By Cara Bristol
“You shall become Commander Ilian’s breeder,” Marlix said.
Anika reeled under the blow. She had expected unfortunate news when her sibling had summoned her to his salon, but had no idea it would be this bad. Anika glanced at the pink-haired Terran Marlix had claimed as his breeder. Tara appeared stunned, too. Although much of Alpha Marlix’s authority had eroded since the Parseon civil war began, he still wielded considerable power over those in his province—and his household.
Over her. Anika swallowed the bitterness in her throat. After tasting the honey of freedom, how could she give it up?
“I seek what is best for you.” Marlix’s severe expression softened, but good intentions did not lessen her despair.
The set of his shoulders indicated he’d made up his mind and there would be no budging him. But while she was female, the blood of Parseon warriors flowed in her veins. She would not surrender. Not even if the outcome was preordained. “I wish to remain on my own.”
“Not possible. You cannot survive without a male.”
“Since Jergan died, I have been surviving fine.”
“Because you reside in my domicile. This will not suffice as a long-term living arrangement. For you to become the breeder of Commander Ilian is the perfect solution. He is a better match for you than I had hoped for.”
“Because of Jergan.”
“Yes.” Marlix did not skirt the truth as he believed it. “Few alphas of any status would be willing to take you after your purchase by a beta male. But for a Commander to accept you?” His tone rose with incredulity at her supposed good fortune.
“But betas have been in battle. Surely they have greater status now,” she argued. Jergan had been kind and honorable—in buying her, he’d rescued her from the Breeder Containment Facility. He had died for her—and she would not allow him to be maligned. Why should it matter if he had been beta?
“The necessary conscription of betas due to the number of males killed in the war does not make them alphas. When Qalin and Artom are defeated, Protocol will be restored,” he said, even though he had ignored Parseon customs and rules when he took a Terran female as his breeder. But the act had given Anika hope Marlix would allow her to seek her way.
How naive she had been.
Her brother, as Tara had dubbed him, inclined his head toward an armed alpha guard standing at attention. “Zoulin will escort you on the morn to Commander Ilian’s abode.”
So soon? Anika snapped her head back in shock. “But—but—”
“Can’t you at least give her time to get used to the idea?” Her body swollen by pregnancy, Tara struggled to rise from the divan upon which she’d been sitting. Marlix rushed to assist her. Tara shot him a smile of thanks and guile, and settled a hand on his chest. “Let Anika meet with Ilian. Get to know him first.”
“In ordinary circumstances, that might be possible. But war demands prompt action.” Marlix peered down at Tara with an open regard few males exhibited toward their breeders.
Which made his insistence Anika enter into an emotionless transaction so frustrating. “Does it not matter what I want?” In desperation, she grabbed for any argument that might sway him. “What if I have regard for another?”
Marlix whipped around, his gaze narrowing to razor sharpness. “Do you?”
In truth, she desired no male overseer—kind or cruel, they all sought control. It only differed in the matter of degree.
But, unbidden, an image of a tall male with somber eyes, his body marked by faded scars, his hair shorn, constricted her heart. She might never see him again, if Marlix proceeded with his plan.
If? When. Tomorrow.
But though she and Urazi, Marlix’s former beta, had comforted each other over their shared trials, and she’d developed affection for him, he did not factor into her aspirations. Autonomy did. Freedom. She shook off the unexpected frisson of pain leaving him evoked and glared at Marlix.
“No. There is no one. But you have found regard with Tara. Why can you not allow me an opportunity to find the same?” She would miss the sad-eyed man. Would he miss her? They’d found solace together. Perhaps if they teamed up….
She discarded the idea, for she employed no illusions where Urazi’s loyalty lay. He would die for his Alpha. He almost had.
“I have allowed you time to grieve over Jergan, but your future must be settled while the opportunity exists. Once you are installed in Ilian’s domicile and have been impregnated with his son, you will see this is the best solution. Commander Ilian will treat you well, will protect you.”
“Would I not be safe living in your domicile?” she cried.
“You must perform your duty and bear offspring for the good of Parseon.”
Duty demanded an exorbitant toll from those least able to pay it. She hadn’t done anything to cause the problem, yet she was being asked—commanded—to fix it. Former Commander Tarbek had sold breeders to the Veronians to finance his plot to take control of the planet. Tarbek had been killed by Commander Dak, but not before his actions had left Parseon with a shortage of females.
Tara shook her head in a silent warning of caution. I will work on him, she seemed to say. If anyone could influence Marlix, she could, except Anika did not have time to allow Tara to perform her magic.
The stubborn, autocratic son of her sire had made up his mind. Zoulin, the guard, would deliver her to Ilian tomorrow. She would never be free. Underneath her double-sleeved winter shift, Anika could feel the phantom weight of a breeder ring tug on her right nipple. She would be tagged and bred. Forced to submit to Ilian’s whims.
