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by Amanda Steiger
Category: Erotica/Erotic Science Fiction/Romance
Description: When Raina discovers an injured man in a suspension capsule, she doesn't know that he's Talon, the ruler of the enemy planet Skandria, known among her own people as the Barbarian King. She just knows that he's the most beautiful man she's ever seen. She heals his wounds and takes him back to the Hold, where the sri'dith reside. Tabitha, their leader, recognizes Talon and forces him under her control by means of a slave crown: a tool which makes it impossible for him to leave and allows her to inflict agonizing pain on him at will. As Raina witnesses his determined attempts to escape, her feelings for this fierce, strong-willed man deepen. At first she resists. Her code forbids her from knowing a man's touch?but when Talon returns her feelings, his touch awakens passions she never knew she had, passions too strong to deny. Unable to bear seeing him confined, she helps him escape. But in doing so, she becomes a traitor to her own planet. Raina has no choice but to give up everything she has ever known for the sake of one man.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
15 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [359 KB]
Reading time: 230-322 min.
A hot, calloused hand slid along her silky thigh, and she shivered. "I need you." The words escaped her lips as a breathless whisper, and he smiled, his dark eyes ablaze with hunger. Long fingers trailed down her belly and plunged through the patch of tight, springy curls below, into her soaking wet core...
"Raina? What are you reading?"
Raina quickly shut the book and looked up, a blush blazing in her cheeks. Mother Tabitha loomed over her, hands on her hips, her thin, pale lips pressed together. As always, her hair was pulled into a painfully tight bun, and her frown looked severe enough to frighten the garden's chirping birds into silence. Raina lowered her eyes and fidgeted on the bench. "Just a story."
"What kind of story?"
"It's...an adventure novel."
Tabitha snatched the book, opened it, and read in a monotone: "She looked upon his engorged rod and felt her womanhood moisten with the dew of passion. Her nipples stood erect as he stroked her creamy..." She grimaced as if she'd bitten into something nasty, snapped the book shut and held it between a thumb and forefinger, like a soiled rag. "This is not adventure," she said. "This is pornography. And not even well-written pornography. Where did you find it?"
"The library." She resisted the urge to snatch the book back from Tabitha.
"I can't imagine what it was doing there. Unless one of the other Clearstones was using it as a prop in a lesson on the dangers of carnality."
"I'm almost done with it. May I just finish the last chapter?"
"Certainly not." She wagged the book at Raina. "This is a short path to spiritual darkness and depravity."
"It's just a story," she blurted out, exasperated. "It's not as if I'm going to go into town and...and commit sins of the flesh with some man."
"There are sins of the flesh and sins of the mind. Both are equally serious. The Goddess can see your thoughts, and She judges them, just as She judges your actions." Tabitha tucked the book under her arm. "If you ever want to become a sri'dith priestess, you must learn to keep your mind pure. Temptation is everywhere. To evade its grasp, you must remain ever vigilant against its seductive whispers. And anyway, if you have time to sit in the garden reading this sordid rag, you clearly don't have enough duties to occupy you."
Raina sighed, shoulders sagging. "Yes, Mother Tabitha."
"You will spend the rest of the day herb-gathering." She pulled a slip of paper from the pocket of her long, blue robe and handed it to Raina: a list of plants, along with the amounts needed.
Raina winced as she skimmed the list. So many items. "Yes, Mother Tabitha," she said again, suppressing a sigh.
"Don't sound so sullen. A novice should carry out her duties with a proper spirit of obedience and willingness to serve. That is, if she ever hopes to become a priestess. You do, don't you?"
"Of course!" She sat up straighter and squared her shoulders. "Being a sri'dith means everything to me."
Tabitha handed her a basket of woven reeds and a small trowel. "Be back by sundown. But don't return before then, unless you've found everything."
Raina nodded. Basket in hand, she left the Hold--the huge, stone building where she lived and worked with her sri'dith sisters--and walked down the path toward the shore. Most of the herbs she needed could be found there.
