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Moonlight Rhapsody
by Nancy J. Cohen

Category: Romance/Fantasy
Description: When Lord Rolf Cam'brii's ship crashes on the planet Souk, he's taken prisoner and thrown into a slave labor camp. Here he catches the eye of the beautiful female overseer, Ilyssa. As he learns her secrets, he finds himself falling under her spell. But Ilyssa's gift comes with a curse, and to follow her heart means to lose her life-long dream. Futuristic Romance by Nancy J. Cohen writing as Nancy Cane; originally published by Dorchester/LoveSpell
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1994
eBookwise Release Date: June 2010

eBookeBook

3 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [510 KB]
Words: 111666
Reading time: 319-446 min.


Rolf had never been caught in such a violent storm. His spacecraft, buffeted in all directions, was like a plaything to the terrible ionic gale raging outside. Sweat beaded his brow as jagged streaks of blue lightning flashed in the darkness, but he was unable to see anything on the viewscreen except roiling clouds when the sky lit up.

Gripping the armrests of his seat, Rolf cursed his luck. His mission was dangerous enough without his ship being caught in a maelstrom. Unable to take a heavier vessel to Souk, he'd chosen a small, lightweight freighter meant for evading radar through swift maneuvering. But in this tempest, the ship was like a feather tossed by the wind. Updrafts and downdrafts battered at him, and his stomach wrenched with each thrashing.

Monitoring the computer readouts, Rolf prayed that the bursting ion streaks would avoid hitting his ship. He couldn't request emergency assistance from the Souks as his descent into their atmosphere was unauthorized, and he couldn't risk being detected as he neared the ground.

Nervously, he swiped at a strand of hair, pushing it off his face. Any minute now, the computer would initiate the landing sequence. Maybe then he could relax.

"By the stars," he cried as a loud jolt rocked the ship, straining him against his safety harness. An ion bolt had hit home. The lights in the cockpit went out, then flickered red as the backup system kicked in. Sirens wailed as a series of warning lights flashed on his display panel.

"Systems overload," warned the computer's impersonal female voice. "Switching off actuator valves one and two to reroute flow streams. Core fuel injectors remain operative."

The main power generator was out. Hopefully the secondary reactor conduits would hold. Moistening his lips, Rolf told himself he shouldn't worry about the blasted Souks picking up his approach. Concentrating on a safe landing was more important.

"Changing nose angle by point zero two five degrees," the computer intoned.

Sniffing, Rolf wondered at the pungent odor he smelled. It hadn't been noticeable before. His eyes watered and he blinked rapidly to clear his vision.

The helm didn't seem to be responding to the computer's command. According to the instrumentation, the ship was heading downward at an increasingly sharp angle.

As a bolt of charged ion particles lit the sky, he caught a glimpse through a cloud break of the planet's surface below. Frowning, Rolf scanned the nav readouts for the altitude display. According to the readout, he was at fifteen kilometers. But from the view, he'd put his altitude around nine. The navigational sensors must be off. By the corona, that meant he could have strayed off course. He'd been warned against flying over--

A sudden lurch nearly tossed his stomach contents onto his lap. A loud claxon sounded in the cockpit as the red lights dimmed and then came back on.

The computer was down. Suppressing a momentary surge of panic, Rolf switched to manual override. He grabbed the control column and yanked it back to raise the nose. The ship didn't respond, continuing its downward plunge toward the planet's surface.

Gods, the feed lines from the bimanthium crystal chamber must be inoperative.

Perspiration ran in rivulets down the sides of his face. Maybe he could reroute some of the remaining fuel. Reacting automatically, he nipped shut several switches and toggled others open.

The helm responded sluggishly. He fought the bile rising in his throat and checked the overhead panel. Sure enough, a couple of drive circuits were popped. Instead of seeing six rows of black buttons, he saw four black and two white. He pushed the white buttons to reset them and the secondary generator came back online. Now he'd have short periods of thrust with which to maneuver the ship. If he could make differential power adjustments along the way, the ship wouldn't go down at such a steep angle.

