(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
KOTA RACED THROUGH THE HALLS of the ship after Pyter, fear pounding in her chest. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him to do what she’d asked. They had fought together enough for her to trust his judgement completely. It was that she never trusted her enemies not to hurt Pyter. She had raised him damn near from the egg and loved him like a child. She would have preferred to leave him behind when she fought, but she knew from experience that if she tried, he would just follow her, so she had learned to trust him, and learned to use her magic to protect him and give him more power when he needed it, and despite his childlike demeanor, he was a better fighter than almost anyone she’d ever fought with. None of which kept her from worrying any time he was out of her sight. Even if she could feel his satisfaction.
She came to the door he had disappeared through, and stepped into the cabin, expecting to find Pyter with the pirate captain either cornered or pinned down. That was exactly what she found, but it wasn’t all she found. The first sight she took in as she came through the door was Pyter, standing on the back of the pirate captain, a claw pressed threateningly to his throat, but then she caught sight of another figure in the room. A woman, kneeling in the corner, chained to the wall.
She was stunning. Kota couldn’t think of any other word to describe her. The woman was a Semidaem, that much was obvious, though given the fact that Kota wasn’t entirely human herself, that wasn’t something she would hold against anyone. She was beautiful, though. Skin as white as freshly driven snow, and as glossy as polished marble. Lips, hair, and eyes as black and glossy as polished ebony wood. The horns that rose from her forehead were every bit as black and shiny as her hair and eyes. She was big, too. Kota couldn’t tell how tall with her kneeling the way she was, but she was a solid wall of muscle, with biceps easily as thick as Kota’s thighs and shoulders that looked like they belonged to a blacksmith or a stevedore. She would have been right at home in the mercenary camp Kota had grown up in with those muscles.
She looked up, and their eyes met, and Kota swore her heart skipped a beat.
“Hello,” she said, and immediately wanted to kick herself. She sounded like an idiot, not that that was unusual for her when she tried to talk to women, but the poor woman was obviously a slave, chained up in a pirate’s cabin. She wasn’t some girl in a tavern that Kota could take for a tumble.
Before she could kick herself too hard for it, the woman smiled, and by the all the gods above and below, what a smile. She opened her mouth, no doubt to say something else stupid, when Pyter growled and reminded her where she was, and what she was supposed to be doing. She looked down and saw the pirate captain trying to pull Pyter’s claw away from his throat and decided to take care of him before she dealt with the woman. She waved a hand, and he went limp, taken by a magical sleep that would last until Kota dismissed it. Pyter relaxed and looked up at her.
“I did good?” he asked.
“You did very good,” Kota said. She waved her hand again, and Pyter shrank down to his normal size. He let out a cheerful little chirp and hopped up onto her shoulder. Another wave of her hand to clean herself up before she slipped her cutlass back into its scabbard.
“I can have lemon?” he asked.
“After dinner,” she said. “You can have a whole pot.”
Pyter leaned in and rubbed his cheek against hers and she turned and gave him a small kiss on the head, then knelt next to the captain. A bit of magic showed her where all his weapons were, and she carefully removed them, tossing them on his bed. She picked up the keys that lay next to his hand and glanced over at the woman.
“Can you tell me what these are for?” Kota asked.
“They’re the keys to my chains,” she said.
“Why was he going to unlock you?”
“I think he meant to use me as a weapon against you. I have a slave brand, so if he ordered me to attack, I wouldn’t have any choice but to obey.”
Kota felt a knot of rage settle in her stomach. Slave brands were a fact of life on all the worlds, but Kota hated them with a passion. There was something vile about the magic that fueled them. She’d only had to touch one once to know that it was a perversion of magic. The kind of thing no good or decent person could ever be a part of. Over the years, that hatred had spilled over onto the Slavers guild itself.
“You have a name?” Kota asked, trying to tamp down on the rage she felt.
“I’m Kota.” She reached up and rubbed Pyter’s head. “And this little scamp is Pyter.”
“A pleasure to meet you both,” Nadani said.
Kota turned to look at Pyter. “Can you go tell Captain Teaclock that I need to talk to her, and then show her how to get here?”
“Yes,” Pyter said.
“Go on. And remember to stay inside the sphere.”
