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Authors: Rebecca York

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HERO’S WELCOME

A Fantasy & Futuristic Romance Short Story

by Rebecca York

 

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Decorah Security Series by Rebecca York

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HERO’S WELCOME

He was taking a risk. He could lose everything—the estate he’d been given and all the severance pay he’d invested in it. There was no guarantee he’d ever make a farmer. Still, Ben-Linkman felt a rush of pleasure as he activated the breaker jets and eased the bulky air truck downward fifty more meters for a better view of his property.

“Mine. The spoils of war.” He said the words aloud, savoring them as he swooped low over the small lake, winking in the greenish glow of the late afternoon sun, then circled the sprawling house. Catching his breath, he swung away from the landscaped grounds and roared over the broad, flat fields where oil-rich rokam had once grown.

Coming here was a huge gamble. He was betting everything that he could bring the land back to life. But could he? Did he have it in him? What if he failed? What if he—

Determinedly, he cut off the thought and set the air truck down behind the house. This was no time for second thoughts, and if he didn’t want to lose the place to an enterprising thief, he’d better activate the security perimeter.

He rolled his shoulders, fatigued from flying the heavy government surplus ship eight hundred klicks from Spenserville, formerly Halindish. The city, which had been a Farlian provincial capital, had been recently— triumphantly—renamed after a legendary Dorre war hero.

Reaching behind his seat, he picked up his weapons and checked them: the small laser gun in the hip holster and the larger projectile rifle. High command had told him that gangs of deserters might be hiding in the hills. He wasn’t about to let them catch him by surprise.

The hatch beside him swung open with a push, and he levered himself out of the opening, stifling a groan as cramped muscles stretched. The real pain came when he touched ground. He forgot to lock his bad knee, and it crumpled under him, sending a jolt of pain all the way down to the nonexistent toes. Gritting his teeth against a scream, he stood with his hands balled into fists.

The pills they’d given him were in his backpack. He could take one. Just one.

“No.” He said it aloud.

He’d seen what happened when men started relying on the medication. They ended up needing more and more of the stuff, until their brains were so fried, all they could do was sit and stare into space. The pills were a one-way ticket to Farlian hell. He wasn’t going that route.

Teeth still clenched, he walked to the back door of the large, well-proportioned house and worked the key pad with the combination they’d given him.

Inside, he paused to absorb the silence of the wide corridor before switching on a power light. Then he made his way to the central living area, where he took a quick look at the woven rugs and the graceful furniture. Expensive, he thought, running his hand over the glossy, red-brown kardin wood.

Glancing toward the small window, he saw that the light was fading. If his people, the Dorre, had built the house, there would be skylights in the vaulted ceiling. The estate had been confiscated from Farlians, though, which meant it was constructed to allow in only minimal outside light— like the caves Farlians had occupied to escape predators on the planet where they’d first landed after leaving Earth. Hundreds of years of cave dwelling had changed their eyes so that Farlians saw better in the dark.

A neat trick, but it hadn’t won them the war.

Turning right, he headed for the control center. His father had been the maintenance supervisor in a rich Farlian household, so the equipment was familiar. In minutes he’d brought up the main computer and checked the circuits. About half the estate’s power units, including the security perimeter, were working. He’d fix the rest tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. Tonight, he’d just do a sensor check.

First he scanned the grounds and detected nothing bigger than a tree sneep. When he checked the house, though, his hand froze on the controls. Eyes narrowed, he went through the drill again, but the screen didn’t change. There was a Farlian in the house.

A wave of anger and hatred surged through him. Farlian and Dorre might come from the same human stock and claim Earth as their common ancestral home, but the only thing they had in common anymore was the war they’d fought for the right to rule Thindar.

Six months ago, just before the armistice, one of the slat-eating bastards had caught him below the knee with an energy blast that injected tissue poison. Amputation from the wound down had saved his life, but it hadn’t stopped the pain that continually invaded the rest of his leg. Nor had it lessened his rage at Farlians.

If it weren’t for the oppressive bastards, the Dorre never would have been forced to go to war. After abandoning the inhospitable planet where they’d lived, the Farlians had migrated to Thindar and colonized it. When the Dorre had arrived a hundred years later, on a generation ship from Earth that was at the end of its resources, the Farlians had saved his people’s lives with food and medicine.

