Kiryn emerged from her bedroom with her tears dry and her head aching, and found her father's former crew waiting. They were vastly different from the refined, powerful people of Sorendaal's colonial government who had surrounded her when the news of the starship's destruction first arrived. No wine or other refined, expensive beverages for these men. Tanned by radiation, scarred by shipboard explosions, grim and heavy-set, they sat around the oval table where her father, the governor, had entertained ambassadors and officials. Their glasses were filled with murky brews that could have come from the coolant tanks of their battered, fierce starships.
She was gladder to see these men than anyone else who might have come to console her. Kiryn knew they wouldn't speak soothing words and offer useless philosophy and homilies to ease her pain. They would be just as angry as she that Captain Niall Encardi, the Terror of the Spacelanes, had met his death at the hands of the government that had once begged, long ago, for his help.
What did it matter if galactic civilization and the government of the Central Allied Worlds shredded a little more every day, and the soldiers in the attacking ships had been rebels? The government provided those weapons and trained those soldiers, and failed to keep its vaunted control over the far-flung colonies throughout the galaxy. The end result was the same. Her father and mother were dead, despite their ship being clearly marked an ambassadorial vessel and transmitting their identification on all frequencies.
Their deaths hadn't been an accident.
"I hope you saved some for me," she growled.
Pikken, her father's first mate nodded, baring his teeth in a fierce grin, and handed her an old-style tankard made for drinking in free-fall, full of murky, faintly glowing greenish-brown liquid. The fumes tore into Kiryn's nostrils before she had the tankard in her hand.
"Those vacuum-breathers give pirates a bad name," Doc muttered, as the former pirate crew of the Nova Vendetta watched Kiryn down a good mouthful without choking.
"Then let's teach them what real pirates do," she spat, and thumped the tankard down on the table. Some liquid splashed out and seemed to hiss as it splattered on the highly polished surface of the table. She knew her mother would probably have laughed at the damage, rather than be horrified. Mirabella came from a family of scholars, artists and ambassadors, as well as military geniuses, as refined as the highest-ranking family lines in the Central Allied Worlds could ever be. She had put far more value on people and principles than on things, no matter how rare and expensive.
"You're not talking abandoning the planet, are you?" Doc said, slowly standing. "Only two things could get your father to settle down--your mother, and his homeworld."
"Not abandoning. Blockading." Kiryn felt the homebrew burn in her gut and clear the ache from her head. It wouldn't numb the raw, torn place that used to be her heart, but it helped her stop probing the wound for a little while. "Wear your enemy's face, if you want to scare him away."
Slowly, those grim faces brightened. Kiryn didn't know if it was the homebrew making her brain go foggy on the edges, or the challenge she had thrown them, but they looked younger, more alert and alive than she had seen them in years. Civilization hadn't been kind to these former rebels, criminals, smugglers and space-borne pirates.
"Give the word, Captain," Pikken said, and saluted her with his half-empty mug.
* ** * *
Darrak Cain preferred research over teaching, and written reports over verbal, and he hated the political game-playing that stole so much precious time, energy and resources from his scientific studies. He stood on the bridge of the starship christened Stellar Peace specifically for this mission, and wished for the bad old days of student teaching and struggling to ensure his thesis didn't get tossed out because some amoral rival stole his notes and copied his results.
How had he ended up as a peace envoy to the neighboring star systems? He was a scientist who once specialized in explosives and energy weapons, until his colony was abandoned by the disintegrating government. By massive irony, everything he developed was always turned to use on the massive military star cruisers that now seemed to be in the hands of rebels who attacked neglected, abandoned, defenseless colony worlds like his. How did that sort of background qualify him to speak about peace?
Common sense said the pirate vessel blockading the colony world Sorendaal wouldn't be very impressed to know he was on board the Stellar Peace. Not unless they wanted him to do some weapons research for them.
"Getting a signal," the communications officer said. He sounded surprised.
