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Authors: Janelle Taylor

Tags: #Fantasy fiction

Moonbeams and magic (9 page)

BOOK: Moonbeams and magic
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surprise tomorrow.

It had been three horas since Starla took a seat in the Skull's Den to await news about Dagan. She didn't know if she wanted him to pass Tochar's Thorin test or not. If he failed, that meant he wasn't evil like the other villites or— even if he was proven to be just as wicked—wouldn't truly subject himself to the head flendal But failure meant his extermination. Yet, if he passed the truth and loyalty queries, he would become one of her targets to defeat and destroy, and would prove he was no different from them, prove her favorable impressions of him were wrong. By passing, he would be alive and in close proximity, until and if her mission succeeded. She felt trapped between two black holes in space, floating in peril, wondering if or when she would be sucked in and crushed by either one.

She knew from experience that the drug-induced interrogation and full recovery lasted for horns: thirty preons to be dazed completely, several horas of lengthy and detailed questions to learn his ftill history and motives, and one hora to return to complete awareness, plus travel time to and from the flendal 's abode. According to that schedule he should have been finished five horas ago. Even if he had been taken on a tour of the defense sites and colony after he passed scrutiny, she reasoned, he should have appeared

by now, if for nothing more than to have a drink and relax following his ordeal and perhaps to see if she and/or Yana awaited him. He wasn't with her Yana identity, but he could be celebrating on the second level with a Pleasure Giver. She attempted to quell the rash sparks of jealousy and anger that troubled her. It was a fact that most men believed they must have sex on a regular basis and, often, the face and name of the woman beneath them did not matter. Those carnal drives were strong in Tochara, where men lived and thrived on sating physical needs and thought only of the present.

She had played two games of rest with an off-duty Enforcer. She had eaten a rather tasty meal with the slowness of a yema 's pace to stall for time. She was on her second drink, the weakest type Radu stocked, as it seemed appropriate behavior for her Starla Vedris character to imbibe a little, and it gave her a plausible reason to remain in the place for a long period.

When she saw him enter the dome, her heart leapt with relief and happiness, uncontrollable reactions to learning he was alive. Of their own volition, her green gaze softened and almost misted; her heart beat faster; her lips parted. He was clad in a sleeveless top with a V neck in the front, the same shade as his blue eyes, a garment which displayed his muscled arms and shoulders and sun-darkened flesh. It fit him like a second skin, so his broad chest and flat abdomen were noticeable. His pants were snug, black like his boots and windblown hair, and hinted at sleek and strong legs beneath them. A weapon's belt was secured around his waist and hung low on the left side where a laser gun rested in a holster secured to his thigh. A sheathed knife was attached to the belt's right side. He was the epitome of a virile and handsome man, a pinnacle of strength and courage.

As Dagan's roving gaze found her and he smiled, Starla returned the gesture without awareness, her wits scattering.

Without taking his eyes from hers, she watched the Kalfan head toward her with an agile and confident stride. She stood entranced by his very presence, until Radu halted him for a brief word. As soon as their visual bond was severed and other thoughts invaded her mind, the strong and magical spell was broken and she became clearheaded. She scolded herself for being susceptible to Dagan's abundant charms. From now on, she reminded herself, he was one of her enemies; he must be viewed and treated as such, used in any way necessary to ensure the success of her mission. She took a swallow of her drink and did not look in his direction again.

Dagan sat down adjacent to her instead of across the small table. He was cognizant of her change in mood. There was no doubt in his mind that Starla had been excited and pleased to see him but had withdrawn into herself when Radu intruded on their spiritual connection. Now that he was acquainted with her troubled history, that reaction was understandable. He glanced up and thanked Radu for a drink the man delivered, compliments of Tochar, as was anything Dagan ordered tonight on either level of the Skull's Den. He ignored the beverage to ask, "How long have you been here?"

Starla was alert and calm by that time; yet, strange sensations of sadness and weariness plagued her. "For a while."

"Were you worried about me?"

Starla leaned back and toward the right side of her chair to put more distance between them. "No, why would I be?" She watched him grin.

"Because you knew what I was facing. Too bad you couldn't warn me."

