Chapter 10

Everything was going perfect, but then a bystander threw herself in between me and my target. She couldn't see me, but she was staring me down.

This girl had no idea who she was protecting at that moment.

Jacob Davidson. Human. A former Thunderian officer who became a mercenary leader. Wouldn't be too much trouble. No heightened senses like the Thunderians, or as tech competent as Berbils. There was not much known about Davidson, there never is much on file about rouge special operation operatives.

I hid in bushes one-hundred meters from the entrance to Davidson's building, looking through my scope, studying the building. Making sure he would not escape or double back. The building was well lit, security in lobby was like its private military. Equipped with anti-vehicle weapons and Kassa fortification body armor. Not many people entering or exiting the building. Only way was through the front door.

All I had was a M-99 Black Widow, which I nicknamed 'Vera.' The Empire wanted to reduce the reload time of the original Widow rifle, without sacrificing its stopping power. The solution was to increase the number of shots the gun could fire before it needed to reload. Heavy for a sniper rifle, the Black Widow's firepower more than compensates for its encumbrance. I could have missed Davidson by inches, and the shock alone could have been enough to kill him.

As he and a few armed guards were coming out of the building, I lined up my shot. It's just a tunnel between me and him. No one else existed. No sight. No sound. Just perfect peace. Then I saw her.

Her name was Katerina Amarante, and she was beautiful. Physically it was plain and simple. She was becoming a woman. She already started to grow, and she had started to develop a woman's body. The prepubescent disdain for the opposite sex had already given way to hormonal imperatives.

I have trained long and hard to withstand those impulses, to not get distracted by a pretty face when it comes to me and my target. But the fact that she was subtly putting her life on the line, protecting a man whom neither of us knew, was... mesmerizing. Her body was slightly trembling, but no fear. More like indignation. As if saying, how dare you.

Looking back, Katerina woke me up from the death sleep. I didn't even notice the heavily armored guards acting as their escorts.

I did not kill Davidson... well, not that day.

After that, I had to meet her. The memory possessed and endowed me. I fell on my knees before her and begged for forgiveness. She showed me a world outside of my work. Eventually she forgave me. Later she loved me.

We started seeing each other. Having secret affairs and staying out of the public eye. I became complacent. I thought that we were safe. I stayed in a dream too long and my enemies came for her.

Lizards. A slave ring that preyed on human colonies. I killed their leaders, so they wanted revenge. Later I found that they paid Tygra to find out who I was. But they were afraid, so they went after Katerina.

I sent her to stay with my family. They were the best, and Katerina would soon be the voice of our species, so it seemed like the best option.

Katerina woke me up. When she was threatened, I returned to the death sleep. My body hunted them. Murdered them. I was taught to grant death quickly, cleanly. To minimize suffering. Them... lets just say I took some enjoyment in watching them die.

I have killed many. Different methods. Gunfire, knives, drugs, tech attacks, and even once with farming equipment. But it was never murder!

I made the choice to hunt them. They were the only lives I have taken of my own choice. The only deaths on my own conscience.

I have not seen Katerina ever since then. I was afraid she will not recognize me.

"... Nikolia. Are you even paying attention?"

Nikolia snapped from his daydreaming. It was the afternoon when the little walled town of Natchaug, dominated by his uncle's rocca, appeared on its hill on the horizon. They had made better time than he had expected and had now eased their pace to spare the animals.

"Yes," Nikolia replied. "I was just thinking on how much more work I have to do." He yawned. "Perhaps it will soon be finished."

"Would that be so bad?" his uncle, Cortez, asked.

Nikolia was about to reply when he was interrupted by the sound of an explosion - cannon fire, from the direction of Natchaug. He drew his weapon, rising in his saddle to scan the ramparts.

"Don't worry," said Cortez, laughing heartily. "It's only exercises. We've upgraded the arsenal here and installed new cannons all along the battlements. We have training sessions daily."

"As long as they aren't aiming at us."

"Don't worry," said Cortez again. "It is true that the greens still need to get their eye in, but they have enough sense not to fire at their boss!"

A short while later they were riding through the open principal gate of the town and up the broad main thoroughfare, which led to the citadel. As they did so, crowds gathered to line the street, looking at Nikolia with a mixture or respect, admiration, and affection.

"Welcome back, Nikolia!" one woman called.

"Grazie, Madonna." Nikolia smiled back, inclining his head slightly.

"Three cheers for Nikolia!" a child's voice rang out.

"Buon giorno, fratellino," Nikolia said to him. Turning to Cortez, he added, "It's weird to be home."

"Weird how?"

"Weird in the good way, but I can't shake the feeling that it might soon turn into a kill zone."

"That feeling will pass soon enough. Just enjoy yourself. They're more pleased to see you than me," said Cortez, but he was smiling as he spoke, and in fact much of the cheering, especially from the older townsmen, was for him.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the old family seat again," said Nikolia. "It's been a while."

"It has indeed, and there are a couple of people there who'll be looking forward to seeing you."

Nikolia then noticed several ThunderCat and Cleric guards roaming around the city. "Who?"

