I just got the okay from my bosses at Night Shade Books to post a sample chapter from Jane Carver of Waar.
So here, behind the cut, is Chapter Two – In which, having touched a strange gem in a cave, Jane has an unsettling awakening…
I woke up flat on my back with the bed-spins so bad it reminded me of the time in high school my friend Briana made pina coladas with Southern Comfort and we drank two pitchers.
Where was I, anyway? Did the cops put me in a body bag? It felt like it. It was hot, and the air was thick and dusty in my nose. The color above me couldn’t be the sky. It was blue, but the kind of deep blue you get with sapphires or bottles of fancy water… or plastic tarps.
I started to panic. I was weak, but I had to thrash around and let ‘em know I wasn’t dead. Being buried alive was right up there with caves and prison in my catalog of claustrophobic no-nos.
Just as I lifted my hands to start pushing at the body bag an insect buzzed past my nose, and a fluffy white cloud edged into the corner of my vision. That Tidy-Bowl blue was the sky. What the hell?
I struggled up, rubbing my eyes. Maybe my vision was fucked up. That glowing gem could have damaged… I looked around and seized up like an engine block with sand in the pistons. My eyeballs did a slow right-to-left over the scariest landscape I’d ever seen. Not that there was actually anything outright horrifying about it; as far as visuals went it was pretty easy on the eyes, but, well, let me lay it out.
I was lying on a stone disk the size of a helicopter landing pad, in the middle of a wide prairie of knee high grass with stalks the blue of a junkie’s veins and pointy flowers the size and color of a match flame. Stones stuck up out of the grass, some in straight lines that made me think there must have been a building or a town built around the disk a few centuries back. Beyond the stones, the prairie humped over some low hills to the horizon, where white capped mountains faded away to purple.
Like I said, pretty. The thing that scared the living piss out of me was that every single piece of it was wrong. All wrong. I couldn’t say exactly how. I ain’t a scientist. But I knew, like you know your red 1987 Ford pick-up from somebody else’s red 1987 Ford pick-up without having to look twice, that I wasn’t on good old Terra Firma anymore.
The sun was wrong: too big, too orange. The horizon was wrong: it didn’t go far enough away. The plants — I know there are blue plants on earth, but not these plants. Even the air was wrong. It filled my lungs too much. And it smelled off, sharp, like a gun battle in a swimming pool. It wasn’t right, none of it, and it made me shake so hard my teeth rattled.
After a while my brain unlocked a little, and let me notice more than just the scenery. First off, I was naked. I looked around for my clothes. Not there. But I found something else. Right behind me, sunk into the center of the stone disk, was a platter-sized, lemonade-colored gem, big brother to the one in the clock thing in the cave.
Well, I can put two and two together. I’d touched the green gem on the clock and poof, I landed here. Maybe the thing was a teleporter, like in Star Trek. Was it going to be that easy? I reached down for it, then stopped. Did I really want to go back to that cave with the cops and the dogs? If the alternative was staying… wherever the fuck this was? Hell yes! I slapped the gem and waited to get yanked back to earth.
Another fly zipped past my ear. The too-big sun kept toasting my shoulders. I was still here, wherever here was. I took a closer look at the gem, cupping my hands around my eyes to block out the sun. It didn’t glow. Not even a little. It was dead.
I haven’t cried since my first week in boot-camp. My friends call me Iron Jane because nothing gets to me, not death, not loss, not old movies, but as I looked around at that big, empty prairie and it sunk in how alone I was and how far from home, I ain’t ashamed to say that I curled up with my cheek on the smooth face of that gem and bawled like a baby.
I must have cried myself to sleep, ‘cause I woke up to a ground-shaking rumble that was getting louder by the second. I snapped my head up and looked around, blinking the sleep out of my eyes and scanning for what was making the racket.
A big dust cloud was racing my way, filled with — I didn’t know what. I could see what looked like ostriches with giant parrot beaks, people with funny-shaped heads and right arms twice as big as their left ones, a chunky thing on wheels, splotches of red and purple, and bright flashes of steel. And it was all coming right at me.
I hopped up — and nearly had a coronary. My leap lifted me nearly six feet in the air! I face-planted in the tall grass beside the stone disk and lay there, heart jackhammering. What the fuck? No one could jump that high! Not without a running start and special sneakers!
