The mine looked much as she remembered save for the addition of a gate on this side of the bridge. The buildings that had been destroyed had been replaced. There was a new domicile for the mine manager, new cells for the slaves. For there were slaves. Almost a dozen of them.
The slaves emerged from the bowels of the mine just as they arrived, eleven men fitted with the heavy collars that marked them as slaves, their faces and bodies covered with layers of fine black baneite dust.
The prisoners came out of the mine one by one and made their way to the cells, looking neither right nor left. It bothered her, their complete lack of interest in what was going on around them.
A guard trailed behind them, closing the cell doors, which locked automatically.
She slid a glance at Falkon, who was standing beside her, his hands securely shackled. She could feel the tension radiating from him as he contemplated returning to the mine. She had pleaded with Niklaus to let Falkon work up at the house, but he had adamantly refused.
"We have servants," he had replied coldly. "We don't need a dirty slave."
She heard Falkon swear softly, turned to follow his gaze.
A tall man with cropped brown hair and light brown eyes was striding toward them. He moved with the pride and arrogance that seemed to be characteristic of all military men, whatever their race or allegiance.
She recognized him immediately as the man she had seen interviewed on the tele-screen. Drade. The man behind the attack on Falkon's home.
A smile broke over Drade's face when he saw Falkon. "Niklaus!" he exclaimed. "You'll get a fat reward for bringing this one in."
Niklaus grinned as he shook the other man's hand. "I'm counting on it."
Drade laughed good-naturedly. "You should have it by the end of the week. Not that you need it."
"Excuse me," Ashlynne said, "but Number Four belongs to me."
Niklaus turned to glare at her.
Drade lifted one brow. "And who is this lovely creature?"
"My wife. Ashlynne, this is Commander Drade. He's been looking after the mine."
"Ah, Lady Hassrick, it is indeed a pleasure to meet you."
"Number Four belongs to my family."
Drade smiled expansively. "Be that as it may, he's an escaped slave."
"How can that be," she asked quietly, "seeing as how he is here?"
Drade looked at Hassrick and grinned. "A good point."
"He was never an escaped slave," Ashlynne said. "When we were attacked, he escorted me to safety. I would not be here today if it weren't for his loyalty and devotion. I will not have him executed."
Niklaus took Drade aside. Ashlynne could not hear their words, but she had the feeling that Niklaus was telling Drade that it was necessary to keep
"If you insist." Drade slapped Niklaus on the back. "But I'm afraid that means you can't claim the reward."
Niklaus s smile seemed to fade a little around the edge as he muttered, "As you said, I don't need it."
A look that could only be called conspiratorial passed between the two men.
"Well," Niklaus said, "we'll leave him in your capable hands."
"Don't worry about Number Four," Drade replied. "I'll take good care of him."
Was it her imagination, or was there a very real threat in those words? But she had no time to wonder. Taking her by the arm, Niklaus led her to a waiting shuttle and hurried her inside. She looked out the window, her gaze lingering on Falkon, wondering if she would ever see him again.
Ashlynne stared at the house, unable to believe her eyes. "How?" she asked. "When?"
"Men working around the clock," Hassrick replied.
She shook her head. A new house stood where hers had been. A bigger house, three stories high, surrounded by a high wall. The windows were of Hodorian stained glass, very rare, very expensive. The grounds were landscaped with exotic plants and flowering shrubs. She saw a new barn in the distance.
"Well, shall we go in?"
Ashlynne nodded, amazed that he had built a house so quickly. He had hired a staff, too, a cook, a maid, a housekeeper, someone to tend the grounds, a groom to look after the three horses that had been sent ahead.
She smiled faintly as he introduced her to the staff. The cook was a grim- faced man named Ogger; the housekeeper looked as if she had just graduated from school. She was young and pretty, with long red hair and slanted brown eyes. Ashlynne wondered, fleetingly, if Hana was there to do more than tidy up the place.
Niklaus followed her as she went from room to room. It was a large, spacious house, beautifully furnished, but she knew it would never be home.