She ran from the room and let the door crash behind her.
* * * *
Anika pulled her heavy shifts and woolen leggings from the cabinet and shoved them into a pack. The freezing Parseon winter would maintain its icy grip on the planet for months to come, and she needed to prepare for bitter cold. She did not know where she would seek shelter, but that was not as a great a concern as her liberty.
She would do anything to secure it—even if it meant fleeing to parts unknown with only a couple changes of clothing and a determination to prevail.
A repetitive thunking against her chamber door catapulted her heart into her throat. If I get caught… She shoved the pack under her sleeping platform, a raised bed softened by a springy pad, an extravagance she’d never known until Marlix had sheltered her after Commander Qalin incinerated the Enclave. In her sire’s abode, at the Breeder Containment Facility—even at the Enclave, she’d slumbered on a straw pallet.
Her comfortable platform here was a luxury she’d come to relish, but even if Ilian provided her with another, she would not trade her freedom for it.
She clutched her throat. “Who is it?”
“It’s me. Can we talk?”
“Just a moment.” Anika kicked the pack farther under the platform and shut the cabinet to hide the disarray. She smoothed her hands over her hips. “Come in.”
Tara entered, closed the door, and leaned against it. Around her shoulder, she lugged her ever-present satchel of woolen yarn skeins. Since learning of her pregnancy, Tara used two long needles to knot and twist the yarn into tiny foot coverings, miniature uniforms, and soft sleep coverings.
Tara grimaced. “I’m sorry. I had no idea he planned to do that. I’m as shocked as you are.”
“But not as affected by it.”
Tara twisted her mouth. “Not this time. But remember, your brother kidnapped me.”
“But when he would have released you, you stayed. So you had a choice whether to become his breeder. You were not sold like…like…a conveyance animal or a sack of legumes.”
“Technically, Marlix has not sold you. He has negotiated your acceptance.”
“How does that change my situation?”
The obvious answer hovered in the silence.
“We need a plan,” Tara said.
Anika had one, but couldn’t share it, even though she trusted Tara. They’d been through a lot together—had bathed in the hot spring after picking acca nuts when Qalin’s guards had happened upon them. Had run for their lives through the woods. Had watched in horror as the guards killed Jergan and critically injured Urazi, who’d arrived to defend them. Urazi had managed to kill one of the guards, and Tara the other.
Anika didn’t question her friend’s support. But she didn’t trust Tara wouldn’t confess under duress or persuasion. Marlix was Tara’s Alpha, and she held him in great regard despite his autocratic ways—and sometimes, Anika suspected, because of them. Her friend also carried Marlix’s son—the first offspring to be conceived of a Parseon and a Terran. And a big surprise to Tara because she’d believed herself barren.
“I’ll talk to Urazi. Maybe he can convince Marlix this is not in your best interests,” Tara suggested.
Anika squeezed her eyes shut and stepped away. She inhaled then exhaled. “No. Don’t do that.”
“Why not? Marlix sometimes seeks his counsel, even though Urazi is no longer his beta.” Male-male pairings were the norm on Parseon, but the anointment that had bound Marlix and Urazi as domestic partners had been annulled after Marlix had claimed and tagged Tara. The two had gotten married in an ancient Terran rite. Urazi still resided in Marlix’s domicile, though no formal union committed him to serve.
“His allegiance will be to Marlix.”
“True,” Tara conceded, and nibbled on a fingernail. “Are you sure you can’t give Ilian a try?”
Anika looked at her. “There is no trial. If I go to Ilian, it will be forever.”
Tara sighed and slipped the bag off her shoulder. “Here.” She held it out.
“You are giving me your skeins?”
Tara shook her head. “Other things you might need.”
Anika plopped the bag on the sleeping platform and opened it. She frowned as she extracted a box with a picture of a smiling Terran female with light yellow hair.
“Bleeech,” Tara explained.
“What is that?”
Tara flipped her pink hair over her shoulder. “A substance to remove the color from your brunette hair and turn it blond like the shade on the picture.”
Anika dropped the box. “Why would I want that?”
“To disguise your appearance, so people won’t recognize you. You are intending to run away, aren’t you?”
Anika sucked in a sharp breath. Monto. Was she that transparent? “You know?”
“It’s what I would do, if I were in your shoes.” Tara surveyed Anika’s bare feet. “Speaking of which, I’ll give you my winter boots, too. I think they’ll fit.”
“Does Marlix suspect?”
“I don’t think so,” Tara said. “Like a typical male, he assumes because he speaks, everyone in Province Four will listen. Alphas!” She rolled her eyes. “Let me show you what else is in the bag.”
Tara pulled out two small vials. She held one up. “Brown.” She shook the other. “Blue.”
“Brown and blue what?”