I didn’t have time to think about it. The crowd of whatever-they-were was so close I could smell ‘em; a weird mix of man sweat and birdcage funk. I peeked over the edge of the disk in time to see the whole circus roar past not ten feet from my hiding place. They weren’t coming for me after all. They were too busy fighting each other.
Now I could sort all the parts out. It was a bunch of purple guys swinging swords and riding big, two-legged birds. Sure, why not. Happens every day.
Except for being purple, the guys weren’t quite as weird as I’d first thought. Their funny-shaped heads turned out to be funny hair-cuts: sumo top-knots, mohawks, braids and fancy shave-jobs. What I’d thought were giant, mutated right arms were actually thick sleeves of scaly, bronze-looking armor that covered their sword arms. Besides that they were nearly naked. Just the sleeve and a few other scraps of armor covering their groins, shins and knees, all held in place by leather harnesses like something out of an SM club. Capes of red or gold flapped around their shoulders, and they waved around long thin swords with lots of curly metal bits protecting the grip. Most of the swords were red with blood.
Their mounts were like emus on steroids, shaggy monsters with gray and black feathers, and powerful legs that ended in heavy claws big enough to close around my chest. They had useless little wings almost hidden under their saddles, and mean-eyed, turtle-beaked heads as big as air conditioners. And to make them look even more like a cross between a T-rex and an ostrich, they had shrunken little arms dangling from their chests like broken doll parts, as weak and pointless as their wings.
Men and birds were kicking the crap out of each other, claws slashing, beaks snapping, swords clashing. It took me a second to make a guess at what was happening, and by then it was almost over.
The guys in the red cloaks were protecting a fancy coach drawn by four of the massive birds. The guys in the gold cloaks were trying to stop the coach, and were handing the red-cloaks their collective asses. There were more of the gold-cloaks, and they knew their stuff, turning their big birds on a dime and tagging the poor red-cloaks at will. I looked back the way they’d come. Dead red-cloaks all the way to the horizon. No gold.
I turned back in time to catch the big finish. The coach’s four harnessed birds, panicking in the middle of the brawl, turned too sharply. The coach heeled over on a big rock and slammed to the ground on its side. The wooden tang holding the birds to it snapped and, still harnessed together, they ripped free and sprinted for the horizon.
After that it was a slaughter. The gold-cloaks weren’t going to let the red-cloaks off with just a whipping. They rode down every last one of those poor bastards and chopped them to pieces. It turned my stomach. They might have been purple aliens, but their screams were plenty human.
While his riders finished mopping up, the leader of the gold-cloaks, a square-jawed superhero with a pencil-thin moustache, a flopped-over mohawk, and two pigtails hanging down in front of his ears like a yeshiva boy, climbed onto the coach. You could tell he was the leader. One, ‘cause his guys ducked their heads whenever he gave an order, and two, ‘cause his shit was flashier: zigzag designs on his cloak, gold sleeve armor instead of bronze, jewels all over his sword.
When he got to the top of the coach — which was the side, if you see what I’m saying — he wrenched open the door. A little long-haired purple guy in white popped up like a jack-in-the-box and flailed around with a dagger. Square-Jaw hardly blinked; a casual backhand with his sword and Long-Hair dropped back into the coach with a thump.
Square-Jaw grinned. His teeth were as white and straight as a row of sugar cubes. He reached down into the coach and lifted somebody out by the wrist. For a second I thought it was Long-Hair again, ‘cause this one had long hair too, but when square-jaw lifted her a little higher I saw there were one or two differences.
She was your standard-issue hot babe, except in purple. Not exactly my type. When I go for gals, which ain’t that often – I’d been gay-for-the-stay in a couple of young women’s correctionals in my youth – I tend to go for big-ass, baby’s-got-back chicks. This gal was a might too delicate for me, but it wasn’t hard to figure why Square-Jaw had the hots for her. Even screaming and trying to kick his teeth in, I could see she had the goods: pin-up body in a tiny yellow bikini-top and loin-cloth outfit, long black hair, pouty lips. The whole package in a handy, carry-out size.