Then, when the newcomers had begun to prosper, the Farlians, afraid of losing power, had passed laws that made it impossible for Dorre to enter good schools, hold office, or even own property. A caste system had developed; his people were forced into the underclass—while the Farlians had consolidated relations with other space-traveling races, creating off-world trading partnerships, all the while growing ever richer and more arrogant.

Until the Dorre had risen in rebellion.

From the console, Link silently switched on some lights. Then he moved quietly toward the storage compartment where the sensors indicated the intruder was hiding.

His hand on the pressure trigger of his gun, he yanked open the metal door, nearly killing the Farlian behind it before seeing it was a female. A mane of red hair hid her face.

Grabbing her by the sleeve, he wrenched her into the open and tossed her onto the floor. She lay curled away from him, her ivory skin blotched by fear, her slender legs trembling visibly below a short tunic. Yet it was with regal bearing that she sat up and swept the fall of hair away from her exotic green eyes.

The sight of her familiar features knocked the breath out of him. “Kasimanda!”

She’d been beautiful as a child, more so as an adolescent. But now . . . by Atherdan, she was stunning. The pale skin, the cat-like eyes, and the wild red hair created a vision that called to him with a familiar, forbidden longing. For an instant, he wondered if this was really her or some dream from his subconscious come to life.

Her gaze flicked from his face to the laser pistol in his hand. “Would you kill me, Link?” she asked in that musical voice he instantly discovered still had the power to stir his senses.

He pulled himself together. “Why shouldn’t I? This is forbidden territory for a Farlian.”

Doubt kindled in her eyes. “We were . . . friends.”


Friends
.” He threw the word back at her. Dorre and Farlian could not be friends. Yet he and the highborn Kasimanda of Renfaral had played together as children. And when they had reached adolescence, he had longed for more than friendship.

His eyes must have given him away, because he saw her relax a fraction.

“How did you get here?” he demanded.

She pushed herself off the floor and stood facing him defiantly. “Bribes.”

“I hope you didn’t spend too much, because you’re leaving. Now,” he said, emphasizing the last word.

She shook her head. “No.”

He made his voice flat and hard. “You can’t stay.”

Her shoulders slumped. “Then kill me now.”

“I don’t kill women.”

“No?” She raised her chin. “A Dorre raiding party killed my mother and sister. Are you so different?”

Sickened, though not surprised, by the news, he asked, “And they spared you?”

He saw her stiffen, swallow. “My mother pushed me into the refuse chute as they were coming through the front door. They didn’t find me.”

He tried to imagine Kasimanda of Renfaral hiding among the household garbage. Unthinkable. Yet he could see from her eyes that it was true—that and maybe worse.

“Why did you come here?” he demanded.

“To work.”

He gave a short, sharp laugh. “You? Work?”

“Yes. The place was a mess. I cleaned it. I can keep it for you. I can cook. And I can help you with the rokam.”

“Let me see your hands.”

She kept her eyes on him as she held up her hands for inspection. He remembered them being soft and white, the hallmarks of a pampered woman. Now they were red and chapped.

Before he could comment, she went on quickly. “I was studying botany at the Grand Institute when the war started. I know about rokam. It’s temperamental. You could lose the whole crop if you plant at the wrong time or if the minerals in the soil are out of balance.”

He gave a tight nod. He knew the risks.

“I—”

“How did you get inside the house?” he interrupted her.

“I visited this estate several times before the war. I knew the access codes.” With a gesture toward the south-facing window, she added, “I sold the ring my father gave me on my Passage Day—and some other things from the estate. With the last of the credits, I paid for a ride as far as the river.”

His eyes narrowed. It was thirty klicks to the Little Jodda and two hundred klicks to the nearest settlement. “Some damn fool flyer pilot left you in the middle of nowhere?” he asked, his anger rising.

She gave a little nod.

“This is dangerous territory. You could have died if a storm had caught you on the plains. Or you could have run into a gang of deserters,” he ground out, imagining the worst. “They’re desperate. Dangerous.”

“I have a laser gun.”

“Weapons are forbidden to Farlians.”

She met his gaze with steady eyes. “Are you going to turn me in?”

He heaved a sigh. “No.” When she let out a little breath, he fixed her with a quizzical look. “How did you find me?”

“A woman who worked for my father is in the office where they keep information on troopers, and after . . .” She stopped, started again. “After I’d been on my own for a couple of months, I went to her, and she looked up your record.”

