Cole frowned sadly down at Mel as she stirred in her sleep. Her dreams had been troubled that night, more so than they had been for weeks. Not that he could blame her with the day she had been through. Zin's presence in the bar could only have brought up unwanted memories, and Lana's capture by the government raised serious concerns about their own security.
Cole had other security concerns this morning. Sounds to me like you have a traitor in your midst.
He had been unable to bring himself to mention it to Mel the night before, not wanting her to worry herself out of her much-needed rest. Now he was starting to wonder if he should tell her at all. She had enough to worry about without him adding this concern. Maybe it was not even really necessary...
After a long night spent deep in thought, he had it narrowed down to one of two women. He knew it had to be a female from the words of the government agents discussing the matter. The only two females other than Mel who were close enough to him to be valuable sources of information were barmaids Bridget and Isabel. He could guard his secrets from them easily enough, put Mel on her guard while masking his concerns as general rather than specific.
It troubled him that such sweet girls might be feeding information about him to people who meant him harm, but they could not really have known that they were doing wrong. Besides which, he had the distinct impression that whichever woman it was has been threatened or coerced somehow. In time, their own behavior might give away which it was, and he could take her aside and talk to her if necessary, offer help even. If the situation changed, then he could share his concerns with Mel.
He nodded to himself. Mel had enough on her mind. There was no reason to trouble her with the matter.
Zin sighed as the woman sleeping next to him stirred, mumbling a protest and batting at the air. "Nishkta, Lana," he repeated for probably the thousandth time in the three days since her rescue. He reached over his shoulder and gave her a reassuring pat. "Go back to sleep, Princess. I'm here."
Lana mumbled a sleepy response and snuggled closer, burying her face in the back of his neck. "I like you better with fur," she informed him petulantly.
Zin snorted softly and rolled to face her. "So it's not enough that I grew this ridiculous bit of facial hair for your benefit? Now I have to grow my hair long, too, so that whenever you have a bad dream, you have a mane to hide your face in, is that it?" he asked with mock severity, smiling at her and brushing away a strand of hair which concealed her pretty face from him. Her human form was so cute drowsy, almost adorable all tousled as she was right now...
"You'd look good with long hair," she said, shrugging. "Very masculine."
"You're saying I don't look masculine now?" he challenged
"You said it, not me," she answered with a sly smile, reaching to touch his beard. She loved the feel of that rough hair under her delicate fingertips.
"Just remember who picked this form out for me," he suggested, swatting at her hand as she reached for him.
"Fine, be that way," she grumbled, rolling away.
"Brat," Zin muttered, catching her arm and hauling her close again, flipping her to face him as he did so. "Why do I put up with you?" he demanded, holding her wrists and pulling her body flush with his own.
"Mmm," Lana murmured, burying her face in his chest. "Because I'm saner than your wife and smarter than your mistress?"
"And prettier than both of them put together," Zin added, wrapping his arms around her waist. "But don't let them hear that I told you that. I'd never hear the end of it."
Lana smiled faintly. "The potential for blackmail boggles the mind."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Hey, I still haven't told them you sing in the shower yet, have I? Your secrets are safe with me, Zin. All of them. You should know that by now."
"I do. And I think that must be why I love you, child." He kissed the top of her head. "Now go back to sleep and leave me to watch the sunrise in peace."
"Peace?" Lana scoffed. "In this household?" she asked, closing her eyes and relaxing into his embrace.
He smiled wryly. "Good point. Mara says you wanted to kill one of the people holding you?"
"She told me I wasn't allowed."
Zin chuckled and shook his head. The petulance had returned to her tone. "I made the Tracker a promise. No dead bodies. All the same, a creative child like you shouldn't have too much difficulty in coming up with some suitable retaliation."
"I don't like him telling you what to do," Lana informed him. "He is the enemy here, sir."
"You would probably be dead by now if not for the enemy in question. It was a fair trade, all told. I won't deny you your revenge, but I won't have you making me break my word, either. A Vardian's honor is his most important asset."
"I thought that was me," she answered, concealing her smile against his chest. "Very well, sir. I promise not to kill anyone. But they will suffer."
"Good." Zin smiled faintly, watching the light begin to filter into the bedroom window. He loved watching the sun rise; it was one of the few calm moments he got most days.
