Things aren’t going well for Rhiannon’s people. She
has returned to chaos after being elsewhere. She hates what the evil Lord Taroog is trying to do
to her people. With her brothers dead, she tells her parents she will go undercover to infiltrate
Taroog’s inner sanctum. Even if that means she has to be his consort. All she asks in return is
that she spend her last night in the arms of a special man selected by her mother. A man to take
her virginity and teach her what it means to be loved so she has pleasant memories to carry her
through Taroog’s hell. Barron, one of the leaders of the Resistance, is the chosen one. How can
he refuse a woman so brave? And under the cover of darkness, he grants her wish...
Rhiannon struggled to read the instrument panel through a veil of tears. How could the ravaged wasteland below possibly be her beloved Juron? The years since her departure had not been kind, and neither had that vicious, black-hearted cretin, Taroog.
Gone were the islands of light that announced sprawling cities below. Devastation lay in their place. She'd circled the planet twice looking for something positive, drifting from night to day then back again. Spirals of smoke drifted into the atmosphere. Some represented the remains of fires that still consumed the cities. Others were bastions of hope from those who refused to give up, choosing to live primitively rather than in tyranny. Life still existed, that much she knew.
But how long before Taroog added them to the countless millions who had perished?
Gone were the crystal spires that were a beacon of optimism and love to all. They had drawn all to the center square for joyous celebrations of life. From what she'd been told, they'd been Taroog's first targets when his forces had invaded from Primadyl. His goal, she presumed, had been to defeat them by destroying a symbol of their religion. But Juronians were made of stronger stuff than that. Just not as strong as those whose own survival depended on takeover.
If only the Primadylians had been open to negotiation. Rhiannon's people had been perfectly willing to share. Taroog wouldn't hear of it. It was all or nothing for him.
Rhiannon swooped her shuttlecraft toward the dense forest near her family's castle. The fact she wasn't challenged was a good sign she'd managed to slip in undetected. It looked like the cloaking device was truly a success.
The little ship eased between the trees with nary a rustle of the leaves. Settled in the tiny clearing, she flicked the controls off. The engine shut down with a sigh.
She patted the panel. "Good girl. Always so quiet and dependable. What would I do without you?"
This was the prototype for what she prayed would one day be a fleet of vessels. All they needed now was time and the element of surprise--a distraction so great Taroog would never know what hit him until it was too late. And that's why Rhiannon had snuck home after five, long years.
She tucked her laser pistol into the pouch at her side then swung her pack over her shoulders. No doubt her return would be greeted with a mix of tears and anger. Her parents would simply have to understand her safety no longer mattered, not when Taroog had systematically killed off all her brothers. She couldn't stay tucked away in Rebazet any longer. It was time to get out of the laboratory and make a different kind of stand.
The door lifted silently. Not even a hiss of the hydraulics indicated its presence. Cool mist drifted in, bringing with it the acrid stench of smoke.
Rhiannon stepped into the glade, shutting the hatch behind her. The vessel disappeared behind its cloaked shield. She wished she had the benefit of that type of camouflage. One day. She and her fellow engineers had labored intensively on that project, too.
Holding her pistol at the ready, she ducked into the line of trees. Smoke pervaded all, chasing away the sweetness of late blooming moon lilies. Gone, too, was any sign of wildlife. Her presence stirred no roosting birds, no animals on their nightly foray. Survival had required desertion of their normal ranges. With any luck, they'd made it to Mount Rasi and were safely tucked away on the highest peaks, nestled in its deepest valleys. But not for long if Taroog was victorious in his conquest. He would destroy all in his path.
Rhiannon hiked up her chin. That wouldn't happen. It couldn't happen...even if she had to slit his throat herself. He and his regime would be brought down.
Scanner in one hand, laser pistol in the other, she picked her way through the towering trees. The well-trodden path she'd known as a child had long since disappeared. Had it been daylight, she could have found her way with no problem. Night now held too many dangers, so she drew out her scanner. It showed more than just direction, so she knew she was alone. One thousand measures later, the dark gray walls of her family's castle loomed before her.
Rhiannon tucked her scanner away as she glanced around the open expanse of patchy grass between her and the stone wall. Here she trusted her eyes. All was clear. A quick sprint carried her across. She hugged her back against the surface, daring not to breathe for fear of discovery. Several minutes passed. Still nothing. It was safe to move on.
She counted the windows towering above. Dark curtains blocked out any hint of light beyond, yet she knew her target well. How many times as a child had she and her brothers snuck back in after a night of fun, doing all to avoid that particular window? The thought of joyful times made her smile. At least she had memories.
The creeper leading to their respective rooms had died. Too risky to climb. Rhiannon had expected as much. Reconnaissance had paid off. Pulling the rappelling cannon from her pack, she aimed for the eaves above. A small pouf launched the projectile. A light thunk seated it. Rhiannon gave a hard tug to make sure then clicked the rope to her belt. A flick of her wrist hauled her up. She stopped at her parents' window and swung to the ledge. Hopefully, her mother was still a light sleeper. She hated to destroy the glass.
Drawing in a breath, Rhiannon tapped against the pane. Thick walls kept her from hearing anything inside. She tapped again lest they pass off the noise as inconsequential. Within seconds the dark shielding parted and the flare of a candle backlit her father. His mouth dropped on a gasp as he yanked open the window.
"By the gods of Remlig, child!"
Strong arms snapped around her waist and hauled her inside. Her mother's gasp brought her scurrying to their side to pull her the rest of the way.
"Rhiannon, my darling." She grabbed her in a smothering hug. Rhiannon clung to her, fighting the urge to cry. Just as quickly, her mother shoved her away at arm's length.
