The Loks Mé have been slaves for so long, freedom is a distant myth A'yen Mesu no longer believes. A year in holding, because of his master's murder, has sucked the life from him. Archaeologist Farran Hart buys him to protect her on an expedition to the Rim, the last unexplored quadrant of the galaxy.
Farran believes the Loks Mé once lived on the Rim and is determined to prove it. And win A'yen's trust. But she's a breeder's daughter and can't be trusted.
Hidden rooms, information caches, and messages from a long-dead king change A'yen's mind about her importance. When she's threatened, he offers himself in exchange, and lands on the Breeders Association's radar. The truth must be told. Even if it costs him his heart.
Earth Year: 5231
Three hundred sixty-six days and the images continued to haunt him. His screams and cries. Master’s whispered final words to not lose himself, no matter what.
Damn humans. Taking the one person he loved above all others and locking him in this hell called holding. Fitting, really, since A’yen Mesu’s entire life had been put on hold when the enforcers dragged him away. Loks Mé. Less than human. An alien. Nothing but a slave. One easily replaced since no one cared he was an expert cartographer in his own right.READ MORE
A whirring sound filled the cell block. The mag-locks. Buyers. A’yen forced himself off his bed, went to the bars keeping him prisoner, and positioned his hands where he wouldn’t be forced to stand for who-knew-how-long in an awkward position. The cuffs on his wrists reacted to the mag-lock and stuck to the bars so tight he couldn’t get free if his life depended on it.
He kept his gaze glued to the floor to avoid punishment from the hold keeper. When a pair of small feet in black boots stopped, he stiffened. So far no woman had dared to stop in front of him. Due to fear, most likely. They didn’t understand most Loks Mé men couldn’t stand the thought of hurting a woman, or seeing a woman hurt, while they were helpless to stop it.
The feet stepped closer. “You were owned by a cartographer?” Her sweet voice didn’t mean she’d stay that way.
“A member of the Guild?”
“You can look up.”
He did, and the breath left his body. Five inches shorter than his six feet four, but finely-boned at the same time. Delicate. Hair dark as a black hole framed a kind looking face, with bright green eyes studying him. She glanced at her tablet again and he sucked air into his lungs.
The entry she studied showed her his history and place of birth, he knew, along with other facts. But not the things that made him a person. “When did you leave Athen?”
“When I was ten.”
“Why did a Titan cartographer buy you?”
Because Senator Moray, his mother’s owner, trusted him, and A’yen hadn’t been afraid of him. But he couldn’t tell her that. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t give in. “I don’t know. But I’m very glad he did. He filed the first climate report on Rim One.”
Her shoulders drooped and she stared at her table for a minute. “I wanted to meet him some day. If you’re here, that’ll never happen.” The green gaze pinned him again. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“Do you have any unlisted skills? Navigation or piloting maybe?”
Something about her reminded him of Master. Made him want to trust her. But only a little. “Perhaps.” This time he let his lips curve up. Surely she was smart enough to know it was a yes, and the closest thing to a yes she’d get unless she bought him. He’d never enjoy a life of almost freedom again, but anything was better than here.
“I thought so.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “A male with pilot and navigation skills would cost more than I can spend.”
“Then I’m the deal of the century.”
“I expect you to prove it.”
She stepped back, green eyes sparkling with pent-up laughter. “Keeper, I want this one.”
Chosen now, sale all but final, he didn’t look away. The keeper’s face still wore a scowl, even though he was getting rid of A’yen. “Are you sure, Dr. Hart? He’s quite a handful.”
A’yen stiffened at the acid in the keeper’s words. The man wanted him in a regiment, to suffer and die a horrible death. The fate most Loks Mé men were doomed to, and one Senator Moray had saved A’yen from. Following orders, being nothing more than a number in a system, were things A’yen never wanted to experience.
“I’m sure. Where we’re going, a strong spirit will serve him well.”
He let his gaze slide back to her. More than anything he wanted to ask where they were going, but he clamped down on it and kept his mouth shut. Anywhere was better than here. So long as he left the Deseret system and its cursed sand, he’d learn to live again. Maybe even find more humans who saw him as a person instead of a borderline dangerous commodity.
The keeper made a notation on his tablet, then continued down the long hall, pointing out Loks Mé and their skills to his buyers. A’yen craned his head to look through the bars, watching Dr. Hart until she disappeared around the corner.
