“I’ll have the enforcers chop off your hands when they catch you!” the fruit vendor yelled as Harper slipped out of his reach and raced off with today’s bounty. Two pieces of rotting yanatis, which were similar to granny smith apples back home, and a cluster of Dalese grapes. Or that’s how Harper liked to think of the folettas, though they tasted like unripe bananas.
Taste wasn’t a consideration. She needed to eat. Being on the run and hiding on an alien world had her doing things she’d never even consider back home. Like stealing from hard-working people.
Harper shot through the market and into the crowd of mostly male og’dals. She was sweating beneath the heavy black cloak, but she couldn’t afford to remove the garment. That cloak hid her lack of a second set of arms. From all appearances, she looked like the aliens. Hell, she could even speak Dalese at this point But exposing the fact that she only had two arms would give away as human and make it easier for the slavers to find her.
One more street and she’d be home, or what subbed for a home. Then she could remove the hot cloak and cool off.
Soon after escaping the bride ship that the only way she could move around without gaining attention was to wear a bulky cape and pull both of her arms inside. That worked for a while, as many of the og’dals did the same during the cold winter. Every time summer rolled around, when people wore lightweight clothing, she had no way of hiding her lack of lower arms. She tried just blending in, but they noticed. No one guessed she was a human under her cloak, so she wore the cloak, even on the hottest days, like today.
Her biggest problem was finding a way off Dal. Without the slavers finding her.
A man grabbed her arm, yanking her to a stop. He wore the all-black uniform of an enforcer. His lower left hand fingered the blaster at his side. “What are you hiding under that cloak?”
Damn! This was the other problem of wearing a heavy cloak during the summer. She stood out, almost as much as walking around with only one set of arms.
“Just my latest purchase at the market,” she said in Dalese.
She pulled the cluster of dalese grapes out with her left hand. Harper hated everything about this planet, but mostly the isolation of being different. Anytime she managed to earn money, the vendors tried to cheat her. At least she’d become fluent in Dalese. She’d had enough time to listen, learn, and converse, though she still had an accent. Most looked at her with suspicion but still interacted with her… as long as they didn’t realize she was human.
Making friends, even finding a job that lasted long enough to earn credits and buy passage off of Dal still eluded her. And not because she lacked a lower set of arms. People gasped and stared when they noticed the horizontal scar across the middle of her throat.
Standing out made everything harder, not just stealing food. Finding work and a place to stay were impossible. Other than the lack of lower arms, she blended in fairly well since og’dals looked human in every other respect. Except hair color. There were no blondes on Dal. Lucky for her.
It had taken her a few months, but she’d finally found a way of leeching the black dye from a tree that grew in abundance on Dal. Black as coal, the bark crumbled easily when dried. Mixed with water, the pulp created a temporary dye that she worked into her hair twice a month. Dying her hair that often became a part of her survival routine on Dal, just like stealing.
“Other hands, too,” the enforcer insisted.
“This is all I have.”
“Let me see your hands. All four.”
“I don’t have any other hands. Just the two.”
He pulled open her cloak. The stunned look on the enforcer’s face disappeared, instantly replaced by distrust. At least he couldn’t imprison her for lying.
“Why are you here?”
“I was shopping in the market.”
“You’re one of those humans reporting to Council, aren’t you?”
Wait, what? There were other humans here? Where? If she could find them, she could get a ride home!
“Answer me,” he demanded.
“Yes, I’m human. Please excuse me. I’m not very fluent in Dalese. I wasn’t sure what you were asking.” Harper intentionally spoke choppier than usual. “And I’m lost. I don’t know how to get back to the others.”
“Stay right here.”
He moved over to the closest comm box, this one mounted on the wall of the local medic. If the enforcer searched the criminal database, he’d discover she was wanted. Her heart raced with the idea of being dragged back to the processing area. She’d been there once before, two weeks after escaping the slave ship. She’d narrowly escaped, but not before seeing how horribly the enforcers treated prisoners, including implementing torture to get information.
With his hand still on his blaster, the enforcer never took his eyes from her. Harper wrapped her cloak over her arms again, to keep from drawing more attention as she debated if she should stay or run. Her conversation with him had been civil, though Dalese verbs were hard to decipher at times. Tone often changed the meaning.
