Is love possible between sworn enemies when the universe seems determined to tear them apart?
Sagiv, a genetically modified Atavaq fighter, is captured when his master’s raid on a Domidian ship goes wrong. Daran, a young Domidian science officer, claims the warrior for ransom and as a subject for study. As they spend time together in the close confines of the shipboard cabin, both learn more about the other’s culture, and against all odds, a fragile trust begins to form. But the ship is approaching a frontier outpost, where Daran will be expected to ransom Sagiv—even though it means condemning Sagiv to die for the dishonor of his defeat or suffer in the fighting pits. That’s if bounty hunters don’t find them first. Daran’s risen up the ranks through hard work and always following protocol, but he sees something in Sagiv that might be worth breaking the rules for the first time in his life—maybe even something worth sacrificing everything to keep.
THE DUAL thrill of surviving combat and achieving victory buzzed through Daran as he edged his way into the crowded cargo hold of his ship. In a just completed battle, he and his compatriots had soundly defeated an Atavaq raiding party and even captured the damaged enemy ship before it crumpled in the vacuum of space. The cavernous hold was a raucous crush of his fellow Domidian officers drinking hooc and discussing the bundles and stacks of goods now being distributed as spoils from the salvaged Atavaq vessel. There was a celebratory and slightly bloodthirsty mood in the air still redolent with the stench of phase fire and burned resin despite the best efforts of the atmosphere scrubbers.
Daran picked his way around the perimeter, accepting a flagon of intoxicating liquor from a ship’s engineer, nodding greetings to those who acknowledged him, all the while wondering why he’d bothered to appear. He was merely a science officer of too low a rank to qualify for any valuable spoils, and without the added influence of a partner or two at his side, he had no chance at even the more mundane leavings.
He took up position with a few of his fellow lancers as the ship’s purser called out names, starting with the ship’s captain and working his way down the ranks. Daran’s commanding officer, Cesin, had generously forfeited any of his claims on the captured ship and goods it contained. His gesture had transformed the normally staid ritual of dispersal to a more festive atmosphere, and the men’s morale was high. As expected, the executive officer claimed the largest casket of gems, leaving the vessel itself to be claimed by the mates who commanded the engine rooms. More goods were portioned off, and Daran sipped his drink, enjoying the camaraderie of his fellow lancers as they cheered whenever someone received a particularly fine item. The collection of goods dwindled until all that was left was a huddle of captured Atavaq raiders, chained in a line and prodded forward by the brig commander.
“Now, we have captives for ransom.” The purser’s announcement brought forth deep chuckles from the men around him. Everyone knew taking on a hostage exchange was a risky investment. Even though the Atavaq were relatively new adversaries on the edge of Domidian space, they had already gained the foul reputation of abandoning their fellows when one fell in battle. Dishonorable and cowardly behavior, to be sure. A Domidian might get lucky and undertake a negotiation with an enemy tribe willing to pay for the return of one of their brethren, but was just as likely to be double-crossed. This was all contingent upon even discovering the true identity of the captive in question. Their new adversaries were notoriously deceitful, despite their physical similarities to the Domid race. Everyone in the hold was well aware that the risk was far greater than possible returns.
“They should just put them back in the brig and send them to the fighting pits on Sever,” Tuland, one of his cohort, said, as the bound Atavaq men scowled and snarled at the taunts flung their way. “It’s the only thing they’re good for now.”
“They might be worth something, so have to be offered up.” Daran studied the group of pirates. He had, of course, battled them when they’d attacked the ship, but close-quarters fighting wasn’t exactly the time for reasoned observation. They were stripped to the waist, and bruises and contusions dotted their grimy skin. Similar in physique to Domids, the captives had much more varied appearances due to shorn craniums decorated with tattoos and lack of standard uniforms. One of them growled something at a nearby Domid officer, and Daran caught sight of the man’s teeth, filed to points. Disgusting.
