"Is it just me, or is the estrogen reaching dangerous levels in here?" Harper pulled his diagnostic interface from the pocket of his cargo pants and made a show of checking it. "Yep, readings are off the scale. I'm going down to load the supplies, where it's safe."

Beka and Regina watched Seamus clomp across the metal catwalk and slide down the ladder. They were both shocked into complete silence by his unconventional method of breaking the tension. Once he was gone they looked at each other, startled to see matching rueful smiles.

"And to think, I had wondered about his survival instincts." Regina shook her head.

"Yeah, Harper's something else. We're not exactly sure what, but he's something. Speaking of which, you were about to tell me something about yourself." It was hard to continue being a hardass after Harper's clowning, but she didn't want Regina to think she was off the hook.

"Way to stay focused on the matter at hand. All right, what do you want to know?"

"What are your intentions toward Tyr?

"Is this my cue to say, 'strictly honorable'? They are, by the way. I know it must seem very sudden to you, human tradition calls for a lengthy courtship, but you must understand that I am no less committed than if we had 'dated' for several months beforehand." Regina shifted slightly, letting the overhead light catch the Helix on her arm in a subtle reminder that she had not been toying with Tyr's affection. She had gone all the way, publicly accepting him as her mate.

"It's more than the time frame. Tyr is the last member of his Pride; he's been ostracized all his life because his people had the bad taste to be killed off by their own allies. Why would you marry him? What's in it for you?" Beka fired off the questions with cold precision.

"Why wouldn't I? He's an alpha male in his prime, the best of his bloodline. I am not shortsighted enough to buy into the Drago-Katsov propaganda that the Kodiak were inferior. The only way they won the day was through deception and a heavy orbital bombardment before sending in ground troops to mop up the survivors. Everyone knows it, but it helps them sleep with their decision not to honor their alliance with the Kodiak if they pretend to agree."

"Yet you alone are willing to fly in the face of convention and marry Anasazi, with no backing from your Pride." Beka's voice was heavy with the patented Valentine sarcasm.

"Who said I had no backing in this joining? By marrying him I please myself and my house, for it is common knowledge that he has been offered a place is Jaguar Pride." Regina frowned at Beka. The blonde captain was not stupid, she had to know that much at least.

"Which he turned down," Beka pointed out.

"He was right to refuse, since accepting would have meant the death of Kodiak forever. His offspring would be Sabra-Jaguar Pride, had he taken the offer as it stood. I, however, am not so close to the throne. I can take his name and join his Pride without offering insult to my own. "

"And I suppose the fact that you're being hunted by the Sabra half of your Pride has nothing to do with your decision."

"What? Where did you hear that?" Regina jerked slightly in surprise. She had only just heard from Callisto about the mercenaries being Sabran. She had said nothing about who had hired them.

"It's all over the spaceport. You are a very hot topic right now. Everyone is wondering what you did to piss them off."

"I wish I knew what you were talking about. The mercenaries who attacked the Boadicca were Sabran, but that doesn't mean anything. A lot of beta males try to win mates through feats of arms, especially ones that pay. It was just luck of the draw that the mercs were Sabran instead of some other Nietzschean Pride." Regina rolled her eyes.

"I don't believe in coincidence, I don't think you do either." Valentine retorted.

"If I knew of anything I'd done to piss them off, I might buy it, but I haven't. They were probably hired by one of the big cartels that want to take our trade routes." Regina pointed out the far more likely option.

"One ship is not going to hurt them, sorry to burst your bubble. If they wanted your routes, they'd just move in and offer a rate you couldn't match." Beka said, voice bitter with experience.

"If we were only one ship, and they knew the origin points of our goods, then yes. But we are not, and they do not. I'm sure you've heard of Echidna Shipping." Regina arched a brow.

"One of the last small company hold-outs still in the black. Sure I've heard of them. They're very close-mouthed, and so they get a lot of sensitive contracts, on top of their regular trade agreements. Don't tell me you work for them?" Beka's voice had gained a measure of respect. Echidna Shipping held a small but lucrative corner of the market, and they took care of their employees.

"Worse. I'm a shareholder. I suspect that the information leaked somehow, and they're trying to get at the company through me. It's the only thing I can think of." It was too. Regina had been pondering it ever since Callisto had made it clear that she alone was the target, and that was the only thing she could come up with.

"How much of a shareholder are you?" Beka raised a brow.

"Thirty percent." Regina kept her voice neutral, as if she hadn't just admitted to being a very wealthy individual.

"Guess you weren't marrying Tyr for his money, huh?" Beka gave a crooked grin, hoping to throw the redhead off guard. Some people were more talkative when they thought they had a receptive audience.

"Nope." Regina shrugged, not rising to the bait.

"So why did you marry him? I warn you, if this is some twisted Nietzschean plot that ends up hurting Tyr, you will answer to me, and I will make you pray for death before I am through with you." Captain Valentine's voice was as cold as space, and her eyes had become deadly serious. She wasn't playing any more. She wanted Regina to know that she still didn't trust her, and that one misstep from her would bring Beka down on her like a ton of bricks.

