Freedom has a cost. Can A’yen pay it without losing his soul?

Liberation of the enslaved Lokmane begins with the king. A’yen and Fae agree to visit the Hidden, a group of escaped Lokmane, to protect his identity while the Shadows make their move with emancipation acts. But he's not prepared for the prejudice rampant in the Hidden, or their lack of patience for him. And his new linked bodyguard is unstable to the point A'yen fears for the young man's sanity.

Upon returning to Titan, A'yen is kidnapped and taken to the largest breeding farm in the galaxy. This time he'll be himself even if it kills him. His resolve to unite his people grows as he wonders if he'll live long enough to do it.

With A'yen kidnapped, Fae returns to the Lokmane homeworld seeking the final pieces of what happened two thousand years ago when they were conquered and enslaved. Getting as far away from her father as possible is the only way to keep her from disappearing too.

Separated by light years, A'yen and Fae have to stand alone and fight for their right to live in freedom. No matter the cost.


Chapter One

Earth Year: 5232

Batava, Titan

Farran Hart-Mesu watched her husband’s shoulders rise and fall in the deep rhythm of sleep while she lay on her side next to him in the bed, head propped on her hand. Three weeks post-marking and red continued to streak A’yen’s skin. It was fading now, but too painful to attempt a cascade.


Green ink now covered A’yen’s back. Instead of the lines they’d expected down his spine, the pattern fanned out from the braid running the length of it, covering over half the skin. Twisting, crossing, joining the lines on his sides, circling his waist to make wearing pants an exercise in patience.

Her fingers itched to soothe his pain, but there was nothing she could do except hold his hand or dry his tears. Even Will Dreen’s serum didn’t ease it. A’yen’s step-brother had tried everything he could think of to help A’yen. None of it appeared to be working.

A’yen sighed, lifted his hand, and rubbed under his nose. Fae brushed hair from the side of his face and his eyes fluttered open. Leaning over, she kissed his cheek. “Morning.”

Is it morning already?” Instead of the smooth baritone she loved, his voice came out as a hoarse croak.

Happens every day about this time.” She continued feathering her fingers through his hair. Across his cheek and jawline.

Something flitted through his eyes. The beginnings of a twinkle maybe. Maybe. The pain she’d seen in him on the Rim over the last thirteen months hadn’t prepared her for this. It consumed him, setting fire to his body clear down to his bones. A’yen’s best friend, Pete Tristan, practically lived in the guest room right now, though he hadn’t been here last night. He’d been a big help making sure she didn’t make A’yen’s recovery worse.

Fae, I’m so hungry.”

An ocean flooded her eyes and she covered her mouth a moment. Sniffed the flood back. Wiped a stray drop from her face. “You really are going to live.”

Appears so.” Jaw clenched, he pulled his arms beneath his chest and pushed up from the mattress. His arms quivered, weak from lack of use, but he made it up. Just in time for Fae to catch him before he fell over. Ragged gasps filled her ears as his forehead came to rest on her shoulder. “Okay. Bad idea.”

Then why’d you do it?”

To make sure I could.” He didn’t finish the thought, but she knew. The only thing he hated more than being a slave was an inability to do things for himself because of pain. “How long has it been since I kissed you properly?”

Metal touched her skin as she slid her hand down his neck. “Too long. I miss you, A’yen.”

I miss you too. I also hate not knowing what you’re thinking.” He straightened, bringing his head up last to look into her eyes. His telepathy. Whenever he used it to tell her how much he loved her, it soothed her fears.

She didn’t look at him, her gaze instead stuck on the collar. The coldness of it against her skin rammed home the fact he was her property. Like every other Lokmane in the galaxy, he was a slave. Bound to it two thousand years ago by a long-defunct group called the Social Union, as punishment for refusing to help bring the Lokmane’s genetic cousins, the Barayans, into the Union. So said the messages left behind by the last king, A’yen IV. There was more to the story. Fae knew it in her bones. “So much has to happen before it can come off. What if we don’t live that long?”

His index finger touched her chin, lifting until their gazes met. Smoldering eyes lit a fire in her chest. One he couldn’t quench without passing out from the pain. “We will live that long. You will be able to take all of this off and throw it away.” He looked at his wrists, also encased in metal. “This ends with me. One way or another.”

The thought of losing him left her quaking inside. A metallic taste in the back of her throat. Irrational unwillingness to ever let him out of her sight again. He was the only man in her life who didn’t treat her like a statue in the corner, meant to be admired from a distance and never trusted with anything requiring thought.

