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Sword of MacLeod

Sword of MacLeod

Prologue

Da isna going to like this. Ciorstan MacLeod grimaced. If her father caught her near the merchant's spaceship, he'd drag her away without hesitation. He'd told her more than once he didn't want her around this area, but she found the aliens fascinating. Wouldn't any nine-year-old?

Hearing voices, Ciorstan ducked behind a large crate as two men walked past engrossed in conversation. She didn't dare let anyone see her--not now.

The crate towered over her and she cautiously peeked around the edge. No other humans were around; only the aliens known as Dweezles, small fur-covered creatures with tiny pointed ears, stood by the merchant starship.

Clutching a small pouch to her chest, Ciorstan darted up the ramp into the ship and froze. She considered herself quite grown up, but she'd never seen anything like this. The vessel looked enormous enough from the outside, but the interior was even worse. Her whole village could fit in here with room to spare.

She swallowed the lump in her throat, debating the wisdom of her plan. Why had she thought this so important? Squaring her shoulders, she lifted her head high. No one else believed she'd solved the riddle, but no one else knew what she knew.

If her mother had lived, perhaps Ciorstan could've made her understand, but for now Ciorstan was on her own. She knew she was right.

A new planet had been discovered at the edge of the known universe--a planet with a huge canyon, a vast desert and a towering rock formation that resembled a dog. Just like the riddle. Everything fit.

However, even her own father wouldn't believe her. He'd been adamant in his refusal to venture a foot off his planet and wasn't about to help her. He no longer believed in old riddles and legends. She had to sneak away. If she didn't go, people on Alba would continue to starve.

Ciorstan drew a deep breath. Legend said the Sword of MacLeod would bring prosperity when held by a MacLeod. And Alba definitely needed prosperity. Others might consider her a child, but Ciorstan was a MacLeod as much as her father. She would do this.

Gripping the wide hand rail, she slowly climbed spiraling steps until she discovered an open area bustling with unusual creatures and strange-looking equipment. For a moment, she hugged the wall as her glance darted from one object to another, gleaning bits and pieces of desired knowledge. As much as she wanted to know more--much more--about the universe beyond her planet, she couldn't help being afraid...just a little.

An angry voice disturbed her fascination and she lifted her gaze to meet that of a round creature with an oversized head, his height equal to hers. Was this one of the merchants? He appeared to be in charge.

Swallowing hard, she struggled to recall the name of his race. Saluit...Saluram...something like that. He babbled in a language she couldn't understand, but anger was universal--he wasn't pleased to see her.

She waited for him to finish, then forced a smile. "I need passage to a planet," she said, relieved her voice didn't quiver.

He barked at her again and waved a stubby four-fingered hand in her face.

"I must have passage." Ciorstan reached inside her pouch and removed a heavy gold chain, a present from her father on her last birthday. As much as she treasured it, this trip was more important. "Is this enough?"

The alien lifted the chain from her hand and tested its weight. He held it up to the light, an expression similar to a smile crossing his face. He nodded and spoke again, waving his hand in the air.

A furry Dweezle ran up to Ciorstan and indicated she should follow him. She matched his rapid pace through narrow hallways until he stopped by an open doorway.

Motioning her inside, the Dweezle showed Ciorstan how to sit in a reclining seat and fasten the padded belts securely around her. By the time he finished, she could feel a rumble reverberate through the ship.

The engines.

They'd be gone soon. The merchant ship never stayed long at Alba, just long enough to trade food for woven tartans.

The Dweezle left. Ciorstan trembled, her fear rising. What if she was wrong about the riddle? What if she never made it back home? What if she never saw Da again?

She removed a paper from the pocket of her skirt and unfolded it carefully to read the words she'd long since memorized.


Hie away, Clan MacLeod,
Hie away, mystical sword
'til the edges of time draw near.
Linger not at the bottomless depths
nor tarry amidst the burning sand.
Journey far and seek the guardian who points the way.
Hie away, Clan MacLeod.
Bow before the rainbows pouring from heaven.
Claim the mystical sword, Clan MacLeod.
Through wisdom, find prosperity,
In faith, claim your destiny,
With love, discover the magic.