She'd been in a good mood before Tabitha found her--sitting in the garden, enjoying a rare moment of free time and an exciting story. Now she would never know how it ended. She did want to become a full-fledged sri'dith, to heal and help those in need. She just wished she could be allowed a little more freedom.
She wondered if Tabitha was right, if stories like that were somehow harmful to her. Raina was committed to the Goddess, after all. She could never have a mate. Maybe she was just tormenting herself, reading about something she could never have.
By the time she reached the shore, the sun was nearing its zenith. Waves crashed against the smooth rocks, and the greenish-blue ocean sparkled. The water looked very cool and inviting; maybe she would take a quick dip after she finished her herb-gathering. The thought gave her a guilty little thrill. She had no swimwear, and the other sri'dith would be scandalized if they discovered her swimming naked in the open, but the chances of anyone actually spotting her out here were slim.
Her eye caught a glint of silver near the sea's edge. Something metal lay on the sand. She squinted, shielding her eyes with one hand, and walked closer. Whatever it was, it was big--as long as a man's body and just as wide--and it looked a like a huge, oblong silver egg.
With a jolt, she recognized the object. A suspension capsule. She had never seen one, but she'd heard descriptions. If a spacecraft broke down or was attacked, and the only choice was to abandon ship, the crew got into the suspension capsules, which were ejected into space. Their built-in navigational systems guided them toward the nearest planet.
Eyes wide, Raina ran her fingertips over the cool, smooth metal. She knew she should go back to the Hold and tell Tabitha about this, but she was reluctant to leave her newfound discovery. She wondered where it had come from and what was inside it. Maybe nothing. Maybe it was just a broken, discarded capsule ejected into space and pulled in by planet Kira's gravity. But what if it wasn't?
Her fingers brushed over a small, round knob on the capsule's surface. A button? Unable to resist, she pressed it. There was a faint click and a hiss of escaping air as the capsule's lid slowly lifted. Raina stepped back, covering her mouth and nose to avoid breathing the gas. She waited until the yellow-orange clouds dissipated before leaning forward to peer into the capsule.
A man lay within, wearing strange clothes: a dark blue and silver body glove which fit as tightly as a second skin, emphasizing the contours of his lean, muscular body. Goddess, he was big. Her gaze traveled from his broad shoulders to his wide chest, then down the flat, rippled muscles of his abdomen and dagger-slim hips, to the bulge between his powerful-looking thighs. Her pulse quickened, and she jerked her gaze away. Such tight clothing! It seemed obscene for a man--or anyone, for that matter--to strut about in clothes that revealed every detail of his form. Particularly when he had so much to reveal. Taking a deep breath, she returned her gaze to the sleeping stranger, trying not to notice his muscles...and being very careful not to look anywhere near his crotch.
Long, disheveled dark hair framed a rugged face with a strong, masculine nose and long-lashed eyes closed in sleep. Heavy stubble surrounded his full, firm lips. She laid her fingers against his neck and felt the faint flutter of a pulse. Then, unable to resist, she trailed her fingers over his jaw, marveling at the prickly texture of his half-grown beard, so different from her own smooth skin. She traced his thick, dark brows and smoothed his ink-black hair from his brow. He was older than her, but still young. Thirty, at most. His powerful-looking arms were crossed over his chest, as if protecting something. She tugged one arm away, and a jolt of shock raced through her as she laid eyes on the long gash bisecting his chest. She should have noticed the wound right away; instead, she'd been busy ogling him. What a poor excuse for a healer she was!
She turned all her attention to the gash and probed the edges with her fingers, provoking a faint groan. Dried blood caked the wound and the swollen, reddish flesh around it. Why hadn't the injury been tended? Where had he gotten such a terrible injury in the first place?
Then she noticed the small, silver symbol on the left breast of his uniform, just above the rip: a dragon's head within a circle. She recognized it. This man was a Skandrian, and this uniform was a military one. He was an enemy soldier.
