“Have you even left home except to go to work since you dumped the cheating bitch?” Harrison asked as I once again declined his invitation to go out drinking with him and some of the other guys that night.
“Yes!” I snapped. It wasn’t exactly a lie. In the two sulida since I’d broken up with Tanya, I’d gone to my niece’s dance recital and Taralise had drug me out somewhere for dinner one night. But even if I hadn’t, it was none of his business.
“Because your kid made you, or because you wanted to?” Dalrek said, sitting next to me with a plate of what was allegedly dilparid hooves. Properly prepared dilparid hooves are a nice dark brown; the things on his plate were taupe.
“Does it matter?” I asked, then bit into the mondrath livers on toast Taralise had packed for my lunch. The food at the SDFSF HQ was better than on some ships I’d served on, but I still preferred to eat my daughter’s cooking when I had the chance to.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“C’mon, Sark,” Harrison pleaded. “Live a little. So whats-her-face cheated on you! So what! There’s lots of other women out there. Some of them Rek ain’t even been with yet, so they don’t have preconceived notions about us SF folk.”
I laid my toast down and tried very hard to keep from losing my temper. The pair — the closest friends I’d made in my new unit, the Sweytzian Defense Force Special Forces — had been badgering me like this for days already, and my patience was wearing very thin. I was sure if I’d been full Kivanian, I would’ve gone off on them by now. Being only half, I was a bit better at keeping my temper.
Not enough to stop me from yelling at them. “I know there are other women out there! I’ve dated more than I can count since Jenelle died. I want some time to myself, okay? Some time to reassess things in my life a bit. Maybe I’m not meant to find someone to love again.”
Harrison and Dalrek exchanged a glance. I could see a plot forming behind their eyes. “Whatever you two are thinking of getting me involved in, I’m not interested,” I said and stood, planning to go eat somewhere alone.
“Wait,” Harrison put a hand on my arm. “Just hear me out. You heard of The Sword and Scroll?”
I nodded. “Tavern in Lus Ville, isn’t it? Hank plays in a band there when he’s on-world?”
“That’s the one. How ‘bout you join us there tonight? I promise we . . . well, I, can’t speak for the rest of these crazies, won’t try to set you up with anyone. You need a break. You’re wound too tight. Just go there with us tonight, have a few rounds, maybe dance a little, play a little kista . . . just enjoy yourself some. It’s a good place for that. Lots of people go there even when they ain’t looking to get laid or drunk. It’s a nice place to just chill. Which you need to do.”
“It’s in Lus Ville,” I said, as if that settled matters. Harrison knew by then what I thought of the climate up there. I wanted to go back to my nice, warm, beach side apartment in New Junil a lot more than I wanted to spend any more time than necessary in the frigid north. There were about two varjé of snow on the ground at the base, and it was further south than Lus Ville.
He shrugged. “We can get a transport from the parking lot to the bar if it’s too far for you to walk in the cold, and the place is usually nicely heated inside. Viktor — one of the owners — is married to a Kivanian, so he knows all about how warm you guys like to be.”
Damn, there goes that tactic, I thought. “I’m not interested, okay? I want to go home and . . .”
“And brood,” Dalrek interrupted. “Very warrior-like behavior, that. My sect of the Faith specifically forbids it, considering it damned near cowardly behavior. I’m pretty sure some others do too.”
I shrugged dismissively. “I don’t care. I don’t follow the Faith.” Dalrek followed one of the stricter branches of the Faith, the religion and philosophy that united almost all Mugdarans. To do something that even brushed against the edge of being cowardly was anathema to him. My father’s sect wasn’t nearly as strict; I didn’t recall any priest every saying anything about brooding.
“Fine, what do your ancestors think of it?”
I smiled slightly. I’ve noticed most religious people assume everyone is too. “I don’t follow Kivanian religion either.” Many people when they find out that I’m not religious assume it has something to do with my wife’s death, but the truth is I’ve just never much cared. I was exposed to both my parents’ religions growing up, of course, and many more . . . I did grow up in New Junil, after all, but none had ever seemed relevant enough to my life for me to pay them much notice.
