SIX of them. They had the hard-bitten appearance of mercenaries down on their luck, killers for hire turned bounty hunters because the work was easy. With torn and patched clothing, older model blaster rifles carried across their bodies in the “ready” position, they made their way through the market with quick efficiency. Two of the pack appeared to be female, their features somewhat softer, their jawlines more rounded. Other than that, they were as big as their companions, with the powerful bodies of born fighters. Former mercenaries too, perhaps. Engineered for battle but retired due to age.
Or, like their male counterparts, they might simply be people who found they liked the fighting, the killing, and had made a profession of it. From the ragtag appearance of their gear, the makeshift repairs carried out with bonding tape and tube weld, they were not top-rung by any means.
That didn’t matter. One shot from them and he’d be just as dead, regardless whether their weapons were old, their gear teetering on the edge of obsolescence.
Raphael d’Alleven clutched his carryall tight against himself and slipped further into the press of bodies. The mass of humanity which crowded the Off-World Market created a riot of noise, colors, smells. He wanted to look, to stare, to turn in a circle and take it all in like anyone else who’d never seen the place before, but he couldn’t take time to observe the people in their gaudy, bizarre attire. He couldn’t investigate the booths or the types of goods for sale, though he was curious about what they contained. No, he had to keep moving, find help and a way off the planet before those searching for him caught up and killed or captured him. Of the two possibilities, he preferred death. Being returned to the people now in power would be a fate far worse than death. Death was fast, quickly over. But the power-hungry people wouldn’t kill him; they’d keep him alive, a prisoner for the rest of his life, as a guarantee of their success. With him they could make their claim of rulership complete, use him as a pawn, a figurehead, and give their coup a semblance of legality. All it would take was a marriage forced on him to any of the Macchiones. Any of them, male or female. It would legitimize their claim to the title of Emperor d’Alleven. A claim he would not help them legalize.
If it came down to it, he’d rather kill himself than be taken alive. He would rather die than suffer the tortures his enemies would subject him to in the hope of gaining the codes that would unlock the fortune of a world.
He’d already considered it several times. It would be so much easier to die than to keep running and hiding. Living in fear of being captured wore on his nerves, ate away at his confidence, of which he’d had precious little from the start of this mess.
Worse, after hours of this cat-and-mouse game, he was tired. Bone-numbingly tired. His head ached fiercely; the need for sleep, food, and water was a torment beyond anything he ever imagined or experienced. His life, even his training, hadn’t prepared him for this. Oh, in a vague sort of “what if” way he’d been trained to survive, but it had been a nebulous thing, done with the thought someone would rescue him before the situation became truly dangerous.
A false hope. Anyone who could have helped him or rendered aid was no longer capable of such kindness. They were all dead. Every last one of them. And if, by some miracle, anyone else lived, they’d be in the same dire situation he found himself in. They’d be running for their lives.
I wonder if I could go to any of the other noble Houses? There were several of the Noble Council who always sided with my father.
But no, it wouldn’t work. Even the allies of his family would be no help. They wouldn’t want to risk involvement in something so politically dangerous, and he didn’t blame them. He’d seen firsthand what Alonso Macchione was capable of, and he wouldn’t risk putting another family in the archduke’s crosshairs. There’d been too many deaths already.
Far too many.
Of all the things I prepared for, this is the one event my father and instructors never planned, and now I’m trapped with no way out. But no, that’s not true. I need to get off world as fast as I can. Easier said than done.
Raphael glanced behind him, searching for the people he was certain had come for him. While he hadn’t seen this group of six before, he’d spotted many similar groups in the last dozen hours since his life had gone to ruin. He couldn’t see them—or any other such teams—in the seething mass of people. His one hope lingered: if he couldn’t see them, chances were they couldn’t see him either.
He was wrong. A pair of the ragtag soldiers had somehow gotten ahead of him. He spied them through a break in the throng, their weaponry standing out among the mostly unarmed shoppers. Worse, they spotted him, lunged forward into the crowd, eager to apprehend him and claim the bounty placed on him.
