Cast in Steel, Carved in Stone [Prequel to For the Emperor]
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by Christine W. Murphy
Category: Science Fiction/Romance Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award Nominee, Dream Realm Award Winner
Description: Cast in Steel, Carved in Stone--ancient words he doesn't understand define Mikkel's existence. What he does understand is that his life depends on Yule, a planet that threatens to explode beneath his feet if he doesn't produce an heir. In exchange for her world's safety, Katrina consents to marry this stranger from Yule with a wardrobe more colorful than hers. She's even willing to put up with his all night meetings and dancing with tourists. But when Mikkel starts showing up battered and bruised, and she discovers he's been consorting with spies, she has to intervene. Even if it means betraying her husband in the arms of a bandit with a wicked kiss she can't forget. Mikkel isn't a diplomat, not even a good conversationalist, but he does control the one piece of real estate where Emperor Thane has consented to hold a peace conference. If he can keep Yule from blowing the delegates into tiny pieces, all Mikkel will have to worry about is how to tell his wife that he knows her secrets--and he loves her anyway. [Cover art by Abigail Marie Murphy]
eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: August 2003
35 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [485 KB]
Reading time: 314-440 min.
"Cast In Steel, Carved In Stone is an enjoyable science fiction romance that brings two worlds to life so that the audience believes in Lexina and Yula. The cast is powerful, especially Mikkel, a Scarlet Pimpernel in space, and Kat, a woman who knows what she wants, and goes out to achieve her desires. Though alliances are not clearly defined for these two planets in the galaxy war between superheavyweights, fans will want to soar with this exhilarating journey in worlds far from this one, Odin aside."--Harriet Klausner for Baryon 92
"Think of The Scarlet Pimpernel in outer space, and readers will have a concept of the delightful science fiction romance Cast In Steel, Carved In Stone. Besides the superb lead male character hiding his moral strength and intelligence behind the facade of a foppish ruler and a strong courageous female protagonist, readers will accept that the Murphy universe exists because the alien species and worlds seem genuine. Great Odin, this is one galaxy worth a few hours reading trip and hopefully more stars will follow from Christine W (for winner) Murphy. 4-1/2 Stars!"--Affaire de Coeur
"GREAT ODIN," Mikkel swore when his head connected with the overhead. He ignored the trickle of blood, which traced the angle of his jaw and settled in his week-old beard.
A glance at the pilot's controls revealed their shuttle had bounced off the planet's security shield. Instinct told him to grab the controls. Instead, he leaned back and clutched the arm rests. "What the hell are those idiots trying to do? Kill me?"
His Triden pilot, secured by the restraints Mikkel had ignored, smirked between clenched teeth. "Everything's under control, sir. Some glitch planet side. Lexina isn't one of ours."
Mikkel rubbed his head. The Triden Empire would have him believe that anyone who hadn't joined them was an incompetent fool. A few years of military service had schooled his pilot in party line.
After he scanned the readouts on the two-man shuttle, Mikkel relaxed. The pilot was experienced, if too gung-ho in the service of his emperor. The security shield had dropped away twenty seconds later than scheduled.
"We're not going to crash, are we?" Mikkel managed a waver in his voice. It wasn't hard. He hadn't been able to hold down food for three days, a rather nasty consequence of staying away from home too long. If he didn't return soon, Yule would have nothing but a bag of bones to chastise. This annoying trip could still be the death of him.
"I'll have you safely on the ground in no time. I just need clearance from the ground crew."
"I think they did it on purpose." The words left Mikkel's mouth without thought, part of the whining persona he projected for the Triden's benefit. After expressing his false outrage, Mikkel recognized a ring of truth.
Not that he suspected Lexina of wrong doing. They needed this deal to remain prosperous. But if the Triden Empire knew what motives drove him, they would scatter his atoms throughout the stratosphere. Sending one of their pilots along with him into oblivion wouldn't bother them in the least.
Mikkel didn't need to be reminded why this charade was necessary. All he had to do was remember how close the Triden fleet had come to overrunning his corner of the galaxy and what would happen if he wasn't there to protect Yule.
For the first time on his month-long journey, a member of the Triden crew looked at Mikkel with suspicion.