Opening and closing the field relays, he managed to slow the rate of descent. But then a violent downdraft caught his ship and slammed it planetside.

Rolf coughed as the pungent odor on the flight deck grew stronger. White smoke stung his eyes. Burning filaments! He programmed the sequence for fire control, then remembered the computer was down. No time for other measures now. Souk's surface was gaining, and he wasn't slowing nearly enough.

As he broke out of the cloud cover, topographical features came into clear view, mountainous rises and rocky peaks, beyond which were the lights of civilization. Gods, he was going to crash into that cliff!

He activated the reverse levitators, forcing the screaming engines to break descent, but he was still coming in too fast. Using both hands, he yanked desperately on the control column. He had to exert all his strength just to get it to move back a notch. A small clearing was straight ahead if he could make it.

The impact came with the screeching sound of tearing metal and a bone-jarring series of thumps. Rolf was thrust forward in his seat, his body straining against the safety harness. An explosion roared in his ears. Billowing smoke choked his nostrils and clouded his vision. Finally, the vessel reached a shuddering halt.

Stunned, Rolf sat motionless until he realized the air was growing hot. Twisting his neck, he saw flames licking up from the rear of the ship. His hands trembling, he unshackled his restraint and attempted to rise. But his head swam dizzily, and the hazy smoke confused him.

Images of another time, another place, entered his mind. We're under attack! Energize the laser cannon while I put out the fire. . . . Shields are down.. . . No, they've hit us again!

His mind a disoriented fog of past and present, Rolf forced himself out of his seat. The cockpit was destroyed, and debris littered the floor. He stumbled through the smoke, coughing and choking while weaving a path toward the exit. Heat blasted his face from the raging fire. Blinded, he tripped across a fallen cable and toppled over, his arms flailing. His head cracked against a bulkhead in a white-hot explosion of pain.

The last thing he heard as he slid to the floor was a familiar female voice calling his name: Rolf...

The Souk officer's bluish skin quivered as he faced the smoking wreck. "Get the pilot out!" he screamed to his contingent of armed guards.

On patrol in the Beta sector, they'd heard the whine of engines before the spacecraft had become visible to the eye. The sleek vessel had broken through the cloud cover and plummeted toward the ground. At the last moment the nose raised, and the ship came in nearly level. But it was going too fast, and the crash had been inevitable.

O'mon's floppy ears lifted as his men popped the hatch. A cloud of black smoke billowed out from the interior.

"Fire!" Arg yelled, holding his snoutlike nose.

"Move quickly," O'mon barked to his point man. "Salvage what you can."

A few moments later, the troops emerged, two of them carrying a limp human form. Arg held a pilot's dispatch case.

"The ship's logs?" O'mon asked.

"Burned are the filaments. The logs are lost. The data cards in this case are all that's left."

"Cargo?"

"None, unless it was concealed. We'd be risking our lives to do a more thorough search. Too intense is the heat."

"Let us r-r-remove ourselves then," O'mon agreed.

The soldiers laid the pilot on the ground in a wooded area at a safe distance from the burning spacecraft. O'mon ordered one of his troops to take a holovid of the ship before it was totally destroyed, as it might be needed for evidence later.

Clasping his hands behind his back, O'mon sniffed gratefully at the cool air. The spicy scent of jell berries was a welcome relief from the pungent odor of smoke. Normally he enjoyed these night patrols. Nothing much happened, and he could listen to the howl of the rabba and relish the breeze from the Upper Drifts. But not tonight. Tonight the peacefulness of the night had been shattered.

O'mon turned his attention to the pilot on the ground. Even unconscious, the human exuded a certain presence. He was tall and muscular. Straight black hair reached his shoulders. He had thick eyebrows, an aquiline nose, and a jaw that showed determination even when slack.

The human's manner of dress gave no indication of his identity. He wore a blue shirt that sagged open, revealing a broad chest and flat abdomen. The shirt was tucked into tight navy pants, skimming his polished boots.

"Check him for weapons," O'mon ordered. He watched while one of his troops frisked the human.

