To create paradise, he'll have to face a nightmare.

Disgraced Marcasian PSF officer Adrian Khalid has one shot at finding a place where he can be himself. At the emperor's request, he's on Lok'ma to help form their military. And find his Lokmane father. Maybe while he's there, he can kill off the ghosts of four years as a prisoner of Tur'een mercenaries.

Moira Salys just wants a new life where she can help other Lokmane put their pain to rest. And maybe let go of her own. But the soldier she sang to while a prisoner of the Tur'een is a memory she can't let go of. Stumbling on him in her brother's office puts her world right for the first time in a year. Spending time with him is a little slice of unexpected paradise.

Everything shatters when Adrian finds a hidden colony of Lokmane on the Southern Islands. And they're planning to execute his best friend. Saving his friend and Lokmane freedom means facing his ghosts. And it might kill everyone he loves.

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Chapter One

Searching: Day One

The one good thing about starting over on another planet was no one knew he'd killed eleven men. No one knew he'd been dishonorably discharged for it. No one knew he'd spent six months out of his mind in a psych ward.

And no one knew he’d been dreaming about a singer named Za’lia. Of finding her, falling in love. And her love healing the remaining cracks in his psyche and soul. In those dreams, he wasn’t afraid to want more. Wasn’t afraid to embrace the possibilities represented by what people called his unreal eyes. Big, a deep, multifaceted teal he’d looked for among Lokmane all his life. And never seen.

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In those dreams were the seeds of reclaiming his life. Of building a new one where it didn’t matter he didn’t look like a Khalid, where his mother didn’t throw her definition of eligible young women at him, and people didn’t look at him like he was some kind of monster just because he’d spent time in a psych ward.

Here on Lok’ma, no one knew anything about him. Other than he was from Marcase and sent by the emperor.

Adrian stood at the window of his little cottage, on the edge of the training area set up for the Honeycomb, sipping from his mug of hot cocoa. The emperor had asked him to help train them, and impress upon the Lokmane the importance of having a functioning military. After losing his PSF career, and his older brother getting his inheritance away from their father, he’d jumped at the chance to leave Marcase.

On this planet, with its rainbow trees, beautiful lakes, vast oceans, and enough islands to make even the most hardcore explorers happy, maybe, just maybe, he might banish the last of the nightmares. They didn’t haunt him every night anymore, but still rocked his world in the worst way too often. He’d been free over a year now, and in his right mind over half of that.

If not for Za’lia’s voice in his dreams, he’d dread sleep. The way he dreaded today and his first meeting with the men whose trust he had to earn.

He drank from his mug, savoring the rich creaminess as it rolled across his tongue. Best in the galaxy. His research said Za’lia might be here. She’d all but disappeared after she’d told the PSF everything she knew about the Tur’een encampment she’d been held in. Almost two years ago now, and she hadn’t been seen in public since.

Curious. Very curious.

Footsteps sounded behind him, and he tensed. “Just me, Adrian.”

He forced his body to relax, and eased onto the arm of the sofa, by the window. Then watched Zu’resh fix his breakfast in the small kitchen. The balanced Mé had been born a Tur’een slave, attached himself to Adrian, formed a telepathic link with him when his voice was frozen, and left with him when rescue came. Adrian owed Z his sanity and his life.

Did you eat yet?”

No.”

Z adjusted to make two breakfasts. “I’m really glad your sister-in-law gave me a bunch of her recipes, but some of the ingredients won’t be easy to find here.”

We’ll make adjustments. I’m a decent cook too, thanks to her.” He sipped from his cocoa again. Amun, his older brother, had been right. Disabled homeless vet starting over on another planet had gotten Anise to give up her top-secret hot cocoa recipe. “Anything I get desperate for, Amun promised to send.”

Good. I kinda got addicted to dates, and I didn’t see any yesterday when I explored the stores.” Z cracked eggs into a bowl and beat the crap out of them. “You nervous about today?”

A little.” His first day as the official imperial military liaison to the Lokmane. “I was told to expect the king to drop in at some point this week.”

Z nodded as he poured the eggs into the skillet. “Everyone seems to like him a lot, and he’s very hands-on. I’d like to meet him too at some point.”

I still want to take your collar off.”

Z shook his head. “Need to know this is all real first. Ask me again in a month.”