She started to back away...then stopped. She was a sri'dith, a healer, a servant of the Goddess. Her code did not promote discrimination against any species, race or nationality. Anyone in need was worthy of help, and this man was clearly in need. The wound was probably infected. If she didn't treat it, his condition would quickly worsen.
She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and laid an ear on his chest. She could hear no breathing, but she knew that suspension capsules slowed the body's systems to the point that breathing became imperceptible. Still, she had to be sure. She pinched his nose shut and placed her mouth over his. A blush crept into her cheeks as she breathed into him. His lips were cool, slightly chapped and rough against hers. She had never kissed a man, of course. She supposed this was the closest she would ever come. She pushed the thought away and breathed into him again. His chest rose and lowered slowly as she filled his lungs with her air.
Then his eyes opened.
She froze, her mouth still over his. The eyes were perfectly black, save for the bright gold flecks around their centers. She stared into them, so stunned that she could neither move nor think. Now, those black eyes narrowed, and a hand seized her throat. She uttered a small, choked sound. Panic fluttered in her chest as she tried to pry his hand away, but his grip was like a vise.
Slowly, the man stood and stepped out of the suspension capsule. The movement tore open his wound and started the bleeding afresh, but he didn't seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on hers, his face hard and expressionless. Raina tried to speak, but she couldn't draw in a breath. Desperate, she mouthed the words let me go. Hot tears filled her eyes. For the first time in her nineteen years, Raina was afraid for her life.
The man's eyes clouded with confusion. He released her, and she dropped to the ground, gasping for breath as she rubbed her sore throat. "Why did you do that?" she asked. "I was trying to help you!"
The man shook his head, as if to clear it. He whispered something in a deep, hoarse voice. She couldn't quite make out the words, but she recognized the harsh, guttural sounds of the Skandrian tongue. He swayed, crumpled to his knees, and fell forward.
Raina caught him and was nearly knocked flat on her back. "Goddess, you're heavy," she muttered, lowering the semi-conscious man to the ground.
Her survival instincts screamed run! He had nearly killed her. He might try again. But she couldn't leave him alone in his condition.
The man moaned softly. Sweat glistened on his brow.
"Shhh." She placed her hands on his chest, closed her eyes and focused her mind, pushing away her cluttered thoughts. "Don't be afraid. I'm going to help you." She breathed slowly, counting her breaths, willing herself into a state of trance. Goddess, lend me your strength, she prayed. Her hands tingled as warm, healing energy flowed into them. She focused her mind like a microscope until she could sense each individual cell in the flesh around the wound. Infection had already set in; she saw it in her mind, like an ugly, dark stain seeping into the healthy tissue. Her fingers itched as she drew the infection from his flesh and into her own, spreading it throughout her body so her system could cope.
The man's eyelids flickered, and his head rolled to one side. His raspy, weak breathing echoed in her ears.
"Hold on," she whispered. A wave of weakness rolled over her, and nausea cramped her stomach. Her hands trembled, hovering a few inches over his chest as she closed the wound, drawing the gash's ragged edges together and knitting the torn flesh with new, healthy cells.
At last, the wound vanished, leaving smooth, unbroken skin. She removed her hands from him and sat, panting. Trying to ignore the pain and queasiness, she inspected her patient. He was still unconscious, chest rising and falling evenly. All that remained of the gash was a rip in his uniform. There were no other serious wounds, just a few scratches and bruises.
Her eyes moved to his face. She'd never seen a Skandrian up close. There was nothing particularly alien about him...save, perhaps, for the slight tilt of his almond-shaped eyes. From the way people talked about Skandrians, she'd expected some reptilian nightmare. But then, their two peoples had evolved from a common ancestor. It made sense that they would look alike.
She pulled a small canteen from her robe-pocket and trickled the cool water into his mouth, watching his throat move as he swallowed. He needed more than water, though. He needed food, rest, and care from a more experienced healer. But how could she get him back to the Hold? He was too heavy to carry. She could try to contact Tabitha with her mind, but her mental powers weren't developed enough to reach the Hold from this distance.