Square-Jaw laughed off her attacks and threw her over his shoulder. He looked down into the coach again, like he was making sure Long-Hair was dead, then shot a glance around at the empty prairie. He shrugged. I read him like he was Marcel Marceau: “Why bother, he’s a dead man anyway.” He hopped back on his mount, signaled his gang, and off they rode, back the way they’d come.
Maybe you’re wondering why I didn’t leap into the fray and rescue the damsel in distress. Well, I’ll tell you. I’m not an idiot, that’s why. I’ve never minded a scrap, but naked and unarmed against the Ginsu clan wasn’t my idea of good odds, and besides, it was all coming over the plate a bit fast, new planet, new gravity, giant birds, guys out of an episode of Xena – Warrior Princess. And anyway, I hardly had a chance to react. It was over in less than a minute.
The part I don’t have an excuse for is why I didn’t try to help the dying red cloaks as soon as Square-Jaw and his posse had giddi-upped off back the way they came. I could hear the poor guys moaning and sobbing, but I just stayed where I was, crouched behind the stone disk with my jaw hanging open.
Maybe I’d seen too many movies where the hero thinks the monster’s dead and then something rips out of its stomach and eats the guy’s face off. Whatever. I was chicken, and some of those guys probably died because of it. By the time I finally got myself moving, clouds of alien flies were settling over for a mid-day blood binge.
Getting to the guys was like trying to walk on a trampoline. I kept springing up twice as high as I expected, and crashing on every part of my anatomy except my feet. At least I fell down as lightly as I stepped, so I didn’t get more than a few cuts and scratches. By the time I’d reached the killing ground, I’d adjusted my walk to a wobbly glide.
I was way too late. The one guy who was still breathing when I found him died by the time I found anything to bind the gushing wound in his leg with. I felt like a fucking idiot.
Up close the dead guys looked pretty damn human. Too human. Back in the rangers I’d had to help clean up a helicopter crash after a training exercise went wrong. A lot of these guys were just as young as those kids had been, and they’d died just as scared. I decided I didn’t like Square Jaw too much.
What made it worse was that they looked like kids I knew. Hell, back in my punk-rock run-away days most of my friends had haircuts just like these guys. Except for the purple skin and pointed ears, I wouldn’t have given any of them a second look walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Their eyes were a little longer, their canines a little sharper, and they were a tad shorter than the average American guy, but they had hair where we have hair, and five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot, and everything else where you’d expect to find it.
This nearly freaked me out more than all the rest of it. Weren’t aliens supposed to be more, uh, alien? They always were in the movies. Shows you how much I know about the universe.
I looked at the coach. There was one guy left to check on. Long-Hair. What was I supposed to do if he was still alive? Help him out? He probably still had that dagger on him. I didn’t want him stabbing first and asking questions later. On the other hand, if I was stuck here, I’d have to meet the natives sooner or later, and one-on-one with some wounded sap with a dagger was probably better odds then alone against a healthy, well-armed posse. I snatched up one of the fancy swords and hopped up onto the overturned coach.
Or at least I tried to. My leap overshot it and I hit the ground on the far side. At least I was getting better at landing. I tried again with a more controlled leap and dropped softly beside the open coach door.
I looked down inside. Overstuffed red leather benches, scads of throw pillows in rich fabrics, candleholders on the side panels. Of course everything was topsy turvy; the pillows thrown against the opposite wall and smeared with food from a bronze tray that had been dented in the wreck.
Lying in the middle of all this high-class debris, with a bloody hand to his wounded head like one of the tortured saints from the stained glass windows back at Saint Sebastian’s, was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.
His mane of black hair was spread out like a halo around the face of some Roman emperor’s boy-toy; high cheekbones, straight nose, and lips like Elvis at nineteen. His body continued the beauty parade. He was built like a ballet dancer, with flawless skin a shade darker than the chick Square-Jaw had dragged off, and he covered it only a little more than she did. He wore a flimsy white, ankle-length, sleeveless vest thing, open in front, and a tiny white silk loincloth that made it pretty clear that these guys were human all the way down to the important parts. And how!
He wasn’t my usual type anymore than the gal was. I tend to like a guy who can make me feel delicate. Big Don had been six four and about a yard and a half wide, and when I was in his arms I’d felt protected from the whole rotten world. But I’ve got what you might call varied tastes. I like to sample the whole buffet, and sometimes I want to be the one who wraps her arms around some poor little boy and tells him everything’s going to be alright.
