“And you’ll be paying for that, will you, missy?”
I roll my eyes at the barkeep. The credit clipper makes a loud thunk as I slam my chit into the slot. The burly man glances skeptically at the record-paper; I can see his eyes widen, and he looks back up at me — half amazed, half alarmed.
“Seriously,” I reply. “Can I have a fucking drink now?”
“…your wish is my command, missy,” the man murmurs, backing away and grabbing a clean glass. A clean-ish glass, maybe.
I lean back on the barstool, slipping my credit chit back into my bag. Off to the side, a visibly drunken bard is belting out what sounds like an old fertility ballad, half the bar roaring along with him, nearly as loud as the man’s own sound system. It’s not helping my nerves much. The two drunken peacekeepers at the other end of the bar with their shiny brass medallions and long-barreled revolvers aren’t either.
I grab the mug as soon as it clinks against the bar, throwing back a mouthful and wiping my lips with my wrist. The drink hits nice and fast, its soothing warmth finally taking off the edge and making the bard’s ballad a little bit more tolerable. The barkeep whistles.
“Missy can hold her drink, hey?” he remarks, amused.
“Shut it, old man.” I glare at him, rubbing my temple and taking a more measured sip. A fresh pint of rotgut is the breakfast of champions. Especially when it’s already past noon.
He ignores me. “What brings a girl like you out from up north? Somewhere like this, of all places?”
My brain short-circuits halfway between something caustic and something sincere. “Women,” I mutter instead after a long pause.
“En’t it always?” He cracks a grin. “You new in town, then?”
“…sort of yes, sort of no.”
“Here to spend some money and make some bad decisions?”
“Does anyone come to Myraçan to make good decisions?”
He laughs. “Might do, but I’ven’t met the one yet. You’ll be liking another?”
I thrust the empty mug at him, wiping my lips with a wavering hand. “Please.”
He takes it and disappears. I rest my forehead on my palm, closing my eyes and unbuttoning my vest. My blood is hot with cheap liquor, my head filling with a giddy sense of relief, and I feel a strange urge to join the revelers in their filthy song. Good riddance. Good fucking riddance. Should have done this months ago. Finally I’m fucking free. Free to make my own way. My own choices. My own—
“Now what’s your story, lass?”
The voice is light and feminine. I open my eyes to see a girl sitting beside me, scarcely a year or two my elder. She’s of Sara blood, by the look of her, tattered brown hair and ocean-blue eyes attesting to that. I can’t help but be intrigued by the alluring scars on her cheeks and bare arms, the mischievous curl of her lips, her fetchingly messy complexion.
“Can’t be half so interesting as yours,” I reply, turning my full attention to her. "Any chance some liquor might entice your pretty lips to spill the tale?
She giggles, leaning forward. “Oh, you’re confident. I like that…”
Booze splatters my fingers as a full mug crashes down next to me. “Shove off, lass,” the bartender growls at her. “This one en’t for the taking.”
I open my mouth to tell him to fuck off, but the girl beats me to it. “And what’d you know of that?” she retorts. “Your cock ain’t been hard enough to take the loosest whore in years, old man.”
“Trust me, Yna darling, this one en’t worth the trouble. Off with you now.”
Her eyes widen, and she gives me a frightened look before slipping off the stool and disappearing into the crowd. Slowly, I turn to the barkeep, furrowing my brow.
“The fuck was that about?”
“That? Oh, that was just little Yniskë.” He laughs. “She’s a flirt and a swindle. Can smell a broken heart at fifty paces.”
I sigh, rubbing my eyes. “The ‘wake up cuffed to the bed and bereft of all your valuables’ sort?”
“That’s the one. Valuables and maidenhood.” He winks. I glare.
“Do I look like a fucking maiden to you?”
“Din’t say a word, now, did I.”
I shake my head. “Whatever. Thanks, I guess. She’s the last kind of bullshit I needed right now.”
“Oh, now, lassie, you en’t the one I’m a-feared for.”
I stare at him. “…Ümêtan tabyr, you… were protecting her? From me?”
He taps the credit pad with an exaggerated whistle. “She’s just a kid now, really. Making her way only way she knows.” He glances up. “Doesn’t need the kind of trouble your kind bring.”
“The kind of—” I begin. Half-drowned in drink, my sense of danger takes that long to kick into high gear and the next moment I’m on my feet, traveling bag gripped tight to my side, aimed straight for the door.
The burly man standing directly behind me grabs me by the shoulder and waist, slamming me back down into my seat, sending a horrible jolt of pain coursing up my lower back. “Steady on now, lass,” he leers as I grit my teeth, looming over me. “We was just looking to ask you a few friendly questions. Ain’t that right, Nakóra?”
“’Asright, boss.” The woman standing next to him is an honest-to-Khata’e Rohara merc, with what look an awful lot like maelstrom gauntlets strapped around her lithe forearms. Even with the kind of company I keep, I’ve never even seen the like outside of sketches and ancient cameraworks. Her upper body is taut with understated muscle, and there’s a coilgun holstered at her waist — a sleek, expensive one with a familiar icon engraved along the receiver. Above her deep pink irises, her dark brows crease cruelly and her lips twitch upward. I swallow hard.
He must be the brains, because she’s definitely the brawn.
“The fuck do you want?” I ask the man, knowing full well the answer. I knew exactly how this would end the moment I laid eyes on his livery.
“Well now,” the man responds, slapping me jovially on the shoulder. “I was just wondering — see, we’re here about a girl. Seventeen years of age, mixed, long light hair, ’bout your height, in fact. You wouldn’t happen to have… seen anyone like that around here, now, would you?”
“Nope. Definitely not. Bye.” I push myself to my feet again; the big Khmai merc immediately shoves me back down, clicking his tongue.