No one else believed in the old legends anymore, not really. They laughed when she told them about this new world...about finding the sword. The sword would solve all of Alba's problems. She had to find it.

A tremor shook the ship as a heavy weight pushed against Ciorstan's chest. She closed her eyes, offering silent prayer, convinced death was only moments away. At the point the weight became unbearable, it ceased abruptly and Ciorstan released a sigh.

A flicker of movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention and she turned her head to stare out a small window. The typical night sky had grown to several times its size. Blackness, dotted with bright lights stretched on without end.

She was in space.

At least she had left her father a note explaining her mission. She had a month to locate the Sword of MacLeod and return to Alba--a month before the next merchant ship stopped at her planet.

She had to be back by then or else her father, as much as he detested modern technology, would come after her.

And he wouldn't be very happy.


Chapter 1

Beckett MacLeod couldn't stop staring.

Gripping the doorframe, he blinked, trying to focus on the aliens inside the noisy bar. He'd lifted a pint of ale or two in a pub back home, but even drunk he'd never seen anything like this. Creatures of varied shapes and sizes sprawled in the oddly-curved seats in the establishment. Some of them had populated his nightmares.

Strange words sounded behind him and Beckett looked around to find a being, easily a head taller than himself, whose face resembled a wild boar...with three eyes. The light from the glowing sign above the doorway glinted off its tusks as it growled. Finally comprehending, Beckett stepped aside and let the beast enter.

Beckett frowned. He didn't belong here. He didn't want to be here. He could no more read the sign over the entrance than he could understand the conversation spoken inside.

"Newcomer."

Beckett looked around until he found the alien he'd hired. It stood inside the bar, its head cocked to one side. He struggled to remember its hard-to-pronounce name--Rajix or something like that.

Rajix waved at him. "You want tracker? Yes? No?" The creature's high-pitched voice matched its unusual appearance--that of an oversized squirrel, complete with bushy tail.

Nodding, Beckett entered the bar. Though dimly lit, one corner vibrated with light and he glanced over to see some creatures--no, just one creature with three heads and six arms--playing some kind of loud music. He winced. At least, he thought it was music.

As he passed through the jumble of unusual beasts, Beckett's head throbbed. The myriad of odors and types of speech overwhelmed him. This was nothing like home.

And Ciorstan was alone in this world--somewhere.

Clenching his jaws, he reached his guide. "Where's this tracker you promised me?" Beckett demanded.

Rajix chattered some indecipherable speech and tugged at Beckett's arm with its paw-like hand.

Beckett brushed off its grip but followed the scampering creature to the back of the large bar and through another doorway to emerge outside again.

He found himself in a large alley illuminated only by the light from the open doorway. He tried to see into the black depths, but failed. Gripping his guide's thin limb, Beckett whirled it around. "Where's this Raven person?"

"Raven be here." More chatter followed this until Beckett heard something he could understand. "Raven best tracker in galaxy."

"Actually, I'm the best tracker in the universe."

Beckett released Rajix and glared into the darkness. Slowly, a figure stepped forward, pausing in the shadows. "You're Raven?" Beckett asked.

"It depends." Raven made a short hand movement and Rajix scampered away.

Though Beckett couldn't make out Raven's features, the tracker was definitely humanoid, half a head shorter than himself and slight of build. "I need a tracker."

"Why?"

The low-pitched voice intrigued Beckett. Even better, he could understand Raven's speech without difficulty despite the unusual accent. "My daughter's run away. I must find her."

"And you think I can do it?"

The baiting tone irritated Beckett. "Dinna you say you're the best in the universe? That's what I want."

"Are you sure?" Raven stepped into the dim light and Beckett inhaled sharply, surprised to see the smooth features and distinct curves of a female.

"You're a woman." He spoke before he could stop himself. Of course she was.

"So?" The gently rounded chin lifted slightly.

Eyeing Raven, Beckett found it difficult to believe she was a tracker. Though not much shorter than himself, she gave the image of frailty with her lengthy slimness and finely shaped cheekbones. Her short black hair capped her head in a riotous mass of curls while her long dark lashes surrounded flashing eyes of an indeterminate color. Her full lips, pressed tightly together, begged to be kissed, and the one-piece blue suit molded to her figure, accenting her small breasts and narrow waist. The only disturbing piece of the portrait was the belt slung low around her hips, drawn down by the weight of some type of weapon.