Three bonded centurions threw their chits in together and soon acquired the group of Atavaq prisoners. Most of the men around Daran returned to conversation and drinking until the purser again called for attention. There was a slow movement from the edge of the crowd, and as the Domids shifted back, a lone man emerged, shuffling along with a bowed head and slumped shoulders, his extreme size apparent despite his posture. He was clad only in a torn pair of charcoal leather leggings and heavy boots, the muscles of his back and shoulders thick and covered with smears of dirt and dried blood, which stood out against his extremely pale skin. His long fair hair hung in matted hanks, and as the alien raised his head and stared unseeing ahead of him, Daran could see his face was battered and his chest was covered with cuts.
Tuland huffed out a breath. “That’s no Atavaq.”
With a thrill of recognizing something he’d only glimpsed in a few grainy vids of battle scenes, Daran nodded. “I think it’s a Lost Son. I’ve never seen one before.”
“I thought they were a myth,” Tuland said, a hint of disbelief in his voice. “Propaganda of the Atavaq.”
Daran gave a slow shake of his head. A spark of curiosity ignited as he considered the tottering man. Could he be a Lost Son, or was he merely an extremely pale and large Atavaq specimen? The genmod fighters their enemy allegedly fashioned served in the most barbaric and dangerous outposts, at least according to rumor. “He looks barely able to stand.”
Tuland smirked and shrugged. “I’ve heard they die when they lose their collars.”
“Are they a power source? Or do they perish from shame at the loss?” Daran tore his gaze from the looming alien, whose neck was indeed bare of anything other than a ring of filth, and faced his compatriot. Rumors about the Lost Sons sped through military gossip like a mutating virus, but Daran had never even met someone who’d seen one, let alone spent any serious amount of time studying them.
“How could they? They don’t feel any civilized emotion. I heard it’s bred out of them. He knows he’d be banished, perhaps even executed if he returned home with no master after such a defeat. Who would take him in? These creatures don’t believe in redemption.”
The purser called for any interest, stating the captive would have to be housed away from the other Atavaq as they had been attacking him. The room filled with disinterested conversation. The silent man still stared at the wall, his pale blue eyes fixed on nothing other than his undoubtedly bleak future. The prisoner was still imposing despite all the ruin visited upon him. What sort of information could a careful observer glean from him? Would the man speak to an interviewer? Something acquisitive sparked within Daran, and he raised his hand. The whole cavernous space seemed to recede, and the only thing he could see was the beaten warrior. The men around him grew quiet as the purser turned his way with raised brows.
“You there, what’s your rank?”
“Third mark Lancer in the Royal Guard. Science officer.” Daran couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. He’d graduated early from training, with high marks in every subject. Granted, he was the youngest by far among his peers and had sacrificed much free time and social activity to pursue his degrees, but serving aboard the fleet flagship made it all worthwhile.
“You have no prize?”
Daran shook his head while keeping an eye on the prisoner. Was it his imagination, or had the beaten man turned his head a bit? Slightly shaky with his daring, Daran kept his hand raised, a litany inside his head offering up the dual wish to claim this man and an astonished query as to why he wanted him in the first place. Excitement built in his veins. He couldn’t look away from the pale Atavaq, couldn’t help but catalogue every injury marring his fair skin.
Tuland shot him an astonished look, and Daran ignored him. This prisoner was the last offering, his last chance to gain some sort of reward. Why not take it? Even if he never received a ransom, he would at least have the opportunity to study this unique enemy at close quarters until turning him over to the prison on Domid. His people were loath to house and care for the excess Atavaq they captured, so an exchange was the best and most fiscally sound solution. For once, he wasn’t going to be excluded from tradition.
“Any of higher rank wish to intercede?” The purser barely paused for breath, obviously ready to end the dispersal and move on to other duties. “In that case, the unknown prisoner from the Battle of Mormol is in your care for the duration of the flight. You are responsible for feeding and medical aid as required, as well as security of yourself and your surroundings. Any exchange you arrange prior to reaching Domid will be to your profit.”