"They might have purposely delayed the screen drop," the pilot said, correcting his course to make their approach. "Lexina is part of the Neutral Cartel. We Tridens aren't too popular here. I'm surprised you didn't take one of Lex Central's corporate transports. Do you get the opportunity to travel often?"
Mikkel shouldn't have shown so much interest in the shuttle's controls. He seldom left Yule, and then only in secret. This was his first official trip abroad. Yule had taught him one lesson very well -- guard what you have, hide what you know.
A forced smile firmly in place, Mikkel shook his head. "That would never do. Lex Central has the most dreadful transport ships, designed to drag goods from one port to the next. Dreary things. They would never spare a thought for my comfort. As for this shuttle, these small craft make me nervous. I can't see any reason why they don't fall from the sky. Your district commander was most kind to spare his personal cruiser for the trip. Elaina and I had a delightful time in his private quarters."
The pilot smirked. "I bet you did."
Mikkel bit back a retort. He could afford to play the fool. It didn't hurt him and could only help his cause. The less people expected from him, the less they would suspect. Besides, he and Elaina had needed their privacy. Neither wanted their affairs, or rather the lack of one, made public. Public pretense of intimacy made their private indifference almost bearable. He was willing to play the fool to a certain extent, but to admit he couldn't keep his paid mistress in his bed was a humiliation he preferred not be made public.
Mikkel molded his face into a practiced expression of petulance and stole another glance at the pilot's controls. He wrung his hands in mock regret. "Most inconvenient to lose Elaina, most inconvenient."
Prurient interest lit the pilot's eyes. "Are women from Royce as good as they say? Are they worth the money?"
More money than you'll ever make chauffeuring heads of state for the Empire, little man. "Elaina was skilled in all areas of entertaining, and with a twenty-year contract, her terms were most reasonable. About the cost of your commander's cruiser, I suspect. I was quite heartbroken to have had to part with her before her full term expired."
"I suppose you had to, I mean, this deal with Lex Central."
Was the man trying to win a bonus? What would the Tridens pay for off-hand comments from the head of Yule?
They would pay to know why Elaina left, and it had nothing to do with his agreement with Lex Central or their sudden incompatibility in bed.
Mikkel's month-long, seemingly drunken, tour of several star systems had allowed him to contact most members of the underground and drop Elaina at her new post. That she went willingly, even with anticipation, hadn't made things easier. Maybe he was jealous that her part involved so much more fun than his. He couldn't imagine anything less enjoyable than his duties on Lexina.
Duty was why he sat on this Triden shuttle with a throbbing bump on his head, preparing to land on the home planet of Lex Central Corp, one of the largest corporations in the galaxy. The port boasted an equally widespread reputation as the most boring layover in existence. No matter how reluctant he might be, Mikkel must give Lexina his personal attention. An agreement made over twenty years ago by two men -- one dead, the other mad -- demanded his presence.
"Isn't that right?" the pilot prodded. "Because of your contract with Lex Central, their board requested a change in your... ah... domestic situation?"
The question sent the throbbing in Mikkel's head spiking. The man was getting too personal. Mikkel had sent his mistress packing after almost eleven years, and it had nothing to do with him taking a wife. Only he and Elaina knew why, as well as most of the New Alliance underground, of course, and whoever else Elaina had decided to take into her confidence. Damn, he might as well have taken ads out in the Freetrade Press to announce their falling out.
"I believe we are being hailed, Captain."
Flustered, the pilot answered the blinking comlink light. "Lex Central, this is shuttle seven from Triden Transport Foxtrot Alpha One. Request permission to land."
"Identify complement and purpose of visit, Foxtrot Seven." The voice from the surface sounded like that of a little girl.
An ominous beginning, but his call to arms. Mikkel slammed shut the comlink next to the pilot and opened his own. Time to ensure he made the proper first impression.
The pilot threw him a startled glance, no doubt surprised Mikkel knew anything about the craft. Despite having done most of his flying on simulators, he had every confidence he could have safely maneuvered the shuttle through the faulty security shields.
Mikkel complained into the open comlink. "The jackass next to me is certifiably the worst pilot in the Triden fleet. As for myself, I am Mikkel, son of Baldar, Supreme Ruler of Yule, and I demand immediate clearance. I have come to claim my bride." * * *
KAT DIDN'T KNOW whether to laugh or cry. She had almost killed the Son of the Supreme Ruler of Yule.