Were they really offering ten thousand intersolar credits for his capture? Considering who they believed him to be, what he carried, it hardly seemed appropriate or worth the effort of so many people. Tagged as a petty criminal who’d taken some minor object from the Palace of the Royal House, he would gain enough interest to set hunters on his trail. But he would not create enough interest to make anyone curious about who they were really chasing or what he’d actually stolen.
Then again, maybe those offering the bounty didn’t want anyone to know exactly who they were chasing, or what he carried. Bounty hunters were not typically scrupulous people and they might decide ransom for a much larger reward would be in order.
At least his twin sister, Raphaella, was safely off world, somewhere she wouldn’t be found. Too bad he didn’t know where she’d gone. If he had, that would be the first place he would go. Then they could make their formal complaint against the usurpers together and work to regain what was wrongfully taken from their family.
It sounds so simple when I think it out that way, but it’s not. Nothing about this mess is simple. Father, why didn’t you realize the Macchiones would take this course of action? Why didn’t you see how truly awful they really are?
Why didn’t I?
And if the Council of Worlds fails to help us, then we’ll take matters into our own hands and find another way to bring about the downfall of the Macchiones and their allies.
He could hear the mercenaries coming for him in the outraged cries of the crowd. Raphael darted between two stalls, almost knocking over a couple of people, banging into a few others in his haste to avoid his pursuers. The people he banged into cursed him, but he kept going, unwilling to slow down even to give an apology for his rude collisions. He didn’t have the breath to waste on the niceties of society. It appalled him because he’d been raised to be unfailingly polite. But these were extenuating circumstances and his life depended on escape, not apologies. He pressed on, weaving, dodging, doing everything he could to avoid capture, wishing he hadn’t expended his other options in the early stages of this life-and-death game. If he’d known how long the chase would go on, he might have saved some of his energy, but foolishly he’d expected this to be over much sooner. He’d expected someone to come along to save him, the way he’d been taught.
Raphael turned down another lane, then stopped abruptly when he saw one of the women he’d noticed earlier. She came toward him, taking great bounding steps that warned she was from a world with a heavier gravity, shoving people out of the way, knocking several down in her rush to capture him. She shouted something he couldn’t quite understand, but her words made people scramble out of the way.
Panic gripped Raphael and he turned, ran in another direction, the bag he carried held tight to his chest. The bag was a ruse, a distraction he kept considering he might be better off without. The real information was well hidden elsewhere, the dataunit he carried nothing but a decoy, something to draw the attention of his pursuers.
He shoved his way through the press, again moving impolitely fast. His foot caught on a woman’s trailing garment and he lost his balance, then collided with a large, hirsute creature that growled at him. He assumed a nearby man was the beast’s owner because he held a leash attached to a collar on the creature. The man snarled something Raphael didn’t understand and shoved him between the shoulder blades with such force he slammed against one of the market stalls. Pain lashed him from bruised ribs, but he kept running, offering up a silent prayer to the Lords of Light—as if they were listening to him these days—that he would escape.
If prayers could have saved him, they would have done so hours ago, long before the terrible events of the previous night unfolded. Before he found himself a hunted fugitive.
Had it already been twelve hours since the fateful events that sent him running? To Raphael the time felt both far too short and much too long. He’d been hiding, desperately trying to reach the Space Port of Alleven.
So far the search had proved fruitless, though he had yet to try to gain passage aboard any ship. He hadn’t dared approach one, not when his pursuers continued to dog his steps.
He sucked in a labored breath, wishing now he’d done more extensive endurance training. The trainers had told him he had time to build up his stamina, but they were wrong. Ultimately, he knew he was the one to blame. He’d never enjoyed strenuous physical activity, never liked getting sweaty, and that lack of enthusiasm was becoming his downfall. But he would never have believed something like this could happen. Not to him. Not to his family.
He’d been a fool, no question about it.
And his instructors, the men who should have prepared him for every possible difficulty, had failed in their duties. They’d already paid for their oversight with their lives.
But no one had believed such a thing could happen.
Not on Alleven.
Not to his family.
Wrong. They’d all been so terribly wrong.