Dalrek suddenly smiled a crafty smile and asked, “What will your daughter think of it? I’m sure I can get her code. Maybe I’ll give her a call and tell her you’re turning down a chance to go enjoy yourself to go brood.”
“I’m not going to brood,” I said, perhaps a bit unconvincingly. “I’m just going to spend some time thinking.”
“Sounds like brooding to me,” Harrison interjected. “So, what’s your daughter’s name again?”
I ignored him. He shrugged. “Be that way then. Hey, Jill? How would I find out someone’s comm code if I don’t know her name?” he called over his shoulder to our cryptography and communications expert.
“Guys,” I said, “stop. Fine. I’ll go to this bar in the arctic with you tonight instead of going home to my nice, warm, beach front apartment and being warm.”
“It’s not arctic,” Dalrek said matter-of-factly. “I live in the arctic. It’s much colder there.”
“It’s too close to the arctic for my tastes,” I said with a sigh. “Now, may I finish my lunch in peace, or do you two have something else you want to bother me about?”
“Go ahead and sit back down. We won’t bother you now that you’re agreeing to do something fun. We’re doin’ this for your own good, you know,” Harrison said. “You don’t lighten up some, you’re gonna end up as boring and obsessed with your job and perfecting your martial art as that guy who was our hand-to-hand expert before Bobby . . . can’t recall his name, he was before my time, but I’ve heard about him. Dude had no life, no hobbies, nothing. Seems like a miserable way to live, to me.”
“What happened to him?” I asked, genuinely curious. Loathe as I was to admit it, it was a future I could easily see before me, especially if Taralise moved out when she got married.
Dalrek laughed heartily. “Telling you that would ruin the tale of woe he’s spinning. He retired when he and Kira had kids so they weren’t both out risking their necks all the time.”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Kira?” I asked, gesturing subtly to the top intel NCO, a woman anyone attracted to women would be happy to be with: tall; leggy; the right balance of curves and muscles; long, red hair; witty; brilliant . . . hell, if she’d been single or non-monogamous, I would have asked her out.
Harrison looked confused. “That’s the guy she married? I thought it was the guy before him?”
“No,” Dalrek said with an amused smile. “It was Jeff. I joined right after he retired, so I don’t know how true the stories that he’s terribly boring are, but he’s definitely the one who married Kira.”
“Well, shit. That doesn’t make for a good argument, does it?” Harrison asked. “Don’t do this, or you might get the heart of the sexiest woman on the team.” He sighed then changed the subject to who he should be on for that night’s big gorstak game.
“Quit gawking and go in,” Harrison said, practically dragging me to the door when I paused to take in the wood and stone exterior of The Sword and Scroll. I’d been expecting a typical spacer bar since Lus Ville was so near the ‘port, not some place that looked so warm and snug, so inviting.
Inside the place looked as homey and warm as it had outside. It was bit chillier than I’d like, but there was a large fireplace along one wall with a fire in it, so I headed over there.
Harrison tried to drag me nearer the door. “Where are you going?”
“Over to where I’ll be warm.”
“Kivanians,” he said in annoyance.
“You want to say something a bit more articulate?”
“Nah, just wish y’all could handle reasonable temperatures better. Fine, we’ll go sit by the fire and roast alive, I guess.”
A rather lovely woman, who Harrison seemed to know and flirted shamelessly with, took our order, then he, Dalrek, some of the other members of the SDFSF, and I sat there drinking and talking for a while. Despite still feeling like I’d been drug there against my will, it was nice. Maybe they were right, I thought. Maybe I am becoming a boring old man before I’m even middle-aged.
