Ranger Rian Moss discovers and claims a certain ‘contraband” on one of his rounds – an exotic Neegi’rin set to be sold as a body slave to an Utopican lord. Rian’s interference puts him out of favor with the lord who will see him suffer for his impudence…
Shaeya had not loved her husband but she had been bound by duty to him and would not have wished him dead. But when her new groom is killed and she is stolen away on her wedding night, she vows to make those responsible pay…
Rian watched the stagship glide closer to his post, and he signaled it to stop with his hand. He saw that the ship seemed to waver, as if the rider was unsure whether to comply or simply dash off. Instinctively, Rian put a hand to his side weapon in readiness to fire.
However, before he could raise the firearm, the ship rolled to an ungainly stop a few yards from Rian, who strode up to the front of the ship and waited for the flap to open. A turbaned head emerged, the face swarthy and mean-looking, even with the wide, black-toothed smile breaking through. Rian recognized him, a shifty carrier known as Uswad who transported all sorts of goods.
“Ranger Rian,” said the man in way of greeting, tipping a finger to his forehead.
Rian nodded to a point behind the man’s seated figure. “What’s back there?”
“Aw, nothing, Ranger,” the man replied, waving his hand dismissively. “A few bundles of rags for the recycling plant. Nothing much more of note.”
Rian chose not to reply. Placing one boot on the ledge of the ship, he heaved his tall, lithe frame up the ramp into the open stagship. He saw Uswad start imperceptibly, but Rian ignored him and proceeded into the cramped, dim confines. There was a chug-chug sound of the engine still running. These ships used to actually be driven by stags, but that was ages ago. Now, the contraptions ran on engines, but still kept the coach-like shape, large enough to carry at least five people, but was used mostly for goods. Rian ranged the city borders, and there was always a lot of smuggling to watch out for. He looked cursorily around and realized that the back hold indeed was only filled with bundled rags. He turned to make his way out again, when he saw the last bundle in the far corner move slightly.
Frowning, he went to the heap, and snatched off the tarp covering it.
There was a woman there, bound and gagged. He couldn’t tell much about her right then in the poor light inside the hold, except for the fact that she had deep, caramel skin. And her clothes looked exotic, colorful and rich. There were countless rows of beads on her neck, deep red corals and some gold-colored strings. She seemed unconscious, her lids barely quivering, the dark sweep of lashes thick and fluttery. Her breathing seemed labored, lips drawn back with the rag bound tightly around her jaw.
He turned to the ship’s driver, who was already biting nervously on his fingers.
“Nothing more of note?” Rian echoed, his grey eyes blazing dark down at the rider. “You’re into abduction and slaving now? I thought you were a ragger?”
“Please…I’m just a courier. I didn’t kidnap her or anything,” the man said desperately.
“Courier?” Rian snorted. “That’s putting it lightly. How did you come by such a female? She’s obviously not from these parts.”
“She’s been bought as a gift for some Utopican lord. I’m supposed to deliver her to his keeper of house. That’s all I know!”
“A body slave,” Rian murmured thoughtfully. It wasn’t uncommon for the princes and lords of the city to acquire women from different regions for their pleasures. Most times, they came into service willingly, due to the great gifts of gold and coin they earned from such a practice. Others were actually slaves indeed, bought and sold from who ever owned them.
He glanced again at the woman bound and gagged in the corner. Her exotic looks could only mean she originated from those sun-kissed realms many moons across the mountains. Her hair was long and tangled in its russet and gold waves, as dusty as the rest of her. And even with all that, she certainly looked eye-catching enough to be a worthy prize for any of those horny elitists.
He turned to face the rider. “You know this is against the law? This is tantamount to contraband, and from where I’m standing, not only can I commandeer, I can also lock you up till I can make up my mind what this is really all about.”
“Oh no, I beg you,” the rider cried, gripping Rian’s muscled arm, bared by the rolled up khaki of his sleeves. “I could get in real trouble if I don’t get this woman to – “
“You’re in real trouble now,” Rian reminded him, snatching his arm away. Going to the entrance, he called out to his deputy who was in the make-shift building. “Jafe! I need a hand up here.”
Jafe appeared quickly and bounded up the ramp, and then looked around him, his gaze fastening on the still unconscious woman.
“Confiscate her,” Rian said.
“What?” Jafe asked, eyes widening.
“Smuggling slaves is illegal – and he certainly doesn’t have a permit for this line of business. We need to keep her for questioning, find out exactly why she’s bound and gagged.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Jafe quickly went to her side and made to lift her in his arms.
“Maybe you should untie her first,” Rian suggested as the small framed Jafe struggled with the trussed woman.
“Oh. Sure, right.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the rider said grumpily. He drew back his turban to show the raw marks near his left cheek. “Almost took my eye out earlier. She’s a wildcat. Better to keep her restrained.”
“When we need your input, we’ll ask for it, smuggler,” Rian snapped. “Jafe, get her into the station, and find some water to drink if she awakens. I need to have a word with our little slave dealer.”
“I told you, I’m just a…”
“Courier, yeah, heard you the first time,” Rian drawled. He regarded the man through his narrowed gaze. “Are you going to tell me the whole truth now?”
The man visibly swallowed. “Look, uh, Ranger…I know the lass is not my usual ah…cargo. But I was paid good money to get her here in good condition. I’m willing to share the sum with you if you’ll just let me leave, and take the girl with me.”