He met her stare and smiled. Though nothing like the women of his planet, she was definitely interesting. He briefly wondered what Nessa would've thought of Raven. Though if his young wife had lived past Ciorstan's fifth birthday, he probably wouldn't be here now. "I dinna mean to offend. I still need your help."

Her expression didn't change. "Tell me about your daughter. How old is she?"

"Nine."

"I don't do children." Raven turned as if to leave and Beckett jumped forward, his hand outstretched.

"Wait." He'd never find Ciorstan without help. Not in this culture. "I'll pay well."

Slowly Raven pivoted back to face him. "How much?"

Beckett reached inside his shirt and removed his gold medallion. Though marked with the seal of the clan MacLeod, he hoped it would be worth something off his planet. He held it out.

She snatched the medallion from his palm and held it up in the dim light. "Is this gold?"

"Aye."

As she ran a small metal box over the medallion, tiny lights flashed in the darkness, then disappeared. "It's real."

Beckett caught her note of awe. "'Tis enough for your fee?"

"Perhaps." Raven hesitated, staring at the medallion. "Who are you? Where are you from?"

"I'm Beckett MacLeod from Alba."

"Alba?" She spoke derisively. "I thought no one ever left Alba, not since it was settled almost two hundred years ago."

"We prefer to keep to ourselves. I'd nae have left except for Ciorstan."

"Your daughter?"

"Aye."

"And why did she leave?"

He sighed. How could he explain without sounding a fool? "There's a legend. Actually, more of a riddle." Hearing Raven's exasperated sigh, he plunged ahead. "Ciorstan's trying to find the magical sword of MacLeod."

"A magical sword?" Disbelief tinged her voice. "Why?"

"We've had two years of drought. Our crops have failed. The people are starving." Beckett ground his teeth together as he recalled the meager amounts of food they had left. Even with supplies from the merchant ships, it wasn't enough.

"She believes this sword will fix everything?"

"Aye," he said, his heart heavy. He'd failed not only his people, but his daughter. Else she'd never have defied him, never risked her life in this forsaken world to find a legendary sword. "She left a note saying she'd solved the riddle and would bring back the sword."

"Then let her do that. She might surprise you."

"No." He clenched his fists. "I'll nae leave my daughter alone in this...this chaos."

Raven paused and extended the medallion so that the dim light gleamed off it. "If I agree to find your daughter, the medallion is mine?"

Beckett quickly snatched the medallion back. "After you find my daughter."

Even though Raven gave no outward display of emotion, he sensed her anger...and something else, too. Something more...unnerving. A sudden knot of longing swirled in his chest--a longing tied to this Raven person.

Frowning, Beckett dismissed the idea. He needed to find Ciorstan, not dally with some woman, even if she was physically appealing. He extended his hand. "Will you find my daughter or nae?"

Raven drew an audible breath and released it slowly. "I'll do it."

Wrapping his fingers around hers, Beckett measured her strength. Her callused palm told him she wasn't afraid of hard work. "We'll work together fine."

She jerked her hand from his. "I work alone. Let me know where you're staying and I'll deliver Ciorstan to you. Do you have a holo of her?"

"You dinna understand." Beckett didn't try to keep the coldness from his voice. "Ciorstan is my daughter. She's alone here. I'm going with you."

"I--"

"I go or I find another tracker."

"You won't find another as good as me."

"I'll take that chance." Beckett noted the spark of intelligence in her eyes as she apparently weighed both sides of the problem. Her glance darted once more to the medallion and he closed his fingers around it. So, she was mercenary. He'd use any advantage he could. "If you find her in less than three days, I'll throw in a bonus."

"You'll only slow me down. You're from a backward planet," she snapped. "In the two hundred years since it's been settled, Alba hasn't progressed at all. If anything, it's regressed."

Beckett straightened and adjusted his Clan MacLeod tartan sash. "We live the way we do because we choose to."

"You know nothing about the real universe."

"I already know more than I cared to learn. Find my daughter and I'll be gone. I've nae desire to remain here."