At this, a slight cheer went up from the gathered Domidians, apparently celebrating the newly christened fight they’d won. The weight of the responsibility Daran had assumed fell on him like a helm of ancient armor, and he stared at the battered raider. As if aware of his gaze, the other man straightened his shoulders as much as the manacles binding his thick wrists would allow. Part of the tradition of hostage was to return a hale and hearty specimen, one worthy of the price paid, and with inhospitable conditions in the brig, it seemed Daran had acquired a new roommate. He had no doubt he could physically best the intruder; he’d always excelled in all his physical and martial arts training. There would, however, have to be some communication between them if they were to coexist for the duration of the space flight.
Someone handed him the control unit for his prisoner’s restraints, and he threaded it over his fingers to snug the metal strands over his palm. He squeezed his fingertips, and the Atavaq’s body jerked. Regretting that he as yet lacked the finesse with the device to initiate movement, Daran gestured at the man to follow. The warrior stood immobile and peered at the bulkhead.
His regret over his impulsive action grew, and Daran stepped in front of his prisoner, staring directly into blue, expressionless eyes. Not pausing to wonder if the prisoner understood the common tongue, Daran decided to assert himself and establish how this association was going to progress.
“Captive! You are to follow me with no complaint or delay. If you refuse, I’ll have you carried.”
The icy eyes narrowed, and the Atavaq’s craggy jaw tightened. Either the tone of command or the words themselves made an impact, for the muscular man straightened his legs as if to plant himself on the deck. Not wishing to delay and perhaps provoke an embarrassing outburst, Daran motioned for several of his cohort who were watching the interaction with interest. In only a moment, four had circled the prisoner, their clean uniforms and hale complexions a stark contrast to the nearly naked male. The Atavaq passed an insolent look over them and sniffed loudly.
With good cheer enhanced by alcoholic indulgences, his fellow lancers grabbed at the prisoner’s arms and legs to hoist him unceremoniously up. Several spectators laughed, and Daran held his head high as he made his way from the hold, secure in the knowledge his fellows were following right along.
SCUM. REEKING scum. Anger seethed in Sagiv’s heart like magma, and it took every tattered bit of will he still possessed to not struggle against the puny Domids who restrained him. Only a day before he would have fought and bested them all, saving the last cleave of his blood-soaked blade for the pretty one who’d bought him. Just thinking of the smooth features and flashing dark eyes of his new captor was enough to turn his stomach.
Hard hands gripped his arms and thighs as the cowardly aliens carried him through a wide and well-appointed corridor. This ship was a lush prize, one that should have been his. If only he hadn’t faltered, hadn’t miscalculated where to attach the hull breacher and ended up entering the Domid cruiser in a narrow dead-end corridor rather than the treasure-rich hold as had been his masters’ aim. He’d followed orders, but apparently his masters hadn’t paid enough for accurate information. If he ever escaped these effete guards, he’d track down that Conoran spy, separate his eight limbs from his body, and beat him to death with them. Despair welled up, and he shut his eyes, unwilling to see the crystal light fixtures flashing above him any longer. It was a false hope. He was no more capable of escape than he was able to survive a return to his home world.
His captors stopped abruptly and then carried him through a doorway where they deposited him on a soft, padded floor. He wanted to spring up and attack but knew he was too injured to make an impact on any of them, and like the frightened weaklings they were, they crowded around in a group, chattering about something he couldn’t understand. Just as he gathered his legs under him, the majority of the Domids exited the room, the door closing him in with only the sweet-faced one remaining.
The young Domidian officer adjusted the controller against his hand, clearly unsure how to use it. Welcome anger filled his body like a pulse of energy and with a howl, he launched himself from his crouched position at the wide-eyed Domid. He fell against the other man and bore him to the floor, reaching for his unprotected neck with a slithering struggle even as his bruised muscles and aching body protested the abrupt and violent movements. Before he could get a firm grip, a galvanic wave pulsed through him, and he stiffened, his wrists forced to the floor by some unseen hand. He still sprawled across the other man, their faces nearly touching. The Domidian’s deep brown eyes met his unflinchingly.
“You are held fast to the floor until I decide otherwise. Even if you did manage to overcome me, which in your condition is unlikely, there is no way you would gain even a few meters along the corridor before triggering an alert and provoking an assault team.”