“Check her, Naki,” he rasps, yanking my bag off my lap and unzipping it. The woman grabs me by the arms, hauling me out of my seat and bending me roughly over the bar as she pats me down. I know better than to even try to fight back, but I can’t help feeling slightly insulted that she barely even bothers to feel me up. Especially with this skirt taut over my ass.
Then Nakóra clicks her tongue, yanking something off my waist, and I hear a blade snap open. “Oh, this is a naughty little knife,” she leers. “I wonder what a cute li’l thing like you is doing with a knife like this?”
“My little old granny gave it to me,” I return, glaring up at the barkeeper, who smiles at me innocently. “S’for sawing cocks off donkeys.” I grimace as she guffaws and slaps me on the rump before shoving me back into my seat.
“Anything?” the man asks. She shakes her head.
“Just the knife. You?”
“Meir. —wait, hang on. There we are.” My heart is thumping in my ears as I watch him pull a little black leatherbound booklet from my bag.
“It is!” He guffaws, flicking the booklet open. “Oh, I fucking knew it. It’s her, alright.”
And that’s it.
Now it’s over.
“Errie, Errie, Errie,” the man chides, snapping the booklet shut and leaning over to look me in the eye. “You’ve been a very naughty girl, Errie. You even went and cut your hair, Errie!” He snickers. “I wonder what the Storm will think of that?”
“Will you lovely folks be wanting any drinks to celebrate the occasion?” the barkeep asks pleasantly from behind. I scowl.
The merc shakes his head. “No, no, we’re quite right. You just keep whatever little bribe she paid you to spike me drink, we’ll take it right outta her feral hide.”
A chortle from the barkeep. “She hadn’t even, if you can believe it. Getting sloppy, is she?”
“…I was getting to it,” I mumble, cheeks reddening.
“There’s just no underestimating this sad little halfbreed.” The merc tousles my hair mockingly. “Such a disappointment. All that scavvie blood just went to waste on her. Can’t imagine why she’s worth so much alive to anyone.”
“Khurushta mo mitile jushtu rukhami.”
The remark earns me a slap from Nakóra. “Someone hasn’t learned to respect her elders, I see.”
“That what this is about?” I glare at the two of them. “Gonna take me off and have me spanked ’til I call you sir and dame?”
“I bet you’d love to get off so easy,” the man leers, handing Nakóra a pair of shackles, which she fits snugly to my wrists.
Someone clears his throat behind the two. “Here, now — ’scuse me now, master; mistress.”
Nakóra turns, and I catch sight of the NCE peacekeepers from earlier. Apparently the altercation finally caught their attention. “Can I help you, sparky?” she asks icily.
The male peacekeeper clasps his hands in front of his waist. “Care to explain your business here, mistress?” he asks, indicating me with a nod. “You a lawful bounty on this woman here?”
Nakóra snickers. “‘Lawful!’ That’s cute.” She steps aggressively forward, into the man’s personal space. “This is Sŷralën business. Push off and mind your own.”
“This ain’t Sŷralën land, fallow-womb,” the woman responds. “So I’ll ask you again. Have you a lawful bounty over this girl, signed and sealed by a bailiff of North Coast Enforcement, or nay?”
“I’m gonna go with fuck you, blank.” Nakóra makes what I can only assume is a crude gesture. “Don’t make me get bloody, now. Not right before lunch. That ain’t polite.”
“Are you threatening a Northcoast officer?” the other peacekeeper asks, in that voice they always use when shit is about to get real, his hand moving towards his gun.
Nakóra immediately lifts her hands and steel blurs in the air, glinting and flickering under the bar’s low light. The next thing anyone knows, both officers are caged by a cloud of needle-sharp metal, each cutting edge trembling in the air where it’s supported by some unseen power. The man yelps. “The fuck—!?” his colleague blurts.
“You fight, you die.” Nakóra looks them each in the eye, making a motion with her hands like she’s crushing a pair of windpipes. “You call for backup, you die. You annoy me in the fuckin‘ slightest, you die. That fuckin’ understood, sparky?”
“Don’t, guys.” I can’t hide the weary resignation from my voice as I call out. “It’s not worth it. You’re not gonna stop them and I’m not worth getting yourselves killed over. Just let it go.”
Nakóra smiles, patting me roughly on the cheek. “Hear that, now? We even have her consent! All above-board, this. You two just wait there nice and quiet, and I won’t have to— oopsie!” The trembling female peacekepeer cries out, flinching sharply as a bright red line streaks across her cheek. Nakóra clicks her tongue. “Oh look at the silly fallow, being all clumsy. You’d best stand very still, now; no telling what her dim little mutant brain might do next.”
I’ve heard stories about people like her but seeing one in action is just terrifying. As she turns and winks at me it finally hits home just how completely I’m fucked.
The mercenaries lead me out into the square, where they have a massive goddamned tiltjet troop transport waiting, at least six more mercs standing guard with rifles at the ready. How in fuck did I not hear that thing land? Was the bard seriously that fucking loud?
How much did this op fucking cost?
My cheeks burn as the mercs parade me, shackled, past the gathered crowd and drag me up the ramp into the jet. I’m shoved into a seat in the back, where Nakóra, taking no chances, locks my cuffs around a support column after strapping me in. “Don’t I even get to enjoy the view?” I complain, which earns me both a slap and a blindfold. My cheeks red and stinging, I decide it’s time to stop poking the wild pien şai that could cut me to ribbons with a thought.
At least I’ve still plenty of drink in me.