The only thing to do was to wait until he awakened.
Fire and screams surrounded Talon. Another explosion rocked the ship, and he grabbed a cable to keep his balance. His other hand gripped his blazer-pistol.
"Our hull's been breached," said General Misak. He stood nearby, breathing hard, blood trickling from a wound on his gray-haired temple. "We're losing oxygen fast."
"Where is the breach?" Talon asked, raising his voice to be heard above the thunder of explosives. "I'll plug it."
The general shook his head. "Sire, you must get into the suspension pod. It's your only chance. We can't win this battle."
Talon gritted his teeth. "If I'm to die, I'll die onboard my ship, not drifting through space in a metal shell."
A ragged snarl cut off his protest, and a huge, dark shape lunged toward them. Talon fired three times in rapid succession, but he wasn't fast enough. The creature's three-inch titanium claws sliced through General Misak's throat, and the general went down, eyes wide and stunned as blood bubbled from his mouth.
The monster turned its glowing orange eyes to Talon. He recognized it as a drune, a Kiran war weapon, half flesh and half machine. Its skin was tough and leathery, its skeleton titanium, and its brain a tiny thing of circuits and wires: cold and ruthless, with no room for pity. Blood glistened on its reptilian snout and dagger-like fangs.
Talon raised his blazer. In the same instant, the drune leapt. One thick foreleg shot out, just as Talon squeezed the trigger, aiming for the drune's eye, the only vulnerable part of its body. The orange eye winked out like a candle, and the drune screamed, but didn't stop. Pain seared through Talon's chest as the claws slashed through his uniform. He let out a strangled cry.
Blood poured from the wound, thick and hot. His vision began to gray out, and a wave of faintness washed over him. The drune collapsed and lay silent on the floor, apparently dead, but Talon didn't intend to take chances. He shot it again in the other eye. Then, breathing hard, he staggered down the hall, one hand on the wall for support. He was losing blood fast. He had to find help.
The blazer slipped from his hand as the strength ran out of him. He sank to his knees, coughing, and tasted blood. When he touched his lips, his fingertips came away red and glistening. Damn. Those claws had grazed a lung. Unless he acted fast, he would drown in his own blood.
The suspension capsules gleamed in a row just ahead. They looked like metal caskets, and he hated the thought of being trapped in one. Still, they were his only chance for survival. The gas would keep him in the half-death of suspended animation for awhile, and if he was lucky, a Skandrian ship would find the capsule in time.
He crawled forward, fighting off the waves of dizziness that washed over him. With a trembling, blood-streaked hand, he pushed the release mechanism on the first capsule. It sprang open, and Talon climbed inside. He lay, fighting claustrophobia as the lid descended and orange gas filled the capsule. His eyes slipped shut as he sank into merciful nothingness.
Talon groaned as he floated up through the haze of semi-consciousness. He smelled saltwater, heard the cries of strange birds. The crash of waves echoed in his ears; a sound he recognized only from vidcasts. There were no seas on Skandria.
Where was he?
A vision flashed through his mind: General Misak lying on the ship's floor, eyes glazed in death, throat reduced to bloody tatters. Hot anger suffused Talon, followed by sharp, cutting grief for those he'd failed to protect. But he could not afford the luxury of sorrow right now. He had to assess the situation.
Gingerly, he touched his chest. The muscles were stiff and sore, but there was no wound. He opened his eyes and winced at the bright sunlight. A memory tickled his mind. A girl. There had been a girl with gray-blue eyes and a green stone in the center of her forehead. Had he only dreamed that?
"Um...hello," said a soft female voice. He turned his head and saw her kneeling on the sand, staring at him with wide eyes, as if he were some dangerous, exotic animal. She wore tan robes and sandals, and a thick, glossy brown braid snaked over her shoulder.