"He'd make a good krecker," Arg growled, reflecting O'mon's thoughts.

"Aye. We'll see what Bolt says." The human had no weapons, nor did he possess any personal ornaments. "What could his business be in this sector?"

"Ask him yourself. Coming around is he."

Rolf returned to consciousness, gradually becoming aware that he was lying flat on his back on a lumpy surface. An unfamiliar spicy scent pervaded his nostrils. Voices murmured around him, harsh barks and growls but his mind was too foggy to pay attention. He put a hand up to his throbbing temple.

Remembering the crash, Rolf wondered if he was among friends or enemies. Should he use the chemical mind block provided for him now while he had the chance, or should he wait?

The opportunity for this covert mission had come about unexpectedly. Rolf hadn't had time to learn more sophisticated techniques for resisting interrogation in the event he was caught. A memory molecule which only dissolved in saliva had been painted onto his fingernail. When he licked it off, it would provide up to 24 hauras protection against a Morgot mind probe, the favored technique used by the Souks to make prisoners talk.

While under the influence of the chemical, Rolf would forget any important information that he possessed. But since he only had one molecule, Rolf decided to wait and assess the situation further before he used it.

Cautiously, he blinked. Dark shadows hovered, but his hazy vision couldn't quite make out who they were. Struggling into a sitting position, Rolf choked back a wave of nausea as his vision whirled. After a moment, he could focus. It was the dead of night and he was outdoors. The moving shadows shifted and solidified.

Four Souks surrounded him, pointing shooters aimed at his chest. The dogfaces wore gray uniforms with military insignia.

A frisson of alarm shot through him. The guards were alert and tense, as though they expected him to make a hostile move. His eyes darted about, looking for a possible avenue of escape. The twisted shapes of trees came into view. Overhead, clouds scudded by in the nighttime sky. Distant streaks of lightning lit the heavens in fiery blue bolts.

"Who are you?" a gruff voice demanded from beyond his line of vision.

Rolf decided to learn as much as he could. If it looked as though he would be tortured, he'd use the memory molecule.

"My name is Sean Breslow," he said, giving his false identity. "What is this place?"

An officer lumbered into the circle of guards. The Souk was large, his canine features fierce. "Your vessel crashed by the Rocks of Weir. What is your business on Souk?"

"I'm a trader from Arcturus. I have a client who wants me to arrange a deal involving rubellis gemstones." Hopefully his hastily created cover story would hold up under scrutiny.

"The r-r-rubellis quarries are on the other side of the Cobalt Wash," the Souk officer snarled. "What are you doing by the Rocks of Weir?"

"My navigational system malfunctioned in the storm."

"Liar! Too far off course are you."

"I speak the truth. Examine my ship for yourself. You'll see the nav sensor array was damaged."

"What is the name of your client?"

"That information is confidential."

"His location?"

"I can't tell you."

"Can't or won't? You try my patience, human. I do not believe your lies. A spy are you! We shoot spies," the Souk threatened. "Tell me the real r-r-reason why you are here."

"I'm telling the truth," Rolf said, tasting fear in his mouth. It was an unfamiliar sensation. Shifting uncomfortably where he sat, he decided to try some inquiries of his own. "Where exactly are the Rocks of Weir?"

"It is I, O'mon, who will ask the questions, human."

"I need to know how far off course I've strayed." His mission had a deadline, and he might miss it if he was detained. Even if he managed to escape, he had no idea how to get to his intended landing site from here. He needed specific information.

One of the guards gestured with his shooter. "The pilot's dispatch case might prove useful. Lieutenant."

"You are r-r-right, Arg. Bring it here."

O'mon leafed through the data cards in the pilot's bag. Sticking one in his data link, he grunted with satisfaction after reading the display.

"What is it? Is there a problem?" Rolf asked anxiously, hoping they'd accept his falsified documents at face value.

"Sean Breslow is your name," O'mon conceded. "Records of r-r-recent transactions and credit transfers are these. They confirm that you are a trader originating from Arcturus." He looked up. "Why is there no evidence of your deal involving rubellis gemstones?"