Three hours later the mag-locks released. A’yen sank to the floor with bent knees and leaned over till his chin nearly touched his ankles. The buyers had left an hour ago, but as usual the keeper left the locks engaged to remind them all who ruled this hellhole.
Muscles somewhat relaxed, he stood again and packed his few belongings. Four changes of clothes not worth keeping—all a Loks Mé was allowed to have while in holding—a sketchbook he’d managed to keep hidden, though nearly filled. He flipped through it. A half-finished sketch of the Deseret Senate building did nothing but taunt him.
Footsteps echoed on the stone walls and he slammed the book closed before shoving it into the bottom of his rucksack. Which he then left on the bed. He faced the wall and held his arms behind his back. The mag-locks engaged three seconds later. Another three and his cell door opened. He turned to face the keeper’s assistant, who entered to pick up his bag, then led him down the hall and into one of the exit rooms.
Dr. Hart sat in a chair, studying something on her tablet. She looked up when the keeper’s assistant cleared his throat. “Shall I secure him for you, while the collar and cuffs are re-coded?”
She shook her head. “Not necessary. There’s nothing in his bio to say he’s dangerous.”
The assistant hmphed in the back of his throat, but turned the mag-lock off. Since A’yen’s knees and feet were still a little sore from earlier, he sat in the other chair and stretched his legs out. Re-coding took thirty-four minutes. Might as well be semi-comfortable. He held his wrists out, palms up.
Dr. Hart set her tablet aside and pulled three chips from her pocket while motioning the assistant out. She walked over to him and placed one in each slot on the cuffs, and the last in the slot on his collar. “Do you have any family?”
“My mother, on Athen Three.”
“I’ll make arrangements for you to get in touch with her. I know you have some questions, and since we have awhile before we can leave, ask away.” She sat down again, mirroring his posture this time.
Oh, he had questions. Dozens of them. But only a few mattered. “What kind of doctor are you?”
“What sort of an expedition is this?”
Her face lit up and she leaned forward. “Pre-colonization mapping of the first HZ planet on the Rim. With rings around a double moon.”
In spite of himself, he leaned forward too. The Rim had fascinated Master, and he’d passed it to A’yen. An archaeologist and a cartographer on such expeditions were standard. But she didn’t know he was a Guild-certified expert planetary cartographer. Staying aloof right now seemed the better choice. “Why are you so excited? There are multiple planets with rings around their moon and potential lost cultures.”
“I think it might be the Loks Mé home world.”
He leaned back, excitement sputtering out beneath a cold blanket. “You’re delusional.”
Her chin lifted. “You don’t believe your own stories?”
“Why should I? They’re fairy tales designed to instill false hope.” Three hundred and sixty-seven days ago he’d believed them. But no more.
Her shoulders went back and she stared him down. “Well, I believe them. And I intend to find it.”
Foolish notions like this could get a person killed on the Rim. Better to die in exploration than rotting away in a cell.
Farran watched him from the corner of her eye for all of ten minutes, then abandoned pretense and openly watched him. He didn’t seem to notice. That, or he didn’t care.
Vivid blue eyes weren’t focused on anything in particular. A shadow hung in them, but not enough to take the multifaceted color away. Loks Mé eyes always reminded her of gemstones, and his were bright as sapphires. Blue eyes were as common in his race as brown in humans, yet she’d seen this particular shade of blue only once before, on Titan. In the face of her expedition sponsor’s bound concubine.
Blond hair hung just past his shoulders, pulled back at the nape of his neck and wrapped with a leather tie. Only privately-owned males were allowed adornments of any kind. He must have fought to keep it, which meant it held some meaning.
His shoulders were wide, with toned arms accented by the markings tattooed on them. Well-built and solid, he’d have no problems keeping her safe. The wide, flat nose typical of his species gave his face a smashed in look to some. Not her. She found it endearing and sexy as hell. Plus he was taller than her. Not an easy thing to find.
Everything about him screamed controlled power. And incredible heartache.
He remained still until the re-coding finished, as if lost in his own world, then slung his pack over his shoulder and followed her out.
Not a word crossed his lips on the twenty-minute ride to the Hart home. Bren and Morris would take care of new clothes for the night, since she was on such a tight schedule. Besides, skipping Dad’s farewell dinner for the team wouldn’t exactly go over well. As always, walking his tightrope kept her safe.
The slave didn’t look out the window either. But, coming from an exotic place like Athen and mapping the galaxy, sand must be pretty boring. She pulled his bio up again and checked his age. He turned thirty-one on Departure Day. He’d spent twenty years with one man. She’d spent twenty years trying to earn recognition from one man.
