Tra’var glanced out the window of their domicile and then did a double take. Snow? That hadn’t been in the forecast.
“I’m going out back to make sure the forge is secure. It’s snowing!”
Damos grunted from his bedroom but didn’t make an appearance. “Great. Then we don’t need to go out. I’ll give you a hand and then we can pour our own drinks here and let Striker know we’re snowed in.”
“Not happening. We. Are. Going. I don’t care if there’s a blizzard. We promised we’d be there to celebrate.” There was a party for Striker and Maggie tonight to mark their mating and Maggie’s status as the colony’s newest citizen. Since he and his anrik had played a large part in rescuing Maggie from her abductors, Striker had sicced his female on Damos until the big, grumpy male had finally agreed to attend.
“Striker will understand. That male likes parties even less than we do.” Damos finally emerged from his room. Despite his grumbling, he was dressed for an evening out. His hair was neatly tied back, his jaw recently shaved. He’d donned polished boots, pants that had never been near enough to the forge to be damaged or singed, and a collared vest that Tra’var had never seen before.
“I didn’t know you owned anything without burn marks.”
His anrik flipped an obscene gesture at him. “I didn’t. But they have these things called shops. You go there and buy things you don’t have.”
“I’m familiar with the concept. I wasn’t aware you were.” Tra’var pulled on a jacket, arranging the long, heavy garment so his wings could be extended through slits in the back if needed.
“I do leave the house occasionally.”
“Very occasionally, which is counter to our whole reason for coming here.” They’d signed up for the new colony within hours of the announcement as a chance to start over somewhere new. A place where everyone would be judged on their own merits and not on their bloodlines was exactly what they needed.
At least, that was the plan. The reality was more complicated. Not everyone had left the old ways behind. There was still some bias and posturing. Wariness too. It would take time to discover the shape this new colony would take. Tra’var was hopeful. Damos was less so. Getting him out for a night with their new friends would be a major milestone. It would also be a step toward putting their mark on this place. If they wanted change, they needed to be present to make it happen.
Besides, he was sick of his anrik’s company. They might be blood-brothers, but if they spent one more night drinking ale and talking shop, Tra’var might just start throwing things. Given their home was also their storefront for the weapons they made, that had the potential to get messy.
Damos donned his jacket and pulled up the hood. “If we’re doing this, we better get going. The sooner we arrive, the sooner we can leave.”
“You agreed to two drinks and a meal,” he reminded Damos.
Another grunt. “I did. I’m still not sure how that happened. Maggie haggles better than half the traders we’ve ever done business with.”
“I noticed. Next time we have to negotiate prices for tarchozin, do you think we could borrow her?”
Damos nodded thoughtfully. “That’s not a bad idea. She’s very good. I don’t even know what I agreed to exactly, except that we have to try something called ‘Almost Heaven’ and Maggie’s signature cocktail. I think it was called an Aftershock? After… something. My head was spinning by that point.” Damos paused at the door and turned back to face Tra’var, though his face was shadowed by his hood. “I don’t know if I should feel sorry for Striker or envy him.”
“I envy him. He found his mahaya. The fact she is a match for him in every way is his own fault for being such a stubborn, growly male.”
Damos was halfway out the door before he spoke again. “Then it’s a good thing we haven’t found ours. I cannot imagine what kind of female the ancestors would send us.”
Tra’var didn’t answer. He flipped up his own hood and followed his anrik outside, his mind full of images of what their mate would be like. Soft. Smiling. Gentle enough to soothe the scars in Damos’ psyche and fill their home with light and laughter. One day, they would find her. They had to. As they aged, the urge to seek out their mate only grew stronger. If they didn’t find her soon, they could begin the transition to onar, those who had failed to find their mate and were destined to spend their lives alone. It was an unpleasant experience, one not everyone survived with mind and body intact.
They needed to find their mahaya before that happened. Then they would be complete.
Damos wasn’t sure how he felt about tonight, and he didn’t like it. He preferred to be certain about things. The correct shape for a blade. What temperature the forge should be. When to quench a blade and call it complete. He understood these things. Social cues and the nuances of polite society were far more complicated, especially for an outsider like him. It was easier to avoid them altogether.
They made the walk from their home in what had become the artists’ quarter to the broad bridge that linked the two sides of the colony. Flying would be faster, but the distance was beyond the range of what his imperfect wings could manage. They walked instead. Back on Vardaria Prime, that would have earned him pitying or scornful looks. He was flawed—an imperfect being in a society that valued lineage and breeding over ability and skill.
It wasn’t the same here, but it wasn’t easy to leave the old ways behind, either. Not for others and not for him.
The first snow of the season swirled around them, and he shoved his hands into his pockets before the chill triggered his scales to tighten. The natural armor was protection against attack, but it also made them resistant to heat and cold. In his case, though, it triggered more of the elements that made him different. His body didn’t know the difference between a cold wind and a violent assault, and the last thing he wanted was to arrive at the Bar None tavern sporting talons on his hands and raised scales down his spine.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been to the bridge that spanned the river. He’d crossed it a few times to make deliveries, but that had always been during daylight hours. The place looked different now. For one thing, it was quieter. The street vendors had packed up their stalls for the night. A few beings were out and about, but they had their heads down and walked with purpose.