"Can't guess? You can't be that preoccupied with your duties to the Empire."

"Of course - you mean my mother and Feodora! How are they?"

"Well. Your sister was very unhappy when her husband died, but time heals most wounds, and I think she's much better now. In fact, there she is."

They had ridden into the courtyard of Cortez's fortified residence now, and as they dismounted Nikolia's sister, Feodora, appeared at the top of the marble staircase that led up to the main entrance, flew down it, and into her brother's arms.

"Brother!" she cried, hugging him. "Your return home is the best birthday present I could have wished for!"

"Feodora, my dearest," said Nikolia, holding her close. "It is good to be back. How is mom?"

"Well, thanks be to the Divines. She's dying to see you - we've been on tenter-hooks ever since the news reached us that you were returning. And your fame goes before you!"

"Let's go in," said Cortez.

"There's someone else who'll be glad to see you," continue Feodora, taking his arm and escorting him up the staircase. "The Duchess of Minnechaug."

"Katerina? Here?" Nikolia tried to keep the excitement out of his voice.

"We did not know when exactly you would arrive. She and Mother are with abbess, but they will be here by sunset."

"Business as usual," said Cortez, knowingly. "I am calling a meeting later here tonight. Lion-O, I know, is especially keen to talk to you."

"Is it true, then?" asked Feodora intently. "Is the tiger truly dead?"

Nikolia's grey eyes hardened. "I will explain everything at the meeting this evening," he told her.

"Very well," replied Feodora, but her own eyes were troubled as she took her leave.

"And please give my greetings to the duchess when she returns," Nikolia called after her. "I will see her, and Mother, this evening. First I have business to attend to with Cortez that will not wait."

Once they were alone, Cortez's tone became serious. "You must prepare well for tonight, Nikolia. Lion-O will be here by sunset and I know he has many questions for you. We will discuss matters now, and then I advise you take some time off. Settle down for a bit. It won't hurt you to get to know the town again a little."

After a session of deep conversation with Cortez in his study, Nikolia made his way back into Natchaug. The questions of Tygra's death hung heavily over him, and he sought distraction from it. Cortez had suggested he visit his tailor to order some new clothes to replace his travel-stained ones, and first he made his way to the man's shop, where he found him sitting cross-legged on his workbench, sewing a brocade cloak of rich emerald green.

Nikolia liked the tailor, a good-natured fellow a little older than Nikolia was himself. The tailor greeted him warmly.

"To what do I owe the honor?" he asked.

"I think I'm long over-due for some new clothes," said Nikolia a little ruefully. "Tell me what do you think? Be honest!"

"Even if it was not my job to sell you clothes, signore, I would have to advise you that a new suit would do you some good."

"I thought as much. Very well!"

"I'll measure you now. Then you can pick out the clothes you'd like."

Nikolia submitted himself to the tailor's ministrations and choose a discreet dark-green velvet coat, closed on his waist by a red sash, with a matching shirt underneath.

"Can it be ready by tonight?"

The tailor smiled. "Do not insult me, signore. It can be ready in three hours."

"Very well," replied Nikolia, hoping that the meeting would not have a dress code.

He was making his way across the main square of the town when he noticed an attractive woman who was struggling with an unwieldy box of red and yellow plates - clearly too heavy to lift. At that time of day there were few people around, and Nikolia had always found it difficult to turn a cold shoulder.

"Can I lend you a hand?" he asked, coming up to her

She smiled at him. "Yes, you're just the man I need. My craftsman was supposed to pick these up for me but his wife is in labor so he had to go to her and as I was passing this way in any case I said I'd fetch them - but after lift two or three, this last box is far too heavy. Do you think you could-?"

"Of course." Nikolia stooped and hefted the box up. "So many platters! You must be well off."

"I'm better now that I've run into you."

There was no doubt that she was flirting with him. "You could have asked your husband to fetch them for you - or one of your other servants," he said.

"I only have one other servant and she isn't half as strong as I am," replied the woman. "And as for a husband - I have none."

"I see."

"I ordered these plates for Feodora Angelucci's birthday." the woman looked at him.

"That sounds like fun."

"It will be. I already ordered twelve cases of flowers for the occasion."


She paused. "In fact, if you'd like to help me out some more, I am rather looking for someone with a touch of class to escort me to it."

"What makes you think I have class?"

She was bolder now. "Look at you! No one in this town walks with greater bearing than you, sir. I'm sure Feodora's brother, Nikolia himself, would be impressed."

Nikolia smiled. "You know how to flatter a person. But what do you know of this Nikolia?"

"Katerina - who is a particular friend of mine - thinks the world of him. But he rarely visits her, and from what I have heard, he has been rather distant."

He decided it was time to come clean. "It is true - I have been... distant."

The woman gasped. "Oh no! You are Nikolia? I don't believe it. Feodora did say you were expected back. The party was supposed to be a surprise for her. Promise you won't say a word."

"You'd better tell me who you are now."

"Oh, of course. I am Ashlee Molinaro. Now promise!"

"What will you do to keep me quiet?"