The flight north is a short one after the scramjets kick in, and it’s not long before I feel rough hands on my body again. The mercs don’t bother to take off my blindfold before leading me down the ramp, leaving me to totter and stumble in their grip. The cuffs are starting to hurt, bad. Hearing their laughter this time is enough to start tears of humiliation and anger burning in the corner of my eyes, and by the time I’m shoved to my knees and the blindfold finally comes off, my nose is red and my eyes are drenched.
As I furiously try to blink them clear and let them adjust to the light, the figure standing over me comes into focus. Striking blue eyes beneath long locks of rich, dark brown hair even darker than his skin, streaked at each side with lines of black dye; delicate silk robes lovingly embroidered with intricate floral patterns and flowing ocean scenes; an Imperial dueling sword fastened in its decorated sheath.
Above me stands the Lord of Opium. Oravdenel Sedvesêra, master of Sŷralën, kingpin of kingpins — indisputably the wealthiest, most powerful, most ruthless man in all of Saravan.
Not who I was expecting.
“Ëreńaskë, my dear!” Oravdenel says, offering me his hand. “So good of you to drop in.”
“…no trouble,” I mumble, looking around blearily as he helps me to my feet; he gives the mercenaries an idle wave and boots crunch on marble as they depart. We’re in his study, amid the great rows of bookshelves I’ve spent so much time lost in, by the desk with that sleek League-bought teletype he’s so proud of.
“I was hoping I might see you today,” Oravdenel continues, pulling out his leather office chair and beckoning me to sit. After all the abuse my body has just been put through, the well-padded cushions are almost enough to trick me into relaxing. Oravdenel perches on his desk, gazing down at me with those piercing pureblood-blue eyes of his. “You see, there’s this… vexing little matter I was hoping I could get your input on.”
Pieces click together inside my head, and I stare up at him in disbelief.
“This wasn’t Sedyskë. This was you, wasn’t it?”
He just gives me that infuriating smile of his. “Whatever do you mean, my dear Errie?”
“You had me abducted from a Northcoast vareçta by a team of mercenaries in a goddamn hoverplane — you, not Sedyskë, not because she threw a tantrum, but because you… you wanted my advice?”
“Well.” Oravdenel straightens his robes, looking slightly put out. “What would you have done, sent a letter?”
“Yes! I would have sent a goddamn letter!” I touch my hands to my forehead in exasperation. “Especially since you apparently just knew where I was the whole time—”
Oravdenel clicks his tongue. “See,” he interrupts, “this is exactly what happens when you’re not around to talk sense into me.”
I just stare at him. This is the point where I’d probably start pulling out my hair, if it wasn’t so short that the shackles on my wrists would get in the way.
He gives me a grin. “So, it’s this business in the islands. Oh, would you like anything to drink? Tea, wine? That—” He wrinkles his nose in distaste. “—dreadful whiskey you’re so terribly fond of?”
I hold up my shackled wrists. “I’d like my lockpicks.”
“Patience, my dear, all in good time!” He lifts a sheet off the teleprinter and passes it to me. “Anyhow, as I was saying — it’s this business in the islands.”
With a deep, mournful sigh I lean back, closing my eyes and resting my useless hands in my lap. “Alright, Orrie, tell me.”
“There’s something afoot in the region — on the Tymaçydva-Korvastë run, you know the one? From my fields on Sydaskârë all the way down to that big spaceport in the archipelago. I woke up a few mornings ago to find out nearly six hundred kilos of my finest smack were stranded in Këskarânan because — get this, Errie — the cargo company we’d chartered doesn’t exist anymore!”
I finally open my eyes, staring up at him, blinking several times. “What.”
“Well, that’s what I said!” Oravdenel flicks a three-hundred-sovereign diamond fountain pen back and forth between his fingers distractedly. “Just, gone. Entire company up and scarpered like it never was. Well, my man in Këskarânan worked it out — took some losses on the rush but the shipment made it to Korvastë in time. So Nenteskë and I sat down and spent the evening drawing up new contracts to route around that little logistical canker, took nearly five hours and three bottles of my best cognac — the woman drinks like a pirate, Errie — but it was finally sorted, I went back to bed that night confident it wouldn’t happen again — and will you guess what.”
I sigh. “It happened again.”
Oravdenel waggles his pen at me, smirking. He knows he has me on the hook now. “It happened again!”
“So what the fuck.” I shake my head, sitting forward. “Since when do entire shipping companies just up and vanish?”
He nods sharply. “That’s just what I said! So I spent that morning firing off telegrams to my informants and agents in the varesë, all to no avail, but then my rep at Clearinghouse West called me up that afternoon, and it turns out she hit paydirt. Apparently, some robin blueblood from offworld has been buying up ships and companies right in the middle of one of my prime routes.”
“Enlighten me, do.”
I glance up at him. “Well, on the face of it, it sounds like she’s trying to jam up our operations. But… did CW get a number on the buyups?”
He nods, snapping his fingers. “I thought you might ask! And that’s just the thing: our fine feathered friend down south burned through nearly fifteen large just on those two days. Granted, not all of those acquisitions were in our line of fire, but even if they had been — the entire ordeal cost me maybe two large. At worst it feels like a tiny, especially stupid little pien şai nipping at my heels.”
“So what the fuck? Not only is her plan completely self-defeating if she’s trying to fuck with your business, but what exactly does she stand to gain? Leverage? You own the opium market on Saravan, Orrie — she’d need way more infrastructure than a couple of ships if she wanted to be even the tiniest contender…” I tap my foot slowly. “Unless that’s not her angle. Maybe it’s not the opium — maybe she thinks she’ll buy up enough transit infrastructure she’ll be able to dictate terms to you, siphon off Sŷralën profits?”