The Domidian’s measured tone and smug assertions turned Sagiv’s stomach, and he longed to bite, to thrust a knee into the soft and scrawny member surely lurking between this lad’s legs. Even as he struggled to maintain his position, his weakened body began to tremble with fatigue. With a gentle push from the youngster, he fell to his side, his wrist manacle still stuck to the floor. Everything ached from his bruised shins up to the enormous knot throbbing at his temple. That particular wound galled as it had been recently administered by one of his former masters, eager to show the other Atavaq where blame for the defeat lay. Sagiv attributed their loss to the poor tactics and conflicting orders he’d labored under. Three masters undertaking this ill-fated raid was two too many for any hope of success.
Among his many humiliations were the wounds caused by his former shipmates, angry and seeking vengeance against him, an easier target than their fellow natural Atavaq. They had been determined to beat him to death rather than share a cell with an unclean Creig. Even his service collar was gone, snatched away in the hours after his capture. His neck was cold and vulnerable without it. He supposed he should feel some manner of retribution since his former masters were now held captive even as he was, but he mourned the loss of his fellows regardless.
His cheek was pressed to the soft rug on the floor. The material smelled faintly of perfumed wood, and he wrinkled his nose, unhappy something pleasant was intruding on his misery. To be the leader of the finest Creig raiding party one day and reduced to a worthless prisoner the next was a fate he’d never envisioned for himself. Sadness at his lost companions settled over him in a cold wave, and he closed his eyes tightly until the sensation passed.
A sudden awareness of warm moisture on his body roused him, and he jerked upright as far as his immobilized arms would allow. Was the Domidian urinating on him? With a growl he sought the source of the sensation and was shocked to silence when he saw the young officer trying to apply a wet cloth to the phase wound on his hip.
“What are you doing?” Unthinkingly, he used the common tongue. Now his captor would know he was fluent, and he couldn’t feign ignorance.
“Cleaning this up. It might become infected if I don’t.” The pretty boy gave him a measured glance, then concentrated on the rent in his skin. Sagiv took a breath and tried to hitch away but was brought up short by the manacles yet again. The Domidian’s vigorous application of the cleaning cloth hurt, but Sagiv was determined not to react. He might have fallen from his hard-fought stature as a skilled warrior, but at least he wouldn’t flinch like a weakling when someone washed his body.
“It looks as though you endured blade cuts, blunt instrument strikes, and some sort of percussion volley,” the Domidian said in a conversational tone. Sagiv gave him a glare that would have sent one of his minions cowering to the floor. At least it would have worked yesterday, when he still had underlings. Now his brother Creig were dead, wasted in this futile raid made at the whim of an impulsive master or three. His current condition didn’t matter; he was bred and trained to serve and fight, not to think of his fate or wish for any different life. The Domidian, for his part, merely absorbed the scowl with a slight smile. Superior bastard. “I’m going to work on the most severe injuries first. Basic triage. I have several accreditations in first aid and battlefield medical treatment, so don’t worry for your health.”
The young man moved on to the welts that covered his back, and Sagiv endured the ministrations with teeth clenched, both to stop himself from making a pained sound and to prevent the conversation this bare-chinned youth seemed to desire. As the Domidian’s words sank in, he couldn’t help the question that sprang to mind.
“Heal me for the execution?” Sagiv shook his head once. These damned Domidians had such perverse notions. If only he’d been lucky and taken a phase bolt to the forehead yesterday. The young officer stopped touching him, and his skin twitched.
“Death to pirates, that’s the code in the cold reaches of space.”
The Domidian laughed. Sagiv craned his head to observe him. Even though he was brought low by his defeat and loss of his collar, there was no way he was going to be mocked by a spoiled boy.
“I follow a different code. The Domidian code.” The young man moved closer and pressed his fingers around the edge of the throbbing injury on Sagiv’s head.
Sagiv refused to flinch and instead decided to scoff. “Oh, yes, the code whereby you decide everything you do is correct and expect every other race you encounter to bow down before your magnificence.”
The Domidian’s full lips tightened and a spark lit up his eyes. “We cannot be other than what we are.”
