Ashlynne turned on her side and ran her foot up and down Falkon's leg.
She had been a little embarrassed when it came time to go to bed and Darf had asked if they wanted to share a room. She'd felt her cheeks grow hot when Falkon grinned at his friend and replied, "What do you think?" She couldn't help wondering what Darf and Chancy thought, but she didn't really care. She wanted nothing more than to be with Falkon, to hold him in her arms. She ran her fingertips over his cheek, along his jaw, and down his neck.
"I guess you're glad to be rid of that awful collar," she mused aloud.
He grunted softly. "You have no idea."
"Have you always been a warrior?"
"I guess so." He grinned into the darkness. A warrior. He liked the sound of that. He wasn't sure if he was a warrior, but he had always been a fighter.
"Haven't you ever wanted to do anything else?"
"I don't think I know how to do anything else."
"How long are we going to stay here?"
"I don't know. Why? Do you want to leave?"
"No. I just... What are we going to do about Niklaus, about -"
Falkon grinned at her. "Is that a marriage proposal?"
She made a face at him. "Of course not," she said tartly.
"Another hope crushed," he muttered. "Though I can't blame you. I'm no prize, that's for damn sure."
"Stop that. I think you're wonderful."
"You just like me."
"Yes," she said solemnly. "I do. Tell me everything will work out. Tell me we'll always be together, no matter what."
"Ah, sweetheart, I wish I could promise you that."
"Tell me," she said, blinking back her tears, "even if it's a lie."
"We'll always be together." Lifting one hand, he wiped her tears away.
"Don't cry, sweetheart."
"I love you," she whispered. "I love you so much."
"I know," he said. "I know." He kissed her lightly. "I love you, too, princess."
She grinned at him through her tears. "Don't call me that."
He drew her closer. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future, Ashlynne, but if it's up to me, I'll never let you go."
It was a promise and a wish wrapped in a single word.
They spent a pleasant week with Darf and Chancy, and yet Ashlynne could feel the underlying restlessness that plagued Falkon. Often, late at
night, she woke to find him pacing the floor, or standing at the window, staring out into the darkness. She told herself there was nothing to worry about, that it would just take some time for him to adjust to being free, but she knew, deep down inside, that he was worried. And so was she. Niklaus would look for them, of that she was certain. He wanted the mine, and he wouldn't rest until it was his. Until they resolved things with Niklaus, they couldn't return to Tierde. Nor could they go to Daccar. Without being told, she knew that Niklaus would have people there, waiting, just in case Falkon decided to return to his home. Her biggest fear was that Falkon would decide to go back to Tierde, to confront Niklaus face-to-face.
"Did you say something? I'm sorry, I guess my mind was elsewhere."
Chaney smiled. "It wasn't important. Are you feeling all right?"
"Something is bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. Yes." Ashlynne sighed. "It's Falkon."
"He's not happy here?"
"No, it's not that. He's just... restless."
Chaney nodded. "Yes, I've sensed that. He's free from the mine, from the restraints, but he still feels trapped. Helpless."
"Yes, exactly. He hasn't said so, but I think he wants to go home."
"That's not hard to understand. Don't we all long for home, wherever it might be?"
"Yes, I suppose so. My mother..." Ashlynne hesitated as the pain of her mother's loss stabbed through her again. "My mother was from Earth. She always hoped to go back for a visit, but there was never time. And now..."
Chaney's eyes filled with sympathy and understanding. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "You and Falkon have been through so much. You're lucky, to have found each other."
"Yes. I love him more than he'll ever know."
"That's easy to see."
"Is it? "Oh, yes. I can see it in your eyes whenever you look at him, the way you need to touch him."
Ashlynne felt her cheeks grow warm. "I wasn't aware that it was so obvious."
"I recognize it only because I have felt it myself."
Ashlynne glanced at the clock. "How much longer do you think they'll be gone?"
Ashlynne nodded. Falkon and Darf had gone into the city to see if they could learn anything more about the attack on the mine. She had wanted to go along, but Falkon had insisted she stay home with Chaney. She had never liked waiting. She hadn't realized quite how much until now. Where was he? Falkon lifted his glass and sipped his drink. If the informer they'd found was to be believed, Hodore was innocent of the attack on the mine.
"What about the two Hodorians I saw?" Falkon asked.
The informer, whose name was Kye, glanced around. He was a little man, with pale skin and enormous golden eyes. Leaning forward, he drew his cloak
more closely about him.
"Imposters," Kye whispered. "Cenians disguised as Hodorian soldiers."
Falkon grunted softly as he remembered the day after the attack. They had stopped at a pool to drink and Ashlynne had washed her hands. She'd had some sort of greenish powder under her fingernails. She hadn't known what it was and he'd been too worried about getting away to give it much thought at the time.
"Do you know who organized the attack?" Darf asked.
Kye nodded, his gaze darting into the tar corners of the room. "I have a name." Falkon leaned across the table. "What is it?"
"It will cost extra."
"We've already given you five hundred credits," Darf exclaimed. "What more do you want?"
"Five hundred more."
"Done," Falkon said. "Give me the name."