He nods. “The thought occurred to me as well. But here’s where I’m stuck — I could play it safe and buy up five or ten carriers for our own use, which would safely squash any schemes the robin might have, but that would be an enormous capital expense, and then we’re stuck dealing with all the attendant liabilities, indefinitely. And shipping is not a business I want to be in, my dear — have you ever seen a barnacle face-to-face?” He shudders. “Horrible creatures. They cost the industry something like six large per annum, and that’s just worldwide!”
I purse my lips. “Yeah — it’s a huge risk either way. Two thirds of our smack winds up in the Archipelago, and those robins… some of them have serious money. Have you ever heard of something called an ‘archcountess?’”
Oravdenel raises an eyebrow. “I have now.”
“They’re bluebloods that own entire sectors. Sectors, Orrie.”
Oravdenel pales. “…you know, Errie, there are beings in this universe I hope never to catch the attention of.” He clears his throat. “But— assuming we’re dealing with a mere mortal here—”
“Right, yeah. What would anyone with that much money want with Saravan anyway? Assuming it’s a smaller player—”
“—how do we get her to tip her hand?” he finishes, nodding. “And that is where I got stuck. I had half a mind to just call up the old biddy and ask her—”
I snap my fingers. “That might not actually be a bad idea. You ever read the old story of the Fourth Empress and Archduchess Thornhollow?”
He shakes his head, leaning forward.
“Oh, it’s just this dumb old robin parable I came across ages ago, Khata’e alone knows if it ever even happened, but — the trick is, we’re thinking about this all wrong. We have to turn it around and think from her perspective.”
His eyes glint as he reaches for his teacup. “And that is?”
“Same as everyone on Saravan. Everyone on this planet is terrified of you, Orrie, even the ones with taut enough cunts or big enough balls to risk going after your business. And when you’re terrified of someone, what do you always do?”
He pauses, frowns apologetically. “For the life of me, I cannot remember.”
“Right.” I roll my eyes. “You wouldn’t.” I sit back. “No, but it’s like you said earlier, there’s some things out there even you don’t want to catch the attention of, right? Well, for her, that’s you. For anyone on Saravan, that’s you. And those people, they aren’t sitting here at the head of your big fuckin’ intel net — to them, anyone could be bought and paid for. They never know who might talk or who might be listening, anytime, especially with those fancy new bugs we’ve been getting in from the Blues lately.”
“…I think I see what you’re getting at!”
“Right? So we don’t have to think about this in terms of, what do we have to do to get her to tip her hand. We have to think in terms of, what would convince her that you already know her plans?”
“Because if she is fucking with me—”
“—it’ll spook her and she’ll run for her life.”
He grins. “What would you suggest, Errie dear?”
“Send her a letter. A big, fancy, courtly thing like she’s used to back home. Tell her you want to talk big business — maybe mention the oceanliners offhand — and ask her to come on an all-expenses-paid trip to Sŷralën for negotiations. If she’s really going after you, it’ll spook her for sure, she’ll assume you’re planning to have her killed; she’ll probably flee the planet—”
Oravdenel laughs. “Oh, really, now, killed? And flee the whole planet? I think you’re exaggerating a bit—”
I look him dead in the eye. “No, Orrie. Not one bit.”
“…people… are really that afraid of me?”
“Yes, Orrie, we are. We absolutely are.”
“…well, then.” He beams. “I’m so fortunate to have such a perceptive young lady in the family to keep me up to date — goodness knows what kind of doddering old fool I’d be otherwise.” He stands, patting me on the shoulder and beckoning me to follow him. “Errie, I do believe you’ve cracked it — I’ll have a chat with Nentie and see about getting that ball rolling.”
“Let me know how it goes?”
He bows, pushing aside the study door open for me. “You will be the first to know! I’m damned proud of you, Errie — you’re one sharp young woman, and I don’t know what I’d do without your counsel these days.”
“Have me abducted by mercenaries, apparently.”
He laughs as though my response was some particularly cunning bit of repartée. “It has been a delight as always, young mistress — I do hope you’ll join the family for breakfast tomorrow—”
“Could you please let me have these cuffs off?” I finally blurt, holding up my wrists pleadingly to Oravdenel. He favors me with a wicked smile.
“Oh, I think you’d best discuss that with my daughter, dear,” he says, and before I can say another word he’s gone, the door shut and locked behind him.
Slowly, heart pounding, I force myself to turn.
And there she is.
Only a few paces behind me stands Sedyskë Dyteksehëstan herself. The Storm of Sŷralën. Her sharp blue eyes shine from her freckled brown face like lightning from a thunderhead, her commanding gaze fixed on me. Just 19 years old and already half as feared as her father.
“Hello, Errie,” she says, in that voice like gravel and silk my heart knows so well.
My throat is too dry to speak. My legs are near paralyzed with… with I don’t know what, and I can barely manage a few stumbling steps backwards as she approaches. Her eyes take in every detail, fixed on my body like the gaze of a peregrine about to strike. “N-no…” I croak, raising my manacled hands protectively in front of me. “Please…”
“Shh.” She advances on me, and I let out a startled yelp as my back runs up against the wall. I’m trembling like a leaf in the wind, and she takes a few moments to enjoy it before she finally, slowly, lifts up her hands and touches me ever so softly on the neck, spurring loose a fearful little vocalization that forces its way out before I can choke it back. She looks so pleased at the little sound, her eyes brightening and her soft, thin lips curling upward as she caresses my neck — which feels suddenly raw beneath her cruel fingers. She reaches under my blouse, wrapping her delicate hand around the curve of my thigh. “Errie,” she murmurs, the faintest note of disappointment in her voice. “You cut your hair. Without asking.”