I won’t wait that long.” Adrian forced his body up and started for the bar separating the kitchen from the living room. Yes, he had a table as of yesterday, but he liked the bar at breakfast. Kept him stretched out and made walking a little easier. Something about buying everything he needed locally, made by Lokmane, and supporting their fledgling economy, appealed to him. He’d left Marcase with more money than he could spend in five lifetimes, so why not pour some of it back into the people Marcase had wronged?

Z set a plate of eggs and toast in front of him, then got out the yogurt and orange marmalade. Adrian swirled the two together on his plate. “I’m so glad I don’t have to wait to find out what winter is like here.”

Why do you like it so much?” Z joined him at the bar.

Because snow hid all the ugliness and made him happy. Snow days meant Amun stayed home from school too, so he’d have someone to play with. “It’s fun.”

You’re weird.”

So are you.”

Z stuck his tongue out.

They finished breakfast in comfortable silence, then Adrian dressed in his new uniform. Khaki cargo pants, his PSF boots, and a long-sleeved black tactical shirt. Not a uniform exactly, but it didn’t scream Marcase. Most of the Honeycomb men he’d seen the last couple days wore similar clothing. Until they had an official, functioning military, there would be no uniform. And Adrian had lost the right to wear his anyway.

He paused at the door. “You’re sure you’d rather stay here?”

Z nodded. “It’s too much tension. You need to focus on your job. Not defending me.” Z lifted his hand. “Just like you, I have to find my own way. Even if it means I get into a few fights.”

Adrian nodded, pulled the door open, and left his little sanctuary. Since the Lokmane population was so skewed toward female, they tended not to like it when a Lokmane male decided he didn’t like women. Combined with being a different one, a Mé who couldn’t father children anyway, many saw it as a double strike against Z’s very existence.

The king was working on changing it, but he couldn’t talk to every person on the planet and tell them the Més were needed. And a normal part of their existence as a species.

He slid into his cruiser and drove to the command center. Maybe one day he’d be able to walk such a distance again. But right now, it meant disaster and multiple days in bed. He couldn’t afford for these men to see the true extent of his weakness. Not until he’d earned their trust. Which might take the rest of his life. Good thing he liked a challenge to keep life from getting boring.

Thanks to dialog between the emperor and the king, he had his own parking space. Like the other officers. He secured the engine and sat there, staring at the building. Four stories, but only the first two floors were in use at the moment according to his briefing file. It appeared to have been built for the day when the Lokmane did have a military, and needed the room.

On the other side of the door lay a new purpose for his life. The Lokmane faced threats they didn’t understand—ones he did. All too well. Whether these men liked it or not, they needed Z’s knowledge too.

One step at a time.

Getting out and going in shouldn’t be so hard, yet here he sat, paralyzed. Breakfast turned bitter and threatened to come back up. He’d been sent here to stop the Tur’een from ruining more lives, from destroying this embryonic free civilization. What if they had broken him? What if he couldn’t help anyone because he hadn’t put himself back together enough yet?

He shook his head to dislodge the thoughts. Discharge or not, he remained PSF. They weren’t made; they were born. He’d be PSF until he died. They didn’t shirk from danger, or hide under the covers. No, they ran headfirst into whatever they found.

Adrian Khalid, disgraced PSF captain secretly promoted to major by the emperor, had to be the one to walk into this building. Adrian Khalid, the broken man haunted by the worst decision of his life, had to stay out here.

He shoved open his door, stepped out of the cruiser, and walked with measured steps to the front door of his new home-away-from-home. The glass door slid open at his approach. Sunlight and a bright, open space greeted him. A glance up revealed the lobby went all the way up, with nothing but glass. Even the ceiling was glass. Plas-glass, most likely. Open and almost cheerful.

An unoccupied reception desk took up the center of the space. Staircases went up on each side, to more sliding glass doors secured with biometric security systems. Smart. But he had no idea which way to go. Based on this layout, he probably needed to go upstairs. Since he couldn’t get past the doors, he stayed put.

With all the open space, there was no protecting his back. He turned a circle to pinpoint all the exits. Way too many, thanks to the glass.

Someone was running up to the front door, though, and he burst into the lobby. Tall, dark hair, Lokmane, silvery eyes. “I’m so sorry I’m late. Adrian Khalid?”

Yes. And you are?”

Na’var Manchac.” The man stopped in front of him, hand extended.

Adrian shook it. “You’re connected to the Honeycomb?”