She looked back at him archly. "Oh, I am sure I can think of several things."

"I'm curious to hear what they are." They had reached the door of Ashlee's house by this time. Ashlee's elderly housekeeper opened it to them and Nikolia placed the box of plates on a stone bench in the courtyard. He faced Ashlee and smiled..

"Now are you gonna tell me?"


"Why not now?"

"Signore, I assure you it will be worth the wait."

Nikolia took his leave and, seeing that the day was drawing in, directed his walk back to the citadel. As he was approaching the stables, he noticed a child - a little girl - wandering down the middle of the street, apparently alone. He was about to speak to her when he was interrupted by the sound of frantic shouting and the thunder of hooves. Quicker than thought, he snatched up the child and moved her to the shelter of a doorway. Around the corner a powerful warhorse came at a gallop, fully harnessed but without a rider. In less than hot pursuit, and on foot, came Cortez's stable-master, an elderly man named Federico, whom Nikolia recognized.

"Torna qui, maledetto cavallo!" yelled Federico helplessly after the disappearing horse. Seeing Nikolia, he said, "Can you help me, please sir? It is your uncle's favorite. I was just about to unsaddle and groom him - something must have scared him - he's highly stung as it is."

"Don't worry, comrade - I'll try and get him back for you."

"Thank you - thank you." Federico mopped his brow. "I'm getting too old for this."

"Don't worry. Just stay here and keep an eye on this child - I think she's lost."


Nikolia raced off after the horse, which he found without difficulty. It had calmed down and was even grazing some hay that was loaded onto a parked truck. It balked slightly when Nikolia approached, but then recognized him and did not run. He laid a comforting hand on its neck and patted it reassuringly before taking its bridle and leading it gently back the way they had come.

On the way, he had the opportunity to do another good deed. He encountered a young woman, frantic with anxiety, who turned out to be the mother of the lost child. Nikolia explained what had happened, taking care to tone down the degree of danger the little girl had actually been in. Once he had told her where the girl was, she ran a head of him, calling out her child's name:

"Sofia! Sofia!"

And Nikolia heard the answering cry.


Minutes later he had rejoined the little group and handed the reins over to Federico, who, thanking him again, begged him not to say anything to Cortez. Nikolia promised not to, and Federico led the har back to the stables.

The mother was still waiting with her daughter. Nikolia turned to them with a smile.

"She wants to say thank-you," said the mother.

"Thank you," said Sofia dutifully, looking up at him with a mixture of awe and trepidation.

"Stay with your mother next time," said Nikolia kindly. "Don't leave her alone, capisci?"

The little girl nodded mutely.

"We'd be lost without you and your family to watch over us, signore." said the mother.

"We do what we can," Nikolia said, but his thoughts were troubled as he entered the citadel. Even though he was pretty sure he could stand his ground, he was not looking forward to his encounter with Lion-O and Cheetara.

There was still enough before the meeting, and to avoid brooding on the course it might take, but also from natural curiosity, Nikolia first climbed the ramparts to have a closer look at the new cannons' Cortez had installed and was so proud of. There were several of them, each with a pile of shells neatly stacked be their platforms, all cased in beautiful bronze.

Nikolia approached a group of gunners clustered around one of the guns.

"Handsome beasts," he said, running a hand over the elaborately chased decoration around the barrel.

"Indeed they are, Lord Nikolia," said the leader of the group, a rough-hewn master-sergeant whom Nikolia remembered from his first visit to Minnechaug as a young boy.

"I heard you practicing earlier. May I try firing one of these?"

"You could, but we were firing smaller cannons earlier. These big guns are brand new. We don't seem to have got the trick of loading them yet and our engineer who's supposed to be installing them seems to have taken off."

"Have you got people looking for him?"

"Indeed we have, sir, but no luck so far."

"I'll have a look around, too - after all, these things aren't here for decoration and you never know how soon we'll need them.

Nikolia set off, continuing his rounds of the ramparts. He had not gone more than another twenty or thirty yards when he heard a loud grunting from a wooden shed on the top of one of the towers. Near it, outside, lay boxes of tools. As he approached, the grunts resolved themselves into snores.

It was dark and hot inside the shed and smelled appallingly of stale whiskey. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, Nikolia quickly made out a large man in his none-too-clean dressings spread-eagled on a pile of straw. He gave the man a gentle kick, but its only effect was for the man to splutter, half awake, and then turn over with his face to the wall.

"Salve, Messere," Nikolia said, jostling the man again, less gently this time, with the toe in his boot.

This time the man twisted his head around to look at him and opened one eye. "What do you want, friend?"

"We need you to fix the cannons on the battlements."

"Not today, chum. First thing..."

"Are you too drunk to do your job? I don't think General Cortez would be very happy if he got wind of that."

"No more work today."

"But it's not that late. Do you know what time it is?"

"No. Don't care, either. I fix cannons, not clocks."

Nikolia had squatted down to speak to the man, who in turn had pulled himself into a sitting position and was treating Nikolia to a gale of his breath, pungent with garlic and cheap Johnnie Walker, as he belched luxuriously. Nikolia drew himself to his feet.