She remembered her parents' house, the cozy fireplace, the sense of security she had known there. Her bedroom had been filled with the treasures of her youth. She felt old now, lost and alone.
Her rooms were located on the south end of the second floor. His were at the other end of the house.
"I'll see you at dinner," Niklaus said. "Drade will be joining us."
With a nod, she closed the door to her room. The tears came then, hot swift tears that did nothing to ease the ache in her heart.
Falkon stood at the door of his cell, staring out into the compound. The new cells were no better than the old ones. They were just as small, just as dark. The only improvement was that he now had a hard narrow cot to sleep on instead of a hard dirt floor. Of all the rotten luck, he thought bitterly. Not only was he back at the mine, but Drade was in charge, at least temporarily.
Drade, who strutted around like some little tin god. Drade, who was sure
to make his life a living hell. A living hell that started at dawn the following morning.
Breakfast was the same as always: a hunk of dark bread, a bowl of gruel, and a cup of the hot bitter brew so dear to the heart of the Romarians.
He was given a quarter of an hour to eat and relieve himself, and then the manacles on his wrists were activated and he was ordered out of his cell.
When all the slaves were assembled, they were herded into the mine.
He kept his face carefully blank as he passed Drade and ducked into the shaft's opening. Once inside, his hands were released.
The underground cavern was enormous, lit here and there by small lamps that offered only enough light to work by. The black crystals, so precious to the Confederation, did not come easy. The ground was broken with a pulse axe, and then the crystals were dug out of the earth by hand. It was dirty, back-breaking work. The crystals were large and heavy, yet for all that, they were amazingly fragile.
The slaves toiled in the mine from dawn till noon, at which time they were given a break for the midday meal, and then it was back to work until dark.
Seven days a week. A world without sun, without warmth. Without her.
During the next two days, he watched the comings and goings of the guards. There were fewer now than there had been before. As far as he could tell, there were only four guards on the premises; two who watched over the prisoners while they toiled in the mine, and two who patrolled the compound at night.
He had been in the mine just over a week when one of the slaves went berserk. With an inhuman shriek, he hurled himself at one of the guards. The results were immediate, and fatal.
The slave dropped to the ground, writhing in agony A shrill scream erupted from his throat as pain shot through every nerve while the collar around his throat slowly strangled the life from his body.
The guard pointed at Falkon. "You. Haul his carcass out of here."
Wordlessly, Falkon grasped the dead man by the ankles and dragged him out of the mine. Emerging from the bowels of the cavern, he paused a moment, basking in the warmth of the sun on his face.
"What's going on?"
Squinting against the sunlight, Falkon saw Drade striding toward him.
"I asked you a question, Number Four."
"See for yourself."
Drade grimaced as he glanced at the dead man. "What happened?"
Falkon shrugged. "He attacked a guard."
Drade grunted, then gestured toward the bridge. "Get going. We'll dump him in the ocean."
Resisting the urge to refuse, Falkon slung the dead man's body over his shoulder and headed for the gate. Drade punched in the code and the heavy iron gate swung open.
It was a quarter of a mile to the ocean. Falkon was sweating profusely by the time they reached the water. A natural dock formed by a long finger of land extended about twenty yards into the surf. Falkon carried the body to the end of the jetty and dumped it into the water. He stood there a moment, feeling the spray on his face, wondering what his chances were of
overcoming Drade and making a break for the jungle.
He cursed as Drade activated the manacles on his hands. The man was a lot of things, but he wasn't stupid.
Turning, Falkon walked back to the beach. "Why?" he asked. "Why did Hodore attack the mine? Why did they destroy Myrafloures?"
"Let's go, slave."
"Answer me, dammit."
Drade laughed softly. "I don't owe you any explanations."
"You owe me plenty."
Drade ran his finger over the controller. "Amazing, what this can do, don't you think?"