“Contact lenses. To change your eye color from gold to brown or blue. Blue, I might add, goes well with blond hair, if you do decide to use the bleach, although the brown eye color would be more common among Parseons.”
Tara fished around the bottom of the bag. “A knife.” She produced a finger-sized object.
“It is not very large. And where is the blade?” All Anika saw was a hilt.
“Right here.” Tara plucked at the side and pulled out a metal cutter. “It’s called a pocket knife. It folds up, see? She snapped it back into place. “It belonged to Ramon.”
“Thank you,” Anika said, touched by the offering, even if the dagger was too small to be of any use. She knew the item held great sentimental value because it had belonged to Tara’s friend and shop mate who had been murdered by Qalin.
“Money!” Tara dangled a bulging purse.
Now that she could use. Anika’s spirits rose. She might have a chance of survival, now.
“Thank you.” Anika blinked away tears of gratitude.
“I gave you all the coin I had and wheedled more out Marlix. I had to endure a lecture about overspending, but you’re worth it.”
“I am sorry about your business,” Anika said. Once, Tara would not have had to ask Marlix for money. She’d owned and operated a textile shop at the Terran Bazaar. When Qalin’s forces went on the march, Commander Dak had been forced to shutter the Bazaar and evacuate the Terrans and all other aliens to their home planets. Only Tara remained, because she’d been tagged and claimed by Marlix.
“I can’t lie. I miss the hustle and bustle and earning my own income. I dislike depending on Marlix. But when the war ends, and it’s safe, the Bazaar will reopen. I will return to work then.” She shrugged. “It’s not all bad, anyway.” She rubbed the mound beneath her shift. “I can focus on little Ramon and knit lots of booties.”
“So, Marlix has agreed to the name?”
“Oh, no.” Tara smiled. “He still insists the baby will be called Arak, but I will win this one.”
Anika admired her confidence, which had never wavered, even though Tara’s life had changed since coming to Parseon. However, Anika did not understand why her Terran friend chose to surrender the freedom to come and go as she pleased, to be respected as an equal, to decide her own fate. Perhaps you did not appreciate what you had always had.
And when you’d never had something, you didn’t comprehend your lack. Anika fingered the faint scar bisecting her throat, a cruelty inflicted upon her as casually as one would step on an insect. The incident had opened her eyes, begun to fan the embers of resentment.
Though Anika and Marlix had been born of the same sire and lived in his abode, their treatment could not have differed more. Expectations had been high and discipline harsh, but their sire’s pride and affection for Marlix had never been in doubt. Marlix had received the best their sire could afford—food, clothing, and sleeping accommodations.
Anika had bedded on a thin pallet on the floor next to Marlix’s garmel, the furred, long-eared pet he’d adopted. Her meals—and the garmel’s—consisted of the remaining orts after her sire and Marlix had finished eating. If not for the extra rations Marlix had snuck her, she often would have gone hungry.
As with most females, when she reached puberty, her sire had sent her to a Breeder Containment Facility. Instead of being purchased by an alpha as was expected, she had attracted a beta guard’s attention. Because betas were forbidden to breed, after Jergan had secretly purchased her, he had sought sanctuary at the Enclave, a community of deviants who eschewed many of the commandments of Protocol. She’d had greater freedom there, but still remained under the domination of a male, albeit a benevolent one.
When she’d met Tara, Anika had finally understood what she’d yearned for all along. The females of Tara’s race answered to no male. No wonder so many on Parseon reviled Terran ways and were glad to see them leave. Males of status had much to lose if Protocol were to crumble.
Though Tara had accepted their ways when she became Marlix’s breeder, she had a way of coaxing him to do her bidding. Anika figured she had a good chance of winning the naming argument. However, even Tara would not be able to change his mind about Ilian. “Thank you for all you have done,” Anika said.
“I’m going to miss you.” Tara’s eyes filled. “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again.”
The sight of her friend’s tears caused her own eyes to water. Anika blinked and grabbed her in a hug. Terrans were smaller than Parseons, and Tara’s head bumped Anika’s chin. “I am sure we will meet again,” she lied.
“You think so?” Tara sniffed.
“Yes.” Another lie.
“I’ll, uh, go get my boots for you. When you do you plan to leave?”
“This evening, after everyone is asleep.”
To continue the story, you can find Warrior at one of these locations
Between war and duty, they find love…
On a planet where women are chattel, Anika is to be delivered to become the mate of an Alpha Commander. Secretly in love with another, she is unable to accept the arrangement and flees. Bound by his duty, her lover Urazi intended to bring her back to fulfill her function. But war intervenes, and as their planet fights a desperate battle against a villainous despot, Anika and Urazi become united in their determination to save their people. But with their lives on the line, the love they share may become the biggest risk of all.
Though Warrior is third in the Breeder series, it is written to be read as a stand-alone.