"We need those cannons ready to be fired, and we need them ready now," he said. "Do you want me to find someone else who's more capable than you?"

The engineer scrambled to his feet. "Not so fast, friend - no other man's going to lay hands on my guns." He leaned on Nikolia as he got his breath back. "You don't know what it's like - some of these soldiers, they got no respect for artillery. They expect a gun to work like magic, just like that! No sense of coaxing a good performance out of 'em."

"Can we talk as we walk?" said Nikolia, turning away from the rancid breath. "Time isn't standing still, you know."

"Mind you," the engineer continued, "These things we've got here, and I mean they're in a class of their own - nothing but the best for General Cortez - but they are still pretty simple. We call them Tremors for a reason.

They have a one hundred thirty-two millimeter caliber gun, capable of firing a thirty-eight kilogram shell over fifteen kilometers at a velocity of eight hundred fourteen miles per hour. So a shell fired to the weapon's maximum range would take nineteen seconds to reach its point of impact."

"Uh huh," Nikolia sighed. He would be more interested if the man did not smell so bad.

"The cannon itself is extremely reliable and consistent. It uses its standard five powder charges, but this can be increased with the addition of charges six and seven. This will increase the range of the weapon at the risk of the extra wear and tear on the barrel of the gun itself. Firing higher charged shots produces considerable strain and erosion on the barrel and the firing chamber, so that the weapon's breach seal fails, dramatically decreasing the gun's range and muzzle velocity and increasing the risk of a misfire."

"Oh, really,"

"Because of this, the use of higher charge shells must be authorized by high command and the firing is recorded on each gun. No gun may fire more than twenty overcharged rounds." The engineer continued. "The Tremors can also fire different types of shells as the situation requires, including smoke shells, incendiary shells, illumination shells and diamantine-tipped armor-penetrating shells. This is the future, chum."

By now they were approaching the group around the cannon.

"You can call off the hunt," said Nikolia cheerfully. "Here he is."

The master-sergeant eyed the engineer narrowly. "Up to it, is he?"

"I may be a little the worse for wear," retorted the engineer, "but I am a reasonable man. In these times, encouraging the sleeping warrior in my gut is the only way to stay alive. Therefore, it is my job to drink." He pushed the sergeant aside. "Let me see what we've got here..."

"He does realize that the war is over, right?" said one soldier.

"I'll be shocked if he knows his own name." said Nikolia.

After examining the cannon for a few moments, however, he rounded on the soldiers. "What have you been doing? You've been tampering with them, haven't you? Thank the Divines you didn't fire one - you could have gotten us all killed. They are not ready yet. You have to give the bores a good, thorough, cleaning first."

"Perhaps with you around we won't need the cannons after all," the sergeant told him. "We'll just get you to breathe on your enemy!"

But the engineer was busy with a cleaning rod and several wads of coarse, oily cotton. When he had finished, he stood up, easing his back.

"There, that's done it," he said. Turning to Nikolia, he went on, "Just get these fellows to load her - that is something they can do, though Divines knows it took 'em long enough to learn - and you can have a go. Look, over there on the hill." a soldier handed Nikolia a pair of birnoculars and pointed to the hills in the distance, "We set some targets up there on a level with this gun. Start by aiming at something on the same level; that way, if the cannon explodes, at least it won't take your head off with it."

"Reassuring enough," said Nikolia.

"Just try it, Messere. Here is the cord."

Nikolia gave a quick jerk or the rip-cord. For a slight second, nothing happened, he then sprang back as the cannon bucked and roared. Looking across to the targets, could see that his shell had shattered several of them.

"Well done," said the engineer. "Perfecto! At least one person here apart from me knows how to shoot."

Nikolia had the men reload and fired again. But this time he missed.

"Can't win 'em all," said the engineer. "But come back tomorrow. We'll be practicing again then and it'll give you a chance to get your eye in."

"I will," said Nikolia.

When Nikolia entered the great hall of Cortez's citadel, the shadows of the evening were already gathering, and servants were beginning to replace burnt out lightbulbs to dispel the gloom. The gloom accorded with Nikolia's increasingly somber mood as the hour of the meeting approached.

So wrapped up in his own thoughts was he that he did not notice the person hovering by the massive fireplace, her slight but caryatids that flanked the chimney, and was so startled when the woman approached him, touching his arm. Immediately he recognized her, and his features softened into an expression of pure pleasure.

"Buona sera, Nikolia," she said - her, a little shyly, he thought.

"Buona sera, Katerina," he replied, bowing to the Duchess of Minnechaug. Her long locks were pilled into a pony tail held up by a strip of stiff cloth dyed vermilion floating behind her, the ends of her hair curled into ringlets. Her fair face had minimal make-up, just a dash of pink lipstick, eye shadow and mascara. Her dress was causing a stir as well. It was definitely a Nikolia first. She wore a silk black furisode, with large white and red patterns of flowers woven across its fabric. The bottom part had been cut into strips to fall over her full black silk skirt she wore under the lovely kimono. A silver obi was tied at her waist, the knot made in the front to signify her wedded status. What was more shocking was that she wore a katana at her waist.