"Do you want to watch?" Lana asked abruptly a few minutes after the sun had crested the horizon.
"Watch?" Zin repeated, raising an eyebrow and grinning slyly. "You aren't serious, you little tease?" he asked in a low, smooth voice.
"Almost always," Lana said, grinning up at him. "I've settled on a suitable retaliation," she explained.
"So I gathered, as you don't do much else that I'd be interested in watching. Speaking of which, Neko's trying to convince me to marry you to his son again."
Lana tensed. "No."
"That's what I told him. He didn't understand, of course."
"He thinks you're keeping me to yourself, I know." Lana nodded. "Most of them do."
"Maybe I am," Zin suggested, touching his nose to hers and absently stroking her cheek. "I mean, you really are invaluable to me. I get sex from my mistress, heirs from my wife, but I can only get honest to God affection from you. What more could a man ask for?"
"All three in one convenient package," she answered quietly.
"Only in fairy stories, my dear," he murmured, kissing her forehead and glancing past her to the clock. He sighed softly. "I should go. It's going to be a long day, especially with you still on bed rest. I never realized how much easier you make my job. Which is a relief, really. I was starting to worry that my regard for you was entirely unselfish."
"Which wouldn't do at all," Lana murmured, shaking her head at him. "Honestly, Zin. What would the others say if they knew you had a heart?" she teased.
Zin ignored her. "Tell me you love me," he ordered.
"You know I love you," she pointed out.
"So say it," he suggested sharply, wrapping a hand firmly around her throat. "Honestly, do you try to be difficult? Just say it, child."
"Fine." Lana sat up and inhaled deeply, taking one of his hands in both of hers. "Zin, sir," she murmured, kissing his palm. "My friend and master, the only father I've ever known," she whispered, kissing his fingertips as well "For some insane reason which I have yet to comprehend, I love you more than my own life. For ten years now, I have tried without success to fight the sentiment. You've more than earned it, but I'm just perverse enough to want to be my own master."
"I'll free you from your contractual obligation to me any time, Princess," he told her, sitting up and cradling her face in his hands. "Say the word."
"No," Lana answered, shaking her head and turning away. "A girl could do a hell of a lot worse for a master. I know..."
"Is that the only reason?" he asked, brushing aside her hair and planting a tender kiss on the back of her neck.
Lana closed her eyes. "No. But it's the only one I care to admit to."
"Prudent child," Zin murmured, kissing her neck a few more times before rising. "Get some rest. Neko will be here shortly and I'll have Mara bring some books for you later."
"Thank you, Doctor."
"My pleasure, Doctor," he answered, bowing. "And I'll see you at lunch."
"Well, I don't think even my most vocal detractors will be able to argue that your situation there remains tenable," Eijan told Cole during his weekly report to her. He had delivered the last not an hour before Zin had come to them. "Not after what you've relayed to me. The incident with Kres was obviously not as isolated as we had hoped. Too many of the humans know of your presence there. They'll have no option but to back me now."
"What is to keep them from simply recalling me?" Cole asked.
"Aside from the lack of an outgoing wormhole from that end?" she asked, her broad nose twitching with amusement. "I still have some tricks in reserve. You worry about security on that end and let me handle things here."
"Of course." Cole bowed towards the hologram. "I have nothing but faith in you, Eijan. You have never failed to give me the help I need or to make an irretrievable situation work out in the end."
"That sounds suspiciously like flattery, son," Eijan remarked, her lavender eyes twinkling at him. "However, the Fates have been kind to us. The political situation here has shifted subtly since your last report. Varda had its General Elections three days ago. Kria is now on the Security Council."
"Kria? The Vardian activist?" Cole asked, blinking. That was beyond unexpected. It defied reason that, at such a time, the Vardians would elect a known Radical to the Security Council, not unless things on Varda had changed a lot...
"The very same," Eijan answered, obviously pleased. "And don't ask how. Believe it or not, I didn't have a hand in his election. Which is a shame because I wouldn't mind having a Vardian in my debt."
"Amazing," he murmured, shaking his head. He stopped, his eyes widening. "That's the requisite one vote per planet," he realized, laughing. "Now they have to vote on your proposals."
"Yes, they do," she agreed placidly. "And with the majority vote on four of the six planets, we might actually be able to get something accomplished now. Always assuming Kria doesn't get himself assassinated first. I wouldn't put it past the Liberal party's new leadership."