The conversation drifted to who was going to win the upcoming local sword tournament and since I didn’t know enough of the competitors to have an opinion, I accepted Noralis invitation to dance. I enjoyed dancing with her. She was limber and light on her feet, and the way her light blonde hair swung behind her when she spun was breathtakingly beautiful, but she was much too young for me — I’d have been surprised to learn she was even as old as my daughter — so it was just a dance.
On my way back to our table, Harrison grabbed my shoulder. “You play kista, right?’
I nodded, a bit apprehensive. I’d only known the man a few korvare, but I’d already learned that he wasn’t half the gambler he thought he was.
“Good. We’re short a player.”
“Not teams?” I asked because, as I said, he wasn’t half as good as he thought he was.
“Nah, but we only have three players and you know kista doesn’t work well like that.”
So I shrugged and followed him to the chilly back corner of the bar. The place had warmed up some by now, probably due to how full it was getting. That much body heat had to have an affect. But it was still colder than I liked.
I paused as I was pulling my chair out, caught off-guard by the beautiful woman across from me. Her eyes were captivating, a rich sapphire with mischief twinkling in them and the elongated pupils typical of half-Mugdarans. And unlike any other half-Mugdaran I’d ever seen, she had golden hair, which was flowing over her shoulders in casual disarray.
I’d like to be able to say that it was just the color of her hair and eyes that caught my attention so raptly, but I have to admit the ample cleavage on display probably had a lot to do with hit. The deep v-neck of her sweater — way too deep for how chilly it was in there — framed her cleavage seductively. There was no chance it wasn’t deliberate. When she noticed me staring, she shifted slightly so even more cleavage showed.
“Hi, I’m Lyndsey,” she said with a devilish smile.
Snap out of it! I ordered myself. You’re damned near forty. That is way too old be staring at an awesome set of tits like a boy seeming some for the first time! “I’m Rusark,” I said as I took my seat.
The game was cut-throat, but fun. I won’t mention how much Harrison lost, but it quickly became clear that Lyndsey and the fourth player, a Mondrivian named Threlig, were way out of my league. I’d been betting conservatively, but I still ended up out 200 credits. I was about to bow out before I lost more money when Threlig said he needed to go, prompting Harrison to look at his watch.
“Shit!” he said. “I need to go to. See you tomorrow, Sark. Rematch next time we’re both here, Lyn?” The beautiful blonde nodded.
She and I had been flirting — low key, barely noticeable flirting, but flirting nonetheless — the whole game, our hands lingering against the other’s a bit too long when we’d toss our credits in the pot, comments full of double entendre, little things like that. Nothing overt. Nothing that meant either of us meant anything by it.
I usually like to wait before getting into a new relationship, some time to make sure I’m totally over the last woman. But there was something about Lyndsey that had me captivated already. I have never been able to say quite what it was. Was it the self-confidence she radiated? Was it that devilish twinkle in her eyes and smile? Was it just pure lust because she is an incredibly physically attractive woman? I didn’t, and don’t, know. You’re just horny, I thought at the time. You need to go home before you do something stupid. You do not need to get involved with anyone right now, Rusark. You’re going to get up, go say goodbye to your friends, and go home. You are not going to sit here talking to her in hopes it will lead something more physical than talking.
I pushed my chair back and was just about to say goodbye when a teasing voice in my head, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Jenelle’s, said, Go for it, coward. I’d never won an argument with her when she was alive. I wasn’t foolish enough to think her having been dead nearly fourteen years would change that.
“I don’t think we were properly introduced,” I said, bowing my head slightly. “Ostilin Rusark Kirjarik-Pokth’gher of the SDFSF.”
“Ostilin . . . Special Forces?!” She looked like she was about to start laughing.
I nodded, confused. “Yes. I transferred there from the Fleet a few korvare ago.”
She muttered something under her breath in a language I couldn’t understand before standing and saying, while executing a sweeping, theatrical bow, “Lyndsey Katherine Kavaliro-Blue, Dagger, ninja, and the best fighter pilot in the tri-galaxies.” The devilish grin came back, bigger than ever, as she added, “And the woman who just won 200 credits off of you.”
