When they were within sight of the house, Falkon dismounted and Ashlynne activated the shackles on his wrists. Trailing a respectful distance behind her horse, he followed her through the massive side gate and around the back of the house to the stable.
A man came forward to help her dismount. His gaze moved over Falkon, his expression blatantly disapproving as he took the stallion's reins and led it into the barn.
"Come along, Number Four," Ashlynne said.
He fell into step behind her. The new house was even more impressive than the old one, he mused, and wondered if, one day, she would be sorry she had left it all behind for a man who had nothing.
When they reached the front of the house, she turned to face him. "Wait here. I'm going inside to tell Kerolena that I've decided to go shopping in the city."
"I won't be long."
Ten minutes later, she was back, followed by a tall, sour-faced man.
Falkon recognized him as one of Hassrick's bodyguards, but he had eyes only for Ashlynne. She had changed her riding clothes for a green dress that made her eyes glow like emeralds, and a pair of low-heeled white boots. She had a large bag slung over one shoulder.
"Let's go, Number Four."
He obeyed without question.
The sour-faced man opened the door of the shuttle and handed Ashlynne inside.
"Thank you, Brill," she said coolly. "Get in, Number Four."
Falkon ducked inside and sat in the rear seat. A moment later, the shackles on his ankles snapped together.
Brill slid into the driver's seat.
It took the better part of two hours to reach Partha. It was a large city laid out in concentric circles. The shopping area was in the center. It was a beautiful city. The buildings, made of white sandstone and glass, reflected the sun's light, so that the whole city seemed to sparkle. The streets were wide, lined with trees, trees that had almost become extinct only a few decades ago. Fortunately, the people of Partha had realized their value before it was too late.
Brill parked the shuttle on the landing strip, exited the vehicle and opened the door for Ashlynne. She released the shackles on Falkon's hands and feet and stepped out of the craft.
Falkon followed her. He stood to one side, his head bowed, his hands clasped, trying to look properly submissive.
"Oh, Brill, I think I left my bag on the floor." She smiled at him. "Would you get it for me, please?"
With a grunt, Brill leaned into the vehicle.
As soon as his back was turned, Ashlynne pulled the stun gun from her pocket and fired it at his back. He dropped to the ground like a rock.
"Where'd you get that from?"
She shrugged. "It's the one I took from Gasman's quarters."
"You've had it all this time?"
She shook her head. "No. Niklaus took it from me. I found it in his room."
She glanced around, afraid someone might take notice of what was going on, but luckily, the area was deserted, at least for the moment. "What are we going to do about him?" she asked, nodding at Brill.
Falkon found a length of rope in the back of the shuttle. He quickly lashed Brill's hands and feet together; then, slinging the big man over his shoulder, he carried him to a large recycling receptacle and dumped him inside. The man landed with a resounding thud.
"Hurry," Ashlynne called, and climbed back into the shuttle.
Falkon scrambled into the driver's seat, hit the controls and the shuttle shot forward. It was a remarkably speedy craft, easy to handle. He looked over at Ashlynne and grinned. "Nice work, sweetheart."
She grinned back at him. "Thank you. Where are we going?"
"To Nardin. We can get a transport to Cherlin Four from there."
"Cherlin Four? What's there?"
"What's a darf?"
"He's a who, not a what, and he owes me a favor."
It was remarkably easy to find transport. There was a cruiser preparing to leave for Cherlin Four when they arrived. Ashlynne signed for the necessary credits, and ten minutes later, they were on their way.
Ashlynne took hold of Falkon's hand as the ship lifted off. She had packed one of Niklaus s shirts in her bag and Falkon had slipped it on before they entered the space port. The shirt was dark blue, with a high neck and long sleeves, effectively covering the collar and cuffs that marked him as a slave.
She hadn't said anything to him before, but she didn't care for space travel. The wild flight from Enjine Base Nine had been her first experience.
She had hoped it would be her last.
Falkon looked over at her and smiled. "You all right?"
She nodded. "How long will it take us to get there?"
"We should arrive tomorrow afternoon." He squeezed her hand. "You'll like Darf."
"Where did you meet him?"
Falkon chuckled. "I met Darf about four years ago in a run-down cantina on Cherlin Four. A couple of drunken Hodorians were giving him a hard time.
They had him shoved up against a wall. One of them had a knife. They were laughing at him, said they were going to shave his whole body so they could see what was under all that hair."
He shrugged. "I was a little drunk myself and looking for a fight, so..."
"So you went to his rescue?"
"Yeah. Those Hodorians are big, but soft. When they were gone, Darf and
I celebrated our victory. By the time the bottle was empty, we were good friends."
"Is he married?"
"Yeah. You'll like Chaney."