"This is... unbelievable."
"Hey, Cole, Vic's here," Mel said, leaning into the war-room. "Oh, hi, Eijan," she greeted the Enixian with a grin. "You haven't met Vic yet, have you?" she asked as he walked in.
"Whoa!" Vic said, jumping slightly as he caught sight of the hologram.
Mel grinned at the look on his face. He was trying to keep his expression neutral, but it was not exactly working. She remembered Cole's reaction to her first time looking at an Enixian. They are not beautiful, he had told her. Later, learning of Eijan and the other Enixians he had known, Mel had learned differently.
"Vic, this is Eijan. You remember her?"
"Oh! Right! Of course." Vic nodded, composing himself somewhat. "Sorry, Miss Eijan, you just kind of scared me there." He frowned faintly as the Enixian's nose started to twitch and Cole let out a bark of laughter. "What?" he asked uncertainly.
"I think we're missing out on a Migar in-joke," Mel told him, shrugging faintly.
"It is our pleasure to finally meet you in the flesh, as it were, Detective," Eijan said after a moment of silence broken only by Cole's quiet chuckling. "Your many acts of assistance to Kedriss Daggon are greatly appreciated."
"Just doing my job," he assured her, smiling faintly. She really did have a beautiful voice. Nice eyes, too. It was a shame she also had a coarse, dirty-grey pelt and facial features out of a horror movie...
"Actually, we are given to understand that, on many occasions, you are actually defying the precepts of your profession in offering aid." She looked up as someone spoke from outside the range of the holoprojector. "As much as we might wish to prolong this conversation, we are urgently needed elsewhere. Good day to you, Detective Vic Bruno. Daggon. Melanie."
"She always talk about herself in the plural?" Vic asked after the hologram had faded.
"Only in front of men she is not related to," Cole said, shrugging. "Enixians have very strict customs about interactions between the genders."
"Shit, I insulted her, didn't I?" Vic asked, shaking his head in irritation. So that was why Cole had been laughing...
"No, you proposed to her, Vic," Cole said, failing to suppress his smile. "It's okay, though. I don't think her other husbands would appreciate her taking an alien to her Hearth without discussing the matter with them first. She would not be so inconsiderate of their feelings."
"Other husbands?" Vic asked, blinking. "As in more than one?"
"Four still living," Cole told him matter-of-factly. "Also seven children, twenty-three grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren. I believe her oldest great-grandson is about your age."
"Shit," Vic muttered, shaking his head and laughing softly. It really was funny in perspective. He had just proposed to an alien old enough to be his great-grandmother. He wondered what Maria would have said to that one. "Open mouth, insert foot. Uh, just so I don't do it again, how did I end up proposing to the woman?"
"You addressed her as 'miss'. On Enix, married females are always referred to as 'matriarch', except by intimate friends or relatives. In calling a married woman 'miss', you express your desire that she no longer be 'matriarch' to you," he explained.
"Ah. That makes perfect sense," Vic lied, nodding.
Mel smiled faintly, taking pity on him. "What did you need to talk to Cole about?" she asked.
"Oh, I was hoping he might have some insight on a case."
"I am always glad to share any information I have," Cole told him, offering him a chair. "What has happened?"
"A woman checked into the emergency room this morning with several symbols cut into her back, I mean a few inches deep. She refused to say how they got there. It was weird."
"So you immediately thought of me," Cole teased, smiling faintly.
Vic shook his head. Mel had been right. Cole's sense of humor might have been hard to pick up on, but he was good. Once you could tell when he was teasing and when he was serious, which, admittedly, was not always easy, he was a very funny man. Of course, Vic could not be teased without bantering right back.
"Actually, I immediately thought of the Blair Witch Project, but you were a pretty close second, buddy." He shrugged. "I was wondering if you had any fugitives in the habit of cutting open their victims and then driving them to the emergency room."
"No." Cole shook his head faintly, frowning. His stomach was starting to churn. "It is very unusual behavior. Do you have a picture of the symbols?"
"As a matter of fact, I do." Vic nodded and produced a glossy photograph, a close-up of the injuries. "Uh, Mel, you might want to..."
"Vic, I've probably seen worse on my own body in the past two months," she pointed out flatly.
Vic winced. "Sorry."