Gasping for breath, he reached the end of the row of stalls, stumbled, and paused to get his bearings and try to figure out what direction he should take. A mistake. A hand closed on his shoulder from behind, the grip hard enough to wrench a startled cry of pain from him. He tried to get away, but something hit his head and he went down amid a dazzling array of lights that filled his eyes bright as holiday fireworks. Raphael blinked, desperate to clear his sight. A heavily booted foot kicked him in the side hard enough to send him spinning across the ground. His aching ribs were a mass of agony from the multiple impacts. He came to a stop face up, the pale aqua sky partially obscured by a dark, hulking figure. Raphael blinked the pain glare away, and realized he faced one of the mercenaries he’d been desperately trying to avoid. The man stood over him with his lips moving, though Raphael could hear nothing. The man was probably using an internalized comm-unit to contact his associates and let them know Raphael had been apprehended.
With nothing to lose, Raphael lashed out with his feet. One took the man in the thigh, and the other made a solid connection with the bounty hunter’s groin. Giving a cry Raphael barely heard, the man sagged downward, coming closer to Raphael, who kicked with both feet a second time. His heels slammed into the man’s face, something going crunch at the impact. Blood spattered Raphael’s shirt, and a tiny glow of satisfaction warmed his aching body. He’d managed to damage a mercenary, a professional soldier. It gave him a boost of confidence, a renewal of the flagging energies that had kept him moving for so long.
Raphael rolled to his feet, but something struck him from behind and sent him reeling off balance. He rammed shoulder-first into the side of a booth, rebounded off of it, and landed hard on his ass. More sparks spun across his vision. He couldn’t do anything but sit there dazed, struggling to breathe. He tasted blood as it filled his mouth from a tear on the inside of his cheek where he’d bitten himself.
So much for his momentary victory and the training he’d been given. If he had a weapon, he would have stood more of a chance against them, but he hadn’t taken the time to grab anything from the armory because going there could have led to his capture.
He regretted that decision, but regrets were pointless. He had to do his best, had to get away… somehow.
A hand gripped his shirt, yanked him to his feet. The delicate firesilk tore. “That’s enough out of you, little boy,” a gruff voice snarled in his ear. He could see enough of the man to know it wasn’t the same guy he’d tangled with a moment ago.
Raphael was no battle-hardened soldier, but he had to get away. Using the lessons in self-defense his tutors so diligently drilled into him year after year, he rammed his elbow into the body behind him. The impact hurt, his funny bone striking something hard and sending a jolt of agony down his arm. A woof of sound, a puff of breath in his hair, told him he’d connected with something soft, something he could damage. He repeated the attack, gritted his teeth against the renewed pain, and twisted his body. His shirt shredded more, but he broke free of the man’s hold and bolted, running as fast as he could. This time people parted, getting out of the way, not interested in being involved in someone else’s problems.
Why can’t I get away from them? How do they keep finding me? He didn’t have answers to either question.
Behind him he could hear the pounding of heavy boots as the pair of mercenaries began their pursuit. He didn’t dare look back, too busy trying to navigate between stalls and people to take the chance on seeing how close they were.
Escape his only imperative, he dodged around a clump of people.
The sharp boom of superheated air, a bright flash of light, and searing heat burning past his cheek lent greater speed to his feet. Ahead of him a bystander screamed and dropped to the ground, a smoking hole burned in his chest. Raphael hurtled over the fallen man, smelled charred cloth, burned flesh, fought the nausea the stink brought to his belly, and kept running.
Someone had died because of him. An innocent bystander was killed for the sake of the bounty on his head. It made him feel ill, the realization these men pursuing him might kill others in their efforts to bring him down.
Screaming chaos erupted, with people fleeing in all directions. Raphael chose his own direction and ran with the pack, hoping to get lost amid the rush, praying the men wouldn’t take the chance of firing into a crowd of unarmed civilians a second time. It worked. He managed to stay with the panicked herd and get away from the Off-World Market. He raced for his last hope, Spacer’s Row, where independent ships—those not belonging to any corporation or government—were lined up waiting to off-load cargo, take on passengers, and load new cargo bound for planets far and wide across the galaxy. His true destination lay aboard one of those ships. Any of them, so long as they were departing soon and going far, far from Alleven and the trouble the world now posed for him.
He slowed to a fast walk and turned down one of the pathways between battered tramp freighters, searching for one taking on passengers. He stopped and stared. A bounty hunter he recognized from an earlier chase stood before the ramp of a small freighter, talking to a member of the crew.