Darrak didn't turn to look at the man. He could tell by the rank, salty damp odor that the man had ruined his uniform with nervous sweat. If he had been part of the military instead of a volunteer for a semi-suicidal peace mission, he would have been booted from the service. Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on the viewpoint--this wasn't the military. Darrak hoped he never saw any military belonging to the Central Allied Worlds, because they were the enemy.
Ironic, considering that the pirate crew that effectively blockaded Sorendaal from the rest of the universe was high on the list of preferred allies in this battle to hold civilization together. It just proved how turned around and inside out everything had become, when the government he once served was the enemy and the pirates that had claimed control of this colony world presented the best chance of stability and safety.
"Stellar Peace, this is the Nova Vendetta. We have received your signal," a woman said. "Why should we believe a word you say?"
"Can't be," Captain Marker whispered, and turned in his command chair to lock gazes with Darrak.
"Wrong, captain," the woman said. "This is the Nova Vendetta. We are not a ghost ship, as we will prove if you give us any reason to believe you're here to cause trouble."
"Who is the Nova Vendetta? I mean, besides a pirate ship," Darrak hurried to add.
"A ghost ship." Marker shuddered once, like a man shaking off filthy water as he climbed onto shore.
"I guarantee, we are not ghosts," the woman said. "The question is, do you want to find out firsthand if there really is such a thing as ghosts, out here in space?"
"We're here on a diplomatic mission," Darrak said. "What do you want us to do? Our mission is to talk to you, and we'll do whatever it takes to obtain safe passage to the surface."
"Whatever it takes? Who are you to make promises like that?"
"I'm the head of the peace delegation." He felt that tightening in his throat, the sensation of dozens of spiders sliding between his shirt and his back, that always came when he became the focus of everyone in the room.
"Ah. The peace delegation. Haven't you heard? This planet is a haven for pirates and rebels and terrorists." Her voice turned rich with repressed laughter.
Darrak wondered if she looked even half as sleek and exotic as she sounded. What did a female pirate look like? He mentally shook himself and gripped the back of the captain's chair a little harder, to try to yank his thoughts back on track. They were about to get blown into atoms, if they couldn't prove themselves trustworthy.
"Tyrants consider everyone terrorists who dare to stand up against them," he retorted, and silently groaned at how inane that statement sounded. "What matters to us is that you do have the strength to guarantee safety, and you have made this world a haven from the factions that are destroying the rest of the universe. We need your strength, and you need allies."
"If you are the Nova Vendetta," Captain Marker broke in, while Darrak struggled to find a response that didn't come from his awakening hormonal urges, "let me speak to Captain Encardi."
"Captain Encardi? Which Captain Encardi?" Her voice cracked, turned harsh, and Darrak had a sudden vision of plasma torpedoes cutting through vacuum, with his name on the nose of one. "If you're referring to Captain Niall Encardi, who became governor of this world and made his enemies respect him and beg for his help...he's dead. He made the mistake of trusting the government to match him in honor, and it blew him into stellar dust as payment."
"We're sorry for your loss," Darrak offered, even as something twisted inside him in response to the aching and loss in that voice. It was easy to image this woman as the pirate captain's lover and partner.
"I'm the only Captain Encardi you'll find, this side of Fi'in's Rest," she continued, almost before he finished speaking. "I learned a lot from my father's mistakes. Trusting someone sight unseen isn't on my list of chores for the day."
"Tell us what we need to do, Captain," Marker said. "We are in your hands."
Darrak barely heard, caught in the sudden falling sensation of relief--Encardi was her father, not her lover or husband.
Back on target, stupid! You're here to forge a peace alliance, not break your heart over another woman who has no use for a scholar.