"No, I'm sorry." Mel shook her head. "I just... I'm not some delicate female you have to protect."
"I know. You're the one who'd be protecting me if it ever came down to it," he pointed out, laying the picture on Cole's desk.
"God," Mel whispered, shaking her head. There was no way those geometric shapes were put in at random. They flowed too smoothly. Lines and angles that sharp should not have been capable of flowing, but they did. It was almost unnatural.
"Was this woman a member of your people's military?" Cole asked quietly, absently tracing one finger across the image.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact. A Lieutenant Colonel, Doctor Kelley." Vic frowned. "How did you know that, Cole?"
"Ayjata thera ayjata," Cole answered, tapping the picture.
"Blood repays itself in blood," Mel whispered.
"Lana," Vic sighed, shaking his head. "Damn. This is bad."
"She will not kill anyone," Cole announced after a moment's thought. "But you may expect to see more cases such as this one."
"Vindictive bitch," Vic muttered.
"They were torturing her, Vic," Cole pointed out. "She could have died. She considers herself entitled to be revenged on them. Until their membership in the Alliance, Vardian law would have allowed her to exact revenge by torturing them as she was tortured."
"You sure she won't kill any of them?" he asked, shifting uneasily. "I mean, because otherwise I am coming up with a cover to get an APB out on her right now..."
"You honestly think she'll allow herself to be taken alive?" Cole asked, shaking his head. "She was killing members of your Special Forces, a trained extraction squad. What chance could human police stand? No, Vic. She will not kill them. Zin promised."
"Bastard!" Mel snapped, shaking her head. "We trusted him."
"Never trust a Vardian," Cole answered quietly, shaking his head. "We had no other choice. The promise I extracted from him will prevent him from allowing Lana to kill any of her captors, but he will not prevent this revenge. I wouldn't be surprised if he held her down for Lana."
"Why isn't Kelley talking?" Vic asked. "Just because of how she and Lana knew each other?"
Cole shook his head. "I think she doesn't want to end up committed for telling the truth."
"What? Someone carved her up! Why would they commit her?" Mel demanded.
"Lana used her claws. She was in her true Vardian form."
"The giant, gray, saber-toothed, talking cheetah?" Mel asked, shaking her head. "God, no wonder the woman isn't saying anything..."
"That'd be an interesting police-sketch," Vic said softly. "She actually did that with her claws? You're sure?"
"Yes, Vic. You can tell by the angle and depth of the cuts. They curve slightly inward just under the surface of the skin."
He nodded weakly, feeling sick to his stomach. He could not imagine what it must have been like for Kelley. He was not sure he wanted to.
"And you're sure Lana won't let thing get out of hand?" he pressed.
"Does that look to you like the work of a psychopath, Vic?" Mel asked quietly. "Like someone who's getting carried away by the moment? She may be a lot of things, including evil and probably insane, too, but she's an in-control wacko. I have to give her that."
"She is that," he agreed with a sigh, nodding. "There's not a damned thing I can do to stop this, is there?"
"No, Vic." Cole shook his head. "I am sorry."
"Thanks," he sighed, shaking his head. "Look, I've got to run now. I have to file this."
"We let this happen," Mel whispered when he was gone, staring down at the picture and rubbing the small of her back. "If it weren't for us, this poor woman would never have gone through this."
"I know, Mel," Cole sighed, gathering her into his arms. "But we did what we had to. We can not risk a full-scale mobilization by your authorities. They can never be allowed to get proof of our existence here."
She sighed and nodded, leaning into his warm chest and taking comfort. "Those who dance with the devil eventually get burned," she whispered. "My grandmother used to tell me that. Things always come back to bite you in the ass. That's how she put it when she didn't think I could hear." She shook her head.
"She was a very wise woman from everything you have told me of her," Cole answered. "She reminds me of Eijan. Eijan says that the greatest evils in the universe are the necessary ones."
"That's not very comforting."
"It is not meant to be."
"Oh." Mel sighed and buried her face in his chest.
"She also says that light can only be realized as beautiful in the dark and the cold."
"Cold comfort," she muttered, shaking her head and looking up at him. "Tell me it's okay, Cole. Tell me that we did the right thing."
Cole tightened his gentle hold on her, burying his face in her hair. "It was the right thing, Mel. It was the only thing..."