A’yen saw her. Looked into her soul. And liked what he saw. Months with him weren’t enough to undo the years spent living under her father’s judgment and emotional abuse.

He cupped the back of her neck, kissed her with soft pressure. “I hate how you’re so upset by all this and I can’t even hold you.”

She placed her hands on each side of his face. Kissed his forehead, his nose, his chin. Inflammation filled his body to the point where touching any of the ink triggered pain that left him frozen in agony and struggling to breathe. Time to stop thinking about it and try to be normal. “What do you want for breakfast?”

His mouth curled. “I can have anything?”

Leaning back, head tilted, she stared at him. “I may regret this, but yes. Anything.”

I really want you, but that won’t be much fun for either of us. So I want chocolate chip waffles. With bacon and scrambled eggs.”

That’s not too bad. Spice tea?”

Yes please.” He pecked her cheek, then eased down again on his stomach. His breathing hitched when ink met sheet and she took his hand, wincing as he squeezed with all his might. He gripped her hand for several more minutes while his breathing returned to normal. Well, normal for right now. Measured, to keep the ink from moving, with occasional shudders.

Fae slid off the bed with as little movement as possible and pulled the sheet off his legs. On her way out of the room, she turned the air down two degrees and set the vent to blow across his back. He claimed the cool air calmed the fire a bit.

She started a pot of coffee then the rest of the meal. Whatever it took to get him eating. No matter how much of a mess it made with melted chocolate in the waffle iron and bacon grease on the stove. Cooking like this calmed her nerves. Helped her remember the good pieces of her childhood.

How things had changed in the last fourteen months. When she’d met A’yen, in holding on Deseret, he’d been closed off, distrustful, and resented her intrusion into his grief. Dragging him to the Rim, the one place he’d been where the slave laws didn’t follow him, had been agony for him. Until they’d found proof the perfect-for-life planet had once belonged to the Lokmane. When the Breeders Association plant Henry Reston threatened to destroy her reputation, so no one would believe she had found the Lokmane homeworld, A’yen traded himself for her safety. And he hadn’t even confessed to loving her when he did it.

The slave she’d bought for protection had stolen her heart, married her, and wanted to fill their house with children. Then they found out twenty-seven days ago he was the next Lokmane king. Now he had a target painted on his forehead. Carrying his child, whenever it happened, would put one on hers too.

Thirty minutes later, she took a tray to the bedroom with enough on it for both of them. He needed her help to sit up this time and his arms shook. Heavy breaths spoke of the fire in his muscles.

Do you want to try leaning back on pillows?”

Oh hell no. The sheet still hurts.” He drew his legs up, crossed them at the ankles, and propped his elbows on his knees. It took twenty minutes, but he cleaned his plate. She took it from him and he stretched out once more. The position he’d lived in for the last three weeks.

His breathing turned to gasps, from exhaustion this time. More quivering and shaking. Fae set the tray on the floor, curled up beside him, and stroked his hair until he fell asleep. She missed his running commentary, sneaking up behind her and stealing kisses, the way he made her forget to breathe. Stupid marking laws had stolen all of it.

Laws passed by men like her father, president of the Breeders Association, so they could control the millions of slaves working on agricultural farms, in mining, factories, and processing plants. The more she watched her husband suffer, the more firm her new convictions became.

Funny thing that, having convictions. Having them didn’t mean she possessed the strength to act on them.

She wandered into her office and turned her computer on. A’yen’s careful scanning of every single thing they’d found last year left her able to work on her findings reports from home. To stay close to him and be there every time he needed her.

A silent laugh moved her shoulders at the memory of A’yen’s first words on walking into the house. “It’s not a museum. I’m proud of you, Fae.”

Nonetheless, little trinkets and artifacts covered her office shelves. Mementos of every dig she’d participated in over the last ten years. She’d hung one of A’yen’s lake paintings where she could see it every time she looked up from her screen. To remind her they were fighting for his right to have a home of his own and be a free man. She’d taken the Morrow Nebula painting to be professionally framed, and planned to hang it in the living room.

How long would they live here, in her little house? Something much grander waited for them in the nebula where the Hidden—Lokmane descended from those who’d escaped slavery—were concealed in clouds of gas and dust, protected by the Barayans. Fitting, since they’d been enslaved trying to protect them.