He sat up and studied her expression. Did she know who he was?
"My name is Raina," she said, speaking slowly, as if to a simpleton. She pointed at herself and said, "Raina." Then she pointed at him and asked, "Who...are...you?"
"I'm not an idiot." His voice emerged as a weak, raspy croak. "You can talk to me normally."
Her jaw dropped. "You speak Kiran!" Pink flooded her cheeks. "I--I'm sorry, I just thought...I didn't think many Skandrians knew our language."
"Never mind. You are the one who healed me?" She nodded. "You're a sri'dith, aren't you?"
"N-not exactly. I'm only a Greenstone."
"A novice. I haven't gone through the Rites yet."
He stared into her eyes. "Why did you heal me?"
"Why?" Her slender, dark brows knitted together in puzzlement. "Because you were injured."
He kept his gaze fixed on hers. "That's all?"
"Yes. Do I need another reason?"
He frowned, puzzled. Even if she didn't recognize his face, she knew he was Skandrian--an enemy of her world. People didn't just help their enemies for no reason. Yet he could detect no trace of deception in those wide eyes. He sat up with a grunt of effort and rubbed his chest, marveling at her work. There wasn't even a scar. "I have no money with me right now, but as soon as I return to my home world, I'll make sure you're compensated for this."
"A sri'dith needs no payment."
"As you wish." He stood. "Where is the nearest settlement?"
"There's a village a few miles west. Why?"
Without answering, he turned and began to walk.
She followed him. "Wait! Where are you going?"
He ignored her and kept walking. He had to get back to Skandria as soon as possible. He'd get supplies from the town--steal them, if he had to--then make his way to the nearest spaceport. His people needed him. Whatever it took, he would return.
Raina grabbed his arm, and he looked down at her, annoyed. "What?"
"You're still weak. Even if I closed the wound, your body still needs to replenish its blood supply."
"I'll manage." He tugged his arm, trying to free it, but she only tightened her grip. He scowled. "Let go."
"I saved your life," she said fiercely. "I won't let you brush me aside like a buzzing gnat. And I absolutely won't let you undo all my hard work by getting yourself killed. You need food and rest."
In spite of himself, he smiled. He wondered what the members of his Council would think if they could see this little slip of a Kiran trying to boss him. "Aren't you afraid of me?" he asked, narrowing his eyes slightly.
She froze. "Afraid? Why should I be?" Despite her words, he could hear the slight tremor in her voice.
He leaned closer. Over the years he'd developed a stare which could intimidate even the brashest and boldest Skandrians. Now, he aimed that stare straight into those big, blue-gray eyes. "I'm twice your size," he growled. "And I'm one of your enemies."
The color drained from her face, but she lifted her chin and declared, "Sri'dith have no enemies."
He straightened. He had to give her credit for bravery, if nothing else. "Even so, you should be more cautious."
"Please, come back to the Hold with me. You've been in suspension a long time. Muscles and organs can deteriorate in suspension."
He rubbed his arms. He had to admit, he did feel weaker. "What year is it?"
Accounting for the difference in their calendars, that meant he'd been in suspension a full year. No wonder his legs felt wobbly. Considering the seriousness of his injuries, it was amazing he'd lived that long, suspension gas or no suspension gas. It would be wise to rest.
Still...could he afford to trust a Kiran, even one as young and innocent-looking as this girl? "I'll manage," he said again and resumed walking.
"Wait, please!" She ran after him and stumbled.
He looked over his shoulder, saw her falling, lunged and caught her just before she hit the ground. She lay limp in his arms, panting, her face drawn and pale. "What's wrong?" he asked, alarmed.
"Nothing." She smiled, a strained expression. "Healing takes a lot out of me, that's all."
He could feel her trembling. He crouched and gently laid her on the sand. "Rest."
She smiled. "I'm fine. Really."