Not directly. I was Grand Duke Arrin’s bodyguard for almost twenty years, and ran a spy network for the Shadows. Now I do whatever A’yen needs done.” Na’var indicated the stairs, and started up them.

Adrian followed. Slower. Much slower. He hated stairs now, and the strain they caused on his leg muscles. The burning ache they inflicted usually lasted for hours, even if he only did one flight. “You’re here to run interference, then?”

Sort of. Ma’lik can be a little prickly at times. Doesn’t have a high opinion of Marcasians either.”

There are times I agree with him.”

Na’var paused and looked over his shoulder. “I know some of what happened to you, but I haven’t shared it with anyone except A’yen. Ma’lik is a good man, but he doesn’t trust anyone outside his men.”

I know I have a long fight ahead of me to gain the trust of anyone here, whether they’re Honeycomb or not.”

Good. It’ll also be hard. From what I know of PSF, hard and long don’t bother you.” Na’var continued up the stairs, but ignored the palm scanner by the doors. They slid open at his approach.

Adrian followed the other man into an area of offices, staffed by Lokmane without collars and in civilian dress. Painful silence fell over them. Every single one stared at him, some with open malevolence. These people hadn’t been in the files Taran—Prince Nicco’s steward and spy master—had given him. Which made sense.

He didn’t move. They had to see he wasn’t a threat, and any movement might be interpreted as such at this stage. He kept his posture as relaxed as possible after coming up a flight of stairs, and scanned every face turned his way. If they thought this might intimidate him, they had to know otherwise right now.

One of the men in the back stalked forward, his bearing tight but straight, hands in fists at his side. His eyes were amber shot with streaks of gold. An unusual color. “Who the hell are you?”

Adrian Khalid. The emperor sent me to help you.”

The man came to within centimeters of him. “We don’t need your help.”

Adrian took a step closer. Hardened his voice. “There are threats out there you know nothing about.”

And you do?”

Intimately. You are?”

The man didn’t move. Neither did Adrian. He wasn’t losing the first pissing contest, even if it did make them think worse of him.

Kellyn, back off. He’s here to help.” Another Lokmane appeared behind Kellyn, and they all went back to whatever they’d been doing. Including Kellyn, though he stomped a little. This one, according to his files, was Ma’lik. Taller than Adrian and Kellyn, dark brown hair, and the oddest shade of brown eyes. They were almost luminescent. “Major Khalid.”

Ma’lik.” Adrian nodded to the approaching man. “I consider it an honor to be here and to offer my help.”

Ma’lik didn’t come as close as Kellyn had. “Thank you. If you’ll follow me, please.”

Adrian did, through the desks to an office in the back. Where Ma’lik shut the door, and took a seat behind the desk. He spun in his chair and indicated one against the wall. Adrian took it. But didn’t stretch his legs out like he wanted to. They had to see him as a soldier first, one capable of handling his position.

Which he was. If he told himself that enough, he might believe it.

Kellyn has issues with humans in general. It’s not because you’re Marcasian.”

Adrian nodded. “His markings are regiment, correct?”

Yes.” Ma’lik leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I haven’t been able to find out much about you outside the official stuff I was sent through your embassy. You’ve been appointed to this after being dishonorably discharged?”

Adrian remained stone still. Took a deep breath. Nodded once.

Care to explain?”

I suppose you deserve that much.”

Ma’lik arched an eyebrow. “I think I deserve a hell of a lot more, since I agreed to this. But we’ll start with what happened.”

The last place he wanted to go. Especially in a hostile environment. But Ma’lik had a point. Adrian focused on a painting behind Ma’lik’s head, and dove in. “My unit was stationed in the Fringes. We’ve been doing battle for centuries with mercenaries known as the Tur’een. I saw an opportunity to gather intel on a group we suspected of attacking passenger ships, and I took it. I shouldn’t have.”

Two deep breaths. He’d have to spend some time later locking things back up so he could function. “We were attacked. Captured. They tortured us. Killed my men.”

Ma’lik sucked in a breath through his teeth.

Then they recognized me as the child of someone important, and held me for ransom. Which my father refused to pay. They kept me for almost five years and treated me like a slave. After I was rescued, I was dishonorably discharged because I got my men killed.” He allowed himself to look at Ma’lik then.

Ma’lik tilted his head. “That’s it? No attempt to justify your decisions, or tell me it wasn’t your fault?”