And then screw his brains out.
The kid moaned. His long lashes fluttered and a pair of pale violet eyes looked up at me. That gaze was like an electric shock. It made my mouth dry. It made my skin prickle. It made my… well I’ll spare you the gory details. Let’s just say that any worries I’d had about making friends with the natives went right out the window.
I gave a little wave, just to show I was friendly. “You okay?”
He frowned like he didn’t understand. “Who are you?” His voice was soft and clear, like a choir boy’s. “Come you to aid me or to kill me?”
Well, of course he didn’t understand. The odds of him speaking English were… But wait a minute. I’d just understood him. It wasn’t English, but I knew what he was saying.
Suddenly I realized that I had a whole new language in my head just waiting for me to take it out of the box and plug it in. Where the hell did that come from? Then I remembered the babble of voices that went rushing through my mind after I’d touched the jewel in the cave. That gizmo wasn’t just a transporter, it was a translator too, a goddamn tourist’s dream! Instant travel, and you speak the language perfectly when you get there. Who the hell thought this stuff up? It sure wasn’t these sword swinging refugees from a Conan movie. What was up with this place?
Long Hair started groping around for his dagger without taking his eyes off me. “Speak, sir. You alarm me with your silence.”
I snapped out of it, “Uh, aid. I mean I’m here to aid you.” That jabber tumbled out of my lips like I’d been born speaking it. It was like that sensation when you realize you no longer have to think about all the steps of shifting gears, you’re just doing it automatically.
I dropped into the coach and knelt beside him. It was dark in there. It took me a second to adjust. I squinted at his eyes first. A concussion would have been the icing on the cake. He looked okay. Both pupils were the same size.
I could see why Square Jaw had left him for dead though. He was as bloody as a pro wrestler at the end of a steel cage match – head wounds always look like a splatter movie – but the cut didn’t go all the way to the bone and he’d slowed the bleeding by keeping his hand pressed over it. He was seeping, not gushing. That was a good thing.
I breathed again. “How you feelin’? Any other wounds?”
“I…” Suddenly he jerked like somebody’d zapped him with a cattle prod. He tried to sit up. “Wen-Jhai! Beloved! Where–”
I pushed him back down. “Sorry, brother. She’s gone. The big guy with the teeth took her.”
He struggled against my hand. “But then we must–”
”You ain’t doin’ nothin’. You’re too hurt and… and your pals…” I didn’t know how to say it.
He did. “Dead?”
I nodded. He closed his eyes in pain. “The butcher.”
“The quicker we get you patched up, the quicker you can go after him. Now, you hurt anywhere else?” I almost laughed, listening to myself. All of a sudden I was coming on like some super para-med, like I knew what I was doing. Stupid, I know, but the minute I started to take care of this guy I calmed down. Works every time, doesn’t it? As soon as you’ve got somebody else worse off than you, you start trying to solve all their problems and forget about your own. Probably why so many fucked-up people become guidance counselors and psychiatrists.
He sighed. “You are kind, sir.” He raised a feeble hand. “Only my arm. I seem to have fallen on it…” He stopped, staring at my boobs. “Sir! You are a woman! And… unclothed.”
“Uh-huh. Good eyes.”
“But…but… My apologies, mistress. My wound must have disturbed my sight. I thought…”
“It ain’t the first time, pal. Don’t worry about it.”
“No no, forgive me for mistaking you. ‘Tis unpardonable. And you are in distress. Did those ruffians…?” He turned his head so he wouldn’t have to look at me. “Please mistress, help yourself to a garment.”
“Hey, I ain’t freezin’. We gotta fix you up first.”
He bumped his arm and turned several shades lighter than his girlfriend. He gasped. “Very well. Is there a man in your party who might assist me?”
What was I, chopped liver? “You don’t want my help?”
“I’m afraid I require more than tender words and gentle ministrations, mistress. With my head and this arm, I may not be able to climb out of the coach on my own.”
“Pal, I could probably fold you up and put you in my pocket, if I had a pocket. I’m the only one here, so maybe you should let me have a look at you.” I reached across him to pull his matted hair away from his wound. He jumped again, this time looking at my arm.
“By the Seven, are you a woman?”
So my arms were bigger than his. My arms are bigger than a lot of guys’. Hitting the iron relaxes me. “Brother, what planet are you from?”
