Jenna hadn't heard from Olean Rane in almost a week. After his active interest in rooting out those responsible for the drug trade, the silence was ominous. The question was…was he the one in trouble or was she? Neither answer would give her relief but she had to find out. The best way to do that was to visit his unofficial refuge at the inn.
She entered the familiarly bustling place with nervous expectations. It was impossible to find a quiet corner so she settled for a seat at the bar. She could barely hear herself think above the boisterous and animated crowd. It was an enviable state to be in, oblivious to anything except your own pleasures. It had been along time since she had the luxury of burdens that could be drowned by alcohol or in the company of friends.
Her dark glare warded off any unwelcome attempts at social interaction. She distractedly pushed around pieces of meat in a stew she had no enthusiasm for as she mentally rehearsed the lies she was about to tell. The smell of the spices radiating from the bowl should have tempted her taste buds but there was already a taste in her mouth that made everything seemed bitter; the acrid taste that churned her stomach every time she thought of what she had been doing to her friend.
Lelea emerged from the dark corridor that led to Rane’s suite. Her sharp eyes spied Jenna instantly but instead of waving her through, she came over and sat down on the stool next to her. Her eyes were heavy with worry. “I saw you on the monitors."
"Is he here?"
Lelea seemed caught between answers. "He doesn't want to see anyone, Jenna. Not even you.”
Jenna put the spoon down and leaned forward. Her voice was low and urgent. “What’s going on? Is he all right? I haven't heard from him in awhile.”
The answer was barely a whisper. “They’ve killed him, Jenna.” The innkeeper's upper lip quavered as she struggled to hold back tears.
This was the last thing Jenna had expected to hear. How could the old soldier be dying? He was indestructible. “What do you mean dying?”
“He might as well be dead.” Lelea reached for a towel from behind the counter and vigorously rubbed a phantom stain. “He…won’t take the drug.”
Jenna didn't want to ask the question. She was afraid she already knew the answer. “What drug?”
Lelea’s distraught eyes met hers. “He has Shade poisoning, Jenna.”
Jenna’s mouth dropped open in shock. The news was even worse than she thought. “How is that possible?”
“He won’t say…but it has to do with the people he’s fighting.”
Had her criminals done something without telling her?
“Let me see him, Lelea.”
The innkeeper rubbed at the phantom stain even harder. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe I can help.”
The woman fixed her with a hard stare. “Can you?”
To Jenna’s guilty heart, the question almost seemed an accusation. She was glad the woman wasn’t Auronar or she would be facing some awkward questions. “I can try.”
Rane’s suite was dimly lit. Its sole occupant ignored urgently blinking lights. As she stepped into the room, Jenna felt claustrophobic, as if the walls were closing in to form a coffin. A painful coughing sound drew her attention to the figure on the bed.
Rane said in a rasping voice, “I told Lelea not to let anyone in here.”
Jenna pulled up a chair and sat beside him. “She’s worried about you and so am I. Why didn’t you tell me you had Shade poisoning?”
“What’s the point? There’s nothing you can do.”
“You should have told me. We’re supposed to be in this fight together.” Her face felt like a mask that she dared not take off and her words sounded as if they came from someone else; a person who was not a friend.
“Call it the vanity of an old soldier. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this.” Another fit of coughing robbed him of speech.
Jenna spotted a jug of water by the bed but no glass. The only choice was to go to ask Lelea for one or stay and use what was available. She decided against leaving him alone and lifted the jug. Some of the liquid splashed out as she angled it for him to drink.
Rane said between coughs. “Not water. Ale.”
“Shade poisoning dehydrates the body. Water is better for you.”
He took a reluctant sip and then a few gulps as the water eased the dryness in his throat. He leaned back tiredly.
Jenna replaced the jug on the table. “You need to take the Shade. It will help slow the effects of the poison.”
“I’m not giving in to those criminals, Jenna.”
“What do you think is going to happen if you die? They will win.” She thought about giving him a shot while he slept. It shouldn’t take long from the looks of his condition.
Rane turned his head away from her and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t understand, Jenna. I don’t know how long I can fight them.” His body was shivering. She hadn’t noticed the smell of sweat before but now it was a stench that was as strong as her guilt.
“Are you in pain?”
As if in answer, Rane suddenly curled into a ball and tried to bite back a moan to little avail. His body shook violently and his hands were clenched as he fought the agony that wracked his body. Jenna watched in shock and helpless horror.
As the attack subsided, Rane allowed Jenna to give him another sip of water from the jug. He lay back exhausted. “Do you understand now?”
