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Authors: Rhi Etzweiler

Fragile Bond (20 page)

BOOK: Fragile Bond
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“And any other day of the year, you’d say that of the feathers, I imagine.” Hamm clasped his hands loosely behind his back, claws out of sight.

No shielding himself against attack, no subliminal preparation to assault or retaliate. He would counter her traditional offense and blind hatred with carefully chosen words. Rising above responses that custom dictated were the only way to defuse the situation.

Peace had been a few breaths away moments before. Dehna’s blind rage and hatred, her thirst for “right,” might have destroyed any hope for that. At the very least, it had set things back, undoing any headway he might have managed. But he would not stand by while his own slaughtered those who’d come seeking accord.

“My pheromones influence everyone, Hamm. Everyone but you.”

And the humans
. He desperately wanted to say that, but knew it would only exacerbate the situation. “It’s always been that way! Long before Marc came along. But you use his presence to make my indifference an issue.”

“The human has a name.” Dehna exposed a fang, sneering. “What is he, your pet? The human doesn’t deserve that respect, from you or anyone else.”

“What makes you disrespect them? Why is your hate so strong?”

“Why is yours so weak? Why are
you
so weak? Why have you stopped fighting? Do you really feel you have the right to welcome them with open arms? As our commander, it’s your job to speak for all of us.”

“No, that’s not my job. You have it wrong. The clan leaders do that. And do it well.” He skimmed the crowd of furrs arrayed behind her, eyed the scout a few seconds longer. The young male had the decency to look chagrined. “As battlemonger for the clans, furr and feather alike, it is not my job to speak for anyone.”

She snarled.

“My job is to act in the best interests of furr and feather, regardless of clan. I represent the whole. But if the whole is blinded by rage and hate, focused only on vengeance and violence, then it becomes my job to reeducate you. To protect you from yourself.”

Behind him, the human commander’s voice: “Sergeant Staille.” The rough-edged tone sent a chill up Hamm’s spine, hair standing up in a bristle. “What the wormhole is going on? Staff Sergeant Makko, front and center, translate for us.”

“Stand down, Makko.” Marc’s cool, level tone wasn’t one that any sane individual would cross. “All of you, stay back. Our interference won’t be welcomed. Commander Orsonna is trying to defuse the situation without resorting to violence.”

Just as Hamm had done before, all but standing over Marc, a prisoner being interrogated. Holding off imminent death at Dehna’s claws.

“I feel the loss of the one you loved, Dehna. We all do. Every last one of us here. We feel every loss. We choose that sacrifice willingly. Not in search of blood and death and violence, but in search of a way to reach peace. My entire squad fell this morning, in case you’ve forgotten. I haven’t. Do you see me wallowing in hate, raging for blood and vengeance?”

“Because you feel nothing! You smell nothing but that vile human stench! You’re useless!”

She was wrong. The scent of her anguish was rancid in his nostrils. The uncertainty radiating from the crowd at her back—could she smell that, as he could? That they doubted her in any way would only infuriate her further.

He’d seen it before, the gangrene of resentment fueling hate that devoured everything in its path.

He wouldn’t stand by and let such a person lead the furrs as battlemonger. Instead of leading them to a peaceful resolution, she wouldn’t stop until Soma’s skin was bathed in the blood of every last human that dared set foot to soil.

And what would that solve.

It would birth more hate.

Hamm glanced at the humans, smelled the cool, strange scent wafting from them. It would birth retaliation, as well.

And though the humans claimed they weren’t at war, if Dehna had her way, that’s precisely what this would become.

“Have you never stopped to consider the possibility of correcting the humans’ perspective of us and healing this rift to forge a relationship?”

She feared change. She wanted things back the way they were. The prospect of a sapient race from the stars opened myriad possibilities. She didn’t possess the mental resilience to come to terms with any of it.

That these aliens were as prone to flaws as furrs should encourage her. Instead, she held it against them and demanded a higher standard from others than she held herself to.

