Chapter 6:

When she came to, she was in the court office. The sovereign and his mate were there, as was Erane. For a split second she hoped what she had heard had been a dream.

"I thought you would surprised at my pronouncement, but I hadn't expected such a reaction," Erane said, laughing.

Carma sat up, torn between wanting to spit on him and wanting to cry. "But I can't marry you," she said, trying to keep the desperation from her voice.

"Why ever not?" Erane asked, his eyes challenging her.

"Because...I don't love you," she ended lamely.

Tyrel laughed. "That will come in time," he promised. "Love is not something that is felt at the first meeting! I have no doubt that you will make a very suitable wife for my son."

"But..." Carma said, thinking desperately, "I'm not from this planet, I'm not even of your race, I know nothing of your traditions and I could never be a suitable queen!"

"You will be instructed in everything you need to know," Tyrel said warmly, obviously mistaking her panic for anxiety over her new position. "You and Erane will be married in two solar days, we will just have time to create your bridal gown."

Carma's head was spinning, it was all she could do to remember why she had come here. "Sir, I have still not found my companion. None of the traders we asked recalled seeing him and he has still not returned to our ship. I must ask your help to find him. I...couldn't be married without him being there," she added, hoping that would help her cause.

"Then we must make every effort to find him for you," Tyrel said cheerfully. "In the meantime, you will be escorted to your chamber where you can begin to prepare for the wedding."

Carma's head began to spin again.

***

Crais slowly regained consciousness, a pounding headache taking over his entire skull.

"Are you ready to begin again?"

Crais was too sore to speak, his whole body felt like it had been set on fire and then had acid poured on the burns. They couldn't seriously imagine that he would last through much more of this.

"I'm quite pleased with the results of this experiment," the scientist attending to Crais said, speaking as if Crais were a junior technician instead of the lab rat.

"Why are you doing this?" Crais asked, his throat dry and rasping.

"Peacekeeper presence in the uncharted territories seems to be growing steadily. We need to know what will effect Sebaceans. We haven't had one visit our planet in many cycles."

"You didn't consider...simply asking me?" Crais asked, his voice rough.

The scientist looked surprised. "Everything must be tested properly or it cannot be relied on."

A part of Crais almost wanted to laugh.

"What do you intend to do with me? Keep me here until I finally die?" he said.

"Or until you are no longer useful," the scientist replied, not even blinking.

"And you see nothing wrong with that?"

"Do Peacekeepers see anything wrong with killing innocent people?"

"I am no longer a Peacekeeper!"

"I'm sure that's a great comfort to those you killed when you were."

***

Carma sat at the window of her room, looking out at the world below her. She was high up and the window was large. If all else failed, it would be easy just to climb out of it and let herself fall. Compared with being married to Erane, death was the better option. In fact, at this stage of her life, death seemed the better option to everything. Knowing that she was alone and it no longer mattered what she said, she finally finished the words she had begun to speak on Talyn.

"I want to go home."

From somewhere deep inside her, another voice came up. Softly, it told her what she had tried so hard not to think.

"You don't have a home anymore."

***

"I need to return to Talyn to meet with the chief technician," Carma said.

"I'm sure that we could send someone in your place," Tyrel replied, "after all, Talyn is no longer your responsibility."

"Until Crais is found he must be," Carma said, "I cannot allow him to be completely without guidance in the meantime and someone must supervise his repairs."

"Very well," Tyrel conceded. "But there is still much that must be done."

"Have you any idea how Crais might be found?" Carma asked, hopefully.

"Enquiries will be made today. I am confident that we will have located him before the wedding. I cannot believe that he has come to any harm," Tyrel replied, with the air of a man who has never had anything worse than a hang nail happen to him.

Carma wished she could be so optimistic.

***

Despite all the pain he was being put through, Crais found his thoughts focused on Talyn and Carma. Talyn was without his main source of guidance and Carma...he had promised that he wouldn't leave her. He hated to think what could have happened to her. Intelligent as she was, she knew little of other races, had no experience of people from different backgrounds. He had a terrible feeling that she was in trouble. He was determined to escape but, for the first time, he couldn't see how. Bialar Crais, the man who always had a plan, had no idea what he was going to do.

***

"So how's Talyn doing?" Carma asked, feelings of hopelessness washing over her in waves.

"Wonderfully," the chief replied, "I observe almost 80% re-growth, that is much more than I predicted."

"But is the fin fully operational?"

"Unfortunately we won't know that until it is fully grown and starburst is attempted," the chief said. "But all the signs are excellent."

"Great," Carma replied, feeling dead inside.

"I...hear congratulations are in order," the chief added hesitantly.

"Yeah," Carma said listlessly, "so do I."

***

Crais was dreaming. Dreaming that he was back on board the command carrier, back on board Talyn, giving the order to starburst. A strange sense of peace washed over him as the memory took over his mind. For the first time in two cycles, no, more like three, he had felt completely in control of his own destiny. And now, here he was, out of control again.

***

Carma looked at her reflection in the mirror as if it was somebody else. Somebody else wearing an elaborate wedding dress. Her eyes were drawn once again to the open window. Only a matter of weekens ago she'd been saved from the jaws of death, and now she was staring them in the face again. Only this time, she was alone. Crais had been right, they had no reason to trust these people. He was probably dead, or badly injured, bleeding to death somewhere. And she felt like she was bleeding along with him.