“Why me?”

Her gaze dropped to the floor. “My parents and my sister are dead. So is my brother. There isn’t anyone else. And my options are very limited.”

“You’re well educated. A lot better than me,” he said. “Surely you can find something to do.”

“Not many people are hiring ex-Farlian nobility.” A shudder went through her. “There are houses where young women of my station entertain Dorre men. I would rather starve.”

He struggled to keep his expression impassive as she continued.

“I won’t beg you to let me stay, Link, but . . . I’ve brought something for your leg.”

The blood drained from his face. Farlian hell, she knew about that, too.

“I bought some salve Farlian soldiers use,” she whispered. “It draws out the poison.”

His eyes widened. “There’s a
cure
? Give it to me!”

“It’s . . .” She stopped, shook her head. “They were testing it. I don’t know if . . .”

He turned away so she wouldn’t see the crushing disappointment in his eyes. An experimental drug. Probably it didn’t work.

His jaw rigid, he stomped out of the room—to the extent that his limp allowed for stomping. He’d come here to hide his ruined body— from others or from himself, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know how to cope with either the sudden reminder of the man he’d once been or with the false hopes she offered.

He threw his pack onto the floor in the hall and sprawled on the steps leading upstairs. Cursing under his breath, he rummaged in the pack. When his fingers closed around the tube of dried brew malt, he made a grateful sound. Not quite as good as pain pills, but it would do. He set the tablet in a plastic cup, poured in water from the bottle he carried, and watched the brew sizzle. Before the head rose, he began to drink. It was cheap beer, laced with brandy extract. In minutes he was feeling almost calm.

Almost calm enough to face Kasimanda as she came down the hall, carrying a small plate.

“You should eat,” she murmured.

He acknowledged the advice with a grunt as she set the plate beside him. His resolve to ignore her wavered when he smelled nester cakes. Her family’s cook had made them, and Kasi used to sneak them to him.

“You made these?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He took a bite, wondering when and how she’d learned to cook. The cake was crisp and meaty, the way he remembered.

Tipping his head to one side, he peered at her through a brew-induced haze. “These are good. My compliments to the chef.” His words slightly slurred, he asked, “But what if cooking and cleaning and tending rokam isn’t enough? What if the one-legged man wants you in his bed?”

Her face went white.

“I see. The rules have changed, but I’m still not good enough for you.”

She knitted her hands together in front of her. “I . . . can’t.”

The way she said it made him shudder. “Kasi?”

He put out a hand toward her, but she was already darting out of his reach, fleeing down the hall. He stared after her long after she’d disappeared.

Finally, with a heavy sigh, he made another cup of the strong brew. A shame to waste good nester cakes, he decided, cramming another into his mouth and licking his fingers. Sometime later he found the strength to get up and stagger down the hall to a bed chamber. Fumbling clumsily, he unstrapped his holster and shoved his gun under the pillow.

There was a mirror on the wall, and his reflection took him by surprise: A tall, dark-haired man with broad shoulders, his face too young for the pain-etched grooves in his forehead. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at his own face. It was changed, and not for the better.

Turning quickly, he pulled off his trousers before easing off the prosthetic extension of his ruined leg. Freed of its constraint, the stump throbbed, and he bit back a groan as he flopped onto the bed.

He must have slept. The next thing he knew, he was awake and listening to stealthy feet moving in the darkness. His hand shot to the gun. The intruder was quicker, surer. He heard the weapon clank onto the stand beside the bed.

“It’s all right,” Kasimanda whispered.

Some of the tension went out of him. In the semi-darkness, he could see her only in outline. When he remembered she could see him a lot better, his stomach knotted. “What’re you doing here?” he growled, trying to pull the bedding over the stump of his right leg.

Her hand covered his. “Lie still.”

He felt the mattress shift as she came down beside him. “I’m going to take care of the wound.”

“No.” He tried to slide away, but one of her hands gripped his shoulder, stilling him. When the other hand touched his ruined flesh, he went rigid. “
Don’t
.”

“It’s all right,” she answered, a quaver in her voice. “I understand.”

He uttered a short, humorless laugh. “Yeah? And how in Atherdan’s name could you understand? What have
you
lost?” The instant the words left his mouth, he regretted them. Consumed by pain and humiliation, he’d forgotten what she’d told him only a short time ago, that, indeed, she’d lost everything.