Now he had at least two different groups looking for him in this area. He only knew he had to make a rapid retreat before the scarred man spotted him and called in his teammates. He spun around, dashed between two closely parked ships, sidled along their hulls, and came out in another area of the space port. Raphael frowned. He was much closer to the less savory areas of the port, the places which had been off-limits to him not so very long ago. Not that he’d ever come down here. He’d had no interest in anything the Off-World Market held. A pity. If he’d taken a few trips to this area he’d know his way around and might be able to evade pursuit.
Maybe heading into the seamy area near the port would help him lose the hunters. Perhaps such a place would be the last place they might think of searching for someone like him. Then again, they didn’t really know who they were hunting. He picked up his pace, tightened his already death-like grip on the bag, and all but dove into the flow of pedestrians entering and departing from the Entertainment District of the space port. Entertainment. Such an innocuous word. It did little to prepare him for the spectacle offered. Gambling dens touted the fairness of their tables, while other establishments catered to drinking and drug use. At the front of gaudily lit “love parlors,” nude people—both female and male—displayed themselves in suggestive poses, showing some of the delights to be found within.
Raphael forced himself not to stare, not to pay any attention to the lasciviousness of such fleshly displays. He wasn’t ignorant of sexual desire, but his training up to now hadn’t included such things. They’d been saving the final stages of his tutoring until he gained proper control of his emotions. Another year would have seen him trained in matters of the flesh and married off to some noblewoman’s daughter. As if women held any interest for him.
He turned a corner and glanced over his shoulder. Another error. Still moving at a fast walk he slammed into something that felt like a solid wall.
The impact rattled him to the core of his being. He would have fallen, but hands gripped his biceps, held him upright. The hands were big enough to encompass his upper arms the same way his own hands could enclose those of a small child.
Raphael’s gaze moved upward, over a broad, heavily muscled chest that ornately decorated armor did little to hide. From the chest his gaze rose to the wide expanse of shoulders, a corded neck, and a face that was a study in chiseled masculine perfection. A strong jaw and cleft chin lightly stubbled with the beginnings of a pale gold-tinted beard—unusual in these days of permanent removal methods—held his gaze. Above that were sharp cheekbones and piercing eyes of such a pallid gray, Raphael couldn’t help being reminded of Alleven’s great Northern Sea. A fall of nearly white hair, bound into a ponytail thicker than Raphael’s wrist, spilled in a wild torrent down the man’s back. Barbaric designs marked his cheeks, swirls of color unmistakable to anyone with a jot of education about the Great Wars. The man was a gensoldier. Not just any common type of gensoldier, either. There could be no mistaking his size or the tattoos. It had been the gensoldiers of one planet who’d driven off an invading alien race bent on the destruction of all sentient lifeforms. Hell’s Gate had been the site where a race of superhuman warriors were born and bred. These Soldiers were able to fight toe-to-toe against the aliens and win, which is exactly what they’d done. They’d saved the entire human race, and in return they were shunned for decades, held as virtual captives on their own planet because the rest of humanity was too terrified of their superhuman abilities.
Now, a century later, the Hell’s Gaters were free to roam the galaxy. They were also considered to be the best private armies, guards, and personal protectors money could buy. Too bad his own father, Emperor Raphael d’Alleven the Seventh, hadn’t seen fit to hire such a fighting force. If he had, Raphael wouldn’t be on the run, and the rest of his family might still be alive.
Raphael blinked, unsure if he could believe the evidence of his own startled gaze. Could it be true? Was it possible he’d found a representative of the one race in all the universe that could save him?
The man’s very size alluded to his race, as did the near-white color of his hair and the sun-kissed gold of his skin. Complex metallic blue, red, and gold tattoos on his face enhanced rather than detracted from his exotic looks, his handsomeness. Raphael knew the marks embedded into the man’s flesh meant something, but what they indicated he didn’t know. His knowledge of the Hell’s Gaters was limited to the information he’d read in various histories about the Great Wars, and the occasional rumor and snippet of gossip picked up from courtiers and servants.