"Feodora told me you were here, and I have been looking forward to seeing you. But -" he hesitated. "- Minnechaug is far from Thundera, and-"

"You don't need to come up with excuses," she said with a trace of her former sharpness, though he could see by her smile that she was not entirely serious, and, for himself, he knew that he was still drawn to this fiercely independent and dangerous woman.

"I am always willing to be of service to you, Madonna - in any way I can." He meant it.

"Some ways are harder than others," she countered, and now there was tough note in her voice.

"What is it?"

"It is not a simple matter," continued Katerina Amarante, "I come in search for closure."


"The empire has relied on Minnechaug ever since the founding days. Whether it be man power, science, or technology. We might be a small province, but we hold most of the cards. With Claudus and Tygra dead, I want to make sure Lion-O does not forget who is friends are."

"And you desire my help?"

"I already know my presence in congress is small, but your connection with Lion-O would be a great asset to my cause."

"This is something I have to discuss with Cortez."

"He will not refuse me."

"And nor will I."

"By helping me, you will not just be doing me a favor. You will be taking a stand against anything that could topple the empire."

As they spoke, Cortez appeared. "Nikolia, Duchessa, we are gathered and awaiting you," he said, his face unusually serious.

"We will talk more of this," Nikolia told her. "I am bidden to a meeting that my uncle has called. I am expected to explain myself, I think. But afterward - let us arrange to see each other afterward."

"The meeting concerns me, as well," said Katerina. "Shall we go in?"

Acting as the gentleman, Nikolia stuck out his arm to escort her in. Their former intimacy was some way in the past, though neither of them had forgotten it, and when she touched his arm, both - Nikolia thought - had felt the chemistry once more.

The room was very familiar to Nikolia. There, on the new-exposed inner wall, the pages of Magna Leges were arranged were arranged in order. The desk, usually littered with maps, was cleared and around it, on severe straight-backed chairs of dark wood, sat those of the different assassin families who had gathered at Natchaug, together with those of the Angelucci family who were privy to its cause.

Cortez sat behind his desk, and at one end sat a sober, dark suited lion, still young-looking, though his mane was growing thicker and fuller, who had become one of Nikolia's closest associates, but also one of his most unremitting critics - Emperor Lion-O. Next to him was Empress Cheetara, appearing more radiant than usual, and their escort Pumyra.

They nodded guardedly at each other as Nikolia went over to greet Feodora and his mother, Diana Angelucci, matriarch of the family since their father's death. Diana hugged her only surviving son hard, as if life depended on it, and looked at him with shining eyes as he broke free and took a seat near Katerina and opposite Lion-O, who rose and looked questioningly at him. Clearly there was going to be no polite prologue to the matter at hand.

"First, perhaps, I should be owed an explanation," began Lion-O. "I was not present in the Black Pyramid when Tygra died and from the information gathered, I can not truly analyze what happened there. Cortez has given us his account, but yours alone can be the full one."

Nikolia rose in his turn and spoke simply and directly. "When I arrived at the Black Pyramid, the battle had already begun and Tygra had ordered a rocket salvo on the pyramid. Tygra was engaged with Mumm-ra's Storm Charger. He crippled it and killed most of the crew."

"What then?" prompted Cheetara, as the others watched in silence.

"Mumm-ra appeared. Tygra... he tried to strike a deal with Mumm-ra. If he and his White Tigers fought for the Dominion, Mumm-ra would give him the crown, the sword, and someone else." Nikolia looked at Cheetara, then went back to his story. "I killed Mumm-ra before the deal could be sealed. I also killed Tygra, Bengali, and two more soldiers. Finally, I made it look like Tygra killed Mumm-ra, and that he got killed by an enemy sniper. That is what truly happened."

"Unbelievable..." Feodora whispered.

"To think that my own brother..." Lion-O was in disbelief, while Cheetara let out a content sigh.

"What cannot be earned, can be taken away," said Nikolia. "With that mind set, he was more then willing to sell his soul to the devil. I am not here to debate the past. I firmly stand behind my decision. Now we should discuss the future. What we are to do."

"And that would be?" Cortez asked.

"Knowing the difference between friend and foe." Katerina stood as Nikolia took his seat. "Emperor Lion-O, your father had belittled and ridiculed my species since the day of founding. When the war broke out, you helped rebuild and when the empire need tech and soldiers we gave them to you."

"What is your point?" asked Lion-O.

"I want to make sure that the humans who fought and died are remembered for their service," she said bluntly. "Also, I want to make sure you do not turn on us like the Emperors of the past have."

"Well you can be glad I am not those Emperors," said Lion-O.

Katerina sat back down, her business was done. Katerina's eyes met Nikolia's. Did he imagine it, or was there a flicker of old lust there? He shrugged inwardly. Perhaps he had just imagined it.

Nikolia ate lightly - just pollo ripieno with roast vegetables; and he drank his Chianti cut half-and-half with water. There was very little conversation at dinner, even among the different families. Nikolia answered his mother's string of questions politely but laconically. After all the tension that had mounted in anticipation of the meeting, all of which had now melted away, he was very tired.