Which didn’t make a lick of sense.

She gave a vicious shake of her head and snarled at him.

“You fail. You fail because you refuse to attack. You fail because now you’re the stray to that human thing. We would have you gone, Hamm Orsonna. Step down or you will be removed.”

“That human thing.” Hamm stared up at the sky. Inhaled slowly, gathering his thoughts, assessing the scents crowding his senses. The human contingent. The furrs. His
fefa.
Beneath it all, the scent of the feather-clan’s whispering of remembered hostilities and the bitter tang of dread. From here, there was no turning back. As though there ever was. “You realize that in speaking of Marc in that way, you’re offering direct and deliberate insult to which there is only one viable recourse. According to convention.”

He lifted a hand, unsheathing his claws with deliberate lethargy. A demonstration of complete control.

“So you don’t deny it! You’ve formed a bond!”

He bared a fang. “I’ve never denied it.” He just hadn’t behaved like a gossipmongering old furr with nothing better to do. “I stand by my previous statement. I don’t see how it detracts from my effectiveness in this situation. In fact, I’d say this interspecies bond—unintentional as it was—is precisely what this situation needs to tip into peaceful negotiation. It’s a connection we wouldn’t have otherwise. It forced the inception of a relationship. And I would like to continue fostering it—to benefit us all.”

When he glanced at Marc, the sniper’s weapon had dipped considerably. Marc stared at him with his strange sky-eyes as though attempting to decipher something.

“Sergeant Staille! Report!” The Mother Commander’s voice was loud and sharp in the momentary silence. Marc flinched, glanced between Dehna and Hamm and then at Reccin, who nodded a fraction.

Hamm wondered at that look between his second and the sniper; he might be in charge, but sometimes he really did wonder who held the power.

Marc, definitely.

The Mother Commander’s tone made Marc flinch, but he acknowledged the direct order. “Sir.” Arm stiff at his side, holding his death stick in place, he stood there and waited for the commander to continue.

“First you mention you’ve been compromised. Granted, it can work to our advantage. Now Makko and Andruski agree that Commander Orsonna is referencing some form of relationship? You need to debrief, fast, and give us some situational awareness.”

“Yes, sir. The furrs use smell as communication. Part of that is their control of pheromones. Orsonna assures me it’s used mostly in one-on-one disputes. Not in broad-spectrum conflict scenarios, like this.” He glanced at the assembled mass of furrs. So much for the human squad and their edge of superior firepower. Blood and bullets, if push came to shove they were screwed. They’d be overwhelmed.

“They use attraction as a weapon? How does this work?” Arms folded, the Mother Commander took a widened stance and stared at Marc as though attempting to bore into his skull and tap into the corrected version of the truth.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s heightened arousal that disengages rational thought.” Marc cleared his throat, took a slow breath. “It’s how Commander Orsonna captured me.”

The Mother Commander arched a brow. “The tawny used his pheromones on you? That’s impossible. We aren’t even the same race, not by a very long stretch. There is no way they should be even remotely compatible.”

Marc bobbed his head, agreeing. “That is Sergeant Dehna’s issue as well, from what I gather.”

He earned a look that clearly communicated the comparison was a blatant slight.

“I felt something like what you’re describing.” Makko shifted uncomfortably. “While the other one, Chief Reccin, was inserting the translator. It wasn’t as strong as you’re saying, though. This was vague. It passed as quickly as it took him to move away.”

“What about you, Captain? Lieutenant Major?” Marc looked from one to the other, but their blank confusion was sufficient indicator. “Nothing.”

The Mother Commander glanced between them. “They had a weapon, used it, it backfired—and now they’re pissed off?”

“Their leaders are single, unattached. Keeps them from being biased.” He watched Dehna and Hamm for a moment before continuing. “He should be stepping down.”

“In favor of that other one.” The Mother Commander eyed Dehna, then exhaled something halfway between a snort and a sigh. “No way do I want to deal with that. Andruski? What’s your opinion? This will be your assignment, if it smoothes out.”