“I ‘member,” Pyter said as he jumped into the air. He flew out the door and headed off on his task while Kota turned back to Nadani.
“Let me see your arms.”
Nadani held out her arms, and Kota felt another surge of rage. The keys were to locks that fastened the chains to the manacles, not the manacles themselves, because the manacles were riveted shut. She tossed the keys down in disgust and reached out, stopping before she actually touched the manacles.
“May I?” she asked.
“I’m a slave,” Nadani said. “And from the looks of it, I’m to be yours. You may do as you wish.”
“You’re not a slave anymore,” Kota said, but she took one of the manacles in her right hand, and ran her finger along it, controlling the magic as carefully as she could as she split the steel. Once she’d finished cutting one side, she cut the other, then let the two halves of the manacle fall away, before repeating the process with the second manacle. When Kota was done, Nadani lifted her arms, and looked at them. Kota could see the disbelief on her face, but more than that, she could feel it radiating off Nadani through her magic.
“How long have you been wearing those?” Kota asked.
“This particular set, for five years, but there were other sets before them. My last master had me shackled when was five, and I’ve only been without long enough to be fitted with a new pair when I outgrew the previous ones.”
“I think I’d like to meet your previous master,” Kota said. “I don’t usually enjoy killing people, but I think I could make an exception.”
“She wasn’t as bad as some,” Nadani said.
“She was bad enough,” Kota said as she reached for Nadani’s collar. “Lift your chin.”
Nadani tilted her head up obligingly, and Kota had to bite her lip to keep from making a noise, because Nadani’s neck was gorgeous. She shook her head and focused her attention on the task. A quick examination of the collar told her what she’d already suspected.
“I can’t remove this here,” she said.
“It’s not a bother,” Nadani said.
“It is,” Kota said as she let go of the collar. “You’re not a slave anymore. You shouldn’t be wearing a slave collar, and you shouldn’t have that brand. I just don’t have the tools I need to remove them with me.”
Nadani lowered her chin and looked at Kota. “I’m a slave,” Nadani said. “I’m branded, and slave brands cannot be removed. I’ll be a slave the rest of my life.”
“You’re wrong,” Kota said. “I’ll get that collar and that brand off of you before the day is out.”
Nadani gave her a sad look, and Kota could tell she didn’t believe her, but that was okay. Kota was used to people doubting her until they saw the results she got.
As Nadani watched Kota move around the room, going through Alborin’s things, confusion swirled in her mind. There was something about Kota that was compelling in a way she didn’t understand. It wasn’t physical beauty. Nadani had seen more than her share of that and it had never stirred her. Even if she was moved by such things, Kota was honestly a bit on the plain side, if you didn’t count the glowing eyes and shimmering hair. She wondered if it was the woman’s draconic heritage. She knew some people were drawn to dragons, to their power and confidence, and there was no doubt that Kota had dragon blood in her.
Bodeya had been important enough in Parakmi’s political circles to have a constant stream of people coming to her for favors. Wizards, witches, sorcerers, mages, druids, warlocks, priests, paladins, shaman, fey, and even the odd dragon. Different types of magic had different flavors. She knew most people couldn’t taste the flavors the way she could, but to her, they were as real as the food she ate. Divine magic was sweet, like honey fresh from the hives. Infernal magic was like a strong, full-bodied wine. Nature magic tasted like a fresh apple, plucked from the branch just before it fell.
Dragon magic tasted like smoked meat, and every time Kota waved her hand to work her magic, a subtle, smokey flavor washed over Nadani’s tongue. It was different than the dragons she’d met before. She wasn’t sure if that was because Kota was only part dragon, but the flavor was unique, but no less powerful than any of the dragons Nadani had been around, even if Kota lacked the haughtiness and arrogance that Nadani had learned to associate with the dragons she’d met.
If Kota’s dragon blood was the cause of the strange pull she felt, it would just make it stranger than it already was. Nadani had never felt any pull towards any of the dragons she’d met before, so she didn’t know why someone who only had, at best, a half measure of dragon’s blood would be any different. She couldn’t deny the pull was there, though.