Well, duh. Now that I thought about it, I was the one from another planet, and if all the chicks around here looked like Miss Teeny-Bikini, I guess I could see why he was a trifle confused. I sighed. “Sorry. Don’t freak out. I’m not from around here, but I am a woman, and I’m here to help you. You got a needle and thread?”
“In my lady’s baggage, perhaps, but you don’t mean to…”
“Relax pal, I used to sew leather wallets in juvie crafts class. This ain’t much different.”
I jumped back out of the coach and searched through the jumble of luggage that had fallen from the roof-rack during the crash. There were big wooden trunks wrapped with iron bands, and fancier chests made of polished woods and decorated with six-sided symbols. Most had smashed, and all kinds of rich fabrics and fine china were spilling out. I dug through clothes, jewelry, funny-shaped crockery. Finally I found a little gold sewing kit in the shape of some cute animal I’d never seen before.
Back in the coach I cleaned Long-Hair’s cut with water from a cracked clay jug, doused my needle and thread in some liquor that smelled like cranberries and Everclear, and sewed him up, then tore his gauzy kaftan into wide strips and tied it around his head. It made an ugly turban that unfortunately hid a lot of that beautiful hair. I made the splint by smashing up a fancy wooden make-up box and binding two long slats to his arm.
He was pretty brave under my “tender ministrations,” only flinching and whimpering a little, and never complaining. He reminded me of a kid too proud to let on how scared he was, though he thinks his life’s blood is spilling out of him — which in his case it was.
He was less co-operative when it came time to get him out of the coach. “I cannot allow it, mistress. No true Dhanan would permit a woman to lift a burden as heavy as myself. And am I so poor a man that I must beg assistance in the first place?”
Well, nobody can say I butt in when I’m not wanted. I shrugged. “Hey, I ain’t stoppin’ you. Go on, take a crack at it.”
He stood up, jaw set — and sat right back down again, sheet-white, his eyes rolling up in his head. “A passing weakness. If you will allow me a moment to recover.”
I crossed my arms. “Dude, you need a week in bed watching game shows, with someone who knows a hell of a lot more than me takin’ care of you. We gotta get you home.”
I put an arm around his waist. He flinched from my bare skin. “Mistress, I protest. I weigh too much…”
What a little priss. I slung him over my shoulder, pulled myself out of the coach one-handed, then eased us both down to the ground and sat him down, his back propped against one of the trunks. His eyes were as round as poker chips.
“By the Seven, mistress, such strength is impossible! Why, you carry me like so many bedclothes. How do you come by this…” He gasped and looked around at the carnage. His face sagged like somebody had pulled the bones out of it. “Lau. Sil. Cousins.” He put his head in his hands.
I didn’t know where to look. I never do when people get all emotional. After a while he stopped snorfing and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “My apologies, mistress. I dishonor brave men with these tears. They were true Dhanans. They would never have wept…”
He stopped, staring at me in the sunlight. “Mistress, you are…” He went pale and started trying to back away from me, eyes wide, but since he was already pressed against one of the trunks, so all he did was dig grooves in the dirt with his heels.
I raised an eyebrow. “What’s the matter now?”
He made a weird hand motion at me. He put his thumb and middle finger together and touched them to his left eye, his right eye and then his mouth. “Begone, mistress demon. I do not wish to travel yet to the lands of the dead.”
“Demon? I ain’t no demon. I ain’t even a Hell’s Angel.”
“Tease me not, tormentor. Have you not a demon’s dead pink skin, its hair of flame, it’s green eyes? Do you not have a demon’s unnatural strength and size?”
I laughed. Maybe I should have been insulted at the less than flattering description, but it was too funny. So hell on this planet was full of big, pink, red-headed chicks? Pretty much what Father Flanagan always told me. “Buddy, calm down. I promise I’m no demon. I’m flesh and blood, just like you.” Well, okay, not just like him. He was an alien, but you know what I mean. I held out my arm. “Go on. Pinch me.”
He shrank away. “If you be no demon, explain yourself. What are you? From where do you come?”