I’ve spent my life surrounded by power. I grew up in a city whose streets run with shit and gold, whose mercenary army is mightier than whole nations. I’ve witnessed the wealthy change the world with flicks of their fingers and pens, conjure up walls and towers, towns and orchards, railways and boulevards like it’s nothing — like it’s a game. I’ve seen…
I’ve seen so many things.
The sun’s dying rays glinted along Ümêtan’s horizon as she rose in the darkening sky, blotting out the stars with her sea of liquid smoke, lightning of the Everstorm flashing bright in her distant skies. We were sitting on the second-storey walkway, arms up over the railing and our legs dangling off into space. The air was rich with the scent of Sedyskë’s burning cigarette and I was lost in her eyes, drunk on her voice as she dazzled me with words I’d never heard before.
I know you’re broken. But that doesn’t mean you need to change. Not just because some idiots don’t get you.
I understand you, Errie. And I don’t want you to change. You’re perfect just like you are.
It was the first night we ever spent together, back at that little apartment I shared with my mother on Çerasan Road. We talked about our lives, our dreams, my days spent in the opium fields. She laughed when I complained about the slumlords across the street, the long walk to the railway station, on the crowded, filthy road the coachmen let their şue phin shit all over, and I saw her typing something on a handset — a sleek little mobile teletype I could never have afforded in a hundred lifetimes. That was the first clue.
The second was the sounds of construction we woke to the next morning.
Hardly half a month was past when the rotting old tenements across the way were torn down, the street was ripped up, and a beautiful new streetcar was running all the way from Myçtaskên to Kirkelë, with a station right next to my home in the middle of a fresh-planted garden. And when I saw the new street signs along the brand-new boulevard, I couldn’t believe my fucking eyes.
“Boulevard Ëreńa,” they read.
“Who the fuck are you?” I asked her, half in fear and half in wonder, when she showed up unannounced on a bright summer morning.
She just smiled that smug little smile of hers and said, “let me show you.”
I’ve tasted power so intimately in her grasp, watching dreams come to life before my eyes at nothing more that my hesitant word. That’s the kind of power everyone in Sedyskë’s world wields — granting wishes or destroying enemies as casually as a mortal might lift a glass or swat a fly.
But there’s a difference between a gun that’s wielded for you and a gun that’s wielded by you. And for all the lives I’ve watched end at gunpoint, the trigger has never been mine to squeeze. So as much as I know Sedyskë would rip the galaxy apart to protect me… I know equally well there’s nobody in Creation could protect me from her.
“I’m s-sorry,” I babble, cringing away from her touch, pressing my cheek flat against the wall. “I’m s-sorry, I’m sorry, I w-w-won’t do it again, I—”
“Sshh.” Sedyskë kisses me softly on the cheek. “Look at me, Errie.”
“Seventeen is when everything changes,” my mother warned me sagely the evening before my birthday, over a dinner of steamed rice and reheated heskerëçan, as we listened to the news on a tinny old radio — one of the old channels those pointy-eared socialists down south used to run, back before the Man wised up and started shooting down their aerostats.
Mom couldn’t have known how right she was going to be.
Oravdenel Sedvesêra is no king. He doesn’t lead fleets on conquests among the stars, bringing home slaves, gems, and ancient technology in tribute. Nobody chants his name in the street, and his standard doesn’t fly from parapets. He never talks about his ancestors, his divine right to rape and plunder — his blood is as common as any scavvie’s and he’s too honest, to happy and confident in who he is to ever want to hide it. He’s a businessman, through and through.
So Oravdenel Sedvesêra didn’t conquer the world. He bought it.
Since the day I took his daughter’s hand, nothing has been the same. She dragged me up off the streets where we petty humans fight for the last few scraps of Creation’s plundered glory, up into the clouds, into the land where the plundering gods themselves dwell, heedless of the struggles of the mortal world beneath.
The CEO of that pantheon has little care or use for love and loyalty. On Saravan, mercenaries are a dime a dozen, and he likes his assets liquid and fungible. He calmly, bloodlessly hands down commands from on high and doesn’t care who carries them out, nor if a thousand of his commandos die screaming in the doing. It’d just be a number to him. Just another number to jot down in his little notebook as he reclines in his favorite chair, puffing on a cigar and listening to his blood-soaked assassins recount their harrowing tales. It’s all just business to him. Just an intellectual exercise. He’ll show more emotion winning at a hand of cards than making half a billion sovereigns of pure profit.
His daughter’s not like him. Sedyskë likes to get her hands dirty. She’s a creature of passion, intensely physical; business and pleasure are one and the same to her. Never content simply to win, she needs to earn her victory and feel it with every inch of her body. And she wants the people she beats to feel their loss just as deeply, wants to squeeze the last drop of defiance out of them with her own two hands. Slowly and intimately.
“I told father not to bring you back,” she murmurs disapprovingly. “It would have been so much sweeter to watch you come crawling home to beg me on your knees. Tch. He’s always so impatient.”
My mother told me stories about her people, when I was young. When my father’s kind still had to hunt for their food, they did it like anyone else, I suppose — send their virile young men whooping and hollering off into the trees with spears and rifles to drag back a fresh kuvjadva or whatever for the tribe to feast on — but the ancient Khmai were different, mom once said. With the men away on boats or starships half the year to make trade with other nations, they’d capture birds of prey, falcons, kestrels, and sparrowhawks, and take them back to their women, who’d tame them and train them to hunt for the tribe. “Sometimes I wish I’d been born back in those days,” she grumbled, fussing with the feeble sparks of a nearly dead lighter, ignoring the fresh battery in my outstretched hands. “Rather go hunting with the birds than break my back harvesting opium all day. Wouldn’t that be the life!”