She’d interpreted the word ovajen to ‘reporting to’ but it also meant ‘servicing’. Her ship, run by og’dals, had delivered a few dozen human women to Trinoth in Coalition space. Then the ship had returned to Dal, empty, except for her. The slavers didn’t realize she was still aboard.
She’d snuck off the ship in port two years ago and had been living as discreetly as she could since then. From what she’d seen, slavery didn’t exist on Dal, but that could have changed. It was possible the bridal ships had started delivering women to Dal. She couldn’t think of any other reason the og’dal council would want human women. Dal had plenty og’dal women. Wives, mothers.
But not playthings.
She’d heard talk in the market about the Coalition withdrawing from Earth. Maybe she’d misunderstood that, too. For as fluent as she was in Dalese, occasionally she had trouble interpreting verbs.
“Stop that thief!” a male shouted in the distance. The fruit vendor. “A female wearing a cloak!”
The enforcer’s hard brown eyes settled on her. Before he could draw his blaster, Harper ran.
Blaster fire surrounded her, and people began running in all directions. Harper tripped over a sunken section of the cobblestone street and most of her fruit went flying. She’d managed to hold on to a few yanatis, which would have to suffice. She couldn’t take the time to pick up the rest, not with the enforcer chasing her. Enforcers had one rule. Keep the peace. How they did that was up to them.
After dodging between people, accidentally knocking over a few, Harper turned onto a dead-end street used for refuse dumping.
She skirted the latest piles of garbage that hadn’t been picked up for incineration and found the two-foot wide grate set into the ground. As quickly as she could, Harper yanked the iron plate away, squeezed into the small opening, and replaced the grate. She remained there, listening for footsteps. When she heard none, she descended the stone steps built into the wall.
Once her feet touched the bottom, she sank to the ground, glad it was dry. It wasn’t the first time she’d run from an enforcer, and it wouldn’t be the last, but she was so hungry. She had to find a better way to conceal her identity without wearing a heavy cloak in the summer heat. Though down here in the tunnels where it was cool, she appreciated having the warm layer. She pulled the collar up and tied it around her neck to cover as much exposed skin as possible.
Despite losing half her haul, stealing and running into that enforcer had been worth the risk. She’d learned that Council had human women. Now she had to find out why the women were here. If they weren’t slaves, then hopefully she could find a way home through them. And if they were slaves… Damn, she didn’t know what she’d do. Even if she could free them, she had nothing to offer them except a bunch of survival tips. How to live like a rat in Dal: A Beginner’s Guide.
Her stomach growled loud enough that she froze, hoping no one stood close enough to the grate to hear it. Quickly, she grabbed one of the light discs she had stashed at the bottom of the stone steps. She kept a small pile near every grate she used to enter the tunnels throughout Kerr as many of the light discs mounted high in the sewers no longer worked. More failed each year and no one ever came down here to replace them.
After living in the tunnels for nearly two years, she knew the twists and turns and how many steps between tunnels, but the light discs kept her from stepping into any of the ruts that riddled the ground. Puddles were the worst. What looked like a two-inch depression often turned into a three-foot deep pit. She nearly broke an ankle her first month down here.
Whoever had built the underground storm system hadn’t bothered to lay down a solid foundation or bothered to do any maintenance. Even with the dark and pits, the tunnels were safer than living above. No one came down here. Ever.
* * *
Three knives sailed through the air. Ri’Nom dove behind a cement barrier used to keep wagons out of the market area.
“Give it up and you may live,” a male called to him.
Ri’Nom checked his boots, his pants, even his arm sheaths. All empty. He had one knife left, the one his assailants were willing to kill for. The raakesh.
When he failed to answer, another three knives sailed past him.
Ri’Nom crawled along the ground, scooping up the knives. If he was dealing with enforcers, three knives would indicate two assailants. They typically threw two knives at a time. Three or four knives could easily be a single assassin, as they trained with both their right and left arms in knife throwing. But three knives was unusual.
Without his blaster, the best way out of this fight was to avoid it altogether. Ri’Nom gripped two of the knives with his upper hands while his lower hands secured the remaining knife and checked on the raakesh on his hip. Now, more than ever, he had to safeguard the sacred knife.
“You’re not going to escape,” the male taunted, probably because he knew the area better than Ri’Nom. Or he had reinforcements on the way.