He had barely had a chance to rest since leaving Thundera, and it looked now as if it would be a long time still before he could realize a long-cherished ambition of settling down in Natchaug, just reading and walking in the surrounding gentle hills.

As soon as he decently could, he made his excuses to the company and set off for his bedroom, a large, quiet, dimly lit space on one of the upper floors, with a view across the country side rather than the town.

Once he had reached it and dismissed the servant, he let go of his steeliness that had supported him throughout the day, and his very body slumped, his shoulders sagged, and his walk eased. His movements were slow and deliberate.

He then heard a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" said Nikolia.

It was a servant, a young one at that. She must have been hired on recently. "I brought some late night food and drink…compliments of Lady Amarante."

"Who sent you?" Nikolia asked bluntly.

"Huh? I... um..."

Just the fact that this servant was stumbling made Nikolia believe that foul play might be afoot. "Be gone!" he ordered, and slumped into a waiting chair. "I'm not thirsty or hungry!"

He looked at his hands, seeing that they were worn and raw with calluses. The hair on the back of his neck stood, he knew he was no longer alone.

"You fear poison because you have poisoned others." A demonic, yet familiar voice said. "Do you see, Nikolia?"

Over in the corner sat Tygra, still dirty and battle-hardened from the day Nikolia shot him. The bullet hole could clearly be seen on his forehead.

"Appearing right here and now, don't you think that is a bit much?" said Nikolia calmly. "What if someone is to walk in?"

"If you can see me, hear me, and respond to me, then that just means your insanity is finally catching up to you."

Outside, the servant had her ear firmly pressed against the door. She was eating and drinking Nikolia's meal, thus proving his suspicion wrong. "Who is he talking to?" She thought.

"How long are you going to stand there?" Nikolia barked from the other side. "Leave me alone. Begone!"

"Y-YES SIR!" With that the servant ran off. Almost dropping the platter while doing so.

Nikolia reclined in his chair, and let out a deep sigh. "International unification is a prerequisite to the construction of a utopia. Having two kings will lead to chaos. Your death was necessary."

"So the ends justify the means," Tygra said. "If that is what you run on, why did you not let Lion-O kill me?"

"Because history would have looked at it in the wrong way. Two brothers fighting against each other, for a title or a woman... I turned you into a legend, Tygra. If anything, you should be thanking me."

"Well... at least Cheetara's happy."

"Do you know she's pregnant?"

"Oh, really? How can you tell?"

"Mere observation. For an ageless cheetah of perfect physique, she has put on a pound or two. Then there were the two or three darker hairs, her interesting choice of a meal, and the fact she was practically glowing."

"My best to both of them." Tygra said. "Sorry if I don't sound happy that they are bringing a child that might be as horny as they are."

"Quite honestly, I'm amazed they aren't on six or seven by now. And then there is Pumyra..."

"Don't tell me she is also pregnant."

"No," said Nikolia. "Feodora taught her a technique to make sure that never happens. But still... gods…I think the fact that Cheetara also likes her, has made it worse."

"So what are they gonna call the little rugrat?"

"Haven't a clue. My best guess if it is a girl, Idith,"

"After mom."

"And if it is a boy, divines help us both... maybe Tygrus."

"After me. Why?"

"Lion-O still thinks of you as a good man and a brother. Let him believe in that rather than the truth." Nikolia smiled, and then began to chuckle a bit.

"What's so funny?"

"I hate you for what you did to my father and Katerina, and took great pleasure in killing you, Tygra." Nikolia settled down, and brought on a very cold facade. "But what about now? You're the only one I can honestly speak to."

Nikolia put his hood up over his head so it blocked half of his face. "We need to take care of each other because we're both crazy."

He moved across the room to where the servant had already drawn him a bath.

"I'm going to take a bath. I expect you to be gone before I'm done," turning around, he noticed that no one was there. "Huh, so that's what that feels."

He approached it, tugging at his boots and taking off his clothes as he did so, and, naked, stood for a moment, his clothes bundled in his hands, before a full-length mirror on a stand near the porcelain tub. He looked at his reflection with weary eyes. Where had two long decades gone? He straightened. He was older, stronger even, certainly wiser; but he could not ignore the profound fatigue he felt, or the scars from his past, and the bolts holding his arms in place.

He threw his clothes onto the bed. Under it, in a locked elm chest, were the secret weapons he had fashioned for himself. He would check them over first thing in the morning, after early morning training. The original hidden-blade never left him except when he was naked, and then it was always within arm's reach. He wore it always; it had become part of his body.

Sighing with relief, Nikolia slipped into the bath. Immersed to his neck in the hot water, breathing in the gently scented steam, he closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath of relief. Peace at last. And he had better make the most of the unknown time he had of it.

He had dozed off and begun to dream when the softest of noises, the door opening and closing behind it, causing him to wake, instantly alert, like an animal. Silently his hand sought the blade and with a practiced movement he attached it to his wrist. Then, in one fluid movement he turned to the bathroom door and stood upright in the tub, poised for action and looking in the direction of the door.