Falkon s hands curled into fists. His gaze bored into the other man's. "Go ahead, use it." Heart pounding, he waited, wondering what foolishness had prompted him to say such a thing. Drade had always been a bully, always enjoyed inflicting pain. At the academy, he had delighted in tormenting the incoming cadets.
He took a deep breath as Drade's thumb hovered over the controller, looked up as the sound of hoofbeats reached his ears. Ashlynne! Mounted on a snow-white stallion, her hair flowing wild around her shoulders, she looked like an avenging angel.
She reined her horse to a halt a short distance from where they stood.
"What's going on?"
She directed her question to Drade, but her gaze rested on Falkon.
He bit back a grin at the sound of her lady-of-the-manor tone.
"Just disposing of a dead slave," Drade replied easily. He smiled at her, his gaze moving over her in a long, slow look that bordered on insolence.
"What killed him?"
"He attacked one of my men."
Drade shrugged. "It happens sometimes. They all go a little mad after a while.
Fortunately, there's always a ready supply of rebels like this one to take their places."
"Number Four is not to be hurt," Ashlynne said. "He belongs to me, not to you. Nor to Niklaus. You would do well to remember that."
"Yes, my lady. Your husband made that quite clear. Of course, if he attacks one of my men, he'll have to suffer the consequences."
"He's not to be hurt," she said again. "If anything happens to him, I will hold you personally responsible."
It was an empty threat, and they both knew it. Niklaus was in charge.
She had no power at all.
"Yes, my lady," Drade replied. "I'm sure Number Four appreciates your concern, but we've got to be getting back now."
Ashlynne gazed at Falkon, drinking in the sight of him, longing to go to him, to wipe the bitterness from his eyes, the perspiration from his brow.
"Are you well, Number Four?" she asked.
He looked up at her, his expression closed, his jaw rigid.
"Are they treating you well?"
"Oh, yeah," he replied, his words edged with bitterness. "Food fit for a king. A feather bed. A hot bath and a massage every night." He regretted his words as soon as he spoke them. Pain flickered in the depths of her eyes.
Drade laughed. "Let's go."
Falkon looked at Ashlynne and shook his head, silently asking her forgiveness.
Drade poked Falkon with the riding crop he always carried. "Move it, slave. Being out in this hot sun is making me thirsty." He touched his forefinger to the brim of his cap. "Pleasure seeing you again, Lady Hassrick."
Ashlynne nodded, her heart aching as she watched Falkon turn and walk back toward the mine.
"I'll be leaving first thing tomorrow morning," Hassrick said. He sat back in his chair, a look of utter contentment on his face as the housekeeper filled his wineglass. "Thank you, Hana."
Hana smiled at him, then turned and walked toward the door, her hips swaying provocatively.
"You're leaving?" Ashlynne said.
He nodded, his gaze following Hana.
"How long will you be gone?" She tried to keep the excitement out of her voice.
"No more than a week. I have business on Hodore."
"Hodore!" she exclaimed. "What kind of business could you possibly have there?"
"Nothing you need concern yourself with. I'll require your signature on a few documents before I go."
He looked at her, a lazy smile playing over his lips. "I think it would be in your best interest to assign ownership of the mine to me."
She stared at him. "Why would I do that?"
"Perhaps I phrased it wrong. It would be in Number Four's best interest if you did as I asked."
The unspoken threat made her stomach clench. "And if I refuse?"
"I'm afraid your slave might meet with an unfortunate accident."
"And what's to keep him from having an 'accident' once I sign?"
Niklaus regarded her through narrowed eyes. "I get the feeling you don't trust me, my dear."
She looked at him, her hands tightly clenched in her lap, but said nothing.
Niklaus blew out a sigh. "Very well. When I return, I'll have some papers for you to sign."
"What kind of papers?"
"It doesn't matter. You will sign them."
She nodded. "Of course."
"I see we understand each other."