Ri’Nom scanned the area. Residential. Houses that were crammed up against one another with no alleys between. If this were Karthika, he would climb to the roof of any house and jump from roof to roof. On Dal, builders used hoffas, a polished material that coated the sides of houses, ensuring rain ran off quickly during the rainy season and into the sewers below. Hoffas made any surface impossible to climb.
He considered break into one of the homes, but few homes had back doors or windows. He’d be trapped.
“Last chance, Ri’Nom. Toss the raakesh to us and we’ll let you live.”
No, they wouldn’t. He was as valuable to them as the raakesh. He never should have returned to Dal, except he’d been tasked with bringing Nala here to testify against the og’dal ships involved in the illegal trade of human and other females to coalition worlds.
Dal’s leaders were determined to prosecute any og’dal with connections to the Coalition. Not because they cared about human females, but because they sought to maintain control of Dal. That meant appeasing Galactic Intelligence and several allies, as well as fending off the efforts of the Mofa’Ti in their attempts to usurp control of Dal.
The question became who had targeted him? Mere thieves, corrupt enforcers working for slave ship owners who sought to destroy Galactic Intelligence, or the Mofa’Ti? Slavers would simply kill him. But they had no need for the raakesh. The Mofa’Ti, on the other hand, would want both him and raakesh.
A clap of thunder gave him an idea.
Ri’Nom dashed down the street. A knife grazed the back of his lower left arm, but he kept going. As soon as he turned a corner onto a street that split in two directions, he spotted an opening to the subterranean tunnels. Quickly, he lifted the square grate and squeezed through, amazed that he fit. He slid the grate into place seconds before he heard the heavy footsteps.
Mofa’Ti weren’t so loud. So then… slavers? Except slavers wouldn’t care about the raakesh. His head was spinning, trying to deduce who was hunting him.
“Where is he?” a male said practically above the grate.
“He’s a fast drekker, Fe’Tun. And smart. He knew precisely where to go, so we’d have to split up. I’ll head to the market. If he’s not there, I’ll double back and join you in searching the houses, one by one. I want the drekker alive, but dead will do if you must.”
Ri’Nom listened as he balanced on the ledge beneath the street. Hearing Dalese spoken all around him again still felt odd. All those years growing up on Karthika, he’d only had his dad to converse with in their native tongue. And even then, his dad had insisted he speak Common, Tunzen, or numerous other language he’d been forced to learn. A set of skills that helped him as a marshal for GI7. Now, hearing nothing but Dalese gave him a sense of home he’d missed on Karthika.
“And the knife?” the second male asked.
“One problem at a time. Go, before he gets far.”
“It doesn’t matter how far he gets. I’ve disabled his ship. He’s not escaping Dal.”
“Have the enforcers lock down the entire district until we find the drekker.”
That clinched it. Mofa’Ti. Who also had the local enforcers doing their bidding. The situation couldn’t get any worse.
Ri’Nom swallowed hard as his head fell back against the cement wall. No ship, the Mofa’Ti trying to kill him, and very soon, the weight of the enforcement squads would descend on the area.
He stared down the rough cement steps that led to the underground tunnels. At least he was no longer trapped. He just had to hope wherever he emerged would be outside the locked down sector.
A crunch beneath Ri’Nom’s foot made him reach down. He gritted his teeth, hoping it wasn’t a dargie. He’d had enough of those filthy insects in the prison where he’d spent his last two years on Dal before he and his father fled to Karthika.
Instead of touching the slimy shell of a dargie, the object he picked up was made of metal and crystals. A light disc. Crushed beyond use. The rains must have washed it through the tunnels at some point. Fortunately, Dal was currently going through a dry spell. The tunnels would be clear, and perhaps the best way to travel to the outer limit of the city.
With the Mofa’Ti connected to or even controlling the local enforcers, Kerr was the worst place he could be right now. He had to get the raakesh out of Kerr. But where? His mother’s family still lived in Mozzen, but so did Ven’Losh.
The smartest move would be to contact GI7 and ask for backup. Or ex-fil. If they knew why he was here, they’d assist him. But he still had no idea how his attackers knew who he was or that he’d brought the raakesh to Dal with him.
Ri’Nom patted the sheath he wore under his shirt, hidden from all eyes. He hadn’t taken the ceremonial blade out during the three days he’d been here escorting Nala while she testified before Council. He’d made it through security without anyone discovering the knife on him, likely because their sensors only picked up high energy signals, the type emitted by blasters and energy grenades. He’d even slept with the raakesh on his person while aboard his ship, which he kept locked at all times. Nala hadn’t even seen the dagger.