Arg spoke up. "The r-r-rest of the data cards are damaged. It is possible he tells the truth, sir."

"Grrr," O'mon growled, looking skeptical. "Let's deliver him to Bolt. The satrap may be able to loosen his tongue."

"Who's Bolt?" Gingerly, Rolf touched the back of his head. A sticky substance clung to his fingers. Blood. No wonder he had a headache the size of a boulder.

"Find out soon enough will you. Get up. You go to the pens."

Two guards tugged him to his feet, and before he realized what was happening, they'd whipped his arms behind him and bound his wrists.

"What are you doing?" he cried, infuriated.

"You will speak only when spoken to, human. You're a sumi now," O'mon said. Rolf spoke their language, and he understood sumi was the Souk word for slave. "Disobey and you will be punished."

"How dare you? I have rights. I'm not a--oof." He grunted and doubled over as O'mon jolted him with an electrifier. "Damn you," he gritted, wincing at the pain in his gut.

"Wish you more, sumi? Come with us quietly will you." O'mon turned to his men and grinned. "A generous bounty will we get for this one. Let's go." He pointed the electrifier rod at Rolf. "Move, human."

Single file, they followed a winding trail through hilly territory dotted with twisted spirals of rock. Huge boulders lay haphazardly and jagged cliffs stretched toward the sky. Traveling through the eerie landscape, Rolf stumbled several times but was forced to keep going, his feet tripping over the rocky paths, and his arms bound at his back. Tree branches whipped at his face, and the night seemed to sing with empathy for him. A haunting whisper hung on the breeze, a melancholy note as the wind whistled through the leaves.

Passing through a short canyon, they approached a brightly lit enclave of buildings. Voices carried on the breeze, the wailing and crying of females, the shouts and curses of men.

As they neared the dusty town, Rolf's eyes widened in shock. A group of poor wretches was confined inside a fenced area that was guarded by two sentry towers at opposite ends. An energy field protected the perimeter. The stockade was roofless and he could easily see the captives milling about inside.

"Join the others," O'mon said, chuckling. Grabbing Rolf by the arm, he thrust him forward as a sentry opened the gate.

Rolf fought and bucked against the large Souk. Suddenly a couple of bull-like Horthas bounded into view, swinging stun whips. One lash at his ankle and Rolf stumbled, crying out. With a final push, O'mon sent Rolf sprawling onto the dirt-packed ground inside the pen. The gate swung shut behind him with a loud clang, and a lock clicked into place.

Spitting the dirt from his mouth, he rose to a kneeling position and cursed.

"Save your breath," a weary voice said.

Rolf looked up into the soil-streaked face of a bearded man. "Who are you?"

"My name is Seth." Stooping over, the man undid the cord binding Rolf's wrists, then helped him to stand.

"Where are we? What is this place?"

Rolf looked Seth over. He wore a loose tan tunic cinched at the waist by a leather belt and matching leggings. His form appeared solid. Judging from the streaks of gray in his dark hair, Rolf guessed his age was forty annums, ten annums older than himself. He'd just celebrated his thirtieth birthday before leaving for Souk.

"We're situated in a remote mining district near the Rocks of Weir. It's part of Ruel's dominion." Seth gave him a keen look of assessment. "What's your name, friend?"

"Sean Breslow. My ship crashed in the hills, and O'mon's troops pulled me out of the wreckage." Rolf closed his eyes briefly to ease the throbbing in his head. "How did you get here?"

"We were captured in a raid. We're from the Alyte Garrison in the Omega sector." Seth waved at the cluster of men, women, and children huddled in a corner, bemoaning their fate, as the women clutched their offspring in terror. A few other species were evident in the pen as well, victims, Rolf assumed, of other raids or pirate attacks on civilian vessels.

Seeing the terrified captives brought a red-hot fury seething into Rolf's blood. His fists clenched. By the corona, he was enraged enough to throttle someone's throat. The rotten, liver-bellied Souks. All they brought was fear and misery to helpless victims. He'd come here to stop them, and now he was trapped, unable to carry out his directive. How he hated them.