"Rest," he repeated firmly, staring into her eyes. They were huge, fringed by thick, sooty lashes, the storm-colored irises flecked with violet. Her skin looked very smooth; soft, milky white, save for a few freckles dusting her small nose. His gaze lingered on her parted lips, which were plump, pink and bow-shaped. Then he noticed the bruises forming on her throat and winced. He touched one, very lightly, with a fingertip. "I did this?" he asked quietly.
A flush rose into her cheeks as he traced the bruise. She stared up at him raptly. Despite the bright sunlight, her pupils dilated. "It's not serious," she murmured.
He had done it, then. He didn't remember grabbing her throat, but then, he'd awakened in a panic. His body had acted on its own. Almost against his will, his gaze slipped down to the soft swell of her breasts, visible even through the plain, loose robe. Quickly, he averted his eyes, looking instead at the green stone on her forehead. He touched it lightly with a finger. "This is an odd piece of jewelry."
The flush in her cheeks brightened. "It isn't jewelry. It's part of me."
He furrowed his brow, his fingertip still resting against the stone. "You were born with it?"
"No. It was installed when I was an infant."
Installed, he thought. That was a peculiar way of putting it. He traced the stone's edge, where it met her skin.
Her tongue crept out to wet her plump lips, making them glisten in a distracting way. He imagined them swollen and shiny with kisses, imagined nibbling that full lower lip, then firmly pushed the thought away. Beautiful or not, she was a Kiran.
"I think I can walk now," she said.
He nodded and helped her to her feet. She managed to stay upright, though her knees quivered and her face was still a shade too pale. "How far away is this Hold?" he asked.
"A few hours' walk."
He raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure you'll make it?"
"Well, I have to try. We're forbidden to be outside the Hold after dark. I'll be punished if I return after nightfall."
"They would punish you for something that isn't your fault?"
"Rules are rules."
He frowned. He didn't like the idea of her suffering for helping him. "I won't allow it."
"Don't worry about it." She smiled wanly. "I'll probably just be sent to my room without supper. They treat us like children, sometimes."
They left the empty suspension capsule and made their way east along the beach, the sun at their backs. Talon's legs felt shaky, but he walked in brisk, ground-eating strides, refusing to let his weakness show. He slowed only when he realized that Raina couldn't keep up with him. The healing seemed to have taken a greater toll on her than she cared to admit. When she stumbled for the third time, he stopped and turned to face her. "Let me carry you. We'll get there faster that way."
A flush rose into Raina's cheeks, and she averted her eyes. "I'm perfectly capable of walking. Besides, my weight would slow you down."
"I doubt it. I've lifted training-weights heavier than you."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm not that tiny."
"You haven't seen my training-weights."
"Are all Skandrians so boastful?"
He chuckled in spite of himself. "I don't boast. I only state facts. Now, are you going to be sensible and let me carry you?"
Her smile vanished. "I told you, I can walk."
"If you say so."
They resumed walking. Her feet dragged, and her head drooped. She stumbled again and landed on her hands and knees. Panting, she struggled to her feet. Tendrils of hair clung to her flushed, sweat-damp face.
He sniffed the air. "You smell of fever."
"I absorbed the infection from your wound. It will take my body a little while to cleanse itself. I just need to rest," she said, sitting. "I'll be all right in a minute--"
Talon crouched, grasped her arms, and hauled her onto his back.
"Wait!" Raina cried. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Just hold onto me."
She tried to wriggle free of his grip, but didn't have the strength. With a sigh of defeat, she slipped her slender arms around his neck.
Talon stood and began to walk, trying to ignore the feel of her soft breasts pressing against his back. He wondered if it would be easier to carry her in his arms, but decided against it; his arms, deteriorated as they were, would tire too quickly. This was more efficient, and her heavy robes kept it from being truly indecent. Still, feeling the length of her body against his was...distracting, to say the least.
The sun sank lower, painting the sky pink and yellow and tinting the sea a fiery red-amber. Talon climbed a hill, and the Hold rose up before him. Built of rough-hewn stone blocks, it was taller than the trees around it. Tall, narrow windows lined the walls, and towers rose from the main building, cutting clean silhouettes against the darkening sky.