The image was always so strange to me. How could you take such a powerful little being — a thinking creature with its own two wings and fearsome talons, set it free into the air — and have it come fluttering right back to you, talons soaked with some poor pien şai’s blood, to land on your outstretched wrist without so much as a peep of defiance? Why would a bird that never once needed humans, a bird that could fly anywhere in the world — a bird that had only to spread its wings to be free forever — come willingly back to be shackled and hooded and caged? It never made sense.
Not until the night late last winter I came crawling back to Sedyskë for the first time.
“I w-wasn’t going to come back this time,” I mumble, trying to look away, and as soon as I’ve said it I realize it’s a lie. Sedyskë just laughs, grabs my chin and forces her lips roughly on mine. She doesn’t even give me the chance to kiss her willingly, like she doesn’t want my consent. Like she wants me to fight, to take me struggling and screaming. I manage to drag in one last breath before her grip tightens around my windpipe and chokes off my air. Her brilliant blue eyes, flecked with little shards of green like foam on the sea, stare straight and unblinking into mine, drinking in the sight of my terrified squirming and choking for breath. Silently, tears begin to trickle down my cheeks.
When she finally pulls back and loosens her grip, the first thing that comes up out of my throat is a choked, broken sob. I can’t fight it back anymore, can’t keep myself from giving her exactly what I know she wants. My desperate gasps for breath intermingle with my anguished cries; my whole face is soaking wet. She caresses my trembling body with her hands and her voice as she unbuckles my belt, taking her time, savoring every moment of my fear and helplessness. Here, deep in her lair, I am completely at her mercy, no matter how much I might scream and cry and beg for help — and we both know it. No force in the universe could reach me here except by her will.
My skirt falls to my ankles, leaving me half naked in the hands of an angry war goddess.
I know what comes next. I’ve known it since the moment I saw her beautiful face, and as her wrists close tight around mine the memories flash bright as a stun grenade inside my skull, leaving me momentarily catatonic. She lifts my hands high over my head, squeezing tight as she presses them against the wall. With the shackles binding my wrists so close together, she only needs one hand to restrain me, leaving the other free to use against me. She strokes my cheek, still watching my eyes intently.
They say once you’re hooked on opium, you can never truly get clean. You can stop taking the drug, endure the week after week of torturous withdrawal, throw away your pipes and flush your needles, but the hunger will always be with you, even if you never smoke another drop. You’ll never stop craving that high that slowly wastes you away from within, that never stops enticing you to burn bright one last time and go out with a dreamy smile on your blue lips. There’s something about being locked in that desperate dance with life, death, and pure physical pleasure that knows no equal throughout Creation.
Not many, anyway.
My mother thought it was a miracle I kicked the habit after I met Storm — but the truth was, I just traded one habit for another. And I think even back then, a part of me knew it.
“Please,” I whimper one final time, struggling in vain to pull my hands free of her steel grip, no longer even sure what I’m begging for. I don’t know how such slim arms can be so strong.
“No,” my Storm replies gently.
She forces my legs wide open and leaves my cunt exposed for what feels hours, drawing out my vulnerability and panic before she finally deigns to violate me. The foreplay has always seemed to interest her the most, that intimate little ritual of wearing me down and sensitizing my body to her cruel attentions. By the time she’s finished massaging my breasts, squeezing my throat, biting deep into my neck, tearing her fingernails along the tender flesh of my flank, and smothering my screams with her tight, passionate kisses, I feel like I’ve lost all control over my body.
She knows just where to squeeze and rub and hurt, just how to move her finger back and forth along my clit to force me through the cycle of arousal and climax no matter how hard I try to fight. Her breathing is tense, rapid, excited as she presses up against me, and I can see her eyelids flutter when I squirm and tremble, can feel the curves and hard muscle of her tightly disciplined body through her thin, silky top. So familiar it feels like she was holding me only yesterday. So familiar—
—that at moments, I almost forget I wasn’t begging her to do this to me. That this is all a cruel violation calculated to punish me and tear me down, not an act of love meant to warm my lonely heart and lift me up.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if there’s a difference.
By the time she’s finished, the last rays of sunlight beyond the great window are just disappearing under the waves — and I’m curled up on the cold floor, still shackled, quietly gasping and moaning as the overwhelming, soul-shattering climax suffuses my torn and tattered being.
After raping me up against the wall of the mansion’s great observatory, she sits languidly beside me, watching me shiver and tremble with a thin smile on her lips, her eyes intense. I can barely stand to look at her. I flinch as I hear the distinctive whine of her plasma-lighter and the crackle of burning şen; the air fills with its sweet, smoky scent and instinctively I move to try and protect my arm, whimpering aloud. I feel a faint pulse of phantom pain from the scar.
“What would you do for me to take you back? What is it worth to you, Errie?”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have run away, I’m sor—”
“What would you do, Errie?”
“…anything. Please don’t leave me alone, Storm—”
“Anything? Anything at all?”
“Yes, please just… God, I don’t care, please, I love you — nothing hurts worse than being alone, I can’t—”
“Nothing?” She pulled the cigarette stub from her lips, brushing snowflakes from her hair as I fell to my knees. “Then take off your jacket. And give me your arm.”
“It scarred nicely, didn’t it?” Sedyskë murmurs, patting me on the arm; I cringe away from her, burying my head in my hands. “Give me your hands.”
“No, no, please—”
“Shh.” I hear a metallic jingle, and she grips me by the arm, dragging me around to face her. She ignores my whimpers and tears, catching my wrists — and slots a key into my manacles, releasing them. She smiles at the look of fear and confusion in my eyes, stroking my cheek with her palm and smirking at my flinch.