“I understand that you’re going to die if you don’t take the Shade.”
Rane shook his head. “I misjudged how long I had but they didn’t. They sent me a threat several days ago. If I didn’t stop what I was doing and sabotage our people’s attempts to shut them down, they would cut off my supply of Shade.”
“But you’re not taking it.”
“They don’t know that. They don’t know I would rather die than give them what they want.”
His shirt was clammy and wet to the touch as she put her hand on his arm. “Rane, I know that you don’t want to but you have to take the Shade. You’ll die if you don’t and the pain will only get worse.”
“Shade weakens the mind and will, Jenna. I…might not be able to resist them if I do.”
Jenna’s head bowed again. This time more to hide the shame on her face rather than the anguish. “I’m…sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
But it is. She had to get to the bottom of what happened and find him some help if she could.
“How…” He coughed again. “…did you leave things with Argus?”
“Why?” she asked guardedly. Did he know? Would he suspect why she was really here?
“I know you left them but you never said why. I’ve had Borel contact him for help. I hope it doesn't make things difficult for you but they’ll be coming after they’re done their current mission.”
Jenna’s mind was racing. Avon is coming here. This was working out even better than she thought. She had already found the people she needed to exact her revenge. They would be arriving in a few days. It was time to contact the rebel leaders. I will be ready for you, Avon.
Sester got up and locked his cabin door. It was so late now it was almost early. Kirsten was not going to come tonight. He frowned, had he miscalculated where she was concerned? There was so little time left before the third Challenge. He would have expected an appearance from her, as there were still things they needed to talk over.
He sighed, he was determined not to go to her. Not just because Reya had made it plain what would happen if he were found in one of the Chandaran women's rooms. Kirsten set him off balance enough without him intruding on her own ground. If she wanted his help, she would have to come to him. In their next encounter, he decided, as he got ready for bed, Kirsten was going to be the one off balance.
The door chime woke him from a sound sleep. Sester eyed his chronometer and stifled a groan. It had to be Argus. He was the only one who would view this hour as a reasonable time to be up and about. Reya did too, but she was far too considerate to do that to him. He briefly considered ignoring it and just turning over. The chime sounded again, longer this time as if Argus was leaning hard on the activator. If it was Argus, either it was urgent or the man was about to knock down his door.
With a heavy and irritated sigh, Sester threw back the covers and strode across the room. He opened the door. “Argus, this had better be important.”
“I could do an impression if you like,” Kirsten smiled at him. “Though, I’m not sure I would do justice to the growl he normally has with you.”
“What are you doing here at this hour of the morning?” Sester frowned, annoyed with himself. She had done it again! He was damned if he was going to let her keep the advantage.
“Standing in the corridor,” she smiled up at him, her grey eyes sparkling with laughter. The sharp retort that sprung to mind died on Sester's lips. Her face was so close to his, all he had to do was lean forward and…
Sester snapped his head back and stepped to one side.
“You had best come in then.” His voice sounded almost surly. No, kissing her was definitely not how to establish he was in control. He wished now he'd paused long enough to throw some clothes on. The heat from her body as she passed was distracting. A distraction that in the sleep shorts he was wearing was going to become obvious if he didn't get his own thoughts into order. He deliberately hauled his mind back to business, reaching for the cold professionalism of the psychostrategist.
“I would have expected you sooner.”
“Yes I know." She perched on the edge of his desk one leg swinging back and forth, as if this was her cabin and she was making herself comfortable. Sester found his eyes following the movement, almost mesmerised by the rise and fall of her skirt as it revealed and concealed a long slim leg and ankle.
“Then why didn't you come?” Sester moved away from the door. He considered taking the chair, but decided the view from there would be far too distracting. Instead, he leaned against the end of the bed.
“Why don't you tell me?” She smiled again her soft lips warm and inviting. Sester found himself smiling in reply.
“I asked first.” Sester almost smacked himself. She had answered his question with a question. It was a deliberate tactic and the only witty reply he could manage was something a child would think of.
“So you did." She leaned forward, giving Sester an enticing view of her cleavage. “But you know the answer.”
“Do I?” Sester smiled with casual charm. That was better; counter her comments with a question. Throw the ball back into her court.
“You know you do.” She laughed; the sound was pure velvet rubbing down his spine.
Flirting was all very well but they had much to discuss. It was time to remind her who he was and what her role in their relationship was. “I thought you came to talk?”
“But I am talking.” It was her turn to smile.