The planet they’d explored, she could live on. Quite happily. Especially in the area around the dig. The thought of visiting the Hidden, though, left her shaking in her boots. Na’var, her father-in-law’s telepathically-linked bodyguard, claimed they didn’t like humans. She wouldn’t either, in their shoes. The thought of a prolonged visit made her stomach churn and the bacon in it turn bitter.

A chime rang through the house. Fae groaned, turned her screen off, and went to the door. The sight of a familiar dark outline made her stomach clench into a knot and, hand shaking, she turned the knob.

The towering form filled the doorway. No smile softened the sharp angles of his face, or made his eyes sparkle. “I’ve given up on you coming to see me, so here I am.”

Fae swallowed her heart and stomach. “Hello, Dad.


If Senator Larson raised her voice one more time, Arrin Dreen was going to jump across the room and yank her larynx out. He looked at the plaster ceiling and started counting in an effort to distract himself. High Senate sessions weren’t usually so heated, even here in the Loks Mé subcommittee.

Senator Moray of Athen—the man who’d protected A’yen for so long—banged his chairman’s gavel, and Arrin jumped. The sound might as well have knocked a hole in his head. The scene before him blurred. A dozen rapid blinks cleared it. Spots hovered at the edges of his peripheral vision. Again.

Senator Larson, must I remind you for the fifth time that we are here to discuss this in a civil manner? There will be no shouting, no yelling, and no name-calling.” Senator Moray leveled his glare at Larson from Doran.

The Athen and Titan economies are entirely different from Doran’s. What gives you the right to dictate emancipation to the rest of us?”

Raina, Arrin’s wife and protector, lifted her hand. “Our economies may be different, but our morality is not. Nothing proposed so far looks at the particulars of emancipation. All we’re presenting is a resolution to pursue options. Which will be different for every planet.”

Arrin let himself smile. His heart cried for emancipation now. Without regard to the consequences of the economies and civilizations involved. But the logic in him, determined to do the right thing for his people’s future, believed Raina’s course of action to be correct.

Whether he liked it or not, the majority of the Lokmane weren’t ready for freedom. Something must be done to address the concubine situation too. Like him and his sister. His son, A’yen, and countless thousands of others who’d chosen to live as husband or wife with their owners. Even if the law didn’t call it marriage, it was marriage.

Too bad he couldn’t trust Prime Minister Salem to do his part and prepare the Hidden to help the newly-freed transition to a life without masters and mistresses, orders, and schedules. The sooner A’yen healed and headed out there, the better. Maybe he could knock some sense into stuck-up Salem.

Larson stood, her gaze sweeping across the room, landing with narrowed eyes and a frown on Arrin. “Not all of us are so intent on letting a slave out of his place.”

Arrin tensed, the urge to speak overwhelming, but the law forbade him to say anything in his own defense. The time for breaking it had not yet arrived. They had to get the resolution out of the committee first.

One of the Barayan senators rose. “When one’s entire fortune is built on brothels and the sex trade, one should not be so quick to defend one’s stance on the issue.”

Larson turned three shades of red. This particular Barayan senator, a cousin to the queen, knew Arrin’s family history. How his father had been taken as a sex slave, the spark of life beaten out of him.

Moray tapped his gavel this time. “I think we’ll take an hour’s recess and let everyone calm down.”

Arrin turned his tablet off, more to conceal his handwritten notes than anything else, slid it in its case, and slipped out of the room. He needed calm and quiet for a little while. Damn headaches, getting worse every month it seemed. Raina’s office fit his needs, and he lowered the blinds before stretching out on the couch.

Sometimes he took his shirt off and sat in the sunlight streaming through the west facing windows. Not today. Darkness called, his one refuge from the pain in his head growing more nauseating with every beat of his heart.

The door opened and shut. Raina’s soft footfalls crossed to the bathroom. Water ran for a moment. A cool cloth draped across his closed eyes and her gentle touch massaged his temples and hairline. “When did it start?”

First time Larson stood up. I’ve never been so disappointed to see someone win reelection. She has too much sway on the floor.”

Raina kissed his forehead without ceasing the massage. “I agree. It’s why public opinion and exposing true life on the farms is so important.”

So many will die in retaliation for it. I don’t like deaths on my conscience.”

No one does, my love. Charles told you this wouldn’t be easy.”

He never said it’d be this hard either.” Thinking about all those destined to die in their pursuit of freedom left his skin clammy, his heart fluttering. So many had already died, yes, but not knowing freedom lay within reach.