"Was a warning needed? Would it have changed anything?"

He chuckled. "If I wasn't who and what I claimed to be.

I could have gotten out of Tochara before I was exposed and slain."

"There's no place you can hide from Tochar's reach and wrath."

"You didn't think I would pass scrutiny, did you?"

She looked him straight in the eye and admitted, "No."

Dagan was pleased by her honesty and her skepticism about his bad character, despite a criminal record and shady reputation. Yet, he sensed disappointment that her assessment of him had been proven wrong. "Why not? You passed interrogation when Thorin flowed in your veins."

Unlike with you, his truth serum had no effect on me. "You struck me as being your own man, a loner, self-reliant, a leader, not a follower."

"Do taking orders from Tochar and being loyal to the man who hires me prevent me from having those traits?"

"Does it?"

"Not in your case, nor in mine; we're still independent and self-reliant loners, but we bend and bond when we must. Under the grim circumstances, I have to work for him to get what I want and need." Dagan grinned to release their tensions and teased in a husky voice, "Unless you want to lure me away with a better offer."

Starla did not smile. "How would I accomplish that enormous feat?"

"You have the Liska; we could travel as parmers, keep all we steal." Access to your ship would give me a means of quick escape if needed and would provide the opportunity for private communication out of the Free-Zone. But that could imperil you if I used them, used you for my needs, which might become necessary if matters change.

Starla wondered why Dagan was studying her so strangely. "Why would I forfeit Tochar's generosity and sanctuary to take risks with you? Besides, he would track us and slay us for committing such treachery. As with me, since you're alive, that means you told the truth about being loyal to him,

so you're only teasing me. It also means you're part of our special unit."

Stars afire, woman, you're quick, clever, and captivating! To throw her off balance, he grinned and murmured, "Was I teasing?" Starla didn't smile or reply, so he hinted, "No congratulations? No welcome aboard? No glad you survived?"

Once more, Starla had the impression that Dagan Latu was a cunning and complex male. If she didn't know any better, she would think he had deluded Tochar. It worried her that she could not depend upon her normally keen instincts and gift for good judgment with him. She took a swallow of her drink and eyed him over the glass's rim before she lowered it and responded, "Welcome to the special unit, Dagan. Since we're going to be working together in dangerous situations, becoming friends would be wise. I wouldn't want an enemy at my back."

"Being your enemy is the last thing I want, Starla, and becoming friends will do for a start."

"What more do you want and expect from me?"

"Right to the point, a bold and direct woman. I like that."

"I'm pleased you think I have admirable qualities and traits."

"I made that discovery the first time we met; you're an amazing woman. In case you're worried," he began in a near whisper, though no one was nearby, "Tochar didn't ask any questions about that incident, or about how I allegedly got to Noy, or about you. Except," he added and saw her tense, "he did ask if I knew you or anybody else here before I came. It was easy to be honest because I didn't know you prior to my arrival."

She stared at him. Was it possible he was immune to Thorin, that he had tricked Tochar, that her initial appraisal of him was indeed accurate? And why tell her—one of Tochar's Spacekis —such a hazardous secret? "How could you know what he asked while you were under that drug?"

If you 're wrong about her, Dagan, you could be entrapping yourself . When she arrived here, she was truthful about her record and history and about giving fealty to Tochar or she would be dead now, but hopefully she's attracted enough to you to hold silent. "I had a recorder concealed in my boot and I listened to my session afterward." He witnessed a look of astonishment in Starla's eyes, as well as something he decided was dismay.

ou%

The Kalfan's revelation took Starla by surprise and she responded before thinking, "That was taking a big risk, Da-gan; Tochar isn't a fool, nor a man to deceive if you want to stay alive and work for him."

Her spontaneous reaction pleased Dagan, as it implied she cared about him and his survival. "If he was a dimwit, he wouldn't have control of this settlement and I wouldn't be interested in him. Besides, I had to be sure I didn't say anything disadvantageous or hazardous to me."

Starla regained her self-control. "Either you're daring and clever and fearless, or you're reckless and savor living on the edge." She saw him grin as if she had described him with accurate insight.