She felt frustration wash over her at her ignorance of her own nature. She knew so little about herself and her kind. She knew she was part demon, and that people like her were common enough that there was a name for them. Semidaem. She’d only heard the name in hushed whispers from other slaves who thought she wasn’t there, but she’d never dared to ask more about it. One of the fastest ways to draw Bodeya’s ire had been to ask about her past, or other people like her. Bodeya had gone out of her way to keep Nadani ignorant of her own nature.
Kota turned towards Nadani, a look of concern on her face, almost as if she sensed the change Nadani’s mood.
“No,” Nadani said.
“You sure?” Kota asked. “You can tell me if there is.”
Nadani considered it for a moment. Could she really be honest with Kota? She doubted it, the same way she doubted when Kota said she would remove the brand, but she supposed now was as good a time as any to find out if Kota was being honest with her.
“What do you know about people like me?” Nadani asked.
“You mean Semidaems?” Kota asked.
“Yes,” Nadani said.
“I know on a lot of worlds your people have a bad reputation that’s completely undeserved, from what I’ve seen. People assume any Semidaem who casts a spell has made a pact with some demon for power, and since all of you have a bit of magic in you, they think you’re all warlocks.”
“You don’t believe that?” Nadani asked.
“I’d be a fool if I did. I got my magic from some random dragon my mother spent the night with at a tavern she doesn’t even remember the name of. The only difference between me and your people is that my nonhuman features are easier to hide.”
“People don’t notice the eyes?”
“I wear stained-glass spectacles most of the time,” Kota said. “My eyes aren’t really suited for bright light anyway.”
“I thought dragons had good eyesight.”
“Oh, they do. They have excellent eyesight when they’re in a cave underground, or an abandoned castle, or stalking their prey in the middle of the night, or looking down on their prey from above with the sun at their back. Not so much when they’re on the ground with the sun out.”
Nadani and Kota both turned towards the door at the sound of heavy footsteps. A moment later, Pyter ran through the door and leaped up, landing on Kota’s shoulder.
“I brought little Captain!” Pyter announced proudly. Kota smiled and bumped her cheek against Pyter’s snout.
“Did your dragon just call me little?” a high-pitched voice asked a moment before a Halfling woman stepped through the door, accompanied by two of the largest Orcs Nadani had ever seen.
“No,” Kota said.
“Yes!” Pyter said, at the exact same time. “Momma wanted little Captain Teakettle. I bring you.”
“It’s Teaclock, sweetheart,” Kota said.
“Oh,” Pyter said. He turned and looked at the Halfling. “I sorry.”
The Halfling, Captain Teaclock, gave the little Feradrake a reluctant smile. “Thank you,” she said, before looking around the room.
“I take it you sent the dragon because of her?” Teaclock asked, nodding in Nadani’s direction.
“I did,” Kota said. “She’s a slave, so she’s technically part of the cargo of a prize vessel. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it. I’m willing to waive my share of the prize bounty in exchange for her, or you could bill her out to my account with the Grimmani Agency.”
“You want me to give you a slave?” Teaclock asked with so much anger and bile in her tone that Nadani found herself moving away from the Halfling.
“Only so I can set her free,” Kota said. “I know how your people feel about slavery, but I want to make sure that everything is done by the book, so no one can try to lay a claim later.”
Teaclock looked at Nadani for a moment, then turned back to Kota. “I don’t have time to take care of some spoiled hostage that this pirate trash was holding. Since you found the hostage and you don’t have any formal duties on the ship, I’m going to ask you if you can take care of our new passenger. I’ll refund the Agency a portion of your passage as compensation for your time.”
Kota smiled and nodded her head. “I would be happy to take care of the hostage until we reach a safe port, Captain.”
Teaclock turned and looked at Alborin, who was still passed out on the ground.
“Bark, pick that up, and bring it along,” Teaclock said.
One of the Orcs stepped past Teaclock and picked Alborin up like a sack of potatoes. As soon as he had Alborin, Teaclock turned and marched out of the room, with the Orcs, and Alborin in tow.
Nadani turned to Kota.
“What just happened?”
“Halflings hate slavery. Teaclock is going to list you in the log as a hostage, which means there’s no chance of anyone trying to claim ownership.” Kota offered Nadani a hand to help her stand up. “Now come on, let’s get that collar and that brand off of you.”