"We don't stand a chance," Jeng sighed, lifting a cup of rice wine to his lips.
Lok examined the comp-vid. Yes, he knew how to use one-the technology had invaded Falchan in the past handful of years. The program listed all the benefits one might come to expect from the Reth Alliance if one signed on as RAA or ASD-Regular Alliance Army or Alliance Security Detail. The pay was sufficient. Training acceptable. Accommodations depended on which branch hired you. ASD sounded more fitting to his talents. Of course, he wasn't about to tell some recruiting agent what he thought. That might gain him swift passage to the worst position in the Regular Army.
"Please sit," the tall, dark-haired man offered Lok a seat when his name was called. "Lok, is it?" The man consulted the portable comp-vid in his hand.
"I see that you've won the Solstice Trials eleven times."
"Yes." Lok displayed no emotion with his one-word answer. No indication of the eighty years of training he'd put into those brief trials, just to come away with a gold medallion, the Lion Warlord's image stamped on its surface.
"And you've come away from your military service with top honors."
"Are you serious about coming to work for the Reth Alliance?"
"What are you hoping to gain from signing on with us?" That question made Lok's dark eyes widen just a fraction.
"You want the truth?"
"Yes. Of course."
"I hope to gain knowledge that may protect Falchan someday. From pirates or other invaders. I hear they've stepped up their attacks on non-Alliance worlds. Falchan may be vulnerable. I wish that to be otherwise."
"Do you know who I am?" The dark-haired man asked Lok.
"No idea. A recruiter. That's all I know."
"I am Lendill Schaff, Vice-Director of the ASD. Welcome to the Reth Alliance, conscript Lok."
"He did not call her that."
"He did. Our son has made a choice." Garek knew the arguments would come-Keetha argued about everything. Belittled Radolf for desiring to be a cook. Even his position as Head Cook to the King of Karathia didn't mollify Keetha's thwarted ambitions where her son was concerned. Radolf had expressed his interest in Reah-to the King and to his father. Knowing what his mother's feelings were likely to be, he hadn't approached her.
Garek, wanting to soften the blow when it came, brought it to her attention instead. Wylend had accepted the news-he'd guessed at it already and had no problem sharing his mate with Radolf. And Reah-she bloomed like a shy flower around Radolf. If they talked of cooking, they were both in rapture. Keetha wanted to squash her son's feelings.
"Neither of them will get children. She has a High Demon's marks on her neck. That means that only he will father her children. This is the worst possible news. Tell Wylend I will not stand for this. It's bad enough that he brings something like that to Karathia and parades her around on his arm. He already has an heir. Who will give us heirs, Garek? Any ideas on that?" Keetha's hands were firmly positioned on her hips as she glared at her Karathian warlock mate. Garek was a trusted lover to their King. Keetha didn't mind that-it elevated the entire family's importance on Karathia. Now, her son was not only a cook-he wanted that filthy High Demon as a mate!
"Keetha, I never imagined that you might be racist," Garek said softly.
"Radolf never wanted filth for his mate before," Keetha nearly shouted.
"You say that about the King's intended?"
"I'll say it about any of them marrying into the Karathian race!"
"Erland is mated to the Vampire Queen."
"She's a Queen," Keetha snapped. "Even if she is a nasty blood drinker, she's a Queen, and a powerful one at that. And she's Wylend's granddaughter. This-this High Demon-has nothing. What will she offer Radolf, Garek? Tell me."
"I never thought you a social climber before, Keetha. This is opening my eyes a little."
"I will not sit still while our son sends the family into oblivion by not reproducing."
Garek wanted to point out that having only one child had been Keetha's choice, not his. He held his tongue. "Erland's son was born by surrogate," he pointed out instead.
"If you suggest such an unnatural act to me again, we will part ways, Garek," Keetha hissed. "You see that Wylend chose the heir born naturally instead of that one."
Garek drew in a breath. Keetha was dancing around treason. "This conversation is getting us nowhere, Keetha," Garek sighed. He'd wanted to smooth the way for Radolf. He'd stirred up the insect's nest instead. He would go to Radolf and ask him to hold off speaking to his mother about Reah for a while. Perhaps a few full turns might do the trick. Garek folded away from his mate as she lifted a finger to make another point.
"Sex tomorrow," Wyatt grinned at me. I wish I didn't embarrass so easily over things of that nature. But I do. I felt my cheeks grow hot. Wyatt laughed. Nine days I'd spent at Wylend's palace, receiving deferential treatment from Wylend, Corolan, Garek and Radolf.