"I am not using Tyr. He is the most amazing, incredible male I have ever met. I sincerely doubt anyone uses that man; he is very good at covering all his angles." Regina said flatly.

"Normally I would agree with you, but we both know that men lose their heads over a pretty face and a nice pair of tits. Tyr might be the exception, and he might not. So I will ask the questions, and you will answer them to my satisfaction."

"Uncle Charlie said you should have been born Nietzschean, and I have to agree." Regina let her hands drop away from her weapons in a peace offering.

Beka would have taken a shot by now if she really intended to. Maybe by using body language, she could convince Captain Valentine that she was trustworthy. It seemed to work, Beka's posture relaxed slightly. Her hand fell away from the hilt of her force lance. The air no longer crackled with the potential for violence. In fact, the blonde was cracking the slightest grin

"Uncle Charlie?" Beka asked, one brow arching.

"The Archduke Charlemagne Bolivar is a little formal for everyday use. Besides, I've been tormenting him with the diminutive since I was old enough to realize he didn't like it." Regina grinned, remembering the fearless brat she had been.

"I can see that. His ego could stand a little deflating." Quirked lips blossomed into a full-blown smile as Beka envisioned the suave and elegant blonde wincing as his niece called him 'Charlie'.

It made her more inclined to like Regina, even though she had yet to learn anything really reassuring about Tyr's new wife. Being related to Charlemagne did absolutely nothing to calm her suspicions at all. Quite the opposite in fact. The Archduke chose to cloak his strength under an amiable foppish exterior, rather like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and Batman, but Beka was not fooled in the least. That kitty still had his claws, however sheathed in velvet they might be.

"However, Uncle Charlie is not my blood uncle, for all that I abuse him like one. His sister, Callisto, rescued me from the Magog and adopted me with full approval of the Jaguar Matriarch, Coatlique." Regina did not mention the rigorous testing that had been made before she had been granted that status.

"Knowing how insular and supremacist the Prides are, you will excuse my skepticism if I do not believe this was exactly done with open arms." Beka looked Regina over again. She had wondered about the absence of boneblades, but hadn't planned to ask in case it had been some kind of accident.

"My line was gene-engineered to survive and flourish in the heavy gravity of Undine, any defective genes were also culled during the process. Any offspring of mine will inherit the denser body and high gravitational tolerance; both traits are equally useful in either colonization or combat. The greater physical strength afforded by the denser muscle mass is considered very desirable by the Jaguar, who are looking to increase their physical stature." Regina flexed a bicep for emphasis, and it was not a weak showing.

"Yeah, next to the Drago-Katsov, they're outmassed." Beka said dismissively.

"Ah, but not outclassed. Most of the new nanotechnological advances have been made by the Jaguar, not to mention the wea...," Regina broke off with a grin. "Well, those aren't for public consumption, but you can bet the Dragans know we have them. They've been trying to steal the tech ever since we spanked them at Cestus IV. It's part of the reason they tried so hard to keep the alliance with Sabra from happening. If we had more warriors to use the weapons the intellectuals are designing, the Dragans would be history."

"So that's why Jaguar was willing to join with Sabra. I had wondered. The Sabrans have always been brawlers and trouble makers, while the Jaguar are deal makers." Beka realized that Regina had a very firm grasp of Pride politics; enough so that she could explain the previously unfathomable merger to an outsider and have it make sense. She might be just what Tyr needed after all, if she could be trusted. The jury was still out on that one.

"It's also why Uncle Charlie offered one of my aunts to Tyr. His offspring would offer the same benefits, and his experience and hatred of all things Dragan is not to be overlooked. Those qualities would make Tyr an excellent general in the war we all knew was coming. He still would, but I will not ask it of him." Regina shrugged dismissively.

"Why not?" Beka narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"Reestablishing Kodiak Pride is going to take a lot of work. I would rather not divide our attention in such a manner. Besides, I rather think Uncle Charlie is going to use this war to thin out the incredible excess of beta males from both sides. I'd rather not get involved in a long, drawn- out bloodbath. Unless it's to sell them much needed supplies, of course." Regina grinned like a shark.

"Of course." Beka was starting to like Regina.

"It would be sweet irony if the Sabra-Jaguar/Drago-Katsov war were to fund the rebuilding of Kodiak Pride." Regina was clearly thinking of profit and the opportunity to stiff the Dragans.

"Yes, it would." The new Mrs. Anasazi and Captain Valentine shared a moment of mutual understanding.

Under the skin, they were very similar. Regina wondered if that had been part of her appeal for Tyr. She was as close to Beka Valentine as he could possibly get, since taking the blonde for a mate would have kept him from ever marrying into the Prides. It was not a very happy thought, but she would keep it to herself for now.