"What are you doing here? Have you lost your senses? We told you to stay on Rebazet. The danger here is too great."
Her father wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Much too great."
She cupped her hands against their cheeks. "I am aware of it. Losing Debron was too much. I had to see you."
"But, sweet dear--"
She pressed a finger to her mother's lips. "You may scold me in a moment."
Without explanation, she turned and released the rappelling gear, then tucked it back into her pack. "Can't take the chance of discovery, can I?" she said with a smile. Neither of them returned it.
Rhiannon studied their features. She could put their wan appearance down as shadows from the dim candlelight. To do so would only mean lying to herself. The years had not been kind to her parents. Lines dragged down their faces. Her mother's brilliant, shining, red hair--a match to her own--was shot with silver, and her father's now completely gray. The loss of four sons, the absence of a beloved daughter, and the destruction of their home world were all too much for the royal couple to bear.
Her father drew her close once more. "Why are you here, child? Has something gone wrong with the trials?"
She curled her hand over his, holding him tightly. "No, Father. The trials have been perfected. One of the prototypes lies protected nearby. The A-bot is a success. It will just take time to build the fleet."
"Child, why bring it here and risk discovery?"
She had to smile. Would they ever think of her as anything other than that? She'd managed a team of scientists for the last five years, uncovered the mysteries of cloaking technology, and still she was child to them. And, yet, Rhiannon would never take that from them.
"I brought it here for training. You need experienced people to pilot the vessel. Success depends on many factors. We do not have the luxury of error."
"But"--her mother swallowed hard--"how will you return?"
Rhiannon pulled in a breath. Time to sell her plan. "I don't intend to go back to Rebazet, Mother."
Her father took a step back. Anger reddened his face. "By the gods of Remlig, I refuse to allow you to stay here." He punctuated his decree with a stab of his finger. "I have lost four sons. I will not lose my daughter."
She dusted her hand from his shoulder to his elbow. "I won't be staying here, Father. There is work elsewhere which needs to be done."
Her mother frowned. "But...where will you go?"
"Come, let's sit." She drew them toward the two chairs perched before the dying embers of the fireplace. Once they sat, Rhiannon pulled the small table before them and sat on it.
"As I said, we cannot afford the luxury of failure. It'll take time to build a fleet. Time to train qualified pilots. Taroog cannot discover our plan. We need a diversion. Something to distract him."
Her mother snapped to her feet. "No! I forbid it! Royal brides are to enter marriage pure. To mate only with the chosen one."
"If I don't do this, there'll be no royal line to carry on. No world to rule and protect. And certainly no marriage."
"No man would have you after Taroog," her mother spit out.
"Then he wouldn't be a man worth having," she shot back.
Her father buried his head in his hands and slowly shook it.
Rhiannon looked from one to the other. "His penchant for Juronian women is well-known."
Her mother squatted before her, taking both hands in hers. "So is his desire for a miracle child."
She held her mother's hands tightly. "And we know that's not possible. Juronians and Primadylians are not genetically compatible."
"That doesn't keep him from trying. Those who conceive have borne abominations. What would you do then?"
"Love it. Bless it during its very brief time in this world. Thank it for the sacrifice it has made."
Her father stared at the thread-worn carpet on the floor. The fact he had said nothing boded well. Rhiannon turned her argument toward him.
"Taroog will think he's achieved a supreme victory when a royal Juronian falls into his lap. One banished for her support of his regime."
Her mother gasped. "Banished? No, Rhiannon!"
She clutched her hand tightly to keep her mother from pulling away. "We all must make sacrifices, Mother. Once Taroog has been brought to his knees, all can be revealed. Trust me. I can keep him busy enough until the fleet and pilots are ready. There's no other woman who'd intrigue him more than one of royal blood."
Her mother jerked away and strode to the fireplace.
Rhiannon snapped to her feet. "I have lost my brothers. You have lost sons. Others have made sacrifices just as great. Victory is in our hands. I will make this work. No cost is too great. I refuse to allow Taroog to continue to rape our world."
Her mother whipped around. "So you choose to put yourself in its place? To sacrifice yourself? To have yourself...banished?"
"The pain will be great, but temporary. The shame for you regrettable, but also temporary."
A deeply drawn breath pulled her father to his feet. "You and your team are confident in the A-bot?"
She gave him a single nod. "The cloaked battle suits are a different matter and giving us problems. The ships are perfect."
His blue eyes bore deeply into hers. "I had hoped for a spectacular wedding with the Chosen One by your side. Feasts would last for days. I had planned for many things for all my children. Taroog has taken too much from my people. As much as I abhor the idea of you laying with this odious creature..."
Rhiannon wrapped her arms around him and nestled her head against his chest. "There is no sacrifice too great for my people. How many times have you said that, Father? How many times have you shown that?"
His arms fell about her. "A true leader. Just as your brothers were."
"We will be victorious, Father."
"Or die trying?" He gave a soft chuckle. "Yes, you are truly of the House of Ba-lark."
"I can't fight you both." Sadness weighed down her mother's voice. Rhiannon pulled from her father's embrace. "Thank you. I have one final request of you."
Her parents waited, eyes focused on her. The gods only knew what was going on in their minds. It was a daring request, but no more so than what she had previous told them.
"I need something to carry me through the years. A sweet memory if I am to lay nightly with Taroog. All I ask is one night of pleasure in the arm's of a man chosen by you."
The silence lasted a full minute. Finally, her father uttered a single word.
Her mother flicked away a tear and turned away.
Rhiannon would never let them know how frightened she truly was. She was counting on this single night to carry her through.