What kind of fool used a title like that? No one had supreme rulers any more, except for a few backward dictatorships supported by the Triden Empire. Her father wouldn't have signed a contract with someone like that. To make matters worse, this person expected a bride. How was she going to explain she had no bride for him to claim?
She managed to keep from swearing aloud. How could her sister have done this to her, to her new husband, to Lex Central?
Kat hoped Mike Whatever-His-Name-Was, son of this supreme ruler person, was willing to accept some blame. If he was a man of logic and reason, she could make him understand. But that pesky title, Supreme Ruler, didn't sound like something a reasonable man would use, even if he did stick "son of" in front of it.
When the technician beside her cleared his throat, Kat realized that clutching the counter top had turned her knuckles white. She gave the man a reassuring smile. "Right on schedule."
He turned to his fellows behind him, who manned the main station controls, and flashed thumbs-up. Someone started to cheer, but was immediately hushed. The outburst showed how nervous they all were, and on edge was how she wanted them to stay. She couldn't afford to have a lax duty crew in the landing bay.
"I want a full diagnostic run," she announced. "Another mistake like that last one with the Stybyt freighter due in this afternoon and we'll have twenty years worth of credits burning over our heads. Keep an eye on the Triden cruiser. Let me know when she leaves the system. If they hang around a minute longer than necessary, I want sector security notified. Make them earn their retainer."
The technician stuttered his reply while the rest of the crew scrambled to look busy.
Kat resisted the urge to straighten her hair. Her hands firmly clasped at the small of her back, she strode toward the lift. When the doors closed around her, she sagged against the wall. Time to face this Yule character.
Please don't be a total fool. It was the only prayer she knew. She had little faith any superior being would answer.
Surely, the representative from Yule couldn't be as big an idiot as rumor suggested. Her father, who had visited Yule when Kat was ten, had spoken well of Mikkel. A serious boy, her father had said, and gentle, or he would not have pledged his daughter's hand in marriage as part of the trade agreement. Everything she'd heard about him since suggested he'd become a spoiled brat. A spoiled brat of twenty-five.
During the past decade, the delegation from Yule had inquired twice about fulfilling this part of the bargain, always accepting her father's excuse that his second daughter was not old enough to marry. The most recent official inquiry, made several months ago, came with a charming young man tasked with preparing the bride for life on Yule.
Why would the bride need preparing? Kat had never heard of anything so patronizing. Life on Lexina prepared one for everything the universe had to offer.
She straightened her shoulders at the indignity of it. Thankfully, her dignity wasn't at stake. At least it hadn't been until now. The thought sent her sagging on buckling knees.
The last message from Yule left no room for excuses. The marriage would take place. It required only two signatures on a document prepared long ago. The groom came to take possession of his bride, or the agreement was void and Lex Central would pay the penalty. A penalty they could not afford now, with their dues to the Cartel ten days delinquent and the war between the Tridens and the New Alliance working its way toward their end of the galaxy.
A fraction of a second before the lift slid to a stop, she pushed away from the wall. A sedate smile fixed on her face, she greeted the waiting officials -- the officers of the Lex Central board of directors. No sister, no Sofia. The sick feeling in her stomach told Kat that her family had deserted her again.
Kat would have to break the news to the abandoned bride groom while her board of directors watched. Which of them wanted her to fail? Who were they plotting to put forward as her replacement?
First Vice President approached, head bowed, uncharacteristically subdued. As always, his gray suit was wrinkle free, every strand of his closely cropped black hair in place. She had adjusted to his unusual height and no longer strained her neck to meet his gaze. Instead, she stared at his collar pin, which required only a slight tilt of her head.
She couldn't blame him for his impersonal greeting. No one wanted to side publicly with her until they knew the outcome of the negotiations, but she had harbored secret hope that First Vice might be different. They had been close when she was just another member of the board, both of them youngsters in an organization of old men.
She pretended to study the blinking lights that marked time to the end of decontamination procedures. Less than a minute remained.
First raised his eyes and gave her a reassuring wink, one the rest the board members couldn't see. "Chief?"
Copyright © 2003 by Christine W. Murphy