Authors: Tracy Banghart
For Dee Hall, who is strong and forthright and fiercely loyal. She made this book possible.
Aris Haan slid into wakefulness a few seconds before the lights snapped on. With a sigh, she snuggled back into Milek Vadim’s warm body and admired how the sky-blue stone in her Promise ring glimmered in the light. She tilted her hand back and forth to make the color dance.
With a sleepy groan, Milek nuzzled the back of her neck. “Morning.”
“Good morning.” Aris smiled to herself, tingles racing along her skin. She turned over to face him, and he curled an arm over her, drawing her so close that his sleepy blue eyes and pale scar blurred, until all she could see clearly was the inviting softness of his mouth.
She gave him a whisper of a kiss. “I like waking up like this.”
“So do I.” His lips trailed along her jaw, his early morning stubble tickling her skin.
Her breath caught. This moment still felt so incredibly, unbelievably new. Just a few weeks ago, when Aris’s wingjet had been shot down over Safara, she didn’t think she’d ever see Milek again.
And now they were Promised.
Commander Nyx, their superior officer, had taken the news with a single stony glance, a more effective warning to behave themselves than any lecture. She allowed them to share a room at Spiro, their stationpoint, a move no one else had questioned, though Aris could see the jealousy in their fellow soldiers’ narrowed eyes and sidelong glances. They missed their loved ones back home and resented that Aris and Milek got to be together. And Aris couldn’t fault them for that. She still fought her own niggling worry, that her happiness
be forbidden, an unwarranted luxury in a time of war.
“Do you want to use the washroom first?” Milek’s voice still had a sleepy rasp to it, and his cheek bore a crease from the pillow.
Aris kissed his stubbly chin and slid out from under their nest of blankets. In the shower, she closed her eyes, letting the hot water pummel her skin. Everything she and Milek knew about each other was tied to the war, to death and destruction. If Aris hadn’t joined Military disguised as a man, she would have never even met Milek, her then superior officer. They’d only known each other for a year and a few months. How could anyone be prepared for a lifetime together after such a short time?
Their Promise sprang from hope, not conviction.
From the hope that their love wouldn’t forever be defined by battle plans and political maneuvering. The hope that someday they’d have a chance to be together—to
each other—without death waiting just outside the door.
She tried to imagine what their lives could be without the war. At this time of day, maybe she’d still be asleep. Or deciding what to wear to work. Or attempting to cook them breakfast. Her mother, a chef, had tried everything, but Aris’s peshka came out soggy, her tea cakes leaden, and her olive paste gritty.
As she punched the panel to turn off the shower, a cold draft sent a shiver down her spine. She hurriedly wrapped her towel around herself and flung the door open into the bedroom.
“Can you cook?” she asked Milek. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, shirtless, pulling on his boots. He glanced up, one brow raised, but she didn’t give him time to answer. “Because I can’t. The last time I tried to make grouse stew I practically poisoned my entire family. When the war is over, we’re going to have to feed ourselves, and if you can’t cook . . . honestly, we might starve.”
While she was speaking, Milek stood up and, with a little smile, put his hands on her shoulders. “I promise you, we won’t starve.”
She shook her head, wild-eyed. “You
cook! This is a disaster. How will we—”
His gentle laugh cut through the irrational panic. “We’ll figure it out.” He cradled her face in his hands. “We can learn together. It’ll be fun. We’ll bond over burnt piggin. You’ll laugh when I nearly set our kitchen on fire.”
“You think that setting the kitchen on fire sounds like fun?” Aris stepped a little closer, bringing her towel-clad body in contact with his bare chest.
“Well . . .” He looked down at her, his eyes darkening. “
Her hands fitted themselves to the ridged muscles of his back, and as she leaned up to kiss him, her towel slipped, puddling at their feet. “Whoops,” she whispered.
Milek’s arms slid around her, and he smiled against her mouth. “That was an accident, right?”
“Totally. Completely out of my control.”
Before things could go much further, Milek drew back with a puppy-dog frown. “My briefing with the commander starts in ten minutes.”