“Here we are.” She stepped out of the vehicle and he followed. In silence. Morris opened the door and greeted her with a hug. “Morris, I’m running late. Can you get him settled for the night?”
“Of course. Come with me.” Morris motioned, and again the man followed without a word.
Farran ran up the stairs to her room to clean up and change before dinner. Still so much packing to do, enough to make her despair of getting any sleep tonight. She threw the door open and skidded to a stop. The packing was finished, except for her papers. “Oh, Bren. How will I last the year without you?”
Bren wrapped her in a hug. “I’m too old for such gallivanting around. Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I did. And then some.” Farran sat down to unlace her boots. “He’s had one master, a Guild cartographer. He can navigate and pilot shuttle craft.”
“What’s his name?”
Her hands stilled. “I forgot to ask.”
“For shame, Fae. He has feelings, you know.”
“I know.” She pulled her boots off and rushed through a shower, trying her best to ignore the guilt swirling around her. Tunnel vision wasn’t a good thing to have going into this, considering she was searching for his past. It wouldn’t do to forget he was a real person. No matter how excited she was.
Fastest shower on record, then it was time to fix her hair. Bren took care of it, one last time, by braiding it around her head. “I’ll find out his name before I go to the drawing room.”
Bren kissed her cheek. “That’s my girl.”
Fae crept down the back stairs to avoid being noticed by anyone and slipped into the slaves’ quarters. Most were upstairs, working on the meal, preparing the dining room. She knocked on the door to the only unassigned room.
“Come in.” He sounded reluctant.
She pushed the door open in time to see his bare back. The green markings of private ownership rippled across his shoulders as he lifted his arms and pulled a new shirt over his head. His blond hair looked damp.
“I forgot to ask your name.”
He turned and looked at her, brows forming a V above his eyes.
“No one has asked you your name? They’ve just called you seventy-one?”
He nodded. “My name is A’yen.”
“It’s nice to meet you, A’yen. I’m Farran, and don’t you dare call me mistress. Makes me feel old.”
The intense blue eyes locked on her face. “Then what should I call you?”
“I’ll have to think about it. Tomorrow I’ll take you for new clothes.” She turned and left the room. Upstairs, she joined her co-workers for the next year.
“I can’t believe my little girl is leaving for a whole year.” Dad rubbed her back while he spoke, then kissed her cheek. Sometimes he could be a great actor. The memory of his rage over her announcement two months ago would live a long, long time. At least this time he’d only sprained her wrist when he grabbed her, instead of breaking it.
“Maybe longer.” Dr. Cooper sipped from his wine glass. “This planet is heavily forested and appears to have a significant river system.”
“My girl never could resist a good tree.”
Everyone laughed, at her expense. She pasted on a smile. No one knew why she’d really pushed so hard to join this group. Except Bren, and now A’yen. Since he didn’t believe his own peoples’ legends, he’d keep it to himself. Not that anyone would ask him anyway. Everyone said males were dangerous and couldn’t be trusted. Because of Marcus, her childhood friend and Bren’s son, she knew better.
There had to be a reason the Loks Mé home world had been abandoned and purged from every map. Such a rich oral culture didn’t get made up by accident. Something in their past was glorious and worth remembering. Whoever enslaved them didn’t want it remembered. Which made her all the more determined to find it.
If she found it, proved the Loks Mé were once free, they might could be free again. If that happened she’d take Bren, find Marcus, and make their own little family where bigots like her father and brother weren’t welcome.
“Do you really think we’ll find ruins, Fae?” Her assistant’s voice dragged her back into the room.
“I’m sure of it. I just don’t know what kind or how well preserved they’ll be. The planet is too perfect for life to have not had something there at some point in time. Patience, Willa.”
Willa’s excitement overflowed, reflecting Fae’s own. She leaned in and whispered. “Did you really buy a Loks Mé male?”
Fae nodded. As her best friend Willa would never judge her for it. “Whatever I have to do to put some space between me and my father is worth every penny.”
“I’m proud of you, but I also hope it doesn’t backfire on us. Dr. Cooper won’t be happy.”
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of chit-chat and speeches. What she really wanted was to get in the ship, take off for the Rim, and not come back until she found proof of a free Loks Mé culture.
And see if A’yen was worth the insane amount of money she’d spent on him.COLLAPSE