How did Fe’Tun know he had the raakesh?
Ri’Nom’s stomach turned as he realized he’d been targeted even before he’d landed. The damn mole who had been endangering witnesses for the past few months had to be involved. Which led back to the question of who the hell knew why he was here?
He hadn’t told his commander or the other marshals that he had the raakesh with him. Galactic Intelligence knew very little of Dal’s internal history or politics, let alone the importance of the raakesh.
Konnitch… He’d been at The One-Eyed Pilot on Karthika when Ri’Lej had pushed the raakesh at Ri’Nom, insisting he take it to Dal. Konnitch had seen the knife, but Ri’Nom’s father hadn’t been concerned about the keentan’s presence.
And yet the Mofa’Ti had waited for Konnitch to leave with Nala. Ri’Nom had escorted her to and from Council while she testified on Dal. The Mofa’Ti could have jumped or attacked him at any time. But they hadn’t.
They could have known Konnitch was on his way to pick up Nala, and they didn’t want to chance confronting two marshals.
Or Konnitch was connected to the Mofa’Ti, and he wanted Nala out of the way before they attacked.
Except the Mofa’Ti didn’t deal with outsiders, especially keentas and marshals from Galactic Intelligence. Unless they needed information on him and the raakesh.
Someone had told them he was coming… with the raakesh. That much was clear.
As Ri’Nom thought about who could have betrayed him, the tunnels grew darker. This section of tunnels didn’t have many grates where light filtered in. He had a lot of ground to cover before the sun set and trapped him below ground until morning.
After several twists and turns of the tunnels, Ri’Nom stumbled upon a nest of sorts on a storage platform high above the floor. Storage platforms existed throughout the tunnels. They’d been built high above the tunnel floor to keep maintenance equipment dry when water surged through the tunnels. From the look of the tunnels, no one had been making repairs in this section for years.
Ri’Nom climbed up the foot holds roughly carved into the stone wall. As soon as he reached the platform, he regretted not having a light disc. The light that filtered through the grates was enough for him to see where he was walking during the day, but with the sun setting, places like this platform were dark. He certainly didn’t plan to spend the night down here. Just the idea of dargies crawling all over him in his sleep sent a shudder through him.
Ri’Nom rooted through the belongings, hoping to find anything he could use, especially a light disc. Clothing lay haphazardly in a pile and off to the side. He found a handmade mortar and pestle, a throwing knife, yanati cores, and a large pile of black bark from an ossami tree. It was, to say the least, an odd collection of possessions. And a recent one, too. The yanati cores had not turned fully black from decay.
He picked up the knife. The four-inch blade, with its sleek metal grip balanced on the tip of his finger perfectly. A throwing knife, much like those that he dodged an hour ago.
The lair could belong to an assassin, except the assassins he knew wouldn’t let themselves get trapped in the tunnels long enough to accumulate all these possessions. Winter and summer clothing that varied in color and sizes. Other than the knife, nothing in the nest indicated an assassin lived there. Though no one should live here. Dal ensured housing for everyone, including those unable to work due to mental or physical issues. It was one of the programs his mother had started and Council had continued after her death.
Unless Council had discontinued the program. It was possible Dal wasn’t as stable as off-worlders believed.
Ri’Nom’s lower right hand patted the ceremonial dagger tucked under his shirt. Perhaps this wasn’t the time to move forward. Before he handed over the raakesh, he needed to be sure Council hadn’t been lying to the rest of the galaxy… and Galactic Intelligence.
Ri’Nom peeled back where the knife had grazed his arm. The superficial cut didn’t require stitches, but the blood and dirt-stained tunic would draw attention, which is precisely what he didn’t need. He sifted through the pile, looking for clothing that would help him slip out of Kerr unnoticed. His hand grabbed something that… wasn’t clothing. Flesh. A lot of it.
Before he could withdraw his hand, a cold metal blade kissed his throat. The pile of clothing shifted as the wielder of that knife turned onto his side.
Jet black hair swung back, revealing a very beautiful female. Striking green eyes caught him. He’d never seen such a beautiful woman, not that this was a social gathering. She held a knife to his throat…