It was my fault. I see no point in lying about it. The Tur’een are a threat to the Lokmane. I have the horrible advantage of having the most experience with how they make decisions. The emperor asked me to do this to help prepare you for it, and design training semi-capable of handling this kind of thing.”

My men aren’t special operations caliber. We’re still too broken for that.”

Adrian acknowledged it with a tilt of his head and a half-nod. “Your group laid the groundwork for the Doran government to fall. That’s no small feat. I was a prisoner when it happened, so I don’t know the details yet. I want to learn them, learn your structure, your goals, your weaknesses. Then we’ll figure out how to address them and lay the groundwork for a functioning military.”

And he’d need all that to identify officer candidates. Without a command structure, this fledgling army would fall apart before it ever had a chance to form.

We?”

Yes. I’m here in an advisory capacity. Not as an officer of any kind, or someone you have no choice but to listen to.” Adrian crushed the need to shift in his seat a little, to ease the fire crawling across his back from the damn tattoos reacting to the pressure of a hard seat-back.

Your eyes.”

For once in his life, his eyes—and what they hinted at—were an asset. “It’s possible I’m a half-blood. I plan to find out while I’m here. If I am, will it help?”

Treated like a slave for almost five years?”

Adrian nodded. Pushed his left sleeve up before he could overthink it. For once, the damn tattoos might have a purpose and make his job easier. “Marked like one too, and I react to it. The pain your men live in is something I understand.”

Ma’lik left his chair, knelt in front of Adrian, and studied the pattern. It was made up of half-circles wound together, with dots scattered all over it. “The color is similar to the king’s, but I’ve never seen the pattern before.”

They have their own. Ink is whatever they happen to steal. There are thousands of Lokmane in their settlements.”

Ma’lik stood, every line of his body rigid. “Slaves?”

Adrian nodded.

Then they need to be eradicated.”

Agreed. Easier said than done, though.”

The door burst open and he glanced at it. But didn’t jump, thank the gods.

Ma’lik, I swear if you don’t—”

He cut her off. “Not now, Moira.”

Adrian stared. With his mouth open. Za’lia stood there, wearing dark pants and a pink sweater, her hair falling in loose waves across her shoulders. She stared too. Covered her mouth. Spun and ran out of the office.

How had she seen his face when he’d never seen hers?

Za’lia knew the Honeycomb leader. Who was Lokmane. She was supposed to be Barayan, but might not be. Her name was Moira, and she lived here. The way Ma’lik said her name, they might be related. Of course. Nothing else in his life had been easy. Expecting this to be had been the worst kind of foolish.

But he had to know for sure. And he had to tell her what she’d done.

He surged out of his chair and followed her to a small alcove. She stood there hugging herself, biting her lip and looking as though she was trying not to cry. She held her hand out to stop his approach, and he froze. “You saw me?”

Za’lia nodded.

I never saw you.”

You were unconscious,” she whispered.

You saved my sanity. I’ve been looking for you. To thank you.”

Just please leave me alone.” Her words were broken. Like him. “I can’t be around you.”

A laser shot to the gut couldn’t hurt any worse. “Then I won’t trouble you again. Thank you for singing to me.” He backed away from her, and forced himself to return to Ma’lik’s office. Where he closed the door and stood with his back to it. “You knew all along. Didn’t you?”

Ma’lik nodded. “Still wanted to hear it from you. Make sure it matches what my sister told me.”

Did it?” That hardness again.

Yup.” Ma’lik took a step toward him, and went all big brother. Something Adrian recognized from all the times Amun had done it to protect him from their father. Including the last time, when Amun punched the man. “Please stay away from her. What she experienced there scarred her as much as what they did to you. She needs to heal.”

Every muscle went rigid. He didn’t want to stay away from her. Her voice continued to keep him sane, helped him hold the flashbacks at bay. He lifted his chin, almost glaring at the man. “And if I don’t stay away?”

Then we’ll be getting much better acquainted. In a way you don’t want. So long as I’m breathing, no Marcasian is touching my sister.”

Adrian put his hand on the door knob. Curious, to find actual door knobs everywhere on this planet. “You don’t get to decide what’s best for her.”

Neither do you.”

He pulled the door open and stepped out of the office. Just in time to see Za’lia—Moira, what a beautiful name—running for the stairs.

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