The thing that most drew Raphael’s attention was the unadorned ponytail. If this truly was a living representative of the great warrior race of Hell’s Gate, it said this Soldier was unencumbered with an existing contract, available for hire. Had he worn a braid, it would mean he was in service to someone else, unavailable to serve Raphael.
“Are you from Hell’s Gate? Are you one of their Soldiers?” He blurted it out, knowing he didn’t have a lot of time for the niceties of polite society, formal introductions, or the sealing of a contract.
The hands holding him let go and Raphael found himself wishing they’d held on a moment longer, the feel of them a wonderful distraction from his predicament. A distraction he couldn’t afford in the current circumstances.
Those sea-gray eyes regarded him from above. “I’ve been known to act as a Soldier, and as a personal guard from time to time, gentlesir.” The reply was spoken softly, yet the deep bass rumble of the man’s voice flowed into Raphael, made his blood warm, and his cock twitch. And now certainly wasn’t the time to get distracted by such carnal reactions. Not when it appeared that every mercenary and bounty hunter on Alleven was closing in on him.
He frantically dug into his pockets and found a coin. Real gold. A type of coin only used among the wealthiest houses on Alleven. The value of the coin varied from world to world, but on Alleven it represented almost twenty thousand in galactic standard or intersolar credits. A small fortune by anyone’s standards. The coin was one of several Raphael had managed to snag from the household’s petty cash safe before the usurper’s hired thugs closed in on him and forced him to flee the Palace d’Alleven. “I need your services as a personal bodyguard, Soldier. Let this coin act as our bond,” he stated and tried to press the coin into the man’s hand.
“Not interested,” the Hell’s Gater replied, his voice taking on an icy chill that made every hair on Raphael’s body stand up. The Soldier moved to step around Raphael.
“Please,” he begged, daring to grab the man’s wrist. It was as big around as Raphael’s forearm, the flesh beneath his hand hard as steel. “Please,” he repeated. “I need your help desperately. I’ll pay you well. Right now, if you’ll help me get off world.”
His emotionless gaze locked onto Raphael, the Soldier asked, “Why do you need my services?”
“I am Prince Raphael d’Alleven, House d’Alleven, and the only living heir of Raphael the Seventh.” He’d stretched the truth, but felt the lie to be necessary. “A usurper and his allies have hired mercenaries and bounty hunters to assure I do not escape. Without me and what I bear in this bag”—he showed the carryall he held to the man—“they cannot hold what they’ve taken.” Raphael frowned, his stomach roiling with the memories of what had taken place at the Palace. The bodies, the blood. So much blood. He swallowed and pushed the images aside. There would be time to grieve once he made his escape. “I have to reach the Great Council of Worlds and plead my case, enlist their help to right this terrible wrong, to avenge my father and the rest of my House.”
“What’s in the bag?”
Raphael considered whether to tell the truth. He decided something close to truth would be the best course of action and said, “A dataunit bearing all the security codes to every financial institution with which my House and the Government d’Alleven does business. Without these codes, and without me, the coup staged a little over twelve hours ago cannot be considered a true success, nor can the usurpers be considered the true rulers of Alleven.”
Truthfully, the dataunit in his carryall held his lessons, some games, and a “secret file” to act as a decoy for anyone who caught him. The real data in question was safely stored in a far less accessible location, in a format unreachable without his full cooperation. While his father hadn’t taken every possible precaution to safeguard his family, he had taken a few, which included Raphael’s bionetic enhancements. Enhancements which gave him the ability to retain vast amounts of information, including specialized training that went far beyond things normal for a d’Alleven Prince. Together these things had saved his life during the coup.
The man frowned down at him, then glanced away, his frown turning into a scowl. “So that’s the reason behind all the frenetic activity in and around the space port? I’d wondered. There hasn’t been much information on the newsfeeds either, just that an incident took place at the Palace and the Emperor of Alleven has declared martial law across the planet.” The man shrugged. “It doesn’t really affect me at this point, so I didn’t pay much attention.”
“I need your help. Please. Whatever you want can be yours, I just need to get off world and plead my case before the Great Council of Worlds. They’re bound by law to aid me in regaining what is rightfully mine. This coup was illegally staged. They’ve made a grab for power ruled illegal on all member planets of the Coalition of Worlds.”