She didn’t reply, only stared at him. He couldn’t hold her gaze, had to look away.

For several more moments, silence hung in the darkness between them. Then her fingers flattened against his hot skin.

“Let me see if this salve works,” she whispered. “I want it to work. I want to give you that. Maybe it’s all I can give you.”

The soft sound of her voice kept him pinned to the bed as her hand glided over his leg, spreading some kind of cream. At first her touch brought him pain, and he clenched his teeth to keep from wrenching away. But in a few moments he felt something else: deep, comforting warmth, radiating through his skin, penetrating all the way to the bone.

Still, as her hand moved lower, toward the place where the energy burst had charred his flesh, he felt cold sweat break out on his forehead.

She kept talking to him in a low voice, words he couldn’t quite catch. Yet they held him. He wanted to close his eyes, to pretend that the darkness hid his mangled body. At the same time, he wanted to turn on a light, so he could see her delicate features. He settled for straining his eyes, watching her bending over him, the long flow of her spectacular Farlian hair, with its rippling waves, curtaining her face.

“Is it doing anything?” she asked, her voice giving away her tension.

“I . . . think so.”

“Good.” The word eased from her lips like a long, satisfied sigh.

He reached toward her, but before his hand could connect with her flesh, she sprang away. For a moment she stood looking down at him, then she turned and ran out of the room.

The next morning, he might have chalked the whole thing up to fevered dreams, except that he could see the orange salve on his leg. He also felt a difference in the wound. The pain was less gnawing.

He limped to the bathroom, using the folding crutch they’d given him in the hospital, and took a quick shower, bracing his back against the curved wall and standing on one leg. When he had carefully dried the stump, he attached the prosthesis and braced for the hot pain that always came when he first put his weight on the damned thing.

It wasn’t quite so bad.

He started down the hall, then, on second thought, stopped and went back. Standing in front of the mirror, he ran his hand over the dark stubble that covered his cheeks. He had intended to leave it. Instead he slathered hair-dissolving foam on the nascent beard and washed it away. The foam left his cheeks smooth and undisguised, forcing him to acknowledge the weight he’d lost. He looked lean and hungry and, in his own eyes, angry.

He tried to lighten his expression, to erase the frown, to make his lips curve upward in a smile. When he realized his attempts to rearrange his features only made things worse, he grimaced and turned away.

Kasimanda wasn’t in the galley. But there was a plate of grain cakes on a warming square. And real coffee. Maybe the residents of the house had left it in long-term storage, he thought as he breathed in the wonderful aroma, then poured some into the delicate ceramic mug she’d set on the table for him.

Her grain cakes melted in his mouth, like the ones his mother had made, and he realized that she must have used a Dorre recipe. He wanted to tell her how good they were, but she didn’t appear when he called her name.

“You don’t have to leave,” he said more loudly, hoping his voice conveyed a note of apology for his insensitivity of the night before. “You can stay here as long as you want.”

No answer.

Half disappointed, half relieved, he went back to the power center and spent the morning on repairs. When the sun had reached its zenith and begun its slow fall toward the horizon, he headed outside to inspect the farm machinery. He wasn’t going to look for her, he told himself as he limped his way to the large barn, where the equipment was kept.

After satisfying himself that the riding scour and harvester were in working order, he returned to the galley, where he found she’d put away most of the supplies he’d brought and prepared another Dorre-style meal. Like the fairy people in a children’s story, he thought with a low laugh. An unseen helper.

Stomping down the hall, he began opening doors. In a wing off to the left, he found the small chamber where it appeared she had been sleeping. The bed was narrow, the storage bay small. Servant’s quarters.

Why in the name of Far— He stopped himself, realizing suddenly how insulting the curse would be if he slipped and said it aloud in front of Kasi: his people defiling the name of hers.

He started over.

Why in the name of hell was she sleeping in here? She could have the master bed chamber for all he cared. He opened the storage bay. There were only a few tunics, all of them clean but made of cheap cloth. Wasn’t there anything better in the house, he wondered as he fingered the coarse fabric, imagining it next to her soft skin. With a curse, he turned and stamped away.

He worked outside for the rest of the day. By evening, his leg was throbbing. Back in his room, as he pulled off his clothes and removed the prosthesis, he decided he could use some more of that orange stuff.