It was easy to spot their destination. The tavern was well-lit and noisy enough, and the sound carried on the wind, filling the night with faint laughter and music.
They reached the entrance, both moving to one side of the door to bang the snow from their boots and shake out their coats. It was an old habit, and the pause gave Damos a few more seconds to ensure his more unusual features weren’t in evidence. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t have to worry about it, but Haven wasn’t ready for that.
Neither was he.
They went inside. The first thing that struck him were the differences. This was not a Vardarian place. The walls were painted in dark shades and the furniture, while clearly mass-produced, wasn’t all the same style. Some seating was built for smaller body frames, and others had no back, which was the preferred style for most of his kind.
The main room was large, but it still felt small to him. Only when he looked up did he understand why. Vardarian spaces had higher ceilings, space for the patrons to stretch their wings if needed. The ceiling here was low enough he had to suppress the urge to duck his head.
Bots scooted around the floor, carting drinks and food orders to tables and booths, most of which were full despite the weather. The bar was tended by a pair of droids, and electronic menus sat on every table. Good. He’d be able to order and get served without having to interact with anyone he didn’t know.
They stripped off their coats and added them to the racks that lined the wall by the door before looking around for Striker and Maggie. The pair wasn’t hard to spot. They were seated at the back of the room, surrounded by a group of familiar faces. Damos relaxed. He knew them all.
“They even saved us seats,” Tra’var sent the subvocalized message directly to Damos’ implanted receiver.
He just grunted in response. Maneuvering in the crowded space was tricky for someone of his dimensions, and the last thing he wanted was to bump someone and trigger an unwanted fight. It probably wouldn’t happen here on Haven, but a lifetime of avoiding attention wasn’t easy to move past.
They were only a few steps from the group when a scent brushed against his awareness. Something… delicious was in the air. He took another breath. Yes. There. Behind him. Achingly familiar yet entirely new, the scent called to him. He turned and inhaled deeply.
She was here.
“Tra’var. Taste the air and tell me what you sense.” He was already scanning the room as he messaged his anrik, looking for the source of that elusive scent. Vardarian females were seated around the room but they weren’t right. Cyborg females were present too, but his gaze moved over them all until they landed on a solitary female behind the bar.
Behind it. Not seated at it. Was that the female who owned this tavern? The human? Forge and flame. Was their mahaya human?
He drew in another breath and arousal hit him like a speeding meteor. It was her.
Tra’var spun around. “Her?”
“She is beautiful,” Tra’var said, his tone reverential.
“Older,” Tra’var said.
They walked toward her, barely noticing silence as the entire room watched this moment unfold.
They’d found her. Their mahaya. Their mate.
Anya had enjoyed a string of good days since coming to Haven, but this one was even better than usual. Her bar was packed, the patrons were all behaving, and everything was working the way it should.
The moment she had that thought, she rapped her knuckles three times on the top of the bar to ward off any bad luck that might be tempted by her open invitation to cause havoc. She’d had more than her share of chaos before coming here, and she had no doubt more would be in her future. Just… not right now. Tonight they all wanted to celebrate.
Every citizen of Haven knew the story of how this place had come to be and how many factions would like to see them fail. Torex Mining Corp wanted their planet back so they could tear it apart to reach the rich veins of tantalum buried beneath the surface. Darker forces wanted to reclaim their lost “property,” the cyborgs they had imprisoned and experimented on in their mad quest to build a better soldier.
And then there were the Vardarians. Thousands of them had followed Prince Tyran to Haven to start a new life far from the boundaries of their empire. She didn’t have to know the details to understand there was a reason so many beings uprooted their lives to travel across the stars and start their lives over again.
One thing she’d learned in her life was that beings were the same the galaxy over. It didn’t matter what sect, class, or species they were, intelligent life all seemed to follow the same patterns. Most of them tried to be good, even if they often failed, and some of them always reached for more than they should have. Power, wealth, influence. When it reached a certain point, the decent ones always left and tried to start over somewhere new… and then the whole dance started over again.
That’s what Haven was—the first steps in a dance that might end in a year, a decade, or a few millennia. There was no way to know, and that was part of the magic. All she could be certain of was that here and now was her best chance to be a part of something special. It’s what Phaedra had offered her, along with the unvarnished truth about the challenges Anya would face if she came. Unstable cyborgs who distrusted humans, a new species no one knew much about, and a new world that hadn’t even been surveyed properly.
She’d said yes in a heartbeat.
Now she had a booming business and a sense of community she’d never known before. These beings weren’t just her customers. They were her friends and neighbors. And tonight, they’d gathered to celebrate the newest addition to their ranks. After being claimed by Striker, Maggie was now officially a citizen of Haven and the first of the human refugees to reach that status. As far as Anya was concerned, no one deserved happiness more than Maggie. It made her heart happy to hear her friend’s laughter and watch her lean into Striker’s side, her joy an almost tangible thing that lifted everyone around her.