That was a tricky one. Did I tell him I was an alien from outer space? Not smart. I’d probably be taken to the local version of Area 51 and get dissected. But telling him I came from “across the big water” was risky too. These guys probably knew exactly who lived across the big water, and it was a good bet it wasn’t dixie-fried biker gals. I decided to play dumb. “I don’t know. I woke up on that stone there, right before you were attacked, and I can’t remember anything before that. Do you know where I came from?”
He looked toward the stone disk and froze, then the weird eye-touching motion again. “So strong. Could you be…? By the Seven, that is worse even than…” He trailed off.
I stepped forward. “Come on, pal. Don’t leave me hanging. What do you mean? What’s worse? Worse than what?”
He shook his head. “No man speaks of this.”
He wasn’t putting me off that easily. He knew what the stone disk was. My heart thumped. Maybe he knew how to get me back home. “Bro, if you know something, some way to get me back to my own people…”
Suddenly there was an edge in his voice. “I know nothing. Be silent.”
“Listen, you little pipsqueak. I’m only asking a civil…”
“Do you dare speak to me this way?”
“I just saved your life, pal. I’ll talk to you anyway I damn well please.”
That made him pause. He nodded. “Forgive me, mistress, you are correct. That was ungracious. I owe you a debt I cannot repay. But there is danger here. We must leave quickly.”
“Not unless your house is right around the corner. You need to eat and rest first. You lost a lot of blood.”
He scanned the horizon. “Impossible. We cannot wait. There is food in that chest. Help me fill a pack and I will eat as we walk.”
We? That was twice now he’d said we. “Uh… I’m coming with you?”
“You may go where you wish, but in exchange for your assistance, I will gladly offer you what meager hospitality I can, though as things stand, this may be the extent of it.”
I dragged the chest he’d pointed to from the pile. He looked sadly around at the wreckage and the slaughter. “‘Tis unthinkable to leave good men unburied, but if we stay we will soon join them. Kedac-Zir will pay for this.”
I took a pack from a bird saddle and started filling it with stuff from the chest; strange fruits — or vegetables maybe, I couldn’t tell — little round yellow ones, long twisty white ones, like curly-cue string beans, sweet- smelling bread, cold cuts, little meat pies with crust the color of boiled lobster, a clay jar sealed with wax that sloshed when I moved it. “So what was all this about, anyway?” I asked. “Why did those guys attack you and take that girl?”
“She is no mere girl. She is the Aldhanshai Wen-Jhai, daughter of our Aldhanan, Kor-Har, the ruler of Ora, the greatest nation on Waar. She is…was, my betrothed. The love of my life. He who stole her is Kedac-Zir, Dhanan of Kalnah, and Kir-Dhanan of all Ora. I am Sai-Far, son of Shen-Far, Dhanan of Sensa.”
Well, that all went in one ear and out the other. The only thing that stuck was that his name was Sai something. I stuck out a hand. “Jane Carver, of…” I remembered just in time. “Of I don’t know.”
Sai bowed where he was sitting and crossed his wrists like they were chained. “Your servant.”
“But why did he attack you?”
He sighed. “Uncivilized barbarians that we are in Ora, we continue an old custom that should have died out in the dark ages; “The Sanfallah”, or to give it a truer name, the bride-napping. Though my family and Wen-Jhai’s had both approved the marriage, custom dictates that I must come to her father’s castle like a brigand, duel with her father – the Aldhanan no less — and drag her off to my lands, defending my right to have her against all comers.”
I passed him some of the meat pies and veggies. “Eat. You gotta get your strength back.”
He took the chow, but offered some back to me. “And you? Do you not hunger?”
I hadn’t realized it ‘til then, but I did hunger. I hungered like dammit. Traveling light-years in a second, or whatever I’d done, sure built up a powerful appetite.
I was worried that the grub might kill me, being from another planet and all, but I was going to die slow and painful anyway if I didn’t eat. I’ll take quick and painful any day. I nibbled one of the meat pies. The meat tasted like pumpkin. I mean it tasted like meat, but like pumpkin meat. Like cows that had been eating pumpkins. Ah hell, forget it. You try and describe a taste. I dare you. Whatever it was, it was food. I wolfed down four little pies as Sai continued his story.
“Usually the ordeal is purely ceremonial. The groom and the father touch swords, the father falls back, the groom departs with his bride as the women wail the traditional laments, and all that went as arranged. But this Kedac-Zir, the animal, decided to exercise the other part of the ritual and take Wen-Jhai from me before I brought her safely to my home.”