Would she come to him again? Or was one good look at his mangled leg enough, he wondered as he lay with his eyes half closed, too keyed up to sleep. An enormous sense of relief swept over him when the door finally glided open.

“Was your leg better today?” she asked softly as she tiptoed toward the bed.

“Yes.”

“I’m so glad.” In her voice was a hint of the music he’d always loved.

“I think more of that salve would help,” he admitted in low, rough tones.

In one quick motion, she perched lightly beside him. He wanted to feel her touch. Still, he flinched when her fingers made contact with the leg. Teeth gritted, he ordered himself to relax as she began to soothe the magic salve over his poisoned flesh. Again there was warmth and sweet relief.

In the darkness, he began to talk, his tone flat and devoid of emotion. “I was on a mission to secure a farm house. There was a Farlian hiding inside. He burned my leg. I put a hole in his chest.”

Her hand stilled, then started again.

“I killed a lot of your people.”

“Are you bragging or asking for my forgiveness?” she asked, a little hitch in her voice.

He might have tossed out a cynical answer. Instead he gave her honesty. “Neither. I just . . . I just needed to say it. I’m not sure I’m fit company for anyone. I feel . . . uncivilized.”

“The men you killed were uncivilized, too,” she answered. “They would have killed you if you hadn’t killed them first.”

He made a low sound in his throat. “I started out as an idealistic boy fighting for my people’s freedom. I didn’t know what war was going to be like. I didn’t know how it felt to look into a man’s eyes and kill him.”

“You did what you had to do. And your people
are
free.”

“And yours?”

“We’ve paid the price for years of conceit and presumption.”

Her answer shocked him. “That’s what you believe?”

She sighed, a sad sound in the darkness. “When I think about it, I understand that when we raised the price of rokam oil too high, our buyers on Kodon Prime made a business decision to ally themselves with the Dorre and back them in a war against us.” She sighed again. “But mostly I try not to think about it. I try just to survive, one day at a time.”

She said it with such heart-wrenching simplicity that he struggled to draw a full breath. Her next words only added to the crushing feeling in his chest.

“Link, you’re a man whose body and soul were injured by circumstances beyond your control. A man with the strength to heal the parts that can be healed.”

“How do you know?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“Because you had the courage to tell me your doubts. Because you let me put my hands here.” In the darkness, she lightly touched the stump of his leg. “There are things inside all of us that we find frightening. It’s how we deal with the fear that counts.”

When had she grown up, he wondered. Where had she gained this kind of wisdom?

“Doesn’t it change the way you feel about me when I tell you I killed Farlian men?” he demanded.

“I never saw things in terms of Farlians verses Dorre. Our races evolved differently, because my ancestors came from Earth much longer ago than yours and adapted to a new environment that changed us. So my skin is very pale, and my eyes see better at night than yours. But those physical differences are superficial. Our hopes and needs and feelings are alike. We’re all still people, and in all ways that matter, we’re the same.”

“Then why did you stop me that night, when you knew I was going to kiss you?” He blurted out the question, then immediately regretted it.

He thought she wasn’t going to answer when she rose and took a step away from the bed. Then she began to speak in a low, rapid voice. “Because I knew my father was standing in the doorway, waiting for me to come in from the garden. And despite his liberal leanings, he would have killed you if you’d put your hand on his high-born daughter.”

Before Link could respond, she turned and fled the room.

He lay for long hours in the darkness, remembering each word of the midnight encounter, each touch of her hands on his flesh. He especially remembered that she’d been motivated by a desire to protect him from her father, not revulsion for him, when she’d refused his kiss all those years ago.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, slumber finally took him.

Despite the short sleep, he woke feeling better than he had in months, as if a giant weight had been lifted off his body. He knew it was Kasimanda’s doing. She was the first person he’d told how he felt— about the war, about his leg, about anything at all. Maybe it was because he’d known her longer than anyone still living. Maybe it was the gentle way she had about her. Whatever the reason, he felt he could talk to her, share himself with her. And with the talking and sharing had come a kind of freedom.

He wanted to tell her, but she had disappeared again. Anguish grabbed him when he considered that she might have fled the estate. Then he reminded himself that she’d said she had nowhere else to go.

He ate the food she had left for him, then headed outside. With the riding scour, he began to clear away rocks that had washed down from the nearby mountain with the season’s rains. No one had tended the field since the war had started, and there was a lot of debris.