“She glows,” Saral said as she placed a plate of snacks in front of Anya. “It’s nice to see.”
“So would seeing you eat. You work too hard and don’t take care of yourself. You need to find a good male or two to make sure you are well cared for.”
“That is your answer to everything. Males are not the cure to all the troubles of the universe.”
“No. True. They are also the cause of many of them. But the orgasms help.” Saral laughed and touched her hand. “You’ll see when you meet your destiny.”
“Bah. My destiny is to grow old and rich running this place, or one like it. Which won’t happen if my best cook is out of the kitchen much longer. Shoo!”
The Vardarian female retreated to her domain again, still laughing softly. As happy as Saral was with her mates, she couldn’t see that not everyone was destined for that kind of love. Some, like Anya, just didn’t seem easy to love, and that was fine by her. She knew her flaws and accepted them because they were part of who she was. She’d been around long enough to learn to like the woman she’d become.
“And I don’t have time for a man, anyway. I barely have time for me.”
The droids had the orders covered, so she took her plate and retreated to the end of the bar to eat. Not long after, the door opened and two new faces walked into her bar. She’d never seen either of them before.
Single she might be, but she wasn’t blind. If she’d laid eyes on either of these males before, she’d remember. They were both Vardarian, one silver-skinned and the other golden. The silver one was slightly taller than his companion, but the golden one was larger in general, a veritable mountain of a male nearly as broad as he was tall.
When they removed their coats, she got an eyeful of powerful shoulders and arms that dwarfed even the other Vardarians present. No arm bands either, which meant they were unmated. The taller one was blond with a broad smile and rugged features while the golden one kept his expression guarded and moved with care between the tables, avoiding even the slightest contact with the other patrons.
She knew the look. He was used to having to work to avoid trouble or notice, though with his size, she couldn’t imagine who or what would dare to take issue with him.
They were almost to the back of the room where Maggie and Striker were holding court when the dark-haired one stopped and turned around. He took a deep breath, his massive chest rising as he sucked in a lungful of air.
Fraxx. She knew what that meant. The male had caught a scent that intrigued him. It might be the roasted gharshtu on special tonight, or it could mean he’d detected the scent of his mate.
When he started looking around the room, she knew dinner wasn’t what had his interest.
“Here we go again.” She watched, curious to see who it would be. Several Vardarian females were present tonight, along with a large group of cyborg women who were celebrating with Maggie. Who was about to have their lives turned upside down?
When the big male’s gaze landed on her, she expected him to take one look and keep moving.
He didn’t. His amber eyes brightened, and he took another breath.
Oh, hell no.
A second later, the blond spun around to stare at her, too.
Anya took a step back. This was not happening. She’d known when she agreed to come here that as a single female this was theoretically possible, but she’d never for one second thought she’d be some Vardarians’ mate.
Both males stalked toward her, their skin gleaming like newly minted coins as their scales tightened, a sure sign they were agitated.
So was she.
“Mahaya,” the blond one said, his voice a deep rumble.
“Ma-hay-nope,” she retorted, stepping back from the bar to put more space between them. “I serve the food, but I am not on the menu.”
“But you are our mahaya,” the dark-haired one spoke this time, and his voice was pitched like rolling thunder.
Damn. He was sexy. They both were. If they’d been looking for a night of no-strings-attached sex, she might have been tempted. But this?
It had to be a mistake.
Both males stepped around to the opening at the end of the bar at the exact same moment. As they reached out to her, she noted they bore a matching pair of circular scars on their wrists. They were anrik, a blood-bonded pair.
“I can’t be. There has to be a mistake.”
“No mistake,” the blond said. “I am Tra’var. This is my anrik, Damos. What is your name?”
“Anya. Anya Hutchinson.”
“Anya.” Damos spoke the word with all the intensity of a prayer. “Shining star. It suits you.”
“Oh yes.” Tra’var reached for her again.
“Come. We have a lot to discuss and not much time.”
To her surprise, Anya stepped out from the bar and took their hands as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. She was even smiling for fraxx sake, despite the fact that every sensible cell in her brain was screaming at her to run for the hills before it was too late.
“Finally!” Saral exclaimed from the kitchen door, her smile as bright as a binary star system. “Go with them, Anya. We’ll take care of this place. You… enjoy yourself. Oh, your mother will be so pleased!”
“Do not tell my mother anything!” She didn’t want or need Hezza to cut short her cargo run so she could stick her nose into Anya’s business. If this was happening, the last thing in the galaxy she needed was her mother’s help.
When it came to relationships, she didn’t need anyone’s help, especially not a woman who had more romantic shipwrecks in her past than anyone else in the galaxy. Anya had enough wreckage in her own past to know how this was likely to go. If past was prologue, plenty of evidence suggested she could screw this up all on her own…
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