She nodded again, then excused herself and went to her room. Going to her computer, she typed in her password, then wrote a short letter of instruction, which she sent to her father's older brother, Samuel. Much to her father's chagrin, Samuel had entered the ministry and was a priest of the old
religion on Cannus Twelve. Aside from Falkon, he was the only man she trusted.
When Ashlynne woke the next morning, the maid, Kerolena, informed her that Niklaus had left for Hodore. Her first thought was that she was free.
Sitting up, she raised her arms over her head and stretched. Free! She bounded out of bed, not wanting to waste a minute of the precious few days she would be alone.
"What will you be wanting for breakfast?" Kerolena asked.
"I don't care. Anything!"
With a nod, Kerolena left the room.
Ashlynne took a long, hot shower, dressed quickly in a pair of dun-colored riding pants and a lavender silk shirt. She slipped on a pair of thick socks, pulled on her boots, and hurried downstairs for breakfast. She hardly tasted what was placed before her, and when she was finished, she left the house and went to the barn. A short time later, she was riding toward the mine.
He didn't think, didn't feel. Ignoring the dull, nagging pain in his back and shoulders, he dug in the hard, dark earth. It was about eleven, as far as he could tell. He'd been at work for five hours and had another hour or so to go before he'd get a break. And then another six hours after that.
He glanced at the men laboring beside him. The one on his left was from Daccar. From whispered conversations over the last week and a half, Falkon had learned that there was increasing unrest on Daccar, that the people were starting to put their petty wars behind them, finally realizing that if they didn't stand together, Romariz would destroy them. There were rumors that Drade was away from the mine, and that Hassrick had made some sort of alliance with Brezor, the ambassador of Cenia. Falkon had been unable to hide his skepticism when he heard the news. Cenia was a distant planet of strange yellow-skinned people, though it wasn't the color of their skin that set them apart, but the fact that they followed a religion that had been outlawed in every other known galaxy, a religion that practiced human sacrifice.
But that was not his problem, not now.
Stifling a groan, he rose to his feet and glanced over his shoulder.
"You're wanted outside."
Outside. The slaves were never summoned outside before dark.
The manacles on his wrists snapped together as he made his way along the narrow shaft that led up, up, to the mouth of the cavern.
He emerged, squinting against the sunlight.
"Here he is, Lady Hassrick."
Ashlynne? Here? "Thank you."
He blinked against the sunlight, wondering what she was doing there, in the middle of the day, alone.
"I'm taking him with me."
"I have no clearance for that."
The guard shook his head. "I can't release him without written
authorization from Lord Hassrick or Commander Drade."
"Of course you can't." She smiled as she reached into her pocket and withdrew a sheet of paper. "And here it is."
The guard took the paper and read it quickly. "Very well, my lady. When will you be bringing him back?"
"In a few days. I have some work for him to do up at the house."
"Yes, ma'am. Here." He handed her a controller. "You'll be needing this."
"Thank you." She dropped the controller into her pocket. "Come along, Number Four."
Wordlessly, he fell into step behind her horse, admiring the way the sun danced in her hair, wondering what miracle she had wrought to get him out of the mine.
As soon as they were out of sight of the compound, Ashlynne reined her horse to a halt. Taking the controller from her pocket, she released his hands, then took her foot from the stirrup. "Well, come on," she said, "unless you want to walk."
He swung up behind her and she urged the horse into a lope, riding down the beach until she came to a small sheltered cove.
When she reined the horse to a halt, Falkon slid over the horse's rump, then stood looking up at her.
"Aren't you going to help me down?" He looked at her, then shook his head. "I'm filthy." He was beyond filthy, he thought, covered with the dirt and sweat of the last week.
"I don't care."
She held out her arms and he lifted her from the back of the horse, letting her body slide slowly down his own as he lowered her to the ground.
She wrapped her arms around his neck. "I missed you," she whispered.
There weren't words enough to say what he was feeling. Instead, he drew her close and kissed her, hard and quick, and then again, slow and gentle, his mouth moving lightly over hers, his tongue teasing her lips.