While he worked, he thought about Kasimanda. Kasi, he had called her when they were young. Things had changed abruptly when they’d grown into awkward adolescents. And more recently, changed again— in ways he was afraid to imagine. They both had been ground up and spit out by the war.

He sighed. On Laster of Renfarel’s estate, where he and Kasi had grown up, Farlian and Dorre children had played together as near-equals— until they began to mature and were suddenly cautioned to remember their places in society.

Those places had changed, though. The Dorre, in waging war against their oppressors, had stood the world on its head, creating chaos in the process: cities renamed, rulers reduced to humiliation, civilians murdered. Families, like Kasi’s, torn apart. Men, like him, maimed.

With a grimace, Link centered his mind on the task of clearing rocks. When the sun dipped low over the hills, he returned to the house and revived himself in a long cool shower. After eating the dinner Kasi had left him, he flopped into bed. But rather than lying down, he propped his back against a mound of pillows and left a small lamp burning in the corner of the room—as if he were expecting company. Then, as the silent minutes dragged by, his tension mounted along with the throbbing in his leg.

He had almost given up hope when the door slid open, and she stepped into the room. Stopping, she shielded her light-sensitive eyes, took a step back.

“Don’t go.”

“The light—”

“I need to see you.”

He held his breath as she hesitated in the doorway, then felt the air trickle from his lungs as she crossed the space between them.

She was dressed in a short gown, not unlike her daytime tunics. As he watched, she opened a small medical kit and took out the salve. Easing gingerly onto the bed, she kept her eyes down as she began to work on his leg, the medicine and her touch bringing that same deep, healing comfort. This time, though, the sensation soon became more than mere comfort. With the absence of the pain, he was helpless to stop the response of his body to hers.

He sat there, feeling the heat gather in his loins as her hands worked their way down his leg and up again toward his thigh. And he knew the precise moment that she realized how her touch was affecting him.

Uttering a strangled cry, she scrambled off the bed.

“Kasi.”

The name from their childhood stopped her. Still, she stood warily, poised to flee.

He gestured downward. “I’m not going to run after you. By the time I attached that pitiful excuse for a leg, you’d be gone—to wherever it is you hide during the day.” He made a sound that was almost a laugh. “Or I could hop after you. I haven’t tried that yet—don’t know how fast I’d be at it.” Nor had he joked about the leg, he thought with a kind of detached amazement.

Her features contorted.

“Kasi,” he said again, very gently.

She held herself stiffly, as if she might break in two, and the question that had been gnawing at him for days worked its way to his lips and came out in a half-strangled growl. “The Dorre soldiers who came to Renfaral—did they find you?”

Her whole body jerked as if he’d slapped her, and he felt a sudden pain in his gut, like the twisting of a knife.

“Did they catch you?” he managed, praying he was wrong.

Her head gave the smallest of nods. When she spoke, her voice cracked. “In the woods. They didn’t know I was Laster’s daughter, so they didn’t kill me.”

The look on her face told him more than the words. He clenched his jaw to keep from roaring his outrage. He had heard soldiers bragging of catching Farlian women and teaching them a lesson in obedience to their new masters.

“I would never do anything to hurt you,” he said, struggling to speak around the fist-sized obstruction in his throat.

“When I touched you, you got . . .” She stopped, gulped.

“Hard,” he finished for her, then went on to admit, “I was aroused. Do you know what that means?”

“That you want to have sex with me.”

The stark look on her face pierced though his chest to his heart. “That’s only a small part of what I feel. When you touched me and talked to me, you made me feel things I didn’t think I’d ever feel again. Good things. Things I thought had died inside me.”

She stayed where she was, her gaze searching his face.

“Kasi, I would never hurt you,” he repeated. “I swear that. On the altar of Atherdan.”

Her head came up. “On Atherdan? The sacred place of your people.”

“Yes.”

Her small white teeth worried her lip.

“I can’t get up. You have to come back here, so we can talk.”

The breath froze in his lungs as he watched her stand unmoving. Then, in a rush she came to the bed and perched on the side, just out of reach, her face turned away from him.

“Can you tell me about it?” he asked.

“I haven’t told anyone,” she said in a ragged voice.

“Last night you made me face things I didn’t want to face. And this morning I felt better.”

“What happened to me was . . . bad.”

“I know.” He wanted to reach for her, take her in his arms. He kept his hands flat against the mattress.