Cigarette perched on her lips, she takes my hands in that unbreakable grip of hers, ignoring my instinctive attempts to pull away. Tenderly, she squeezes and massages my whitened wrists. After a few minutes, the color begins to return and the bite of the manacles on my flesh is fading away. Her warm touch feels so good that my trembling arms slowly start to go limp in her grasp.
“Those idiots put them on too tight,” she murmurs. “They could have cut off your circulation. Mercenaries, honestly. I don’t know why father puts up with them.” She takes the cigarette from her lips, holding me firmly as I try to scrabble away, and presses it softly to mine. “Here. Breathe, Errie.”
Şen isn’t like opium. It doesn’t wash away your thoughts in torrents of physical pleasure and gusts of joy, doesn’t leave you curled-up blue-lipped in bed. It’s subtle, gentle. It’s not a drug of escape — it’s a drug for living in the moment. It sharpens colors, soothes the mind, straightens out tangled thoughts, and makes reality feel just a little bit more real.
I never could see what mom liked so much about the stuff. Not until I met Storm. Not until I started wanting to be alive.
I bury my head in her shoulder.
I always flinch when she shushes me. It always means she’s going to do something incredibly cruel or something incredibly kind, and there’s never any way to tell which. This time, though, she pulls me into her lap, kissing me on the cheek and stroking my neck with her soft, delicate hands.
“I love you, Errie.”
“I l-l-love you too, Storm.”
“I know.” She lifts my chin, gazes into my eyes. “It’s in every movement, every word, every little look on your pretty litttle face. Even when you want to hide it you can’t.” She pulls away the cigarette, kissing me gently on the lips, and this time, I don’t try to fight her. “Not even from yourself.”
“I shouldn’t have run away.”
“That’s right.” She strokes my scarred shoulder. “You shouldn’t. But I still love you. I still will, no matter how many times you run, no matter how many times you come crawling back home in tears. No matter what cruel things you say. And I’ll take you back, every time you beg me to.” She idly scritches the back of my neck, resting her forehead against mine. “We made a commitment to each other, love. No matter what — I will always be here for you. No matter what it costs me, and no matter what I have to do to protect you. From yourself or anyone else.”
“Shh.” The kiss is long and deep this time, and this time I finally reciprocate, losing myself in the soft warmth of her lips. She teases mine with her teeth and her tongue, making me tremble and shiver anew in her grasp, and when she pulls away, I can’t restrain the little mewl of desperation. She looks so happy at the sound, and ruffles my hair.
“Take off your blouse, Errie.”
I can feel my face reddening even further. “H-here? Right now?”
“Yes.” She smirks. “Do something useful with that freedom of movement I let you have back.”
With reluctance, and quivering hands, I manage to tug the battered top up over my shoulders. I try to set the garment in my lap but Storm intervenes, yanking it away and leaving me in my underwear. She strokes my waist, giving me a slightly worried look.
“…we didn’t cancel your credit line. Haven’t you been getting food?”
I shrug weakly. “Does smack and alcohol count as food?”
“Oh, honey.” She sighs, tugging me closer and pulling my head in under her chin. “Am I going to have to wean you off again?”
“I didn’t use that much…”
“It doesn’t take much. Tolerance goes right back up to where it was before within a week of regular use.” She shakes her head. “We’ll have to see, I guess. I’m sorry, Errie.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her say that before.
“You’re… sorry? F-for what?”
“You are impulsive, reckless, and irresponsible; a constant danger to yourself and everyone around you. But I knew that, and I pushed you anyway. I drove you away from where I could keep you safely under control.” She hugs me tightly; her voice is quiet, almost… timid. “And that was my fault. And I’m sorry. I need to be more careful with you.”
I kiss her feebly on the chest. “…that sound like Nentie talking.”
“Auntie and Father had a… a talk with me after last time. I—” Her voice wavers, and for a moment she actually sounds vulnerable. “Ümêtan tabyr, I’m an idiot teenager sometimes too, Errie. I’m not a normal person, this isn’t a normal life, and sometimes I think it gets to me. Makes me think I’m special instead of just a teenage brat.” She sighs. “I don’t know. Does any scavvie have a normal life?”
“Hey.” I look up at her, touch her hesitantly on the neck. “Don’t call yourself that. And you are special. There’s no one else like you. Believe me, I’ve looked far and wide.”
That makes her laugh and she kisses me again. I run my thumbnail along the rim of her ear, up to that strange, sharp little point where normal ears are round, and she shivers at the touch, gasping gently. Her eyelids flutter and she presses her cheek tight against mine, murmuring wordlessly. I smile. Even the Storm has her weak spots.
“I l-l-love you,” she finally manages.
Orrie’s as Sara as they come, and he always talks about how hard it was to find a fertile pureblood whore to birth the girl. But the way she moves, the way she can wrestle grown men into submission, her taut little tits, those strangely tapered ears of hers, those tiny flecks of green scattered in her Sara-blue eyes — sometimes I wonder.
Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something else hidden away inside her. Because there’s only one kind of person I’ve seen with bodies like that before. And there’s rumors that during the War, their blood did more than stain battlefields; that their seed found purchase even among us foreign barbarians. Which wouldn’t surprise me in the slighest. Love blossoms in strange places sometimes.
And… knowing Orrie as well as I do, probably better even than his sister does these days… it does seem like exactly the kind of shit he’d pull. Just to give his heiress a secret little edge over the competition.
Seeing how she killed her first assassin at age 15, with a combat knife straight through the ribs and into the heart — a split second before he spattered her father’s brains all over the wall — it sure seems to be working.
One way or the other, I wonder if she knows herself. If he ever even told her.
“Come on,” she whispers, patting me on the thigh. “Let’s go home.”