Has a decision been made by the historical society about the library Farran found?” He’d give almost anything to see the library with his own eyes, to feel the books, to walk through his history. To see the things A’yen had seen.

Not a decision, exactly. More like a compromise. The next phase of colonizing will be allowed, but another archaeological team will be sent out to look for more. Only passing emancipation here or on Athen can stop it.”

This is wrong.” The words came out in a tortured whisper. He pulled the cloth from his eyes to stare at his wife, the woman who had bound herself to him to protect him from those who wanted him dead. Knives danced across his eyeballs, stopping only to dive into his brain. “It’s our home, and they shouldn’t be allowed to take it from us again.”

Dr. Tyler is going, and Charlie told me last night he’s looking for someone to take his classes so he can go too.”

The knowledge did nothing to soothe him. Charlie—Raina’s oldest son and a history professor at Gill Mar University—and Robert Tyler would fight for them, but both were more than a little naïve about how the rest of the universe saw the Lokmane. Especially Tyler. Many would never believe the slave race capable of self-governance and independent thought. The Association actively promoted the idea, and painted Lokmane men as dangerous and untrustworthy.

As much as he wanted to share Raina’s faith in public opinion, his own experiences, even in Titan’s more liberal society when it came to his people, said he couldn’t. So many were afraid of him. Shop owners refused to allow him entrance. Most restaurants denied service, if he made it through the door to begin with.

Others treated him like an idiot, assuming because the law forbade him to read human languages, it meant he was incapable of learning. Most humans didn’t bother learning the Lokmane language, with its strange grammar rules and phonetic alphabet.

Even on Earth, a few countries recognized the slave laws, though not all of them. Only Baray refused to recognize them across the board. The rest of the galaxy didn’t know the reason, but Arrin did: they sheltered the Hidden.

Raina kissed his forehead again. “I hope A’yen doesn’t over-think all this like you do.”

He smiled, reaching up to caress her cheek. “Why would he over-think it when he can jump and see where he lands? He’s been insulated and protected from all the things that make me over-think. I wish Wayan could see what he’s going to do.”

Someone cleared a throat. “I hate to interrupt this little love fest, but I have bad news.”

Na’var Manchac, his right arm. Arrin pulled the cloth back over his eyes. “Spit it out then.” Though clouded from the headache, he still picked up on Na’var’s attempt to pull it out. It didn’t budge.

That’s weird.”

Raina shushed him. “Not so loud.”

I went over to the house to see if Fae needed anything, and somebody beat me there. So I hung around until the man got out of his cruiser. Just about had a heart attack too, when I saw who it was.”

Arrin pulled the cloth off, sat up, and glared at Na’var. “What part of spit it out did you not get? My head is going to split open in about five minutes.”

Na’var sat in the closest chair, elbows on his knees, hands clasped, unease flowing off him in waves big enough to drown a person. “It was Benai Hart.”

The pain in his head no longer mattered. Arrin bent over from the weight of the news. One of his worst nightmares playing before his eyes, and he couldn’t do a damn thing to protect his son. None of them had factored in Hart coming here to see the daughter he usually ignored.

Raina’s hand rubbed his back. “Did you see his son?”

No. Considering what’s going on right now, there’s no way Hart left Doran without Ro, which means the lecherous bastard probably came to control A’yen. Pretty sure Fae knows nothing about it, and when A’yen finds out, he’s likely to get himself killed. Pete’s living in her guest room right now. No way will he let Hart have the room.”

Arrin straightened, in control again. “Not that he’d grace his only daughter with his continual presence. Her place isn’t up to his standards.”

Do you want me to go back?”

No. The danger of your discovery is too great. Where’s Pete?”

Na’var’s lips pursed as he thought. “I believe he’s on Adventure at the moment. I heard him telling A’yen something about navigation system upgrades before I left yesterday.”

Get him down here if at all possible. Figure out where Hart is staying and keep track of his movements.”

Consider it done.” Na’var crossed the rug, rested a hand on Arrin’s right shoulder. “No harm will come to A’yen. Not while I’m still breathing.”

Arrin gripped the hand a moment, absorbing Na’var’s strength. He didn’t say anything. Na’var knew how thankful he was for everything he’d done, everything he’d sacrificed to free their people.

Na’var left, off on his mission, the particulars of which Arrin would never know. If he were a praying man, he’d get on his knees and beg any god willing to listen to protect his son from the evil residing in Benai Hart.

But he was not a praying man. Right now, he wasn’t even a man full of much hope.