“Four of them caught me,” she choked out. “And they dragged me into the old tool shed.”

She told him things, then, that he didn’t want to hear, things that made bile rise in his throat, though he listened until she was finished, until she began to weep, until he wept with her. Finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer and reached for her, she slid away. When he called her name, she slipped out of the room.

And he was left alone on the bed with only his troubled thoughts for company. He had come to this place feeling sorry for himself, for what he had endured. But his wounds were of the flesh. Hers were of the soul.

Still, she had summoned the courage to tell him her secrets. He would do the same. If she was still there in the morning.

As tired as he was from his work in the fields, Link remained awake for a long while before sleep finally claimed him.

To his surprise and vast relief, he found Kasi the next morning, sitting at the table in the galley. Her eyes were red, as if she’d spent the whole night crying, and her hands were clenched tightly in front of her. But she was there.

He propped his hips against the counter, meeting her gaze with a steadiness that belied the pounding of his heart.

“So what do you think of me now?” she asked. “Kasimanda of Renfaral. The woman who served four Dorre soldiers against her will.”

The calmness of her voice frightened him. He sensed he could lose her with a single wrong word. “I think you’re as brave as any war hero, Dorre or Farlian,” he answered from the depths of his heart. “Brave enough to keep going after you lost your whole family. Brave enough to go through what must have been hell to get yourself here. Brave enough to face me and my anger, and to take care of my leg, when I know what you
wanted
to do was run away.”

She stared at him as if she couldn’t believe the appraisal.

He ran a shaky hand through his hair, and fear made his words come out stiffly. “Kasi, when I first saw you here, I couldn’t face what I felt. That’s why I acted angry. I was terrified that you were going to hurt me.”

Her lips parted, and her huge, gorgeous eyes opened wide in astonishment. “Me? Hurt
you
?”

“Oh, yes. The way you did that night seven years ago when you ran away from me in the garden.” He swallowed, tried to gather some courage of his own to match hers. “Kasi, I have loved you since I was ten. A crazy, hopeless love. But now—” He gave a little laugh. “Now I guess I’m willing to wait for you until I’m a hundred, if that’s what it takes.”

Wildly conflicting emotions chased across her features.

“No pressure,” he said, relieved that he had finally confessed the truth. “No demands or requests. No real expectations.” He was lying, of course. Through his teeth. He had expectations, all right, enough to last several lifetimes.

Turning so that she couldn’t see his face, he poured himself a mug of coffee. Then, without another word or even a glance in her direction, he grabbed a grain cake and headed for the fields.

She was waiting for him when he came in for dinner. While they ate the food she had prepared, they talked quietly about growing rokam and about the supplies she needed for the house.

He made his first wordless request when they were reclining on wide loungers beside the empty swimming pool. Moving his leg, he gave a small groan.

Her head swung quickly toward him. “Is it bad?”

He shrugged elaborately.

“You need more of the salve.”

“I think you’re right.” He considered his options—his bedroom where she would be nervous, or out here where he would feel defenseless without his prosthesis. He chose her comfort. “We could use the lounger.”

“Yes,” she answered on a rush of breath that told him he’d made the right choice. Still, his gaze slid away from her as he pictured himself taking off the leg. He wasn’t ready to do
that
in front of her. Standing, he steadied himself against the wall. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

The sun had set by the time he returned. Overhead, stars winked in the black velvet of the sky, and the smallest of the four moons cast a blue radiance on the fields beyond the house.

He looked around anxiously for Kasi, afraid that she might have changed her mind. Then she moved, a shadow detaching itself from the wall of the house, and he watched her silhouette glide toward him. She was tall like most Farlian women, almost his height. But the blue light gave her a fragile, indistinct look. Long ago she had told him how things appeared to her in the moonlight. To her radiation-sensitive eyes, the light was soft and pink, giving objects a warmth he couldn’t see.

Wearing a pair of short pants, with the folding crutch replacing his prosthesis, he limped slowly toward the lounger. He was rather amazed with himself, that he’d let her see him this way. But then, he decided, maybe it gave him an advantage.

The twisted logic brought a low chuckle to his lips.

“What’s funny?” she inquired.

“I was thinking—how frightened can you be of a cripple?”

“Link, I can’t think of you as crippled.”

He snorted, disbelieving.

“You’re a war hero.”