The bearded man must have seen the anger in his eyes. "Go easy, friend. There's not much you can do. No one's ever escaped from Souk."

"Yes, they have." His friends, Sarina and Teir, had managed to escape the clutches of the notorious Souk slaver, Cerrus Bdan. Their adventures had been the catalyst for his current mission. Rolf struggled to get his temper under control, then asked, "How long have you been here?"

"Two days, but it seems like two annums." Seth looked at Rolf curiously. "You said you'd crashed your spacecraft. Why were you coming to Souk?"

"I'm a trader from Arcturus."

"So you have a legitimate reason for being here. Why have they put you in with us?" Seth's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"O'mon thinks I'm lying," Rolf confessed.

"Are you?"

"No." He fell silent, lost in anguish. How was he going to accomplish his mission when he was penned like an animal and doomed to a life of captivity? It was all the Souks' fault, just like everything else in his life. Damn them! He had to escape. "What happens next? Do you know?" he asked Seth.

The older man nodded. "I spoke to a guard. Bolt is due to come on the morrow."

"Who in Zor is Bolt? I keep hearing his name."

"Bolt is the top military officer in the area. He holds the rank of satrap in Ruel's army."

Understanding lit Rolf's eyes, but he quickly hid it under veiled lids. It wouldn't be wise to show his intimate knowledge of Souk affairs. "I don't understand," he hedged.

"Ruel is pasha of this territory. Souk is controlled by various commercial cartels led by individual pashas," Seth explained patiently. "Together they form the Souk Alliance. Ruel is the most powerful pasha of all. He's the largest landholder, and his industrial interests extend into every corner of the planet. The Rocks of Weir, despite our desolate location, is very important to him. It holds valuable deposits of piragen ore which are the main source of Ruel's wealth."

He saw Rolf's questioning glance and added, "I'm a geologist. Piragen ore is not a common commodity. I've surveyed its distribution throughout this sector of the galaxy."

"What's its relevance to our situation?" Rolf asked.

"We could all end up as kreckers working the mines."

"Who makes that decision? Bolt?"

"No. A Dromo appointed by Ruel holds the position of authority here. Bolt merely carries out the Dromo's orders." Seth kicked at a rock on the ground. His face looked worn and weary. "The Dromo decrees who shall live and who shall die; who will labor in the mines or who will act as personal servers to the Souks. Bolt may choose women for his harem."

Rolf saw the direction of his pained glance. "Your wife?"

Seth nodded, not bothering to disguise the raw fear in his expression. "Aye. And my daughter yonder." He indicated a pretty girl of about fifteen annums sitting alone in a corner. She was combing her long blond hair with her fingers and staring vacantly at the night sky.

Rolf felt his gut clench. "You don't think Bolt would--"

"I've heard stories," Seth interrupted, his tone grim. "Human females don't last very long when they're taken by a Souk, and Bolt is said to prefer females with light coloring."

"By the stars, I'm sorry."

The night seemed to pass endlessly after that conversation, and when at last dawn came, Rolf stretched and yawned. He'd found a spare corner and lain on the ground, falling asleep instantly. He awoke cold and shivering as were most of his fellow captives. They looked wan and pale in the orange light seeping over the horizon. His stomach growled, and he wondered if they'd be fed.

Standing, he went over to a small enclosure to relieve himself in the hole in the ground intended for that purpose. The area stank and swarmed with flies. When he came out, he studied his surroundings.

The pen was at the very edge of the town which was situated in a narrow valley. The buildings were boxlike concrete structures, functional rather than aesthetic, painted in a uniform muddy brown color. A paved street ran down the center of the town, and already he could see it was bustling with activity. The Souks, dressed in flowing caftans of bright rainbow colors, moved about their morning business, totally oblivious to the cries from the captives at the far end. Other dwellings, residences perhaps, branched off from the main avenue.