"I always try never to be reckless or impulsive." But with you, woman, that's difficult; you're much too tempting and disarming. Maybe I should be worried that my interest in you equates with the one in Tochar, and that isn 't smart; it could complicate and jeopardize the situation; Tochar has what Phaedrig wants, and I vowed to get it for him, any way necessary.

Starla placed her glass on the table, unsettled by his mental study of her. "Do you use your little hidden unit very much? Is it on now?"

"Neither, and I destroyed that tape. Does he do more than one test?"

"Not to my knowledge. Afraid you'll change your mind.

allow that independent streak to break through, and ruin future results?" She listened to his rich chuckles. She wished it wasn't such a fierce struggle to keep from staring at him and so strenuous a task to remain alert in his distracting presence.

"I just like to know what I'm up against. I don't like flying through a storm without sensors to guide me. I can use a friend while I'm grounded and a trusted co-pilot when we take flight, so I'm glad you aren't being defensive and distant with me anymore. I imagine you have your reasons for being that way, especially with strangers."

"I do. As a woman in my type of work, I have to be stronger, braver, smarter, and tougher than even the weakest of men to be accepted and respected. Or at least be a skilled pretender to dupe them into thinking I am. If I let down my guard, many try to take advantage of me or forget I have just as much prowess as they do and—in some cases— more."

He realized she wasn't bragging or exaggerating. Yet, he sensed her hard exterior was a protective shield for a unique and tender woman. Still, she was too enchanting and disarming to suit him. "I'm convinced you possess those traits; you took me down quick and easy on that ship. It was quite a shock and enlightenment. I remember every detail about our misadventure."

Starla didn't want to discuss their first meeting because of provocative things she had said to him, expecting never to confront him again and surely not as his teammate. "It's getting late, so I'll see you again at departure time."

"I hoped we could talk longer. You are supposed to edify me." He yearned to stretch out his fingers to fluff the tousled fringe of hair across her forehead. He wanted to touch and kiss her full lips and flawless skin, each exquisite feature on her face. He hungered to caress soft but firm flesh beneath a white jumpsuit which was a vivid contrast to dark-brown tresses that covered straight shoulders. Her

green eyes enticed him to dive into their depths and search for the truth about her, to locate and claim the real woman. Even the weapon she wore heightened his desire for the mysterious and complex creature from a distant origin.

Starla knew it was fritile to order herself to stop being attracted to him. "Don't you think you've seen and heard and done enough for one deega?" she asked in an attempt to control those intrusive emotions. "You were shown the defense sites and settlement, correct?"

"I got a tour. Those Destructoids are amazing. All it takes is removal of a cap to fire a formidable beam. I'm amazed such powers exist. Do you realize how mighty and invincible that makes Tochar and this colony?"

"That's why it's considered the safest haven for villites like us. Did they tell you the caps are the original encasements for those white crystals?" She waited for him to nod. "Whatever that rock is made of, it's the only thing that imprisons its laser force. Crystals are round or oblong in their natural state. A ray can be created only after a white one is given a pointed end, and only a blue one can spall other moonbeams." She related medical facets of the yellow crystals like the ones he sold to Tochar. "Imagine how handy it would be to have that powder in your pocket during a crash or accident. That blue one you had can be made into a scalpel with almost magical traits; it's the only color that can be cut by manmade instruments." After revealing its abilities, she said, "Nature is amazing; only one kind of crystal can give access to the powers and secrets of the others, and those capabilities depend upon their sizes and types."

"You know a lot about moonbeams. That is what they're called?"

"Yes, because their beams reminded discoverers of rays of moonlight, and their scientific name is long and hard to pronounce. You'll learn more during our raids; they're one of our targets. Despite their value and many uses, Tochar

doesn't sell them or offer their magical powers here; to do so would cause a flood of buyers to come and attract too much attention, and it would provoke others to steal them and become competition. I learned all of this by keeping my eyes and ears open. It's good to gather any fact that might prove useful to me one deega. His most trusted men—his three closest friends—do make tiny slips on occasion, especially during raids."

BOOK: Moonbeams and magic
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