“And if I’m any later to breakfast, Dysis is going to give me grief.” Aris sighed. She brushed her fingertips along his arms, wishing they had all morning to indulge in the fantasies flitting through her mind. “Someday, when this war is over, we’re going to sleep in. Spend all day in bed. Not talk to anyone or do anything for a week.”
“Sounds good to me.” With one last kiss, Milek headed for the bathroom to shave.
Aris threw on her uniform, already bracing herself for Dysis’s knowing smirk. Her fingers trembled a bit as she slid off her Promise ring and placed it on the table beside the bed. She only wore it at night while she slept, too afraid of what might happen to it during a rescue mission.
she told herself fiercely, her index finger resting for an instant on the blue stone.
have this future.
They were the same words she’d told herself every morning for the last week.
“Having a good morning?” Dysis asked with a single brow raised, when Aris finally appeared in the cafeteria a few minutes later.
Dysis’s short dark hair stood on end above her smooth olive skin, full lips, and deep brown eyes. The black key Tech brand on her temple drew attention to her sardonic expression. Like Aris, originally Dysis had volunteered for Military using a diatous veil to appear male.
Aris lightly smacked the back of Dysis’s head and slid into the seat next to her. Her friends were deep in discussion about their splots game the night before.
“You didn’t have a chance, sorry.” Specialist Otto paused to shovel a huge scoop of porridge into his mouth. He was a narrow-shouldered man with an incongruous potbelly.
Specialist Tia Pallas rolled her sky-blue eyes. “We would have if you hadn’t cheated. I
you never drew the purple lady.”
Pallas was a flyer, too, and the only other woman on stationpoint aside from Aris, Dysis, and Commander Nyx. She was the smallest of them, slight and almost fragile looking, but she held her own in combat training. Beside Pallas, her gunner, Specialist Baksen, just shook his head.
“We beat you fairly,” Dysis said. “Otto’s pure as a Ruslanan blizzard.” But even she couldn’t keep a straight face.
Aris let their laughter wash over her. There’d been little humor around Spiro in the past few months, but now Elom, Safara’s biggest war criminal, was in Atalantan custody. Ward Amadi Balias’s assertion that he had invaded Atalanta
to provide clean water for Safara was starting to splinter under the increasing evidence that his move was informed by plain, old-fashioned greed. He’d left his own people to rot while he crusaded for more land and more power, and he’d even conscripted child soldiers. To date, the Wards of Castalia and Halona had refused to intervene, but most Atalantans believed they’d soon change their policies and offer support. The tide was finally shifting in Atalanta’s favor.
But Aris knew something most of the world didn’t: Ward Balias was developing a bomb that could destroy them all. The weapon, called the flaming scorpion, was designed to destroy humans using DNA markers, leaving all other living things, as well as buildings and infrastructure, intact. With it, Ward Balias could make entire populations disappear, then roll in and take over pristine cities and untouched agriculture.
It was a weapon to conquer, to erase any who stood in his way. With it, Balias could destroy the world.
Aris had seen evidence of the weapon’s testing herself when she’d crashed in Safara. Since her rescue, Atalantan spies had wrung precious little intel about the bomb from their sources, beyond what it did and when it would be operational, which, thankfully, was still months away. Enough time, she hoped, to figure out how to stop Balias from ever using it.
Aris stood and stretched her arms above her head, releasing the tension in her back. “I need to check my comms before morning formation. Anyone else?”
“Sure,” Dysis said. Pallas followed, too.
Spiro’s rec room was nearly empty, with most of the soldiers still at breakfast. Nyal, a flyer who started the same time Aris, Pallas, and Dysis had, napped on one of the worn couches in the corner, and only two seats were taken at the long table equipped with digitablet ports. The wall of monitors that usually played news vids was powered off this early in the morning. Aris could have hooked up her digitablet in the Officer’s Lounge, but she preferred spending the extra few minutes with her friends.
“Hoping to hear from Jax?” Aris asked Dysis. Her brother Jax was a spy for the Atalantan military; he’d been injured in his escape from a Safaran prison camp but had returned to active duty recently. Dysis worried about him a lot.