"Well," said Katerina, grinning as she had Nikolia's blade mere centimeters from her neck, "You certainly haven't lost any inches with the years."

"You have the advantage, Duchesse." Nikolia smiled. "You are fully dressed."

"I expect we could arrange something to change that. But I am waiting."

"Waiting for what?"

"For you to say that you don't really need to see for yourself. For you to say that you are sure, even without seeing my naked body that Nature has been as kind to me, if not kinder, as she has been to you." Her grin broadened at Nikolia's confusion. "But I remember you were never as good at paying compliments as you were at ridding the world of evil."

"Come here!"

He drew her to him, pulling at the furisode of her skirt as her fingers flew first at the blade, detaching it, and then at the laces of her kimono. Seconds later he had lifted her into the bath with him, their lips glued to each other and their naked limbs entwined.

They did not linger in the bath long, but soon got out, drying one another on the rough linen towels the servant had left. Katerina had brought a vial of scented massage oil with her and drew it from a pocket of her dress.

"Now, lie on the bed," she said. "I want to make sure you are good and ready for me."

"Clearly you can see that I am."

"Indulge me. Indulge yourself."

Nikolia smiled. This was better than sleep. Sleep could wait. Sleep, Nikolia would soon find, was obligated to wait three to four hours.

A shameless moan drowned the both of them—the sound of Katerina accepting his descent into madness.

He began to press her back against the bed, pulling his hand away from her face so he could slide them both just under her thighs. Effortlessly, he lifted her up—which caused her to throw her arms around his neck in response—and set her on the bed, her bottom perched on the very edge, Nikolia nestled comfortably between her legs.

But even after he had placed her safely where he wanted, she didn't let go of him just yet. She held him close as they never once broke the kiss, pulling him deeper into her, not caring about her responsibilities or anyone else.

Nikolia ran his hands back up her thighs and left them around her waist. He pushed into her, forcing her onto her back so that he arched over her like a great dark mass.

At last, the kiss was broken, leaving Katerina gasping for breath as she felt her assassin lavish her neck instead. She tipped her chin up so there was little part of her throat unexposed to his advances, and he hummed against her with contentment.

Meanwhile, his hands had grown restless again, and began to wander up her waist, teasing more silky flesh to his desires. His hands were warm against her heated skin, his fingertips teasing delicate parts of her as he drew nearer her chest.

As he began tracing the edge of her breasts, it dawned on Katerina that things were going to become very serious, very fast. She had not been this physically intimate with a man in far too long, and she realized every desire to resist him had fled her. Nikolia felt her begin to squirm beneath him as he teased her relentlessly, and he laughed against her throat before finally giving her what she wanted.

Katerina suppressed another breathy moan when his hands slipped under her to seek out that glorious, soft flesh. The warmth of his palms caused a voracious heat to pool between her thighs. She pulled her legs around his waist impulsively and Nikolia groaned, a low rumble in his chest comprised of deep male satisfaction.

He pulled away from her throat and slid down her body, meeting her foggy gaze for a lingering moment before lowering his head to her stomach and placing small, unassuming kisses there. Katerina suddenly felt it was harder and harder to breathe as Nikolia slowly made his way down her abdomen, his lips, his tongue, making a point of exploring the softness of her curves.

When he reached the top of her pelvis, he paused, and looked back up at her, pleased to see her chest heaving. When she realized he had stopped, she lifted her head to watch him. A rather wicked grin curled his dampened lips.

Although he had grown painfully hard, he was in no hurry. If he had learned one thing about women, it was that doing certain things slowly drove them insane. And this was an opportunity he did not want to waste.

Nikolia bestowed increasingly lascivious kisses and licks to each inch of her body as it was exposed to him, and soon enough, there was nothing concealed from him. Katerina cried out in surprise as he parted her with his fingers and ran his tongue along her delicate folds.

Her back arched up off of the bed, but the assasin held her hips securely in place, his fingers digging into her yielding thighs. His lips closed around her swollen clit and a jolt of white-hot ecstasy coursed up her spine, her breathing becoming far more labored. She felt his tongue, warm, wet, and rough, swirl around that sensitive bit of flesh, and she was nearly coming undone.

Sensing her impending climax, Nikolia ceased his actions, lifting his head and licking his lips. Katerina felt incredibly unprepared for any of this. She did not know whether to cry, or scream, or beg shamelessly for more. But although things were rapidly becoming a daze, she knew she wanted him to finish what he had started.

Nikolia chuckled under his breath as he watched her pleasure wane, seeing her cheeks flushed with long-repressed carnal wont. He could easily understand why so many suitors had dueled over her. And it pleased him that much more, then, to have her writhing beneath him.

"Please, Nikolia, don't leave me like this!" she was begging at this point.

At last, there was nothing preventing him from claiming her the way he wanted—fucking her until she screamed his name.

Nikolia wasted little time in fulfilling her needs and was just as quick in repositioning himself comfortably between her supple thighs. He pressed forward, leaning over her once more, taking her wrists in his hands and pinning them above her head. He bent down, touched his lips to her ear and murmured:

"Do you want it, Katerina? Are you aching to have me buried inside of your soaking cunt? Hmm?"