I barely noticed the dig at the end. It was my turn to stammer. “Dagger . . . Dagger fighter pilot?!” All Daggers are crazy. That’s an undeniable fact of the universe as Kivanians hating cold and Mugdarans being carnivores. Dagger fighter pilots were called crazy by other Daggers . . . and other fighter pilots which is really saying something since I’m pretty sure to become one you have to have a serious lack of important things like a sense of self-preservation. Don’t do it. I tried to warn myself. Too risky. Do you want to go through that kind of pain again?
I again started to stand. She suddenly asked, “Buy you a drink?”
I was down 200 credits, the woman I was in lust with had just declared herself to be one of the most insane people in the known universe . . . a drink sounded too good to turn down.
“Sure. Bthig’nt,” I said.
She blinked in confusion. “Part-Kivanian?”
I chuckled and brushed my hair back so my ear showed, pointing to it as I said, “Half. Can you order it, or do I need to?” Most other humans can’t pronounce Kivanian, something about the way their vocal cords are shaped I think.
She shook her head. “Nope. Got a nephew that can, but I’ve never been able to pronounce it right. Hey, Dad?” she called to a tall silver-haired man with the bearing of a warrior and a severe limp that didn’t appear to be bothering him at all.
“Yes?” he said in a smooth, cultured baritone. Before Lyndsey answered, he noticed me and said, with a polite nod, “Viktor Blue — yes, that Viktor Blue — at your service. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
“Rusark Kirjarik-Pokth’gher,” I answered distractedly, trying to remember where I knew his name from. I did a double take when I realized why he’d said “that Viktor Blue.” It was hard to reconcile my mental image of the Hero of Culs III and the Slayer of Drochslem with the dandy standing there. He was wearing more silk and jewelry than the Ruvellian captain at the next table.
My expression must have given away that I’d recognized his name because he smiled and nodded before turning his attention back to his daughter. “Now, I believe you called me over for some reason?”
“Yeah, another Irish coffee for me and . . .”
“Bthig’nt for me.”
“On my tab,” she finished.
With a mischievous twinkle in his eye that looked a lot like the one his daughter had had during the game, he said something to her in a language I’d never heard before.
“Daddy! Behave!” she said, blushing a bit as he chuckled and walked off.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head and laughing a bit. “He’s been spending too much time around Daddy Lance lately.” When I gave her a blank look she said, “Sorry, not used to SF guys who aren’t well acquainted with my family. Captain Lancelot Reddige. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“Lance Reddige? Commander of the Tezarin?” When she nodded, I was pretty sure she was just trying to impress me. “And your mother’s the Queen of Tym, right?”
She laughed. “No. One of my mothers is a Dagger, another is Delthakk’s Taredjo, one’s the bar wench over there,” she pointed to the woman Harrison had been flirting with earlier, “and the other’s a housewife.”
“Four mothers and two fathers?” I asked, a bit incredulous. Of course I’ve met people in multi-partner relationships before — this is Sweytz — but rarely anything bigger than a quartet.
“Four fathers too, actually. The other two are a vataredi and a coffee shoppe owner.”
I was momentarily speechless, trying to imagine a relationship with that many people in it working. I’d been having enough trouble the past several years trying to manage one with only two people in it. Our drinks arrived before I’d figured out how to respond.
“So what about your folks?” she asked, setting her cup down after a long drink.
“My mother owns a Kivanian grocery and my father’s a vataredi in New Junil, which is where I’ve lived my whole life.” Northerners sometimes had issues with New Junillians, so I figured it was best to get that established right off.
Sure enough, she sounded utterly disgusted as she asked, “You’re from New Junil?”
“You like it there?”
I nodded again
“Eh, I guess nobody’s perfect,” she said with a shrug and a wink.
“Enough about our parents,” I said. “What about you? What do you do when you’re not out saving oppressed people and doing your part to keep the tri-galaxies free?”