She glared at him, the angry fire in her gaze fueling the low heat already brewing in his gut. To his surprise, she nodded curtly, then brushed past him to enter the bar. "I need a drink."

So do I. Beckett grimaced and followed her inside. Seating himself in one of the cup-like floating chairs, he stiffened as it adjusted its height to match his long legs. A smirk played at the corner of Raven's lips, and he forced himself to relax.

As much as he hated to admit it, she had a valid point. He didn't know much about any world other than Alba, and what knowledge he did have came from books over two hundred years old. But he learned quickly.

Raven motioned to the bartender, a purplish creature with a long thin nose and huge globular eyes, and held up one finger. Following her example, Beckett did the same. Raven quirked one eyebrow at him, but said nothing.

Leaning back in her chair, Raven studied him through narrowed eyes. Beckett returned her steady gaze. She was not about to intimidate him. He'd faced tougher challenges than her.

Their stares broke only when a tray containing two odd-shaped flasks floated over to their table. Raven removed the cups and placed her thumb against a small glowing disk on the tray. It flashed once, then beeped and the tray slowly drifted away.

Beckett accepted a flask. "What did you do?"

"I paid for our drinks."

"With what? Your thumbprint?"

"Exactly. Nemeth will add the cost to my account."

"And when do you give him real money?"

"Money? Oh, credits? When I get paid."

He frowned. "You'll get paid when you find my daughter."

"So you've said." She lifted the mug to her lips and took a quick swallow. "How did you get here?"

"A merchant ship stops at our planet once a month. Ciorstan left a month ago. I persuaded the captain of the next ship to bring me after her." He grimaced, remembering his methods of persuasion. He'd been ready to rip the hideous alien's oversized head from its body in order to secure passage. Ciorstan had already been gone for a month. Anything could have happened to her. Fortunately, a supply of tartan fabric provided suitable payment for his trip.

"I'm surprised your planet allows merchant ships."

"Only for the past two years." Beckett remembered the wave of fear his people experienced when the first merchant ship had landed in the fields near his castle. If not for the already failing crops, the ship would've been sent on its way. Ciorstan had persuaded him to trade with the merchants for food--food that had sustained them that first long, cruel winter.

The clansmen of Alba continued to trade in order to survive, but now they had little left to barter. Though their distinctive plaids, the only ones in the galaxy still made from real sheep's wool, were in demand, the weavers could barely produce enough to purchase the food they needed. Especially with sheep dying from the drought as well.

Guilt stabbed at Beckett. Though he couldn't control the weather, he still felt responsible for his people's hunger. Something had to be done. If only the sword was real....

Gripping his mug, he gulped the contents, then gasped for air, his eyes watering. "What is that?"

"Tanturian Ale, best in this galaxy." Raven smiled slightly. "It tends to be potent."

"Aye." Beckett inhaled deeply. "It does pack a punch, but I'll wager Alban ale tastes better."

"I'll take your word for that." She took another short swallow of her drink, then leaned across the small table. "Do you know the name of the merchant ship your daughter left on?"

"The Batista."

"One of the Galacta line." She nodded, her brow furrowed. "I need to talk to the Batista's captain." She jumped to her feet, pausing only briefly to glance back at Beckett. "If you plan to come with me, you'd better keep up."

Beckett leapt beside her in an instant. "I can keep up." He kept his voice low, the challenge in it barely hidden. "Dinna worry about me."

She had to be out of her mind. As she signaled for a shuttle, Raven darted a quick glance at the man by her side. Why had she agreed to look for his daughter? Children made her feel uncomfortable. They were always so...needy.

So, why? Because she needed the money. Simple. The thruster was failing on her ship and a long list of other things needed repair. A tracker without a ship couldn't track. If she didn't get her ship fixed soon, she'd find herself stranded... probably somewhere she didn't want to be.

And his gold medallion had to be worth a fortune. Gold was one of the scarcest ores in the universe. She only knew of three planets where it could be found.

The shrill whistle of a shuttle pierced her ears and she waited for the glide car to hover to a stop before her. As the hatch opened, she swung inside and waited for Beckett.

He stared at the shuttle like it was a menacing beast, then slowly climbed onto the seat opposite her. The door slid into place with a gentle hiss.