She helps me to my feet, takes me by the hand, and leads me down the hall with an arm draped low around my waist. Distantly I hear her keys rattle in a lock and she pushes back the door into her… our… bedroom. It’s a study in minimalist elegance, no gaudy ornaments or fancy canopies, filled sparsely with articles of sleek metal, stained glass, and light wood, with a long, low bed flush up against the sea window.
There’s another girl there, naked except for a translucent silk cardigan around her shoulders, snuggled up into the pillows, yawning and gazing sleepily at me with bright red eyes. Her hair and body are so dark, darker and taller than anyone I’ve seen in years. It’s strange to see a robin like her this far north — I can see why she caught Sedyskë’s attention. She’s always liked rare, pretty things.
“…didn’t take you long to replace me, did it,” I mutter, gritting my teeth and looking away. Storm scoffs.
“Errie, my love — you are irreplaceable. I knew that from the moment I first kissed you.” She stands behind me, wrapping her arms around my waist and kissing the back of my neck before taking off my beat-up old boyshorts and bra, making me stand naked in the middle of the room. Falcon’s eyes light up and she claps her hands together.
“Aww, what a cute little thing!” she exclaims in a thick, exotic Zia Ţai accent.
“I told you.” Storm takes me by the hand, kissing my palm as she backs toward the bed, tugging me with her. Half-eagerly and half-reluctantly I follow her, desperate for intimacy but afraid of what the two might do to me. Right now… mitiku Khata’e, I just want my girlfriend to hold me.
I feel Falcon’s hands on my shoulders as Storm pushes me down onto the silky-soft sheets, lightly rubbing my back. She nips me on the neck before letting me lay down, giggling at my startled yelp. Storm grins at her. “Doesn’t she make the best noises?”
“Gè kieu bí,” Falcon affirms excitedly. I hide my burning cheeks in the pillow.
Storm lays down next to me, tugging the covers up over my shoulder before she takes my naked body protectively in her arms. I whimper a little as she forces her knee between my legs, resting her thigh snugly up against my sore cunt and seizing me by the rear when I try to pull back. “Shh. Behave,” she whispers, squeezing my ass, holding me against her leg. “I won’t rub. Not right now. But you need to remember whose you are.”
I bury my tear-stained face in her chest, and stop trying to move. She rubs my back, holds me tightly to her warm, soft body, murmurs “good girl,” and my muscles finally slacken. My arms, my legs, my chest — everything hurts so bad, especially my spine and my cunt, my every muscle is trembling like a leaf, but her warmth and her caresses… I wish I could feel them every moment of my life. The way I can feel her body with all the most intimate, vulnerable parts of mine, it almost feels like she’s part of me, intruding inside me.
Falcon slips up on the other side of me, kissing me on the shoulder. Her soft, ample bosom presses up against the curve of my back as she pulls the blankets tight around us. She gives my neck another little nip, sending a shiver through my body, before she joins Storm in caressing me, her long, slender fingers rubbing my thighs and massaging my chest.
Between Storm’s slow, tight, enveloping motions and Falcon’s light little pets and squeezes to my tits, I feel like I could just drift off into a blissful haze.
I’ve wanted to feel this again for so long. This… sensual paradise of togetherness that makes all the pain in the Universe feel worthwhile.
“Is this what you wanted, Errie love?” Sedyskë murmurs, and reluctantly I nod.
“It feels good, doesn’t it? To have a caring lover to attend to your needs?”
I nod again.
“It must have really sucked, all the weeks on the run. All those weeks with cold beds and whores who didn’t understand you. Weeks with weak, stupid people who could never give you what you need. I’ll bet the hunger has been eating you alive.”
I squeeze my eyes shut against the tears as her words hit home.
“I’ll never abandon you, Errie. I’ll never throw you out or give up on you. That’s my promise. All you have to do is stay at my side, and you’ll never have to go hungry again. I’ll always be there to tend to you and see to your needs. Keep you raw and bare, blissed out on touch in my tight grip. All you have to do is surrender.”
Words desert me and all I can do is curl up and cry.
My girlfriend smiles, taking my neck between her hands.
“Shh. It’s okay, love,” she whispers in my ear, and kisses me tenderly. “It’s okay.”
Sedyskë has always delighted in cruelty. The tears of her lovers are an ambrosia to her, and always will be. I know there’s no changing her; I know that the rest of my life with her I’m going to be locked in this endless, wild dance of unimaginable pleasure and indescribable pain. People tell me I’m crazy sometimes, for loving someone so ruthless. “Why would you ever stay with her?” they ask. They tell me I’m a victim; the brainwashed, battered pet of a violent rapist. And sometimes I’m so lost in the pain that I believe it myself and all I can think to do is flee.
But in my few lucid moments, I understand that the pain doesn’t take away the pleasure, doesn’t dilute it even by a drop, and it will never close my heart to her, even if sometimes I wish it would. That’s the easy answer to why I stay — why I come crawling back to her every time I try to flee. I’m more addicted to her than I ever was to opium.
But there’s a harder answer too — one I’m afraid to say aloud, because it would never make sense unless you know her as intimately as I do. And I’m not sure anyone does.
For all her power and wealth, even the Storm of Sŷralën still wears a leash. Her father, the sane, sensible businessman who built this empire still holds its reins, and she loves the old bastard too much to off him just for his power. But even Empresses die, and so do mere gods: when the spirit of Oravdenel Sedvesêra passes out into the stars, the fullness of his empire, his every scrap of power will be not just his Storm’s allowance, but her inheritance. The passing of the temperate Lord of Opium will cut loose a goddess, a being of raw, fiery power and passion trained from birth in the ways of ruling and preternaturally gifted in the domination of the wills of lesser beings like me.
And when that goddess comes into her own, the only safe place in the universe will be at her side.