Atop a nearby hill stood a completely incongruous palatial structure. White with silver specks, it glistened in the sunlight, isolated from the town's drabness and drudgery. No doubt that was where Bolt and his boss lived, Rolf thought, and wondered what the Dromo was like. Overseeing a work force of slaves in such a harsh environment was no easy task. The Dromo would have to be the most ferocious Souk around.

As he watched, a procession started down the hill. In the lead marched a large Souk wearing a gray military uniform devoid of any decoration. He had the meanest dogface Rolf had ever seen, a pudgy nose, ridged brows, and a perpetual snarl. He looked brawny, tough. He'd be a dangerous person to cross, Rolf figured, thinking the military man must be the Dromo. The Souk was obviously in a position of authority. Rolf could tell by his autocratic bearing, by the obsequious attitude of the slaves running beside him to obey his commands.

His gaze switched to the slender figure striding alongside the Souk. By the stars, was that a woman? Who in Zor was she? A human female with the Dromo. . . was she his willing consort or his slave?

As they neared, Rolf studied her further. Or rather, he couldn't tear his eyes away. Wavy auburn hair framed a face with such delicate features she could have been an artist's creation. Her brows were feathery arches the color of a fawn. He particularly liked the way her mouth was perfectly formed, with sensual pink lips.

His gaze trailed lower. From the fine bones of her face and her slender arms, Rolf would say she was slim, but she hid her figure under a shapeless rust-colored caftan. The way the garment fell over her body indicated that she possessed generous assets. Maybe that was why she dressed in such a drab fashion, so as not to attract undue attention. But who wouldn't be drawn to her startling beauty?

He realized the Hortha sentries were barking orders. Apparently the captives were to line up, single file, facing the gate. A long table was being set up outside the fence. The Souk and the young woman, who couldn't have been more than twenty annums, seated themselves in chairs behind the table. The Souk gave the signal for the gate to be opened.

"I am Bolt," he said in a loud voice. "You are to present yourselves in front of the Dromo. Keep your eyes lowered. You are not permitted to look upon her face. Anyone who disobeys will be punished."

Rolf nearly reeled in shock. Great suns! The woman was the Dromo in charge of this enclave.

He sickened as he watched each captive, head bowed, stand in front of the Dromo while Bolt pronounced his or her fate. The Dromo nodded approval, her lips tightly pinched, her back straight. Her eyes were blank as she stared straight ahead. How had she attained such an exalted position? Had she so pleased the pasha who ruled the territory that he'd honored her by putting her in command?

Yet this settlement was far from any major city. Wouldn't it be more of a punishment than a reward to be isolated here?

Screams and wails resulted when husbands and wives were separated. Anguished cries rent the air when children were torn from their mother's arms. The ill or elderly were condemned to die. Horthas stood by with stun whips, making sure the pronouncements were followed. Groups began to form outside the gate. Whispering a question to the person in line behind him, Rolf learned what they represented.

The strong and able were being assigned as kreckers in the mines. Because of adverse environmental conditions, the piragen ore could only be extracted in this location by hand. It was exhausting work and slaves died in droves from the heavy toil.

Those less fit individuals were assigned as servers in the Dromo's household. And for some, a fate worse than death was prescribed. Bolt took the youngest of the adult females to his harem. Supposedly it was a perk the Dromo allowed him for his loyalty.

"What about the children?" Rolf hissed.

"They're sent away to the capital city of Haakat where they are raised under strict supervision," said the sullen young man behind him. "When they're old enough, they receive their assignments."

"A life of slavery," Rolf stated, his face grim.

A woman screamed, and he glanced up. Seth's daughter had just been sentenced to join Bolt's harem, and it was her mother who'd cried out. Seth and his wife were being sent to the mines.

Rolf compressed his lips as his turn came. He stood in front of the table, his head raised proudly. He wasn't going to bow before anyone. He did, however, keep his gaze averted from the woman. Looking at her stirred something in him, even when he knew she was responsible for these people's anguish.

"Name?" Bolt barked, glaring at him.

Rolf stared back. "Sean Breslow."