“Apologies, sir. But I’m having difficulty following them even with the translation device.” Andruski glanced at Marc. “I don’t know how you picked it up so fast, Staille. I didn’t realize Orsonna took the time to enunciate slowly.”

“I’ve had some additional help. And Orsonna has a vested interest in ensuring he’s communicating clearly.” Marc’s language skills didn’t resemble Dehna’s, and he didn’t have cultural sensitivity training like Andruski. His competence could be blamed entirely on Hamm and the strange relationship they’d forged. Multifaceted communication certainly had its benefits.

He glanced back again, shifted to an angle, trying to watch the mob of furrs, Dehna, Hamm, Reccin, and the C-C team all at once while still paying heed to the Mother Commander.

Dehna was hackling, bristling, baring fangs while Hamm made a show of studying his unsheathed claws.

She coiled and leapt toward Marc without warning. Not the slightest indication she’d shifted targets. His hand clenched on Mat. He hesitated. Reluctant to kill another furr.

She didn’t aim for him, though, but Andruski. A single flick of her wrists, a twitch of unsheathed claws, and the ambassador to the furrs slumped to the ground with a broken neck, all but beheaded, the last pulses of his heart spurting arterial blood in great arcs onto the grass.

He didn’t know who screamed. He didn’t react fast enough. By the time he brought Mat under control and got a bead on Dehna, she’d broken Cortannas’s arm—the captain managed to draw her sidearm in self-defense—slashed her throat and left her bleeding out on the arid, thirsty soil beside her teammate.

Marc’s finger hugged the trigger mid-squeeze. Hamm roared, a violent, bloodcurdling sound. A lesser man would’ve pissed himself. A blur of white-amber tawny made him relax his finger, unwilling to risk hitting the wrong target. Dehna was tackled to the ground just as the guards stepped up to shield the Mother Commander.

He tracked Hamm and Dehna through the scope, grimacing. The pair were a blur of fur, skin, and limbs. Just as he distinguished a fatal target on Dehna’s darker body, something pushed Mat’s barrel away.

The force countered Marc’s solid grip with ease.

“Leave it.” Reccin spoke softly. Not a plea, but not a command either. “They must fight this out between themselves, without interference.”

He stared at the chief, who held his searching gaze with rock-solid resolve. Only his ear twitched when one of the combatants roared. Marc couldn’t tell if the sound conveyed outrage or pain.

He had to swallow hard and then lick his lips before he was able to form words. “Return to the shuttle.” He glanced over, and blood and bullets if the commander’s personal guards weren’t already dragging their superior toward the closest shuttlecraft. At least the Mother Commander had more sense than an AVR and quit struggling after two or three strides.

The visceral display of violence fascinated him, left him awestruck. The fangs, fully bared, the half-strangled snarls, the grunts of effort, injury, as they struggled against one another; in a way, it held greater intimacy than what he and Hamm had done here in the meadow before the C-C team’s shuttle had bellied into the dirt.

Adrenaline surged in his veins. His grip tightening on Mat despite the sickening twist it caused, the burn in his palms. He struggled with himself, desperately wanted to push Reccin away, squeeze a few rounds into Dehna and be done with it. Fuck that, empty a few clips. He wanted to stand between Hamm and every single furr who saw their mutual attachment as weakness, who sought to depose him because of it.

Gritting his teeth and chewing on his tongue, he refrained. And watched, helpless, as the two furrs fought.

The human presence here may have drawn the clans together as they wouldn’t have otherwise—Marc studied the gathered furrs, the strange “feathers” along the periphery of the crowd, their plumage loud and garish among the more earthy tones.

Not a one looked inclined to intervene.

The furrs watched every move, twitching ears and expressions with every sound, no matter how faint. He wondered what he was missing—the nuances of scent that would reveal just how many supporters Hamm could count among those gathered.

BOOK: Fragile Bond
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