She felt lightheaded. Words failed her for a moment, but she fought to find her voice. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore, except giving herself to him as completely as possible. Everything about the way he touched her and the way he made her feel was just so right.

The danger, the charm…she wanted everything. Finally, she answered desperately:

"Yes…Oh Gods, Nikolia, please!…"

There it was. His name on her lips. Begging him to take her. To Nikolia, he had never heard anything more pleasing. No praise had ever sounded sweeter than what she had just uttered.

He groaned, "Yes…" against her throat and sheathed himself inside of her with a single stroke.

He lost himself in the glorious sensation, her entire body tightening around him, squeezing him in all the right places. Katerina cried out, never wanting that initial exquisite pain to subside.

Given everything that led up to this point, they both knew it would be fast and heavy, and they were perfectly happy with that. Nikolia withdrew from her soaking heat and thrust back into her with hardly a second's pause. He felt her hips shift to meet his strokes, allowing him a satisfyingly deep penetration, growing closer to that spot he knew would make her a dripping mess.

Katerina's fingers curled around his, and he felt her nails bite into his flesh on the back of his hands. He hissed in her ear and decided that two could play at that game. He gave a particularly aggressive thrust into her, and sunk his teeth into her dampened flesh, where the lines between what was shoulder and what was neck were blurred. And in that moment, he struck that delicious spot inside of her with illustrious force. Katerina cried out, Nikolia's name pouring from her lips in a deafening exaltation.

Her muscles shuddered around his aching length, locking him into an embrace he had no desire to escape from. In a great crash of elements and sensations, the assassin's breath caught in his throat and a wave of surging pleasure enraptured him, and not just physically.

A second later, as he came down off of his climactic high, Nikolia realized at some point, he had let go of Katerina's hands, which were now tightly wrapped around his neck, pulling him into a passionate, yet languid kiss. Her actions were unexpected, but he welcomed them with equal fervor. She murmured his name again, and he tasted it on his tongue. Like triumph and satisfaction. Like Katerina.

He grinned against her lips as they both lay in the darkness, trying to catch their breath. But Nikolia's mind was still working, but barely, even in the drowsy darkness, and he thought about what he'd said earlier. He knew he didn't keep promises very often. To him, they were poorly-founded agreements that were rarely worth pledging. But this was one promise he was very, very glad he kept this one.

Katerina curled up in his arms. She fell asleep before him and he watched her for a while. Nature had indeed been kind to her. Her slender yet curvaceous body, with its narrow hips, broad shoulders, and medium but perfect breasts, was surely that of a twenty-two-year-old, and her cloud of fine, fine bright red hair that tickled his chest as she laid her head on it carried the same scent that had driven him wild all those years ago. Once or twice in the depth of the night, he woke to find he had rolled away from her, and when he took her in his arms again, she nestled up to him with a tiny sigh of joy and closed her hand round his forearm; but she did not wake.

Nikolia would consider this to be the best night of his life, so far.

They overslept, of course, but Nikolia was not about to forgo another bout in favor of cannon practice, though a part of his mind reproved him for this. Meanwhile, he could distantly hear the sounds of marching soldiers - clattering men moving at a running march - and shouting orders, and then, the boom of cannon.

"Target practice with the new cannon," said Nikolia, when for a moment Katerina stopped him and looked at him quizzically. "Maneuvers. Cortez's a hard general."

The heavy brocade curtains across the windows shut out most of the light and the room remained cocooned in comfortable dimness; and no servant came to disturb them. Soon, Katerina's moans of pure pleasure drowned out any other noise to his ear. His hands tightened around her strong bottom - she was pulling him up urgently towards her, when there was a knock at the door.

"So much for our next round." Nikolia whispered.

"I'll take care of it," said Katerina as she kissed him. She then spoke in her demanding, duchess, voice. "Who is it?"

It was a servant, who knew better then to disturb her lady. "I'm sorry, my lady. But General Cortez requires..." she stopped. There was a second servant speaking to her. "Oh... oh, I see... never mind, my lady. Please forgive me."

Nikolia and Katerina looked at each other. Nikolia was the first to say, "That was weird."

He got up and looked out the only window that was the closest to the city. Nikolia could see thick black smoke past the outer wall, but very minor damage to the ramparts. Whatever it was, Cortez had it under control.

"What's wrong?" said Katerina. She stood by his side, using her kimono as a makeshift robe.

"Nothing," he wrapped his hands around her. "Nothing at all."

Author's Notes:

Hello faithful readers, The New Mandalord is here.

First of all, let me address the first question. I know this is a Lion-O Cheetara smut fic, but I made Nikolia too much of an interesting character. That my PM box has been over flowing with rquests. So instead writing his own fanfic, I decided to write a mini-chapter... that goes over 9000!

Second, Nikolia, you're on your own when it comes to the fan girls.

Fuuko no Miko: GET HIM!

Run Nik, Run

Later and be sure to review.