Compared to the palace where he'd grown up, it was a small building, but still imposing. It looked more like a fortress than a place of healing. Light glimmered through a few windows. Aside from that, the only signs of habitation were the small, shaggy goats grazing in a nearby pasture.
"I can walk the rest of the way," Raina said.
Talon nodded and released her arms, letting her slide to the ground. For a moment, her breasts pressed more firmly against his back, and he willed his heartbeat to remain steady.
The Hold's main doors were tall and arched, made of stout timbers. They stood open, as if someone had been expecting Raina's return. Raina and Talon walked through the doorway, into the vast, shadowy hall beyond. Torches lined the walls. How odd, thought Talon. He'd always thought the Kirans were a technologically advanced society. "Why do you use torches?" he asked. "Why not light panels?"
"We believe in living as close to nature as possible," Raina replied. "Technology is not the work of the Goddess. It can only drive us away from Her. We use the light She gave us."
"Hm." He followed her, wondering why he was still here. He'd only gone with her to make sure she got safely home. But now, he found, he was reluctant to leave her. He watched her dark brown braid swaying lightly as she walked. He hadn't been in the company of a beautiful young woman for some time...and he supposed it wouldn't hurt to rest and bathe. He glanced down at himself and grimaced. Dust clung to his ragged, torn uniform and his sweat-damp skin.
He sensed someone nearby and tensed, hand moving instinctively to a weapon that wasn't there. Damn, why hadn't he brought his blazer with him into the suspension capsule?
"We would not have allowed a weapon in here, anyway," said a voice. A tall, white-robed woman stepped around a bend in the hall. Like Raina, she had a small, oval-shaped stone on her brow, but hers was transparent. When it caught the light, rainbow colors glinted within.
Raina's bowed stiffly, arms at her sides. "Good evening, Mother Tabitha."
Tabitha looked at Talon. "What is the meaning of this? Why have you brought this man here?"
Raina's brow furrowed. "He needs food and rest. Doesn't our code tell us that we must aid all people in need?"
Tabitha's lips tightened. "You don't know who he is, do you?"
"Perhaps I should go," Talon said.
"Wait," said Tabitha, holding up one slender hand. Her eyes moved to Raina's. "Show me where you found him."
Raina nodded and met Tabitha's gaze. As they stared at each other, the stones on their foreheads glowed faintly. Talon's nape prickled. He knew what was happening. An ungifted man would have felt nothing, but Talon's sixth sense was strong. He felt the sudden flash of psychic energy as Tabitha sent a probe into Raina's mind. She stood still, her face expressionless as she played out the memories for her superior.
The sri'dith were telepaths. Powerful ones. He strengthened his psychic shield. While he was here, he'd have to be very careful not to let them penetrate his mind. He noticed, too, that he couldn't sense any thoughts from Tabitha. Her mental guards must be at least as strong as his own.
After a moment, the glow faded from their stones, and Tabitha frowned. "Your attempt to heal him was bold and foolish."
Raina stiffened. "He would have died had I not acted."
"She speaks the truth," said Talon. "The suspension capsule was the only thing keeping me alive. If she had gone back for help, I would have been dead by the time she returned."
"That's not the point. It was foolish of her to open the capsule in the first place."
Raina lowered her eyes, hands clenched into tight fists. "I didn't mean to open it."
"You knew it was foolish to touch that capsule, but you did it anyway. I'm disappointed in you, Raina."
"You're being unfair to her," said Talon. "This girl saved my life. You ought to be praising her."
Tabitha's eyes hardened. "You are a foreigner, unfamiliar with our ways. It is not your place to judge."
He smiled without humor. "You never seem to hesitate in judging our ways."
"Watch your tongue," said Tabitha. "You have no authority here."
"Perhaps you're right. But if you punished her, I would feel responsible. It would shame me greatly. I humbly ask, as a favor, that you pardon Raina."