Maybe, after all, I wasn't intended to survive, she thought. Maybe I really can't live in this world.

***

Crais was only dimly conscious of what was going on around him. He vaguely sensed some motion, but couldn't have said if it was one person or twenty. He heard raised voices and sounds of what might have been a struggle. Someone picked him up and undid his bonds. Obviously realising that he couldn't walk alone, two people pulled him to his feet and supported him as they marched him out of there. Crais had no idea where he was being taken and, by then, he hardly cared.

***

"There is nothing to worry about," Tyrel said, trying to comfort Carma. Her face was the colour of chalk, her palms were clammy and she felt horribly like she might faint, or be sick, or possibly both. The sovereign and his wife were in the room with her, with less than half an arn to go before the wedding, giving her final words of advice. They were under the mistaken impression that she was just nervous about taking on such an important role as crown princess. How would they have reacted if they'd know how close she'd come to ending her life rather than tying herself to the man who'd tried to rape her? Carma was too incapable of rational thought even to wonder. Her heart cried for the days when she'd known she could cope with anything. All the strength she'd ever had had deserted her. She was too deep in despair to see any possible way out.

***

Crais was sore and bruised, but conscious and clean. He now knew that he had been brought back to the court. The medics there had patched him up as much as possible. Everyone there had seemed utterly shocked at what had happened to him. It seemed he'd been unlucky enough to encounter one rogue scientist. Crais hoped, for their sakes, that it was true. There were only two things he cared about now, getting back to Talyn...and seeing Carma. Ideally before her wedding.

***

Carma felt calmer now. The feeling was not dissimilar to that supposedly felt by hypothermia victims just before they die. A feeling of complete calm and relaxation, not a care in the world. It felt almost as if her soul had left her body, and only the empty shell was left to go to its fate. Somewhere behind her she heard the door open and turned around automatically, not expecting to see anything she cared about.

In a microt the sight of Crais' face, worn though it was, seemed to bring her soul rushing back into her body. In that same microt everything was right with the world again, she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Not knowing, or caring, what might happen next she went straight to him, threw her arms around him and kissed him with all the passion she had in her.

For once in his life, Crais was too sore, too tired and too glad to see someone to care where he was and who was watching him. He held her as close as his sore body would allow him to...and kissed her back.

A lifetime later, when they had finally pulled away from each other, a voice slowly managed to penetrate their brains.

"This is hardly appropriate behaviour just before your wedding!"

Crais and Carma just looked at each other, neither could resist smiling at that. It just sounded so ridiculous to even think of her marrying Erane.

Carma turned round and addressed the sovereign, "I can't marry Erane, I love Bialar," she said simply.

Even Crais was stunned, he'd never expected to hear those words from her after all she had said.

"Yes, but...you cannot refuse the prince!" Tyrel exclaimed, apparently unable to grasp the concept of marriage for love.

Carma opened her mouth to protest but, for once, Crais got there first. "I would imagine," he said, wrapping his arm possessively around Carma, "that, in a society that strictly separates men and women until they are bonded, the crown prince would expect a wife without experience of other men."

It was impossible to believe that anyone could have looked more shocked.

"You mean to say that she has lain with other men?!" the sovereign exclaimed in such a scandalised voice that it was all Carma could do to keep from breaking into hysterical laughter.

"Several, that I know of," Crais replied, his own face completely straight, "myself included. I imagine...that there have been more."

"Dozens," Carma agreed happily, grinning like an idiot.

"In that case, I do not think that we can possibly go through with this wedding," Tyrel said, obviously in a state of shock. "We could not expect Erane to tie himself to.... He will be very shocked at what you have told us."

"Somehow," Crais said, "I suspect that he will understand better than you think." He turned to Carma, "I suggest that we return to Talyn," he said.

"Sounds wonderful," Carma said, her whole face lit up in a smile.

***

Carma seemed to be on an almost unnatural high now they had returned to Talyn. All the energy that had drained from her being over the last couple of days had returned en masse and she was racing around like there was no tomorrow. Her eyes were lit up like pulse explosions as she looked everywhere around her, her eyes soaking in every dench of Talyn's command.

Crais watched her, half pleased that her depression seemed to have lifted and half worried at her frantic energy. He assumed that it must still be the result of her body recovering from the drug, but it concerned him none the less. Still, he liked it better than her dead eyes on the planet before she had seen him.

Carma herself was revelling in the overwhelming feelings of bliss. It didn't matter that she knew from experience that it wouldn't last. It didn't matter that when it wore off she would feel as hopeless as she had before. In that moment her world was rosy and beautiful and she was happy to be alive. The dark days seemed far behind her and the road ahead was clear and bathed in sunlight.

"Bialar?" she said, her bright eyes turning to him.

"Yes?" he replied, looking into them.

"You know that I'll never be easy for you?"

"I do know that."

"And that it will probably end in tears?"

"That also."

"And that we'll have to move very, very slowly.

Crais just kissed her. Somewhere from the depths of his memory came words that he'd said more than three cycles ago in very different circumstances.

"You can't run forever," he said simply, "I can wait."