“Arrogant whelp.” Sagiv’s stomach dropped when the young man smiled broadly. What was he doing engaging in conversation with the enemy? He was behaving as if they were at a rim world tavern sharing a flagon, far from the concerns of Domid and Atavaq politics. “Why are you treating me?”
He wanted to bite back the words, especially when he saw the intent expression of the other man.
“It is my duty to care for you. I have taken you as hostage proxy, and any ransom paid for your return will be mine.”
“Then you will be sorely disappointed.” Knowing that this boy would be deprived of even a small sum was the only achievement he could muster at this point. A Creig was worth nothing without the recommendation of a pleased master, without victories to bolster his reputation. The Domidian shrugged and pulled out a small case. He flicked it open, and Sagiv couldn’t help but look inside, sure he was going to see implements of torture. Instead, there were bandages and creams. The Domidian was going to help him. Pulling together the last shards of his dignity and rage, Sagiv decided to remain silent. No need to treat the youngster as if they were equals.
“You have a lot of bruising and contusions. Did all of these wounds occur in the altercation yesterday?”
Sagiv stared at the red carpet. Altercation. What a fine word for a muddled mess that had cost him so much. No, the majority of his injuries had been administered by his former masters as they’d assaulted him in the brig after their humiliating capture. No need to reveal that, or anything, to the Domidian. The young man waited a polite interval, then continued to speak as if there was a normal conversation to be had, all while he administered first aid.
“My name is Daran, of the Eridia clan. If you tell me your name, I’ll be able to initiate contact with your people and set up an exchange.” Daran waited for a response, but Sagiv pressed his lips together. He didn’t have a people, only assignments. Creig fighters existed on a different plane than civilian Atavaq, housed in exclusive barracks and given the finest in weapons, nutrition, and training. He jumped at the sensation of a warm ointment being carefully applied to the edges of one of the throbbing welts on his back. The wounds felt ugly, but he hadn’t been able to inspect them. Exactly what he deserved.
“I’m in service as a science specialist. I’m hoping you can teach me more about your kind. I’m very curious about you.”
Teach his enemy about Creig ways? Betray Atavaq? He’d die first. As the Domidian continued his treatment, Sagiv’s stomach boiled with regret and frustration. He slanted his eye toward the officer to detect what he was about and saw the other man frowning. Daran of the Eridia glanced up and hurriedly put a smile on his face.
“Your wounds, though painful I’m sure, are going to heal well now that you are under care. I was merely thinking about something else.”
The urge to ask what was strong. Sagiv wasn’t sure if he was interested in gaining more information about the enemy or genuinely intrigued by his unusual captor. The other man was treating his wounds and speaking to him as if they were partners. Equals. As if Sagiv wasn’t merely a tool to be repaired and sent back into service.
“This may seem rude, but are you by chance a Lost Son?”
At the mention of the hated nickname, Sagiv tightened his shoulders and pulled against the immobile manacles until his muscles screamed at the strain. “Hack off, Domid.”
The pressure of the other man’s fingers against his muscles eased, and Sagiv stared at the carpet. The anger that flared through his nerves made his limbs shake. He wasn’t lost, and he wasn’t anyone’s son. Stupid name. He was a proud Creig, raised from a babe to be a loyal warrior to the Atavaq people. His body had been customized and trained to be the most effective weapon possible.
“If I insulted you, I apologize. I’m merely trying to learn.” Daran’s humble tone shouldn’t have mattered, but Sagiv still relaxed slightly. There were much more pressing issues than unknowingly using a few offensive words.
“I’m a Creig.”
“I’m unfamiliar with the term.”
Sagiv opened his mouth to explain, then thought better of it. The youth was lulling him into revealing too much with his soft voice and gentle touches. Instead, Sagiv shook his head as dismissively as possible. “I’m no teacher.”
Daran nodded and selected a different tube from the kit, the contents of which he applied to the phase wound on Sagiv’s hip. The Domidian gripped Sagiv’s side firmly as he rubbed in the cooling liquid. Peculiarly, Sagiv found himself wanting to lean into the strokes along his aching hip. He was exhausted, shocked by his defeat, and that was why he was unable to fight back against this kindness.