* ** * *
The words of Captain Marker of the Stellar Peace (and wasn't that a name to provoke someone to shoot them out of space?) rang through Kiryn's mind as she watched the officers and peace delegates step through the airlock. The tallest member of the party wasn't in uniform, which meant he was a delegate rather than ship's crew. A few strands of tangled black hair escaped the cord tying his hair back in a neat queue at the base of his neck. Kiryn startled herself with an urge to step across the neutral zone of the corridor outside the docking bay, to brush that hair back into place. Those wide, strong-looking shoulders were stooped, his skin was pale, indicating more time spent indoors doing whatever peace delegates did, instead of skimming through space, harassing pirates and rebels into joining his alliance of disenfranchised colonies. Still, he looked clean, healthy and...rather tasty.
Kiryn thought back to the comments of her officers just last night over a dinner of increasingly boring rations. The tough, commonsense pirates and scoundrels of her childhood were turning into old men who thought about things like gardens and babies. Four years of struggle had ensured their world was safe from the dregs of the Central Allied Worlds' disintegrated military, or anyone with delusions of authority. Now, these old men who had once counseled her to have no mercy and give no quarter, wanted her to find a husband and have children to carry on the Encardi legacy.
She didn't know what terrified her more--having to make nice to the young men of her planet who couldn't measure up to her standards as warriors, or trying to figure out how to take care of the baby once she made it. Engines, life support failures and battle tactics had filled her mind for so long, she wasn't sure if she could find her female side in the dark closet where she had stashed it.
Looking at this peace delegate, however, she felt something stirring to life. Something warm and a little jittery. Were those her hormones? Her parents, she knew, had lived in dread of the day she decided to stop besting the local boys in sports and start flirting--or, Fi'in forbid, let them actually catch her.
Kiryn did a quick evaluation of the tall, pale-skinned specimen standing before her, and wondered if her hormones had been shoved into hibernation so long, they had malfunctioned. The last thing she needed was a scholar or a diplomat. Survival needed a warrior. So why did she get that funny knotted sensation in her belly, stronger with every second she looked at his mouth and wondered what his lips would taste like? Why was she even looking at his mouth? The philosopher said it best: the eyes were the windows of the soul. He did have beautiful, big, warm gray eyes.
"What is that?" she blurted, breaking the tense, waiting silence that held pirates and newcomers frozen in the corridor. An instant later, Kiryn knew she acted like a child, but there was nothing she could do now except go forward. "On your face."
The big delegate hunched his shoulders more and fumbled at the frames covering both eyes and extending long, slim bars to go behind his ears. "Umm...they're called glasses."
"They were once used to correct defects in vision, back before postnatal corrective treatments," Doc offered.
"Your colonies have been cut off from the basics even longer than us," Kiryn said, nodding. Then she flinched as the sound of his voice triggered memories. "You're the head delegate?"
"Darrak Cain." He nodded, squared his shoulders, and stepped out from the semi-protection of the others who had shuttled over from the Stellar Peace. "Captain Encardi?"
Kiryn settled for a short, sharp nod and let Pikken do the talking. She studied the new hostages--that's all they were, until her planet's defenders could be sure they were truthful and not about to blow the blockade wide open--and watched their reactions. That was her job, reading people, deducing their true motivations and predicting their reactions.
The former military were easy to pick out--the captain and executive officer and two junior members of the diplomatic team. They stood very still and their eyes managed to take in all the details even as their heads never turned away and their attention seemed focused on Pikken. It surprised Kiryn a little to realize that Darrak Cain wasn't ex-military. His interest in the ship was almost childlike. She imagined him growing up on stories of stellar pirates, wide-eyed and imaginative. Maybe he was a farmer who turned to diplomacy? She would have to find out what colony world he hailed from, and how far it was from the main space lanes. Kiryn found it hard to believe the Central Allied World's military branches hadn't tried to conscript him. Even with those antiquated glasses perched on his aquiline nose, he wouldn't have been rejected. There were plenty of procedures to correct even the most defective eyesight, and all free if he had gone military. So what was he?