“Besides kicking people’s ass at kista, I mostly just spend time with my kids these days. Val turned three today, and Soshanna will be one in a few days.”
I nodded and smiled at that. “I’ve only got one kid myself. Well, one and a half I guess . . . my daughter’s engaged.” I was drunk enough to be getting a little melancholy, and talking about Taralise’s eventual wedding was always bittersweet for me anyway. There was a very large part of me that would never stop being sad her mother wasn’t there to share in special times like that.
Lyndsey reached out and gently touched my hand. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said with a slight sigh. I paused, trying to decide how much I wanted to say right then, how seriously I was wanting a relationship with the beautiful woman across from me. Do it! ordered Jenelle’s voice in my head. “Her . . .” I paused. This had never gotten easier to say. I suspect it never will. “Her mother, my wife, died almost fourteen years ago. It’s . . .”
She interrupted, squeezing my hand as she said, “You don’t have to finish that. I remember Dad when Ginny — my eldest sister — got married. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, then after a moment of sitting their in silence, said, after resolving to quit drinking for the night before I lost the evening to melancholia, “You mentioned you’re a fighter pilot. What do you fly?” The Daggers, I knew, had an eclectic fleet.
She described a heavily modified ancient Razith so glowingly that it sounded like she was describing a lover. Fighter pilots are weird. “So you know about fighters?” she asked finally, after I’d nodded and looked amazed in all the right spots.
I nodded. “A bit. Spent a lot of time fixing them, but my specialty was big ship’s engines.”
“Cool. I’ll introduce you to my mom some time and you two can geek out over that sort of stuff.” Right then her comm chimed. “Shit!”, she said as she looked at it. “I hadn’t realized how late it’d gotten.” With a huge, somewhat fake looking smile, she answered the call. “Hey, babe. I’m sorry. I . . .”
“Save it for later,” said a very tired sounding woman. “Val woke up and wants to know why you’re not here.”
Lyndsey winced. Soon a little boy with adorably disarrayed black curls appeared on the comm, saying scoldingly, “You’re late.”
“I’m sorry, baby. I made an new friend and lost track of time talking to him. I’ll be home in a nulair, I swear on my honor.”
“You better be!” he yelled before hanging up on her.
“Uhmmm . . . well, I guess I need to go,” she said, looking equally amused and chastised.
“I heard.” We sat there silently for a moment, both waiting for the other to say something. “Are you free on the 12th, say around 17?” I asked finally.
Her smile was huge as she said, “Sounds like I have plans now. I’ll check with my spice to make sure I’m not forgetting something, but if not that night, we can reschedule.”
“Provided I don’t end up on a mission any time soon, that sounds like a good plan.” I was smiling too. It was too soon, I was still half-convinced I was just in lust with her, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to spend more time with the intriguing gorgeous woman.
She suddenly started laughing, hard. I cocked an eyebrow at her, wondering if she was suddenly feeling the effects of how much she’d had to drink or what.
“I . . . it . . .” she stammered. “I just . . . me . . . Special Forces . . . it’s . . .” She took a deep breath, clearly trying to compose herself. “I’ve made some comments about you guys before. Bit infamous among your fellows for some of them, in fact. Including saying that none of you — with the exception of Jill who I’d never slight and not just just because I’m afraid of what Tech’d do to my computer if I did — would know what to do with a lover.”
I’d already experienced a bit of the, usually, friendly rivalry between the Daggers and the Special Forces. I suppose it’s only natural that it exists. Put two groups of highly competent professionals in very similar fields near each other, they’re going to get competitive. Lyndsey was the first person I’d known to make it so personal though.
I smirked. “Well, in a few days, maybe you’ll get to find out just how wrong you are. Good night, Lyndsey.”
“Good night, Rusark,” she said, standing. Sitting she’d looked short, but it wasn’t until she stood that I realized just how short she was. She didn’t even come up to my shoulders!
As she walked past, I touched her face. “May I?”
The kiss left her breathless and moaning. I winked. “Just a little preview.”