"Merchants' Guild," Raven said. She noticed how Beckett's muscles tightened when the vehicle began to move.

"What's happening?" he asked. His gaze searched the closed interior as if looking for an escape route.

"It's all right." She couldn't fault him for his trepidation. This had to be new to him. The dark interior and fluid movement of the craft still unnerved her and she'd been in one many times. She much preferred to be the pilot and not trust Cirian technology, but a shuttle was the quickest method of ground transportation on the planet.

"What is this thing?"

"It's called a shuttle. It's programmed to take us anywhere on the surface."

"But there are nae windows. How do you see?"

"It knows where it's going. Besides, there's not much to see on Cirius. It's a pretty dismal place. If not for the Merchants' Guild, this planet would have nothing of value." Raven didn't mind not having windows, she preferred to look at Beckett. This Alban man intrigued her.

He stood taller than she--something she didn't experience often when with humans. But the rugged planes of his face and his sculpted muscles interested her more. She rarely saw a humanoid in such condition. Most of them were paler, thinner, and definitely a lot less...solid. Maybe there was something to be said for the primitive lifestyle on Alba if it created such fascinating specimens.

His hair, the color of sim coffee with lightener, fell to the base of his neck in wild disarray. It looked clean, soft, begged for her touch.

Raven stiffened and forced her gaze away. She had no desire to touch any man, especially not this uncivilized one. She would find his daughter and send both of them back to their isolated planet at the edge of the galaxy.

"What do you hope to find at the Merchants' Guild?" Beckett's voice, with its lilting accent, interrupted her thoughts.

"The pilot from the Batista will probably be there. He'll know where your daughter went." She mentally prepared for the conversation, hating any contact with merchant pilots. They thought they owned the space lanes. "I doubt she went far."

With luck, the child would still be with the merchants. None of them would risk their profits on some girl's wild talk of a legendary sword. They preferred their credits risk-free.

The shuttle slowed and Raven gripped the handrail in anticipation of the inevitable sudden stop. She'd barely opened her mouth to warn Beckett when the vehicle jerked to a standstill, throwing him onto her.

He reacted quickly, bracing his weight on his arms, but couldn't stop his body from touching hers. Instant awareness flooded Raven as she grabbed his forearms to steady him. His solid chest pressed against hers, his narrow hips lodged over her knees, his face--his lips--hovered just a short distance away. Raven's breath caught in her throat, her gaze locked with his as she noticed his brown eyes darken. An odd sensation, similar to one she'd experienced during her first nose-dive in Devil's Canyon, fluttered in her stomach.

Raven forced her constricted vocal cords to work. "The...the shuttle stops quickly."

He blinked and pulled back, his expression hardening. "Aye."

She punched the hatch control and leapt from the shuttle as the door opened. Drawing a deep breath, she studied the entrance to the Merchants' Guild Hall. As she concentrated on the ornate exterior with its towering columns and overdone sculptures, her mind regained its usual equilibrium. The sooner she rid herself of this man, the better. She hadn't been this rattled since her first space battle.

Beckett joined her, his eyes widening when he looked at the Guild Hall. Raven tried to see it as he would. The building had been designed to be imposing and it succeeded. In addition to its extravagance, iron gates sealed the entrance where two Gatorians stood guard.

Fortunately, Gatorians were as dumb as they were big. Raven sighed loudly and approached them, motioning for Beckett to follow.

As she expected, one of the oversized alligators blocked her path, his black eyes unblinking and sharp teeth bared. He looked mean, Raven would credit him that.

He spoke, but she heard only gibberish. Frowning, she tapped the universal translator hanging over her right ear. It shouldn't need charging again already. After a few taps, his speech became intelligible.

"...your business here."

"I have an appointment with Guild Master Hatuna." Raven straightened to her full height, but the Gatorian still towered over her.

"Show me papers." His speech sounded guttural even in translation.

Raven fished her parking permit from her upper pocket and waved it before the creature, not allowing him enough time to see it clearly. Drawing on her most haughty manner, she met his stare. "Hatuna will not like it if we're delayed."

The beast hesitated.