“I’m no hero,” he denied.

“Do they give rich holdings like this one to all the troopers?”

“No. But they knew my father was training me to run an estate, so they figured I had a better chance at producing rokam for them than some store clerk.”

“It was more than that. They knew you had the will to succeed.”

There was no point in arguing, he thought as he eased onto the cushioned lounger. Neither of them spoke as she sat on the edge of it and began to rub the healing medicine into his injured flesh. It wasn’t long before her innocent caresses once again made his body grow hard.

He felt her touch falter, heard her breath catch.

He lay very still with his eyes closed and his arms at his sides, his fists clenched. And when he made no move to reach for her, she kept up her ministration.

“Thank you,” he whispered, when she had finished. “Kasi, you’ve changed my life with that salve—given me new hope. But I’m not good at speaking the things in my heart. Words aren’t enough. I can’t tell you how I feel unless I touch you.”

He heard her breath catch and went on quickly. “I’ll keep my hands flat on the cushions. I just . . . I just want to kiss you. On the cheek.”

She didn’t draw back as he pushed himself up and brushed a whisper- soft kiss against her tender flesh. When she stayed where she was, he stroked his way down to her jaw line, then back up to the corner of her eye. He felt a little shiver go through her.

He turned his head, moved his mouth gently against her lashes, feeling them flutter at the touch, feeling his own body tighten painfully in response.

He wanted more, but he was ready to deny himself further pleasure. “Thank you.” He drew away from her, but she stayed where she was, her eyes closed.

“Would you . . . do it again?” she whispered, her voice shaky.

“Yes,” he breathed. “Oh, yes.” This time he nibbled gently at her neck, feeling her skin heat and her breath grow thready, and he had to grip the lounger beneath him to keep from reaching for her. Raising his head, he planted small kisses on her chin and cheeks. Her lips were moist and parted. He wanted to devour them. Instead he stroked the curve of one beautiful brow.

“Link.” His name was a breathy sigh. For long moments she sat very quietly, then tipped her face toward him. “Do you know, no man has kissed me on the mouth,” she whispered.

He felt something catch in his throat.

“If you kiss me the way men and women kiss, it will belong only to the two of us.”

He couldn’t speak, could only nod as she slid millimeters closer to him. He kept his hands at his sides, leaning forward until his mouth touched hers.

He felt the tension in her. Slowly he brushed his mouth back and forth against hers, increasing the pressure by slow degrees, until her lips were sealed to his.

Heat leaped inside him as he felt the yielding softness of her, heard the low, purring sound in her throat. Yet he kept his hands where they were, the only contact point his mouth on hers as he opened her lips and gently probed the warmth and softness beyond.

When he lifted his head, her breath was ragged, and her eyes were soft and pleading.

“I want . . .” she whispered, the sentence trailing off.

“Anything,” he answered, offering her his soul.

“I’m afraid of what I want.”

“You don’t have to be afraid. Not with me.”

“I know. At least, part of me knows. The other part is terrified that you’ll grab me and . . .”

“I won’t.”

“How do I know?”

“Because a man doesn’t get any more aroused than I am right now,” he grated. “But the part of me that frightens you doesn’t control my actions. My brain does. And my brain knows that anything worth doing with you is worth waiting for.”

Her gaze went to his face, searching. He kept his own gaze steady.

She laid her head against his shoulder, and they sat silently in the darkness.

When she began to speak, her voice was wispy. “Do you remember the day I put my pet palistan in a boat and it drifted out into the lake?”

“I found you standing on the shore crying,” he answered thickly.

“And you jumped in and towed the boat back to me. Your father came along and found you all wet, and you got a whipping.”

He nodded, remembering.

“That was the day I fell in love with you,” she breathed.

He stared at her, wondering if he’d heard correctly.
She loved him
?

“Until then you were just the big boy who was the leader of all the young people on the estate. That day, I lost my heart to you.”

He started to reach for her, and her lower lip trembled though her eyes were soft and warm. Then her expression suddenly changed to deep alarm.

“What? Did I frighten you?”

“No. I saw something.”

He turned, looked in the same direction, detected nothing but the blue moonlight on the stark hills. “What?”

“A man.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Her gaze stayed trained on the rise of ground as she sucked in a little breath. “Two men. Three. Dorre. Crouching, using the rocks for cover.”

“How do you know they’re Dorre?”