Bolt wrote in a ledger with a computer stylus. "Profession?"

"I'm a trader from Arcturus."

Bolt's black eyes darkened. Against the blue of his skin, they appeared to be two opaque holes in his doglike visage. "You're the man whose ship crashed in the hills. I was not expecting a cargo consignment. What were you doing in this sector?"

"My ship's navigational system malfunctioned during an ion storm, and I strayed off course."

A small sound escaped the woman's lips. He risked a glance in her direction. She stared at him, undisguised interest in her expression. He returned the look, challenging her.

A stinging pain lashed his back and brought him to his knees with a grunt. One of the Horthas had hit him with a stun whip.

"Do not look upon the Dromo," Bolt snarled, leaping to his feet. "It is forbidden."

Rolf slowly turned his gaze upon the Souk. A half-smile twisted his lips. "It will take more than your whips to subdue me, Bolt."

"You will address me as master." Spittle formed in the corner of his mouth, and his face blotched with fury. "Punishment do you need, human. You are sumi here. Give him twenty lashes and then send him to the mines," he ordered the Hortha guards, sputtering in his rage.

"Wait," the woman said. "Do you not want to find out more about his background? If he is beaten senseless, we will gain little information." Her voice had the honeyed sweetness of keela blossom nectar. Again, Rolf wondered how she came by such a position.

"He needs to be taught a lesson, Dromo." Bolt's eyes bored into hers. "Do you not agree?"

A flicker of uncertainty shone in her forest green eyes. It was quickly clouded over as her expression went blank again. "Of course. Carry out the sentence," she ordered in a flat, dead tone.

A couple of beefy Horthas grabbed Rolf under the arms.

"This will be a good example for the rest of you slaves," the woman shouted to the terrified captives still in line. She got up and walked around the edge of the table until she stood in front of Rolf. The top of her head reached the bridge of his nose. Defiantly, Rolf met her gaze. Looking down into her cool green eyes flecked with burnished gold, he smiled.

She slapped his face. "Strip off his shirt," she commanded the guards. "Let us see what manner of man he is when he feels the sting of the lash."

Rolf's shirt was ripped away. He was dragged a few meters toward a whipping post and his arms were yanked up. Facing the post, he winced when his wrists were tightly secured to the wood.

"Give me that," he heard the woman snarl behind him. He twisted his neck and saw her grabbing a stun whip from a startled Hortha. She circled Rolf slowly, studying him like a she-wolf about to devour its prey. Her eyes shone with a feral light. "I will beat you myself, sumi. You will bend your head in submission before I am through."

"I'll never bow to you or anyone."

The lash whipped out, catching him on the upper back with electrifying force. A stinging pain like a thousand needles pierced his flesh. He bit his lip and bore the subsequent shocks in silence. But after that first lash, the others were lighter, as though meant to do no real harm. The Dromo screamed out, cursing at him, calling invectives on his name as though she were beating him to Zor.

Rolf pretended to be defeated by the whipping. He didn't know what her game was, but he would play along. Maybe she was saving him for a worse punishment later.

The whipping left welts on his back, but the painful shocks to his system weren't bad enough to knock him unconscious. If one of those Horthas had delivered the beating, he would have passed out after the first few blows. In a way, he should be grateful the Dromo had chosen to administer the punishment herself.

When it was done, and he hung half-limp from the post, his wrists were cut down. His knees buckled, and he nearly fell. He'd been rendered weaker than he thought. A couple of Horthas caught him in their grasp.

"Take him to the mines with the other kreckers," Bolt ordered, sneering.

"Hold," said the Dromo, who walked over to stand directly in front of Rolf. "Not so proud now, are you, sumi?" She reached up and gently brushed his cheek.

The tenderness of her touch sent a sensation through him stronger than the jolts from the stun whips. Rolf jerked back in surprise.

"Ilyssa, it is time to go," Bolt growled.

Immediately, she turned away. Her back was ramrod straight as she left, holding on to Bolt's arm.

Rolf watched her leave, while feeling they'd be seeing a lot more of each other.


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