"Very well. I'll leave." Raven turned to go and frowned at Beckett's glimmer of dismay. She winked at him and his face went bland instantly. Turning back to the Gatorian, she smiled. "May I have your name? I'll need to explain this to Hatuna."

The creature decoded the gates at once and Raven gave him a regal nod as she led Beckett inside. Thank her lucky star that Gatorians didn't have the sense to call in and check. Of course, most creatures desiring entry were intimidated by the Gatorians' appearance and didn't realize how easily the guards could be bluffed. The merchants counted on that.

But the merchants hadn't met Raven...yet.

If the exterior was imposing, the interior appeared less so. The walls were dark, the high ceiling illuminated by recessed lighting. The corridors were wide and straight, apparently leading nowhere.

Raven knew better. She'd managed to infiltrate this place before. Locating her position from a barely visible icon on the wall, she quickly started down a long corridor.

Beckett fell into step with her. "What is this place?"

"The all powerful Merchants' Guild." She grimaced. "At least, they like to think so."

"What does that mean?"

She paused, framing her answer. She'd always known about the Guild. How could she explain it to someone who'd never heard of it? "The merchants are a powerful force in the universe. Their ships have the fastest engines, the best quality magnicite. They can travel anywhere in a fraction of the time it takes a smaller ship. Because of this, they control the distribution of goods from one end of the galaxy to the other."

"Then they're wealthy?"

"Very. Because of their wealth, they look down on everyone else. They consider themselves better than any species in existence. In fact, they're only afraid of one thing...." She smiled slightly.

Beckett eyed her curiously. "And what's that?"

"The privateers."

"Pirates?"

"They prefer to be known as privateers," she replied. "They have the ability to board a merchant ship in hyperspace and lighten the load before the merchant even knows they're there."

His eyes gleamed with amusement. "I suppose the merchants dinna like that much."

"Not much at all."

A group of Salurians, the dominant merchant race, approached them. The species was short as a rule, rarely reaching Raven's height, and often as wide as they were tall. With their short arms and legs, Raven thought they resembled a ball. Only their large bald heads protruding from thick necks destroyed that illusion. Their facial features were basically humanoid with two large purple eyes, nasal slits, and a surprisingly small mouth lined with thick purple lips. Overall, they were disgusting in appearance and behavior, yet this race controlled much of the power in the known universe.

Raven touched Beckett's arm. "Just ignore them," she whispered.

She could see him struggle to turn his gaze from them before he nodded. Not that she blamed him for staring. If the Salurians hadn't become merchants, she doubted they'd be good for anything else.

The Salurian group ignored Raven and Beckett as they passed, and Raven breathed a sigh of relief. Turning sharply, she led Beckett down the short corridor into a tiny room.

A human, his back to them, stood behind a short counter, bent over a display terminal. Muttering to himself, he punched several keys, then threw up his hands, whirled around...and gasped. "Raven, what...what are you doing here?" He frowned at Beckett. "And who's that?"

"This is my latest client, Beckett MacLeod. Beckett, Nehemiah Evanston, the coordinator for the Guild here on Cirius."

"You shouldn't be here," Nehemiah said, his gaze darting to the doorway behind them. "You know unauthorized personnel aren't allowed in the Guild."

Raven smiled in what she hoped was a beguiling manner. "I'll be gone as soon as you answer a couple questions for me."

Her smile must have worked for he sighed dramatically. "Fine. What do you need?"
"The captain of the Batista, who is it?"

Nehemiah lifted one eyebrow, but turned to his terminal and keyed quickly. He replied without turning around. "It's a Salurian. Hau te Dur."

"Is he here?"

More tapping of keys followed. "He's in the lounge." Nehemiah glanced at her over his shoulder. "Surely you're not--"

Raven cut him off. "Does he have a little girl with him? A human girl?"

"No."

"Is she elsewhere in the Hall?"

"Don't ask for much, do you?" Nehemiah examined a lit screen, then shook his head. "No human children anywhere."

Raven sighed and met Beckett's stony gaze. "This may not be as easy as I thought," she said.

"If she's nae here, then where is she?" His face darkened beneath his frown.

Holding up her hand, she forced a smile. "I'll find her. Don't worry." She edged toward the door. "Hau te Dur. In the lounge. Thanks, Nehemiah."