Sester blinked. That sort of smile should be registered as a weapon and was just as disarming as his could be. He forced his mind back to business. “I wasn't thinking of riddles.”
“I am not speaking in riddles, at least not to me.” Kirsten pushed away from the desk and walked over to him, her hips swaying in way that could only be described as seductive.
Sester resisted the urge to take her in his arms. He knew that was what she expected of him, but he wasn't going to play the game her way. Each sway of her hips caused a pool of heat in his groin. In the flimsy sleep shorts, his interest was becoming rather evident. Sester cast a quick glance at his pillow. No, snatching it up to cover his arousal would just make him look foolish and defensive. No if she wanted to play with fire. Sester was going to oblige her. He leant back on the bed, allowing her to see the effect she had on him.
Kirsten stopped just as his knees brushed her skirt. He looked up at her, realising this view was pleasant and more distracting than ever. Sester was beginning to get the feeling that things were not going as he planned, again.
“Do you still think I'm speaking in riddles?” her voice was almost a purr. Sester licked his lips as his mouth felt unaccountably dry.
“No, not riddles.” He smiled as he sat up. That didn't really help; his nose was only a hairs-breath away from the thin material of her dress. He breathed out slowly, noting her shiver as his breath teased her breasts. He laughed slightly as she stepped back. It wasn't much, but he'd count that a small victory. Kirsten was not as confident as she projected. She was going to fall to him tonight, he could almost visualize the moment of her surrender. He was looking forward to it.
He got to his feet, closing the distance between them. The heat from her body burned through the thin layer of his nightwear. He pulled her against him enjoying the sweet torment of her body brushing against him, fuelling his desire even further. Kirsten caught her bottom lip between her teeth and twined her arms round his neck.
“I thought you wished to talk?”
“I did didn't I?” Sester bent his head and brushed his lips over hers savouring their sweet taste and the little catch in her breath as he did so. He was finally in control. His lips brushed between hers gently teasing them apart. Kirsten gave a moan in the back of her throat and pressed herself tight up against him. A hot rush of desire shot through him. He forgot what he wanted to talk about or why Kirsten had come. All he was thinking of was how good she tasted and how soft she felt in his arms. His hands roamed her back sliding up and down her spine. Kirsten placed her hands on his shoulders gently kneading them. Sester moved against her as he deepened the kiss, plundering her mouth fiercely. His whole being ached with desire and his loose nightwear was too damn restricting in a certain key area.
Suddenly Kirsten shoved against his shoulders, her leg hooking behind his knee. As Sester fell back on the bed, she twisted out of his arms. Sester stared up at her in astonishment. Why did women feel the need to knock him to the ground, or in this case the bed? She looked magnificent with her flushed face, lips red and moist from the kiss. Her eyes still burning with passion's fire. He couldn't wait to see what she would do next.
“I think I had better go.” Kirsten sighed, backing away.
He should have known. Just when he thought he was in control, she blind-sided him. Sester felt more like yelling, “Stay damn you. You can't just walk out now!” His body ached with desire and she was proposing to leave him unsatisfied. “You could stay.” Sester offered trying to sound cool but inviting.
“I'll see you in the morning.” Kirsten smiled as she straightened her skirt and somewhat rumpled top. Sester's eyes followed the movement of her hand. Now was not the time to say he preferred her tousled appearance. Especially when he was trying to recover what was left of his dignity.
“It's morning already.” His easy smile was forced as he levered himself off the bed.
“Then I'll see you later!” Kirsten laughed as she whisked herself out the door.
Sester ran to the door and opened it. There was no sign of Kirsten. He took a step outside with the half-formed idea of finding her. He stopped and frowned. Going after her would be playing into her hands. He was not going to run through the ship in a game of hide and seek. An aggravated sigh escaped his lips; she had done it to him again!
The desire that had coursed through him had transformed into a howling frustration. Sester knew he just was not going to get to sleep at all. Muttering about the contrariness of females, he got dressed and went to the gym to work off some of the pent up energy.
Sester eyed the exercise apparatus dubiously, wondering which piece of equipment he wanted to torture himself with. A happy whistle reached his ears before Argus strode purposefully into the room. There was a disgustingly satisfied smile on the man’s face that abruptly turned upside down when he saw Sester. “What are you doing here?”
Sester's response was deliberately ambiguous. Just the thing to provoke a confrontation that he suddenly felt like having. “What do you think?” He adjusted the weight slider on the machine.
“Reya isn't here.”
“I can see that.” It was time for an amused and superior smile. Sester straddled the bench and lay back, shifting up so that his arms could reach the weight bar.