Tabitha laughed without humor. "I see your tongue is as silvery as they say. Though they also say your tongue is a double-edged blade. Very well, I will pardon her."
Raina relaxed and smiled gratefully at him, though he could see the confusion in her eyes. Tabitha might recognize him, but she didn't. But then, if sri'dith eschewed technology, she'd probably never had the opportunity to see a vidcast. Perhaps not even a photograph.
"It's late," said Tabitha. "Do you wish to spend the night? You may eat and bathe."
She changed her tune quickly, he thought. He didn't trust this woman ...but he was weakened, and it would do him good to have a bath, a proper hot meal, and a night's rest. And, he admitted to himself, he was reluctant to leave Raina. He wanted to make sure they didn't punish her. His sense of honor demanded it.
"Very well," he said. "Show me to my room."
Tabitha nodded. "Raina, fetch him some fresh clothes and a pot of water."
"Yes, Mother Tabitha." She darted off.
Tabitha led him to a small room whose only furniture was a pallet and chamber pot. Talon raised an eyebrow. "Such luxury. Do you treat all your guests so, or am I special?"
Tabitha's eyes narrowed. "We believe in simple living, but I wouldn't expect a heathen dog such as yourself to understand."
"To be honest, I'm surprised you're helping me at all."
"Raina spoke true. We serve all the Goddess' children, even those who turn from Her light. Sri'dith do not have enemies." She bowed to him stiffly. Somehow, she made the bow seem like a gesture of contempt. "I hope you weren't expecting a hot bath."
Raina appeared in the door with clothes and a towel draped over her arm and a bar of soap in one hand. In the other, she held a silver pot filled with water, which she set on the floor. As soon as she'd laid the clothes on the bed, Tabitha said, "Now go get him something to eat. No dallying."
Raina nodded and darted off again. Talon frowned slightly, wondering if Tabitha always ordered her about like this.
Tabitha turned to him. "I'll leave you here to wash up," she said. "Raina will be here shortly with your meal." She left, shutting the door behind her.
He stripped out of his grimy uniform and stepped into the pot of water. He dunked the soap in, lathered up and began to wash. When he'd finished, he toweled himself off and put on the dark, rough-woven trousers Raina had left for him. He was about to put on the shirt when the door opened and Raina stepped in, carrying a tray.
When she saw him, she froze, staring with wide eyes.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
She blushed and looked away. "Nothing." Raina set the tray on his bed. "I brought you your dinner."
He looked at the food: porridge, bread, a pitcher of dark liquid that smelled like medicine, and a plate of small, yellow apples. He winced. Such food would barely take the edge off his hunger. "I don't mean to seem ungrateful, but if I'm to recover my strength, I need meat."
"There is no meat here."
He frowned. "I saw goats and cobeks outside the Hold."
"We keep the goats for milk and the cobeks for eggs. We don't kill our animals. Sri'dith are forbidden to take life for any reason."
He sighed. "I'll go hunting, then."
"But you need to rest! You'll never regain your strength if..."
"I need food, healer," he said, his voice a near-growl. She flinched back, and he gentled his tone. "I'm sorry. But fruit and grains won't sustain me. Skandrians are hunters by nature. We need meat."
Raina bit her lower lip. "Some of the neighboring villages sell jerky. If I rode there, I could be back in a little over an hour. Would that suffice?"
"Yes. Thank you." Jerky was not as satisfying as a hot, bloody kill, but it would nourish him just as well...and he couldn't afford to waste energy hunting.
"At least drink the tea," she said, and left the room.
Talon picked up the pitcher and sniffed the dark brew. The smell was sharp, but not unpleasant. He took a sip and found it surprisingly tasty, a little like the yellowgrass tea back home. He finished it and lay on his pallet, feeling suddenly heavy and sluggish. By the time he realized he'd been drugged, it was too late. His eyelids drooped shut, and he sank into the murky depths of unconsciousness.