"You can't--" he began, his anxiety evident in his voice.

Raven didn't wait for him to finish. Instead, she pivoted and hurried down the hallway, knowing instinctively from the way the back of her neck tingled that Beckett followed only one pace behind. She had to find the kid and get rid of this guy...soon.

He snagged her arm before they reached the main corridor and swung her around to face him. Her muscles tensed, her hand automatically flying to the butt of her laser. His thunderous expression wasn't reassuring.

"Where are we going?" he demanded. "How will we find Ciorstan?"

Raven held onto her temper, rationalizing that her racing heartbeat was due only to anger. Beckett came from Alba, a primitive planet, she reminded herself. It helped to remember that. "I plan to talk to the captain of the Batista. He'll know where he left your daughter."

"Then why did Nehemiah act like we're in danger?"

"Because we are." She refused to blink. "The Guild doesn't care for trespassers. They're a very...private group."

Beckett paused. Raven could almost see him thinking. "What will they do if they catch us?" he asked finally.

She shrugged. "They might throw us out with a warning or send us to labor in the Turellian vineyards or, more likely, they'll kill us."

"I see."

Surprisingly, Raven thought he did see. For a person from an ancient culture, he had a peculiar worldliness about him. "I can show you a way out of here if you want to wait beyond the walls."

"I'm going with you."

"Suit yourself." Raven tugged her arm free. Her skin felt warm where he'd held her and it was all she could do to keep from rubbing the spot.

She paused to regain her bearings, then turned in the direction of the lounge. With luck, she'd find Hau te Dur quickly, get the information she needed, and be gone before anyone realized she didn't belong there. After all, many members of the Guild were human. They couldn't possibly all know each other.

The loud roar of conversation reached them long before Raven and Beckett saw the entrance to the lounge. Raven hesitated outside the open arch doorway to let Beckett adjust to the sight inside.
Hovertables dotted the enormous room with most of them surrounded by groups of merchants. The non-humanoid species stood out easily. Raven skipped past them quickly as she searched the interior for her quarry.

The greater number of those remaining were Salurians. Raven had met Hau te Dur only once, but fortunately she had a good memory. If he was in the lounge, she'd find him--without using a scanner. That device would give her away in an instant.

Catching a glimpse of Beckett's stunned expression, she smiled. What she accepted as ordinary, he obviously saw as extraordinary. She tried to imagine having spent her whole life on one planet, never traveling in space, but couldn't. Soaring among the stars was her life.

"All the languages blend together," Beckett said suddenly. "How do you understand them?"

Raven unhooked her translator from her ear and laid it in her open palm. "With this. It's a universal translator programmed to handle two hundred of the known languages."

He reached for it. "May I?" At her nod, he lifted the device and examined it, a frown creasing his brow. "What does it do?"

"It takes the language spoken and converts it to the chosen standard--in my case, Earth Basic. Want to try it?"

"Aye." Beckett tried unsuccessfully to loop it over his ear.

Raven interceded, then jerked her hand back when it collided with his. "Let me help," she murmured, disturbed by the quick shock that tingled up her arm. Reaching up, she adjusted the translator into a better fit. Though tailored for her ear, it settled into his with little difficulty.

"It feels...different." He turned his head back and forth as if seeking a conversation.

"Wait until you've worn one for a few weeks. You'll forget you have it on." She grinned. "Unless the battery goes dead. That happened to me once in the middle of bartering with an Tanturian and caused massive problems."

He smiled slowly, his face changing as the tiredness faded and warmth entered his eyes. "I can imagine."

His handsomeness stunned her. A wave of heat washed over Raven, and she yanked her gaze away. "Come on. We have business inside."

She stopped midway into the room and surveyed the occupants again. There. In the corner. The Salurian sat at a table across from a Dweezle, probably his load master.

Unwilling to shout over the angry conversation erupting nearby, Raven touched Beckett's shoulder and pointed. He nodded. They'd only gone a few steps when fighting broke out around them. As Raven ducked to avoid flying flasks, she was surprised to feel Beckett's arm stretch protectively across her shoulders.

She stared at him, her eyes wide. No one had ever tried to protect her before.