“Bribery, Uswad? Your charge sheet is getting longer and longer.”
The man’s eyes hardened. “See Rian, you’re not an enforcer – you’re just a ranger. You have no right poking your nose in a man’s legitimate business – ack!”
His words were cut off by the large fist Rian wrapped around his neck. Uswad felt his feet suddenly dangling from the floor as Rian’s fingers tightened painfully on his throat. Things went very dark and Uswad felt himself almost losing consciousness for a moment.
“Stop…please…,” he choked, his eyes bulging as they met Rian’s slitted gaze. The next moment he felt air rush back into his lungs as Rian tossed him to the ground like a rag doll. Uswad stared up at the Ranger in alarm; for all his lean, whipcord build, the man was as strong as an ox! Uswad rubbed at his neck, coughing.
“Last chance to tell me what I want to know,” Rian murmured, resting his hand warningly on his side weapon. Uswad’s eyes widened from alarm to disbelief.
“You’ll shoot me?” he gasped.
“I can’t decide,” Rian mused. “I mean, you lied about having the woman up here – and now you’re offering me a bribe to let you just go on your merry way with her in tow. I’m beginning to smell something more than a little fishy here.”
Uswad sighed with what looked like sudden self anger. “I knew I shouldn’t have meddled with these things! But the money was just so good, more than I make in a month of ragging! And you know it’s a bad idea to get on the wrong side of any of those Utopican top brass…”
“Tell me who she’s supposed to belong to,” Rian said patiently. “Tell me everything you know, and I just might let you scuttle out of this alive. Though something tells me the world would fare better with you no longer in it.”
Uswad swallowed audibly again, hand still holding his aching throat. His eyes darted for a moment, then he said, “She’s meant for Lord Ludwin.”
Rian’s expression sharpened. One of the richest and most influential personages in Utopica, he was also rumored to be a dark fiend, one of those with some kind of supernatural powers. Some said he was a vampire, while some believed he was a powerful wizard – or both.
“You see why we’re not supposed to mess with him?” Uswad said sagely, noticing Rian’s hesitation.
“Is that supposed to scare me?” Rian snapped, making the man jump despite himself. “If anything, this makes me even more eager to get to the bottom of this. So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to lock you up till I get the region’s sherrif down here. He’ll know what next to do.”
Uswad seemed to start to shake. “Look, I’m not worried about being arrested…but you see, Lord Ludwin…he’s the bad sort. I really don’t want to get into his bad books, and neither should you. He spent a lot of gold to get that woman over here, and I’m not sure he’ll take it well if he finds out she’s been taken – “
“If she’s he’s his rightful property, then she’ll be returned to him in good time,” Rian told him clearly.
Uswad’s eyes hardened suddenly, a slight sneer crossing his filthy face. “Well, you just remember to make sure that when he does get her back, she’ll be just how she was bought – with her chastity unbroken. There’ll be more hell to pay if she’s returned in any other kind of state. The woman’s untouched, you see. A virgin.”
Rian’s expression was unreadable. “Thanks for the tip. Now, after you,” he said mock civilly, pointing Uswad to the exit of the ship.
Once he got the grumpy Uswad locked in the back cell, Rian went to his office to find his deputy ringing up the sheriff. Rian nodded to him, then glanced around till he saw the figure lying on the smallish couch, her petite frame barely fitting into the chair. He moved to her side, bending over her. His eyes ran over her features, then roved the length of her in the colorful attire. Now that she was no longer bound, one of her arms had slipped from the edge of the couch and now dangled to the floor. It was a long, slim and shapely arm, bared by her short capped sleeve. Rian took hold of the arm and lifted it to rest it against her rounded, softly heaving chest. He tried not to make his touch linger too long, even though her skin had felt like warm satin beneath his fingers. He thought of Uswad’s warning words earlier, and heard himself swallow.
“A stunner, isn’t she?” Jafe commented, finished with the call. “Really spicy looking. Not really my type, but…”
“Jafe, you don’t have a type,” Rian drawled, making his deputy stop short. “I don’t think you even know the first thing about women.”
“Well..I…,” the deputy floundered, then chuckled sheepishl. “You’re right – I’m totally clueless. But I know a looker once I see one. Wonder what’s her story. She’s obviously very far from home.”
Without answering, Rian turned to look down at her again, finding that he could hardly bare to look away for too long. Jafe was right about one thing: she was a beauty. Each feature was delicate, alluring – though in sum she had a strong, decisive tilt to her rounded chin, a straight edge to her eyebrows that said to him she wasn’t the helpless damsel she seemed to be.
Once more, his eyes ranged over the rest of her. Even beneath the bright layer of clothes, he could tell that she had a nice figure, high busted, pinch-waisted and full hipped. One dainty foot peeked from the edge of her long skirts, and he saw that she had no shoes on, which was weird. Her toes were lovely, inked with unknown symbols, the embellished tattoos reaching round her delicate sole and stopping at her ankles. He wondered what they meant.
Stop, Rian, stop wondering, an inner voice warned him. Your curiosity – and much more besides – had been aroused since you unearthed her from the rags. Just…keep any odd thoughts from your mind and focus on the task at hand. Which involved, he realized, deciding what the heck he was going to do with her now…
She was awakening, moaning softly as she turned her head from side to side. And then suddenly, she blinked her eyes open and looked up at him.
Rian’s breath caught as he looked into the most unusual, most bewitching amber eyes he’d ever seen.