I stopped chewing. “This was all part of some ritual? Killing all these guys? Can’t you sic the law on him?”
Sai made a face. “No no. Kedac-Zir is perfectly within his rights. Here in benighted Ora we believe that a man who can’t hold onto his bride doesn’t deserve to keep her. Wen-Jhai is Kedac-Zir’s betrothed now, unless I can reach him before the wedding and defeat him in single combat. Then she would be mine again. But as you can see, I unfortunately am a man of words, not actions. And a wounded man of words at that. She is lost to me, forever.”
“Man, that blows chunks.” Poor kid. I guess it doesn’t matter where you go in the universe, the jocks still pick on the brains.
He nodded. “I know not this phrase, but your meaning is clear, and true. When news of this defeat reaches home I will not be welcome in my father’s house. To have lost my bride is one thing. Not to have died defending her is unforgivable. I will be scorned by society. Perhaps I will enter the priesthood.”
He closed his eyes. I worried for a second, but he was still breathing, so I let him be. I guess talking so much had worn him out.
It was at that moment, sitting in the middle of a bunch of dead purple guys and their luggage, eating strange food and talking to an honest-to-god alien that it all caught up to me. I thought, “Well I guess I ain’t goin’ to jail any time soon,” and that was it. I started laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, that laughter where your chest hurts and no sound comes out.
I guess you had to be there. Okay, maybe it wasn’t funny, not even then. Maybe I was just hysterical. Sai sure didn’t appreciate it. He opened his eyes and raised an eyebrow. “Does my plight amuse you?”
I shook my head and tried to talk through the spasms. “My plight… Not yours… My plight’s amusing the hell out of me.”
It took me a second to stop chuckling. I could see Sai steal a look at all my jiggling flesh. He looked away, as embarrassed, and waved toward the trunks. “Mistress, it pains me to see you… distressed in this way. Please. My lady’s garments will only go to waste in this desert. Take whatever you like.”
He was right. I needed some duds. If we were heading for polite society I couldn’t be walking around with my skin hanging out — not all of it anyway. “Good plan, bro. You just rest up a bit and I’ll make myself decent.”
He nodded wearily and closed his eyes.
I glanced through Sai’s fiancée’s stuff. Not a chance. The waist of one of her fancy loincloths wouldn’t have fit around one of my thighs, let alone my hips. And the tops? Forget it. It would have been like trying to fit footballs into egg cups. Time to get practical. This planet seemed to be a place where fights happened at the drop of a hat. I gave up on the frilly stuff and turned to the dead guys.
First I tried out some of the swords. I didn’t know bad from good. I just picked the one that felt best in my hand. They were all as light as toys. More gravity problems. I’d just have to get used to it. Next I found a dead guy close to my build and stripped off his harness, armor and loincloth. It was all a little sticky and stinky. There wasn’t much to do about the armor or the harness, but I rinsed the loincloth in water from a little wooden keg. I have some standards.
The harness went on no problem. It was adjustable, with buckles and cinches and rawhide ties. The armored sleeve was a good fit too. It was leather, sewn over with overlapping metal scales, and covered my arm up to my neck and all of my right boob. Or at least it would have if I’d been a man. As it was I had to leave a strap loose to make room.
And speaking of boobs, while I was making my adjustments, I noticed that the lighter gravity had an unforeseen plus; my breasts now sat higher than they’d been when I was sixteen and the envy of the girl’s locker room. I smiled. I might be living in some bad sci-fi nightmare, but this I could get used to.
I was finishing off my outfit with a pair of boots and shin guards from another, smaller guy, when Sai woke up. He choked. “Mistress Jae-En, what have you…? Please, mistress. This is unseemly. You cannot…” He stopped, lifting his head, listening. I heard it too. A rumble, like the one I’d woken up to earlier. We looked up. Coming across the plain at a run were the four harnessed birds from the coach. They’d come back.
I smiled. “How’s that for luck. We‘ve got a ride.”
“No, Mistress Jae-En, this is no luck at all. This is our doom.” He was looking past the approaching birds. I followed his gaze.
Far off, but closing on us fast, was a churning dust cloud, shot through with glints of steel and half hiding the forms of massive galloping beasts.