As he met her gaze, he dropped his arm with an apologetic twist of his lips. Before Raven could speak, he stretched his hand and snatched something out of the air. Bringing his hand down, he opened it to reveal a translator similar to her own and raised his eyebrows in a questioning gesture.

Raven grinned. This Alban might not be so bad after all. She wove a path through the tempest of thrown drinks and furniture, then stopped and glanced back. "I wonder what brought that on."

Amusement flickered in Beckett's eyes. "If I heard correctly, 'twas some dispute about credits."

"That's normal." She indicated the translator still clutched in his hand. "Would you like help with that?"

"'Tis nae likely to be missed, is it?"

Raven shook her head. "By the time they recover from the drinking and the fighting, they'll have a hard time remembering where they last had it." She took the device and hesitated over the setting. "Is Earth Basic good for you?"

"I can understand you," he replied.

"Earth Basic, then." Once she adjusted the new translator on his ear, she restored her own to its usual position. "Is it working?"

He turned his head toward a nearby hovertable of Salurians. "I understand them."

"It's working. You think quick, Beckett," she admitted grudgingly.

"Some things remain the same no matter the culture."

"I agree." From the corner of her eye, Raven saw the Dweezle pad away from Hau te Dur's table. With a jerk of her head, she motioned to Beckett to follow and slid into the vacated seat just as the Salurian began to rise. "Hau te Dur, a moment of your time, please."

He fixed his purple gaze on her, then shifted it to Beckett before he sat again. "Who are you?"

Raven shook her head as she grabbed several credits from her pouch and laid the coins on the table. "My name's not important. I have a question for you."

The top of the Salurian's bald head pulsed with apparent eagerness and he slid one four-fingered hand across the table to retrieve the credits. "And it is?"

"You brought a girl with you from Alba."

His head pulse increased. "That was a mistake. A nuisance, that one. She demanded I take her on some ridiculous quest across the galaxy."

Beckett stiffened, and Raven laid a warning hand on his arm. "Where is the girl now?" she asked. With luck, Hau would say she was in personnel processing and this job would be finished.

"I have no idea. I left her at the terminal."

"You left her at the terminal?" Even though she didn't particularly care for children, Raven couldn't imagine leaving any child in the madhouse of creatures arriving and departing from Cirius. "What are you--a Neeban?"

Hau te Dur stood, indignation apparent in his round body. "I brought her here as requested. I had no responsibility for her."

"Sit down." Raven hardened her voice as she eased her laser from its holster and lifted it just high enough for the Salurian to see. "Sit down now."

Slowly Hau resumed his seat. "You're inside the Hall. You can't--"

"Where is the girl? She's been here for a month." Raven could sense Beckett's frustration mingling with her own. "I'm willing to bet you know what happened to every single passenger on your ship."

"And if I don't?" Hau's manner screamed defiance.

"Everyone is still watching the fight over there. I could probably make a small hole right through your middle and no one would even know." Raven leaned across the table to meet his gaze, daring him to doubt her sincerity.

His large head wobbled. "She pestered merchants and passengers for many days with her insistent demands. Finally, I...she hired someone to take her on her foolish journey."

"Who?"
"A Beta-human known as Slade." His disgust centered on the name.

Slade.

Raven fell back into her seat, hot and cold alternating beneath her skin, her stomach churning. Neptune's Rings, not Slade.

Dark memories returned in a rush, filled with sensations of horror, fear, helplessness. She couldn't speak through her constricted throat, but she heard, as if in a distance, Beckett speaking.

"Who is this Slade?"

"A privateer. A killer with no morals, no conscience."

Beckett flew at the Salurian, wrapping his hands around the thick neck. "You let my daughter leave with such a man?"

Jerked out of her isolation by new terror, Raven hurried to pull Beckett off of Hau te Dur. "Stop it. You'll get us killed."

He was strong. His muscles rippled beneath her grasp, but he finally released his hold and staggered backward, his breathing uneven. Raven released a sigh of relief. Now if they could get out of there before anyone noticed them.

Aware of the abrupt silence, she searched the room.

Too late.

Four regulators were approaching and they had their lasers drawn.

Raven's heart sank. "Shibit."

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