Falkon swore softly. Drade, always Drade.
Kye shifted nervously in his seat, his restless gaze moving around the room.
"Can you tell me anything else?" Falkon asked.
Kye shook his head. "I've said enough." He pushed back his chair, preparing to leave.
"Not so fast." Falkon's hand snaked out, closing around the little man's forearm. "Has the name Hassrick come up in any of this?"
"Hassrick? Niklaus or Rugen?"
Kye settled into his chair once more. "I have heard that the young Hassrick needs money very badly to repay a debt. I have heard that his family stands on the brink of ruin."
"No, no, I can tell you no more."
"Listen, you slimy little weasel, I've given you a thousand credits," Falkon said, tightening his hold on Kye s wrist. "You'll tell me everything you know, or I'll break your arm, and then your neck."
"They are in it together," Kye said. "Hassrick, Drade, and the Cenian ambassador."
"The Cenian ambassador," Darf said. "What's he got to do with this?"
Kye shook his head. "I know not. I only know the three of them were seen together on Hodore, both before and after the attack."
"It just gets better all the time," Falkon muttered.
Kye stared at Falkon. "You have something Hassrick wants very badly. Be careful."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"You fought on Riga Twelve."
"I was there."
"During the fight?"
"Yes. You saved my life."
Darf slammed his fist on the table. "He saved your life, yet you charged
him a thousand credits for information? What kind of low life scum are you?"
"I have a family to feed," Kye said. "And I know that Falkon's woman can well afford the cost."
"It's all right, Darf," Falkon said. He released his hold on Kye's arm. "Go on, get out of here."
The little man needed no urging. Huddling deeper into his cloak, the cowl pulled close around his face, he moved slowly toward the door, looking neither right nor left.
"Well," Darf said. "That was interesting."
"Yeah. It all makes sense now."
"It does? How about explaining it to me?"
"Hassrick needed money. Cenia has been trying to find a way into the Confederation so they don't have to go all the way to Ohnmahr for fuel. Not only is it a long journey, but the crystals of Ohrnahr lack the strength and longevity of those mined on Tierde."
"Where does Drade fit in?"
"I'm not sure, but I think he must be the middleman. Cenia probably promised him a place of power in exchange for his help. Ashlynne's father refused to consider accepting Cenia into the Confederation, so Hassrick decided to get rid of Myrafloures. Ashlynne was supposed to be on Trellis when the mine was attacked, but somebody got the dates wrong."
Falkon grunted softly as the pieces seemed to fall into place. "No wonder Hassrick was so eager for the marriage to take place. With Ashlynne still alive, Romariz couldn't take over the mine, and he still had a chance to fulfil his bargain with the Cenians."
Darf lowered his voice. "I think we're being watched."
"The three men at the end of the bar. They've been watching us for quite some time."
Falkon leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms out to the side, as if he were working the kinks out of his back. From the corner of his eye, he could see three men in long dark coats standing at the far end of the bar near the door. "Got 'em."
"Do you recognize any of them?"
"The one on the right. His name's Roge. He works for Drade. I want him alive."
Darf muttered an oath. "Why is it this happens every time you show up?"
"You're just lucky, I guess," Falkon replied with a devil-may-care grin.
"Think how dull your life would be without me."
"Nothing wrong with dull," Darf retorted. "I like dull."
Falkon stood up and moved toward the door. "You coming?"
Darf sucked in a deep breath and exhaled in a long sigh. "What do you think?" He stood up, muttering, "Chaney's gonna be madder than a Hordorian hellcat."
Moving casually, Falkon walked toward the door. Darf paid the bill, then followed Falkon outside.
"Have you got a weapon?" Darf asked. "Stunner. You?"
"I'm always armed when I go anywhere with you," Darf replied dryly.
Falkon grinned. He could feel the adrenaline flowing.
"They're coming," Darf whispered.
"I hear 'em."
"You got a plan?"
Falkon shook his head and continued walking. "Where does this street go?"
"Branches off a few yards down. If you go left, it leads into the business district. The other way leads into a dead end."
"Okay, the dead end it is."
"Let's hope it isn't," Darf muttered bleakly. The alley was long and dark. A high wooden fence blocked the far end. Falkon went halfway down and moved to the left; Darf moved to the right.
The three men paused at the head of the alley. They conferred a minute, then two of them entered the alley. The third waited on the street.
Falkon stood with his back to the wall, listening. The two men walked quietly, pausing every few seconds. There was the sound of a scuffle, followed by a grunt. The second man passed in front of him, and there was no time to wonder if Darf had won or lost. He fired the stunner. In the flare of light that followed, he saw Darf standing over the other man, his golden eyes gleaming. He glanced at the alley entrance and saw that the third man was gone.
"That was too easy," Darf said. "I don't like it."
"Yeah." Falkon looked at the man he'd stunned. It wasn't Roge. Neither was the man sprawled at Darf's feet. "Did you kill him?"
Darf shook his head. "No," he answered with some regret. "Do you want me to?"
"No. Let's go home."
"The women? Are we going to tell them about this?"
"No, I don't think so."