"Please, Captain, we need to talk now," Darrak said, after Pikken finished his speech and gestured for the hostages to follow the guards in charge of them.
Kiryn's men all took a collective breath, not quite freezing in shock so much as they took a step back and braced for trouble. Pikken had just told them they weren't to talk to anyone besides their guards, and never speak outside their quarters. And here their leader disregarded a rule under the heading of "Do You Want To Live? Then Don't be Stupid."
She wondered if Darrak Cain could read her thoughts and knew she would never let anyone, even a troublesome hostage, even the idiot who tried to kill her two Lunars ago, be killed. There was too much information to extract from foreign minds, necessary for the survival of this pirate-protected world. Too much valuable data on the splintered military of what remained of the Central Allied Worlds, to just kill someone for breaking the rules. That was a weakness, but she thought she had hidden it.
"You're in my territory, Cain." Kiryn kept her voice mild, remembering the log tapes of her father when he had fought the bloody war that saved their planet. Niall Encardi had tricked his enemies into relaxing their guards, into feeling shame for their actions, into underestimating him. She stored away the anger other people provoked in her, saving the energy for when she needed it.
"Yes, we know. You've managed to not only hold your boundaries but expand them so five orbital habitats have left distant star systems to live under your protection."
"We're stretched too thin to protect anyone new," she half-lied.
"We don't need protection."
"Then why are you here?" She gestured for Pikken, who grabbed hold of Darrak's wrists, slapping the restraint bands into place.
"We need a leader." He ignored the sting of the bands as they contracted around his wrists, reacting to his body heat. Kiryn knew how the chemical reaction in the simple plastic tubes could burn, and his power of focus impressed her.
"I already have an empire. Why would I want another helpless colony?" She shook her head and stomped down the hall, taking the first access ladder to an upper deck that she came to.
Doc followed her to the common room, where she unlocked the cold box and took a flask of tea from the rack. Three swallows half-emptied the flask and nearly choked her, but she felt better able to handle the reproachful look in Doc's eyes when she turned to face him. For a former pirate, Doc spent more time thinking about ethics and responsibility than any ten moralists or priests put together.
"There's a difference between cold and harsh," was all he said, as he reached past her for his own bottle and shut the cold box. "Does he irritate or frighten you? I rather like him, even if he doesn't know how to follow orders. Don't let him scare you."
"Scare me? How?" She would have laughed, but Darrak's earnest, handsome face filled her inner vision and she cringed at the purely physical reaction she relived.
"What?" Kiryn's heart raced. How could Doc tell? Without his instruments, how could he tell how Darrak made her temperature soar and her heart race as if she had flown through a minefield with ex-military special forces gunners on her tail.
Correct that--she had done that three moons ago, and her body hadn't shaken like it did now.
"He's attracted to you." Doc winked, an incongruous sight in his scarred, permanently space-tanned face, and sauntered out of the room.
"Not in a million years," Kiryn whispered. She tipped back the bottle and nearly choked again. There was no way that inept peace envoy could be attracted to her. He had to wear archaic seeing aids--glasses--how could he even know what she looked like?
Unexpectedly, she remembered something her father had said once, when he was in a singularly thoughtful, philosophical mood. He told her how he had met her mother, during the defense of their planet, and how they had become friends during six long, terrified days of communicating on a voice-only channel, when both sides were sure either the space station or the pirate ship would be destroyed by the invading space forces. Niall claimed he had fallen in love with his lady during those horrid days, when her voice was the only spot of beauty within a thousand light-years.
Kiryn thought about that a moment longer, then snorted. She knew she didn't have a beautiful voice. Pleasant, yes, but in the years since her parents had died, and the defense of their world had fallen on her and an aging band of former pirates, she had grown harsh, stern, and it reflected in voice as well as face. Darrak the inept, half-blind peace envoy, was more likely in love with the fanciful image of a pirate queen, not the reality.