Sagiv wanted to boast the Creig could strike the Domid palace and loot it to the ground, that one of his men could take on a dozen warriors and prevail, but he was well aware it would be pathetic bravado. He was in a low enough place as it was; he didn’t want to endure pitying glances from this youth. And Daran would pity Sagiv, of that he was sure. Even on short and awkward acquaintance, Sagiv had the very strong sense the well-set-up Domidian was kind and honest, strange attributes for a warrior.
“Now I’m going to treat your chest.” The young man moved around Sagiv and knelt in front of him. Daran manipulated the manacles, and the pressure on Sagiv’s wrists lessened so he could draw his arms apart slightly, though he was still firmly attached to the floor. Daran ran a damp cloth over the abraded skin, shaking his head slightly as he surveyed the damage. Some quick applications of pungent salve, and then the younger man was wiping the soft cloth at Sagiv’s neck. The newly exposed skin there twitched at the contact. His throat was cold, the absence of his collar making his flesh almost tender where the unforgiving metal had once lain.
He glanced at Daran and found himself staring directly into the other man’s dark, gleaming eyes. Sagiv had never seen irises of quite that deep a hue.
“What are these dents, here?” The Domid traced along the line marking the boundary of his former emblem.
“Your men tore away my collar. That was the badge of my service, the reward for many battles won.” Retention of it would have enabled him to retire with some comfort, if he had lived long enough. Any Creig who’d served his thirty years and could still walk was given a small holding to make his home upon. Such a destiny was to be his no longer. Death was coming.
“I’m sorry. That must have been painful, and frustrating. What’s your name?” The younger man’s whispered request sent a shiver of warning down Sagiv’s damaged back.
“I’m your enemy. I’m Atavaq. I’m a Creig.”
Daran shrugged and continued to cleanse Sagiv’s torso, his strokes slow and gentle. “You’re something more than that, I’m sure.”
Unexpectedly, grief for all he’d lost and fear for what he would face welled up within Sagiv, and he swallowed hard. Shame at his weakness made him shake his head as if he could fling the unpleasant emotions away. “No longer.”
Daran reached for his kit, leaning close enough that his loosely tied long black hair brushed up against Sagiv’s shoulder. “Ah, that’s right. Your people are very unforgiving of mistakes.”
“And yours aren’t? You aren’t punished for errors, stripped of your titles when you bring shame upon your leaders? Banished when you lose? And your mates and children held accountable too?” He chided himself for talking with the Domidian. He should stop, should know better.
The young man gave him a glance, then rubbed some herbal-smelling lotion across the divots where Sagiv’s collar had once resided. “We operate under a series of laws and courts of inquiry aimed to prevent unjust punishment. Of course, a verdict might result in punishment, but we work hard to avoid it so our comrades and families won’t suffer the same fate. We don’t wish to put those we love in danger.”
Sagiv wanted to roll his eyes. These ridiculous Domidians and their emotional and mystical elevation of sex. Trust them to veil a primal act behind ridiculous words of eternity and meeting of souls. Love. Bah. He took a glance at the narrow bunk attached to the wall. “Where is your mate?”
Daran abruptly withdrew his hands and rose, wiping his hands on one of the cleaning cloths. He stooped, collected all his equipment, and disappeared behind a small door set in the wall. Glad for the respite, Sagiv let his head drop forward and his eyes close. The Domidian’s questions had allowed him some brief moments to ignore how wretched his existence had become. Hopefully he’d die soon and be spared more humiliation.
Although sci-fi is touch and go with me, I am a big fan of the enemies to lovers trope and that is what drew me to this book. In short, Sagiv is captured, and Daran is his capture. I don’t want to give a lot of the plot away. But, you pretty much see where it’s going right off the bat. The biggest question throughout this story is, how will they make it happen?
I admit I was a bit confused with the lingo used, made up species, and general surroundings of the story but it had a solid plot and was rather entertaining. Sagiv broke my heart through the entire story and I found myself rooting for these guys.
There’s a lot of politics and rank involved when it comes to succession for any of Daran’s people and that part I found to be quite interesting.
Raider Captured is a very creative and unique story that a sci-fi lover is sure to enjoy.
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