Radolf and I prepared the duck recipe I'd dreamed up in my head. It had turned out very well. With only a minor adjustment here or there, it would be worthy to serve in the finest restaurant. I'd come to enjoy my time with Radolf like treasured jewels. We laughed, talked and cooked inside his kitchen. Wylend, whenever court didn't take him away, would appear there, tasting whatever it was we were cooking. He accused us of putting extra pounds on his frame, ate whatever we offered and disappeared. In the nine days I'd been there, I think half the palace found their way to the kitchen on some errand or other. They never went away empty-handed.
Wylend made arrangements to bring me to his bed the moment Wyatt released me. "Here, try these strawberry tarts," Radolf handed a saucer to Wyatt, along with a fork. "Your cheeks are still pink," Radolf grinned at me.
"I'll get you," I threatened.
"I'm so scared," he waggled his fingers at me.
"How many Falchani recruits did you get?" Norian set his comp-vid on the breakfast table and peered across it at Lendill.
"Six," Lendill replied, selecting a roll from a heaping plate and pulling the butter dish over. Norian and Lendill were currently working from offices in Ildevar Wyyld's palace, for different reasons. Norian didn't want to come near Gardevik Rath or his son. Lendill was there because Reah wasn't on Le-Ath Veronis.
"What did you think of them?"
"I brought three into the ASD immediately. One of those even you'd be proud of."
"In training?" Norian grunted.
"Yes. Do you think Ildevar will offer membership into the Alliance again?"
"I haven't asked him." Norian sipped his tea.
"One-the best one-worries that those pirates may attack Falchan."
"A reasonable fear. They took Lidrith, and it was better armed."
"But Lidrith isn't home to a race of warriors, born and bred," Lendill pointed out.
"True. Are you training the one you're so proud of to combat pirates?"
"Absolutely, among other things," Lendill grinned. He had plans to visit Reah later. Had asked one of Lissa's Falchani to fold him to Karathia. Drew was glad to offer.
Radolf and I had just placed the ox-roast in the oven. I'd wanted to serve it to Wylend and the others-Radolf wanted to learn how to prepare it. We both got our wish. I was washing my hands at the sink when a woman appeared in the kitchen. Now I knew where Radolf got his eyes, nose and chin.
"Mother, what are you doing here?" Radolf sounded unsure, suddenly.
"I just wanted to look at the filth you've chosen for yourself," his mother snarled. I almost dropped the towel I was using to dry my hands-her voice was filled with hate. And what was she talking about? She already knew Radolf was a cook-he'd said she was still dealing with his decision over that.
"Reah is not filth," Radolf hissed right back. "Leave, mother, before you destroy everything."
"I'll not leave. Not until she tastes what a Karathian Witch can do to her." I blinked as light formed around her hands. The blasts were hurled in my direction seconds later, only to dissipate into nothing before they reached me.
"Keetha, leave. Now you see why Wylend is wise to select Reah as his mate," Garek appeared beside his son. "Power of any sort cannot be used against a High Demon-they are immune. Leave, Keetha. Do not make this worse than it is already."
"I will not," she snapped. I was staring at her now. What was Garek saying? That Wylend was using me, because power wielded by his kind had no effect? Was that what I was-a shield for him? I blinked stupidly at Garek and then at his mate.
"That's not all I have to say," Keetha seethed. "You'll never give my son children. I don't care how much he wants you. You'll never be welcome in my home or in my family, you stupid filth. Leave my child alone!"
"What is the meaning of this?" Wylend was suddenly in the kitchen and thundering, his anger more than evident. I stared at him in confusion. Had it all been for show? Had they courted me-treated me as they had, to reel me in as protection for Wylend? And Radolf? What was this? I sobbed and skipped away.
"What. Have. You. Done?" Wylend was glowing, his power gathering as he stalked toward Keetha. Only now did she realize the extent of the foolishness she'd committed.
"I didn't know she'd just," Keetha's voice trailed off and she shrank back from Wylend's anger. Radolf stood, stunned. Garek, the spineless fool, wasn't doing anything to protect her from Wylend. Keetha had never despised her mate more.
"Your power is removed," Wylend hissed, the light around him blowing outward. Keetha shrieked as she felt her ability fall away. "I'm holding back from killing you because I love Garek. That is the only reason you're enjoying life now, Keetha. I suggest you not forget it. You are banished from the court and the palace. Do not," Wylend bent over her, his voice deadly soft, "come within my sight again." He waved an arm and Keetha vanished.