
Four. The coldness of the stone floor seeped through her breeches. "I've come to help you."
His eyelids fluttered open, and she saw that his eyes were a dark blue- gray. He stared up at her, his eyes wild, like those of an animal caught in the jaws of a trap. An apt comparison, she mused, for he looked more beast than man. Thick black bristles roughened his jaw. His long black hair was disheveled and greasy. The gash in his cheek had scabbed over. When healed, it would no doubt leave a nasty scar. The number four branded on his arm was an angry ugly red, still black around the edges.
Ashlynne wrinkled her nose. Part of the stench emanated from the prisoner. "He needs a bath."
"Parah allows the prisoners to bathe once a month."
"I want a basin of hot water, a bar of soap, and a lamp." She paused. "I also need a cup of black bark tea laced with rum and honey, and some toweling."
"I don't think that's -"
With a shake of his head, Dagan went off to do her bidding.
While she waited for Dagan to return, Ashlynne drew back the blankets, felt her cheeks grow hot when she saw that the prisoner was naked save for a scrap of burlaplike cloth that covered his loins.
Taking a deep breath, Ashlynne peeled the bandage from the prisoner's thigh. She pressed a hand to her mouth, her stomach churning, as she gazed at the wound. Thick yellow pus and black-red blood oozed from the center.
She stared at the wound, horrified by the ugliness of it, the stink of it.
She couldn't imagine the pain he must be feeling.
When Dagan returned, she swallowed the bile in her throat and began to wash the ugly wound.
Falkon stared at the girl kneeling beside him, wondering if he had died.
Surely only angels had silver-blond hair and eyes the color of new grass.
Surely only an angel had such gentle hands. She washed his face and chest, his arms and legs, his back and shoulders. The warm water felt cool against his burning flesh.
With quick efficiency, she applied a medicated pad to his thigh. It sucked out the poison, eased the pain, and disinfected the wound all at the same time. A second pad drew the edges of the wound together. After making sure the medi-pad was doing its work, she taped it in place. She worked quickly, efficiently, hardly looking at him.
He wished for the strength to refuse the medicine she offered him, to refuse the cup of strong black tea she held to his lips, but the instinct to survive was strong within him, stronger than his wish for death. He swallowed the small blue capsules she placed in his mouth, drained the cup.
A part of him, a small part he refused to acknowledge, blessed her for her kindness even as the rest of him, the strong part that would not yield, hated her for it.
Hated her for the pity he read in her eyes.
Hated her because she was one of them.
Hated her because his wife and child were dead and she was alive�� alive and beautiful, with her whole life ahead of her, while he had nothing to look
forward to but endless days of slavery and long, lonely nights of darkness.
But he was too weak to maintain his anger, too weary to cling to his hatred. His eyelids were suddenly heavy, too heavy to keep open. Her face was the last thing he saw before sleep claimed him.
When he was resting comfortably, Ashlynne left the cell. Outside, she brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead, squinting against the glare of the sun.
"I beg you, Dagan, tell no one I was here."
He fidgeted under her gaze. "I should tell Parah."
"If you do, if anyone finds out I was here, I'll be punished."
"Lady Ashlynne -"
"I have one more favor, Dagan. I want you to tell Parah that the doctor isn't doing his job and should be severely reprimanded. Another day or two, and the prisoner would probably have died. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my lady. I'll take care of it. But�� I really should tell Parah about your visit."
"You must do as you think best, Dagan." She offered him a dazzling smile. "Whatever you decide, you have my gratitude for what you've done."
Dagan released a heavy sigh. He knew what he ought to do. And he knew what he would do. And they had nothing in common.