Ashlynne nodded uncertainly. In her sheltered life, she had rarely met people from exotic planets. She had seen pictures of other races: the hairy people of Cherlin Four, the yellow-skinned people of Cenia, the giants of Andoria.
Falkon squeezed her hand reassuringly.
"Relax, sweetheart. People are pretty much the same all over, no matter what they look like."
The flight to Cherlin Four was uneventful. Ashlynne stared at the tele- screen located on the back of the seat in front of her, but her mind was elsewhere. Brill had probably made his way back to the house by now. No doubt he had contacted Niklaus. One thing she was sure of - Niklaus wouldn't let her go without a fight. He wanted the mine. That was why he had married her. Not because he had promised her father, not because he wanted her, but because of the mine. But it would never be his. She had seen to that.
It was late afternoon when they arrived on Cherlin Four.
Ashlynne couldn't help staring as they made their way through the space port. Cherlin Four had been designated by the Confederation as the neutral planet for this quadrant, and people of every race and culture intermingled.
Giants and dwarfs moved side by side. She had never realized people came in so many sizes and colors.
Outside, they found a shuttle for hire. Falkon gave the driver directions, then climbed into the backseat beside Ashlynne.
Moments later, they were underway.
Falkon frowned as the driver kept glancing at him. "Something wrong?"
"Those shackles you wear."
Falkon cursed softly as he tugged the sleeve of his shirt down over the cuff on his left wrist.
"Get them off you, I can."
"Really?" Ashlynne leaned forward. "How?"
"Expensive, it is."
"It doesn't matter. Can you do it now?"
The shuttle made a sudden turn, snaking back the way they had come. A quarter of an hour later, the driver stopped in front of a rather disreputable- looking building.
Ashlynne looked at Falkon. "I don't like this," she whispered.
"Give me the gun."
She slid it to him while the driver exited the shuttle.
"Coming, are you?" the driver asked.
"What is this place?" Ashlynne asked.
"Live here, I do." The driver opened the shuttle door. "Coming, are you?"
"Let's go," Falkon said. He got out of the vehicle, turned, and offered Ashlynne his hand.
The driver led the way. Ashlynne stayed close to Falkon, her heart
pounding with trepidation.
The house was just what Ashlynne expected: small, dark, and dirty. A large spotted hound growled at them from a corner.
The driver waved at a dingy couch. "Down, sit," he said. "Back soon will I be." And so saying, he left the room.
Ashlynne glanced at the couch, and remained standing. So did Falkon.
"We shouldn't have come in here," Ashlynne whispered. She sent a wary glance at the dog. The animal stood in the corner, hackles raised, teeth bared.
The driver emerged a few minutes later carrying a long, silver metal tube.
"Pay first you must," he said.
"How much?" Falkon asked.
"To my account, one thousand credits." The driver punched his account number into a grimy-looking comport, and Ashlynne made the necessary transfer of funds.
Falkon lifted his arms. "Get busy."
The driver nodded, and then, in a quick move, he drew a knife and pressed the point into Falkon's belly.
Falkon had been expecting something like that and he was ready for it.
Palming the stun gun, he fired it at point blank range. The knife and the silver tube clattered to the floor; the driver dropped down beside them, paralyzed from head to foot.
Falkon picked up the silver tube and turned it over in his hands. There was a single switch at one end.
"How does it work?" Ashlynne asked.
"I'm not sure." Sitting down on the edge of the couch, he pressed the tube against the shackle on his right foot and depressed the switch. The shackle on his ankle opened and fell to the floor.
In moments, he was free.
He lifted a hand to his throat, turned his head from side to side, sighed with pleasure at being able to move without the edge of the collar pressing into his skin.
Ashlynne glanced down at the driver. "Let's get out of here."
With a nod, Falkon grabbed her hand and they left the house.
Ashlynne glanced up and down the deserted street. "Now what?"
Falkon opened the door of the shuttle. "Get in."
She didn't argue. "I'll say one thing," she murmured as she closed the door. "Being with you is never boring."
Ashlynne peered out the window while Falkon parked the shuttle. The house, which was round, was located in the middle of a patch of stubby yellow-green grass. Several shaggy sheep grazed in the shade of an enormous tree, the likes of which Ashlynne had never seen. The leaves, a peculiar burnt orange in color, were huge and diamond-shaped.
She followed Falkon up the narrow pathway that led to the front door.
He took her hand in his. "Relax."
"What if they don't like me?"
"They'll love you."
He rapped sharply on the door. It swung open a few moments later to reveal a tall male covered from head to foot with pale beige hair. He was,
Ashlynne thought, rather homely, with his wiry hair and pale yellow eyes.