“She’s too busy to exercise today so you can leave any time.” When Sester ignored him and began pushing the bar up, Argus sat down on the bench next to him. He glanced at the setting that Sester had pushed the machine to and snorted before he increased the weight resistance on his own equipment. It was painful working out with one arm immobilized but his face was steely as he began pressing with one hand. He had intended to take the bothersome sling off but Sester would probably tell Reya. The only way to have a productive session was to block all thoughts of the psychostrategist from his mind.
Sester wished he’d set the weight lower as he struggled with the bar. Four. There was no way to control the panting breaths. Five. Six.
Argus was whistling cheerfully again. It was an extremely irritating sound. Coupled with the content smile on the man’s face, Sester could guess the source of Argus’s good mood. “Are you always this noisy when you exercise? I can’t concentrate.”
Argus said snidely as he continued his smooth, easy movements, “Are you sure it isn’t because you’re about to pass out from exhaustion?”
Sester sat up and faced him. “You’re right, this activity isn’t for me. I’m going to find Reya.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“What’s going on?” Reya had strolled into the room as the two men confronted each other. She had on shorts and a fitted short-sleeved top. Sester swallowed hard as his eyes were drawn to the noticeable curve of her… This was not going to work with her here. He got up to leave.
Argus said sarcastically, “He said he’s here to exercise but it was too much for him.”
Sester glared at him. “Who said it was too much for me?”
“You’ve only been in here less than a minute. Now you’re leaving.”
Sester countered, “Should you be exercising with your shoulder in a sling?”
Argus glanced cautiously at Reya. “I’m being careful.”
Reya chose to act as if the two men were not acting like teenagers. She said to Sester, “Would you like some pointers?”
Would he like….of course he would. Score a point against his opponent, laugh at the jealous frustration on his face, and have Reya helping him willingly. There wasn't much of a decision to be made. “I’d love some,” he said with a grateful smile.
Argus glared at him and absently pressed on the weight with one hand.
Reya chose a machine that worked the upper body. “It’s important to have proper technique. It isolates the muscles and avoids injuries.” As she pushed against the resistance, every curve of Reya’s chest seemed accentuated. Sester’s mouth was moist with anticipation. Kirsten’s…he caught himself as started comparing the two women. It was a good thing that he wasn’t wearing his flimsy shorts, he was about to embarrass himself the second time in the space of an hour. His words came out in a rush, “I’ve got it.”
Argus had stopped exercising and was looking at him suspiciously. “What have you got?”
“I’ve…got a cramp.”
Reya sat up and reached towards him. “Show me where. I have a way to relax the muscle.”
Sester jerked backwards quickly and nearly tripped over his own feet. “Not there.”
Reya had a puzzled expression on her face, “Where?” Argus was glaring at him.
Backing away slowly and feigning a pronounced limp, Sester said, “I’ll be fine. I don’t need any help. I'll go walk it off.” If he wasn’t so busy retreating, he would laugh at the irony. Reya was concerned about him and had even offered to place her hands on his body. What was he doing running away?
Outside the gym, he dropped the limp and walked slowly back to his cabin. He was more frustrated than before and the pent up energies threatened to explode from his body.
It was all Kirsten’s fault! Her teasing and games had twisted him around. He had strong desires for two different women now and neither one of them was within his reach.
Reya shrugged in mystification and leaned back on the weight bench. “What do you think that was all about?”
“Who knows? I thought you were too busy to exercise this morning?”
She began pushing on the bar. “I was supposed to meet with Kirsten this morning but she said she was tired. She didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Nerves about the Third Challenge?”
“Didn’t seem like it.” She had a crazy thought. “Do you think that the two of them…”
“The two of who?”
“Sester and Kirsten.”
“He’s still hung up on you.” Argus pushed extra hard on the weight bar and grimaced.
“That may be…but he likes women. I’ve warned him about messing around with the Chandarans but Kirsten…” Her speculation trailed off as she sat up worriedly.
“She’s very intelligent.”
“He might not be able to resist.”
Argus rubbed his sore shoulder. “Do you want me to talk to him?”
“No.” She considered saying something about the abuse of his shoulder but decided that the pain was enough of a warning.
“You’re not talking to him, not if he’s still stuck on you. Besides, is it any of our business? They’re both adults.”
“That’s true but I feel responsible for them.”
He had a reply ready but thought better of it. It wouldn't be fair to Reya. "Maybe you should talk to Kirsten instead?"
"That's an idea."