With a shrug, Dysis said, “I think he’s in Panthea being important right now. Probably won’t have time.”
Aris opened her comms and found a new message from Phae, her friend from home.
Aris, I can’t believe I had to hear you were Promised from your parents! You couldn’t have sent a comm? In any case, congratulations! Rakk and I are so happy for you, and Echo is beside herself. She wants me to ask you for all the details. I have to admit it’s still hard to believe you and Calix aren’t together anymore. Then again, that’s not the only change in your life these days, is it?
Lux is adjusting slowly to our newcomers. Some people aren’t happy to have Safarans in our midst, but it’s difficult to stay suspicious of a bunch of kids. I’ve spoken to Samira and Alistar a few times. Alistar is very grateful to you for helping them get the children to safety. He asked me to pass along his good wishes. Samira just glares a lot. Is that normal?
We miss you here. Stay safe, my friend. ~Phae
Aris felt a pang of guilt at the widening gulf the war had created between her and her old friends, but she smiled at the ending of the comm. She could easily picture Samira’s hostility. It seemed to be the woman’s only emotion, as far as Aris could tell. And as for Alistar feeling grateful, well, he wasn’t the only one. When Aris had been shot down over Safara, she’d assumed everyone was an enemy. But Alistar and Samira had taken her in, treated her wounds, and kept her hidden when soldiers had come looking for her.
In return, she’d helped them get nearly thirty former child soldiers and orphans to safety in Atalanta. Child soldiers like Kori, whose skinny, scarred arms and heavy limp had affected Aris in ways she couldn’t have predicted. She’d made him a promise that she’d find his mother and baby sister . . . that she’d figure out how to reunite him with his family. The closest she’d come was contacting Jax and asking him for help. As of yet, she’d heard nothing.
She opened a fresh comm, but before she had time to begin the message, a deep voice rattled over the intercom.
“Code 202. Code 202. Lieutenant Haan, assemble your team and report to the landing pad.”
With a sigh, she shut down her digitablet. “So much for a quiet morning. Let’s go.”
Pallas rose, but when Dysis started to stand up, Aris pushed her back into her chair. “Don’t even think about it,” she admonished. “You’re not cleared for missions yet, and you’re due at the infirmary for a med-visit this morning. That shoulder won’t heal if you don’t take it easy.”
Dysis had taken a solagun bolt to the arm during Aris’s rescue two weeks ago, but she grumbled with all the righteous indignation of an athlete sidelined by a splinter. Truthfully, the wound was fairly minor. The dark shadows under Dysis’s eyes and her frantic desire to get back to the battleground worried Aris more. Lieutenant Daakon, the man Dysis loved, had been killed during the rescue. Theirs had been a complex relationship; once Daakon discovered Dysis was actually a woman, he realized he couldn’t return her feelings. Dysis hadn’t been able to tamp down her own desire so easily, but she didn’t want to talk about his death and refused to see the stationpoint counselor. She was trying to outrun her grief, and Aris wasn’t sure she could. At least her friend’s wound gave her a short reprieve, even if it was a forced one.
“Lieutenant?” Nyal sat up on the couch, rubbing his eyes.
Aris waved him back down. “It’s just a 202. We’ll only need one recon and transport. Specialist Pallas has us covered.”
Normally Aris flew the tiny two-person recon wingjets, but their go-to transport flyer, Specialist Mann, was awaiting medical clearance. He’d sprained his ankle dancing with his wife at the ceremony in Ruslana, much to his embarrassment.
“We’ve got two soldiers down,” Milek announced, once Aris and Pallas arrived on the landing pad. Otto and Baksen were already there. “Should be a routine retrieval, but the location is of concern. The village is close to the Fex River.”
Aris’s heart sank. Safaran forces hadn’t been able to sustain a presence that deep into Atalanta yet, but that didn’t stop them from sending out small, lethal raiding parties. She hoped all nonmilitary had been evacuated from the area. The very worst missions were those in which they discovered murdered civilians.
As she coaxed her wingjet into the air, Aris tried to squelch her misgivings. It was just a routine rescue. No more, no less.