"Falkon..." She moaned his name, her hands moving restlessly up and down his bare back, reveling in the feel of his sun-warmed skin, the way his muscles quivered at her touch.
It had been too long, too long. Desperate for his touch, she pulled him down on the shimmering golden sand, her hands feverish as she tugged at his breeches.
He removed his boots, then settled back on the sand, grinning roguishly.
"Gonna have your way with me, are you?"
"Just as soon as I can," she retorted as she flung his breeches aside.
He watched through heated eyes as she quickly shed her own clothes, and then he gathered her into his arms and kissed her, his clever hands moving over her, caressing, teasing, arousing her until she writhed beneath him, lost in the wonder of his touch. Her hands roamed over his back, his shoulders, delved into the silky soft hair at his nape. She was dying, she thought, being devoured by the heat of his mouth moving over her flesh, a hungry flame that left tiny fires of need burning in its wake.
She was ready, more than ready, when he rose over her, his body merging with hers, filling her, completing her, as their hearts and spirits blended, soaring toward that one moment when two were truly one.
Falkon brushed a kiss over her cheek. "How did you manage this?"
They were lying in each other's arms, sated. Content.
"Niklaus has gone to Hodore."
"I'm not sure. What difference does it make?"
Hassrick had gone to Hodore. Perhaps the rumors he'd heard had some foundation in truth, after all. And Drade was gone, too. Coincidence? "We have a whole week to be together."
"And how are you going to explain this to him when he gets back?"
"I don't know. I'll worry about it when the time comes."
He lifted himself up on one elbow, his hand splayed across her belly. "Are you all right?"
"Fine. Well, mostly fine. I still get a little nauseous sometimes."
"You're beautiful. Do you know that?"
He laughed derisively. "Yeah."
She lifted one hand, her fingers running over the thick lynaziam collar at his neck. "Is it terribly uncomfortable?" She ran her fingertips over the manacles on his wrists.
"Uncomfortable?" He snorted softly. "You could call it that, I guess."
"I wish I could remove it."
"Yeah, me, too." He hated the collar, hated the way it felt almost as much as what it stood for.
"Someday," she murmured.
"Yeah," he said bleakly. "Someday." He looked down at her, frankly admiring the soft curves of her body, the sweep of her lashes, the way her hair looked spread over the sand, silver over gold. The warm satin smoothness of her hip and thigh pressed intimately against his own. Her breasts were full, her belly slightly rounded with new life. A child. His child.
His woman... He had a sudden, unwelcome image of Ashlynne in Hassrick's bed, writhing in pleasure in Hassrick's embrace.
"What is it?" Ashlynne asked, alarmed by the sudden darkness in his eyes. "What's wrong?"
"I was just thinking of you. With him."
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean."
"Oh." She caressed his cheek. "We don't sleep together."
He looked at her in disbelief. "Never?"
"Never. He said he didn't want another man's leavings."
Falkon stared down at her. "Yet he still married you, knowing about the baby," he mused. Why? That was the question. And the mine was the answer. Ashlynne owned the mine. If she had died in the attack, the mine and its profits would have been taken over by the Confederation and Hassrick would have lost his chance to be in control.
"Are you sure he didn't say why he was going to Hodore?"
"He just said business. Oh, he did say he would have some papers for me
to sign when he got back."
"What else did he say?"
"He wanted me to sign the mine over to him."
He drew her close, in sudden fear for her life. If Hassrick could convince Ashlynne to give him the mine, he would have no further need of his wife.
Especially a wife carrying another man's child.
"Don't sign anything that gives him control of the mine, Ashlynne," he said urgently. "Promise me."
"Do you know if Drade went with him?"
"He didn't say. Why?"
"I think the two of them must be plotting something."
"I don't know. But Drade craves power. He always has. That's why he allied himself with the Romarians. Because they're the most powerful influence in the galaxy. I think he was behind the attack on the mine."
"That doesn't make sense. Why would the Romarians want to attack the mine?"
"I don't think the Romarians had anything to do with it. I think it was a plan hatched by Drade and Hassrick."