"Falkon! Bless the stars, what are you doing here?" The Cherlin threw his arms around Falkon. "Damn, I'm glad to see you."
"Easy, Darf," Falkon said, laughing. "You're gonna smother me!"
Darf backed off. "I forget how weak you humans are," he said, a grin spreading over his face. His gaze rested on Ashlynne. "Now, who's this pretty little thing?"
Falkon slid his arm around Ashlynne's shoulders. "Ashlynne, this is Darf.
Darf, Lady Ashlynne of Myrafloures."
Darf stared at Falkon, his expression one of surprise, and then respect as he bowed to Ashlynne. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, my lady," he said. "Welcome to our home."
"Darf," called a female voice, "who's at the door?"
Darf clapped Falkon on the arm. "What are you waiting for? Come on in."
They followed their host inside, where they were met by a female with curly brown hair. Her eyes were also yellow, though of a brighter, more golden hue than her husband's.
"Falkon!" she squealed, and hurled herself into his arms.
The female was as pretty as the male was homely, Ashlynne thought, only then noticing that neither of the Cherlin wore clothing. Covered as they were with hair, she supposed there was no need.
The living room was large and airy. There were fur rugs on the floor, modernistic paintings on the walls, a shelf of vidbooks and movies, another shelf filled with a variety of exotic animals and fish carved from ebony wood.
Falkon introduced her to Darfs wife, Chancy, who also bowed to Ashlynne, then fluttered around, inviting them to sit, asking if they wanted something to eat or drink.
Ashlynne declined, but Falkon accepted a drink.
"Now," Darf said, when they were all settled, "tell us everything. Last we heard, you had been sent to the mines of Tierde. We feared you had been killed in the attack."
"Obviously not," Falkon replied.
Chancy leaned forward, her eyes alight. "Tell us, Falkon, how did you get away?"
"It's a long story."
"We have time," Chancy said.
"Yes," Darf said, "start at the beginning." He glanced at Ashlynne, a speculative gleam in his eyes. "And don't leave anything out."
"Well," Chancy exclaimed an hour later, "that's some story." She looked at Ashlynne and smiled. "We are expecting our first child, as well."
"Is that right?" Falkon said. "Congratulations, you two. I know you've been trying for quite a while." He grinned at Darf. "I was beginning to wonder about your... ah..." He glanced at Ashlynne and Chancy. "Virility."
Darf punched Falkon's shoulder. "Very funny."
"When is your baby due?" Chancy asked.
"I'm not sure," Ashlynne replied. "In about six months, I think. Yours?"
"Any day now."
Ashlynne nodded. "You don't look it," she said, then blushed.
Chancy laughed good-naturedly as she ran a hand over her hairy belly. "I can hide quite a bit under all this."
Darf ruffled his wife's hair. "So, Falkon, how long are you two going to stay?"
"I'm not sure. Have you heard anything of Daccar?"
Darf grunted. "Your home is at peace for the first time in thirty years."
Falkon looked stunned. "I don't believe it."
Darf nodded. "There was a battle with the Romarians shortly after you were captured. Your people allied with the barbarians of Swernolt and emerged victorious. Daccar, Swernolt and Romariz signed a treaty."
Falkon swore under his breath. A treaty with Romariz. It was unthinkable.
All these months, he had thought of nothing but vengeance. "Have you heard anything of an alliance between Romariz and Cenia?"
Darf shook his head. "No, but I heard through a reliable source that Drade has been seen on Hodore in the company of the Cenian ambassador."
"Drade." Falkon's hands clenched as he imagined them around his enemy's throat. He should have kept that damnable collar. He'd like to see Drade squirming on the ground, just once, his body writhing in agony. Just once before he killed him.
"Falkon?" He turned his head to see Ashlynne staring at him, her brow furrowed with concern. "Are you all right?"
"Maybe you should let it go," Darf said quietly. "There's nothing to be gained from revenge."
"Isn't there?" Falkon met his friend's gaze.
"Would you risk your future, or Ashlynne's future, to avenge the past? Vengeance will serve no purpose. It will not bring Maiya or your daughter back to you, nor ease the pain of their loss."
Falkon looked at Ashlynne and knew his friend spoke the truth. What was past was past, and could not be resurrected. And Ashlynne... As much as he yearned to avenge Maiya's death, he would not put Ashlynne's life, or the life of their unborn child, in danger.
"You speak wisely, as always," Falkon said. Not long ago, he had wished for a chance to spend the rest of his life with Ashlynne. Now that he had that chance, he would be a fool to throw it away. Sliding his arm around her waist, he drew her close. "To hell with Drade," he said, and felt a sense of peace wash over him as Ashlynne looked into his eyes and smiled.