“Murder, especially mass murder, isn’t something most civilized beings condone,” the Hell’s Gater agreed. His gaze lifted, moved beyond Raphael to some distant point.
“There he is!” a man shouted behind Raphael.
A chill rolled up Raphael’s spine. He recognized the voice as belonging to one of the men he’d already fought in his effort to escape. He turned and saw a trio of the bounty hunters closing in, weapons ready in a way that told him they were no longer interested in making an effort to take him alive. Then again, the shots they fired into the crowd earlier were more than ample evidence of their willingness to kill him.
The Hell’s Gater’s face lost all expression, becoming a bland mask. He held out his hand. “Pay me.”
Raphael pressed the coin into the broad palm of the Soldier’s hand, which sealed the bond and created a contract between them that would only end when Raphael no longer required the man’s services. Unspoken was the agreement that the Soldier would die for him to uphold the contract, and wouldn’t abandon him no matter what happened. No promise of compensation could make the Soldier break the bond. That was what made Hell’s Gate Soldiers so special. It made them worth the price they asked. Unswerving loyalty didn’t come cheap or without obligations. If Raphael failed to pay, he’d breech the contract and the bond would end.
“MY NAME is Hadrian Ice, Regnant Augustus, Clan Hellstorm. I accept this coin as my bond and agree to be bound by contract to Prince Raphael d’Alleven until such time as he decides my service is no longer required.” Of course he was omitting a few details, like the meaning of the ancient term, regnant, in his name. Few people knew its meaning. He wasn’t, in fact, a Soldier of Clan Hellstorm, but that wasn’t of importance at the moment. The only thing of real importance was that Prince d’Alleven was being hunted by representatives of an illegal governmental coup. The change in government hadn’t been sanctioned by the Council of Worlds, which acted on the behalf of all members of the Coalition of Worlds. Without their sanction, such changes in leadership were technically illegal. That being the case, Hadrian Ice, Regnant Augustus, was bound by Coalition Law—or more to the point, by his own code of honor—to aid the endangered Prince. The bond of payment was in truth nothing but a formality. Ice didn’t actually expect the Coalition to do a damn thing about the abrupt change in leadership on Alleven. They were good at talking an issue to death, but pretty damn useless when it came to taking any sort of action.
Ice gripped the smaller man’s upper arms, paying more attention to whom he’d taken service with. He noted skin the color of strong coffee mellowed with a generous helping of sweet cream. Ice also got a look at the well-defined musculature of the smaller man visible through the tatters of a firesilk shirt the color of flame.
Fear-filled eyes a shade of brown unknown among Ice’s Clan gazed up at him, a glint of hope sparkling in their depths amid flecks of purest gold. The face in which those remarkable eyes were set had a refined beauty—unmistakably masculine—which drew his eyes and clearly identified the young man as a member of a noble house. Only the nobles of Alleven were so attractive, their breeding assurance of such perfect appearance. He was also tall for someone of their race, slightly over two meters in height, yet he hardly looked like more than a half-grown boy to Ice. Accustomed to the size of his own people, other members of humanity appeared small, even puny beside the Soldiers borne of Hell’s Gate’s intense genetic engineering and modification programs.
He’s truly beautiful. Ice glanced around and realized how much the prince stood out among the people nearby. First off, he was the only person in firesilk. Second, he was the only native of Alleven in sight with his distinctive coloration.
Ice felt a stirring beneath his stiffly formal uniform pants, the sheer beauty of the young man an erotic lure to his senses. He could have stared at the prince for hours and still not have seen every detail of those spectacular gold-dusted eyes. Eyes that were filled with weary terror, the emotion causing something else within Ice to stir, his protective nature coming to the forefront.
He gently pushed the young man aside, careful not to harm the fragile, unaltered human. He felt the solid muscle and bone of the Prince’s body under his hands for the second time. No weakling, this prince, but not the equal of an adult among my kind, he mused, then let the younger man go and stepped in front of him. His height lending him an advantage, Ice scanned the milling crowd and focused on the group of four mercenaries who stood out amid the unarmed civilians the way a two-meter-long shredderfish stood out amid a sch