He shook his head. He had given it a lot of thought in the last few weeks.
"You were supposed to be visiting Hassrick the week the mine was attacked.
I think someone screwed up and attacked early."
Ashlynne stared up at Falkon, remembering how surprised Hassrick had been to hear from her. No wonder. He had been certain she was dead, killed in the explosion that had destroyed the jinan. But that would mean... She shook her head. "No, it can't be true." Yet even as she said the words, she knew, deep inside, that it was.
"Be careful, Ashlynne."
"I don't want to think about that now." She gazed up at him, her heart swelling with such love she thought it might burst within her breast. No matter that she was married to Niklaus, Falkon was the husband of her heart, the other half of her soul. She saw him, and her spirit soared. The sound of his voice thrilled her. The touch of his hand made her quiver with longing. He was in her every thought, as much a part of her as her hands and feet, as the child growing within her. How had she ever lived without him? She held him close, giving thanks to whatever fate it was that had brought him to Tierde, and was immediately overcome with a wave of guilt and remorse. How could she be so selfish? He had lost his wife and child, spent months in captivity. He was still a prisoner. She would have spared him all that, if she could, and yet if his life had been different, they never would have met.
She clung to him, afraid, so afraid, of losing him.
"Ashlynne, what is it?"
She buried her face in his shoulder, refusing to meet his eyes.
She shook her head, unable to speak past the lump in her throat, not wanting him to see the tears burning her eyes.
"What is it, princess?"
"I love you," she whispered. "I love you so much, I'm... I'm afraid." She choked back a sob. Everything she had ever loved had been taken from her - her parents, her best friend, her home. She couldn't bear to lose him, too.
Falkon slid one hand under her chin and tilted her head up so he could see her face. The love shining through her tears reached deep into his heart.
Cupping her face in his hands, he kissed her gently, tenderly. He didn't have to ask what she was afraid of, didn't have to wonder what she'd been thinking. He knew her thoughts as well as he knew his own.
Hoping to distract her, he stood up. "Come on," he said, taking her by the hand and lifting her to her feet. "Let's go for a swim."
She glanced at the ocean, at the white-tipped waves tumbling over the shore, then looked at Falkon. "You really could use a bath," she remarked.
"And so could I." Bits of the fine black dust that covered him clung to her skin.
"Second best idea you've had all day," he said with a grin.
"Can't catch me," she cried, and letting go of his hand, she sprinted toward the water. He caught her where the surf met the sand and they landed in the water together. She squealed as a wave broke over them.
On hands and knees, they faced each other, then Falkon picked up a handful of sand and rubbed it over her left arm.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
He nodded, picked up another handful of sand, and rubbed it over her right arm. It felt surprisingly refreshing.
"My turn," she said. They spent the next ten minutes washing each other and then went for a swim.
They left the water hand in hand. Back on the beach, he drew her into his arms for a quick kiss, and the fire between them sparked to life once more.
Sinking down on the sand, he made love to her again, felt her tears drip like warm rain on his face.
Wrapping her in his arms, he held her tight, one hand stroking her hair.
He shouldn't have come here with her. When Hassrick found out, there would be hell to pay for both of them. For himself, he didn't give a damn, but he didn't want Ashlynne hurt. She'd already suffered enough.
"Tell me," she whispered.
"I love you."
"I love you, more than my life."
"Falkon, let's leave here, now, today! Let's run away!"
"How far do you think we'd get on that horse?"
"We'll take the shuttle."
"And then what?" He kept his voice light, but his mind was already turning, planning. Enjine Base Nine was out of the question; they couldn't go
there. But the shuttle would get them as far as Nardin. From there, they could get transport to Cherlin Four.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
He kissed her soundly, then stood up and pulled her to her feet. "Let's do it."
Exhilarated by the promise of freedom, they dressed quickly. Falkon helped her mount, then swung up behind her.
It was, he thought, shaping up to be one of the best days of his life.