Prince Radek Makyrn seethed with frustration, but he took care not to show it as he made his way through the crowd of revellers filling the palace’s largest ballroom. His parents were hosting a party in honour of their off-world guests, none of whom were aware that while they were enjoying themselves, their hosts had decided not to proceed with the trade talks. The Pyrosians had come all this way for nothing – again.
It took him a painfully long time to reach the edge of the crowd. Too many beings wanted a moment of his time. Some merely wanted to say hello, others flirted shamelessly, and the rest tried to use him as a messenger, hoping he would convey their wishes for meetings or favours to his mother. He politely greeted everyone, declined all flirtations, and forgot each message the moment he moved on. Even if he was inclined to help some of them, it was a waste of time to try. During their last meeting, his mother had proven yet again that she wouldn’t listen to a word he said.
He was almost free when Savta found him, stepping into his path and placing her hand on his arm. “Good eve, Highness. Your mother sent me to find you.”
Radek looked pointedly at her hand. “Did she also grant you permission to be so familiar?”
Savta moved her hand immediately. “She did not, though I am aware she wishes us to become much more familiar with each other, and soon.”
“Are you also aware that I have not agreed to my mother’s request, nor do I intend to?”
Savta tossed her long, dark hair back with a practiced gesture and laughed, but beneath the light, airy sound was an undertone of ice. “Be smart, Highness. If you refuse, she’ll make it a royal command. I will be your consort. I promise, if you accept this fact gracefully, I will make sure you are well satisfied.”
She didn’t say more, but the threat was crystal clear. If he fought this, she’d make him regret it. He managed a broad smile. “Haven’t you heard, Savta? I’m the foolish one in the family. I spend my days lost in writings about the past and contribute nothing to the present. Worse, I argue with the priests, my siblings, and even my parents, whose word is law.”
Her perfect features creased into a momentary frown. “You’d defy your mother’s wishes?”
“She can order me to take you as my consort until I find my mate. She can even command me to move you into my rooms at the palace, but not even the ruler of my clan can control where I sleep, or with whom. You may sleep in my bed one day, but when that day comes, I will sleep somewhere else.”
“So be it. This could have been a pleasant and profitable interlude for us both while the search for our mates continues. Instead, you have chosen to insult and demean me. I won’t forget this.” She flounced off, no doubt to inform his mother what he’d said.
It was a good bet that by morning he’d be enduring another lecture from his mother about duty and responsibility, then ordered to take that venomous traxyn as his consort. “I’m starting to think the Gods have it in for me,” he muttered as he finally reached the outer doors, leaving the warmth and noise of the ballroom behind.
Out on the balcony, the night air was cold enough to turn his breath to vapour. It cut through his anger and frustration, helping him find a small measure of calm. It was just enough to stop him from giving in to his desire to launch himself into the air and shift to his dragon form and fly away. Not that there was anywhere he could go. He was too well known on his homeworld to stay hidden for long, and no member of his species was permitted to leave Romak.
Centuries ago, the Romaki had travelled the cosmos. They had colonized other worlds, trading with some species and warring with others. Then, the colonies had started failing, the survivors returning home defeated by weather, cataclysm, or war. More colony ships were sent out, only to vanish into the void. The priests claimed it was a sign of the Gods’ displeasure, a warning that any Romaki who left the planet would invoke Solun and Daga’s wrath.
He stepped to the balustrade and leaned out to look at the palace grounds stretched out below, then raised his eyes to the star-filled sky. He didn’t believe the priests. Everything he’d studied made him suspect it wasn’t the Gods who wanted to keep his race bound to one planet but the priests who claimed to speak for them.
The doors opened again, releasing a blast of noise and light that filled the balcony and momentarily dimmed the stars. So much for his moment of peace.
He turned, then relaxed as he saw who it was – Vadir Rahal, one of the visiting Pyrosians. “Evening, Vadir.”
“Highness.” The dark-haired male replied in perfect Romaki and joined him at the railing. Vadir ran a highly profitable trading empire that spanned the length and breadth of known space. He’d been to Romak enough times the two had become friends, a fact that had landed Radek in trouble with both the priests and his parents more than once. While he acted as the diplomatic envoy to all off-world visitors, his position, while needed, was not officially recognized.
The two of them stared out at the stars for a while in companionable silence, but then Vadir asked a question Radek didn’t expect. “When are they going to tell us the trade talks have been suspended?”
Radek turned, not bothering to hide his surprise. “How did you know?”
“I have my ways.”
“Apparently. And to answer your question, I believe the plan is to inform you and the rest of the delegation tomorrow morning. Did you get anything agreed to before they decided to end the talks?”
“Some. Mostly extending existing agreements.” Vadir shrugged. “It’s not what I hoped for.”
“That seems to be a common sentiment around here today. The only ones who will be happy about this are the priests, may Solun freeze their balls off.”
“Talk like that is going to get you yet another lecture from the priests.”
“They’ll have to wait in line. I argued with my mother tonight, trying to get her to see reason. We need more trade, not less. We’re becoming a shadow of what we once were, afraid of anything different or new. It has to stop.”
“Given that she cancelled the rest of the talks, I’m going to guess she didn’t agree with you.”
Radek smacked a hand down on the railing. “She did not. She thinks I need to stop studying the past and make more of an effort to represent the family in the present.”
“She’s finally decided to give you some responsibility, then?”
“Hardly,” Radek scoffed. “She wants me to take a consort until such time as one of us finds our mate.”
Vadir curled his lip with distaste. “My condolences. Is there any way you can avoid this arrangement without angering your parents even more? I can’t see you being happy with someone with Savta’s temperament.”
Radek laughed. “Too late. Savta and I had words on my way out here. I told her it would take a royal command before I’d accept her as my consort. I have no doubt my mother has already heard about it.”
“And while you wait for your punishment, you’re sitting out here, contemplating the stars.” Vadir looked up. “Do you ever wish you could go out there and see the galaxy for yourself?”
“Every day,” he admitted.
“You know, my mate is from a planet on the far side of the galaxy. We’re going to be heading there once we leave Romak.”
Curious to see where Vadir was going with this, he played along. “Earth, right? I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa earlier today. She’s looking forward to returning home for a visit. It sounds like an interesting place.”
“Did she happen to mention the fact her species have legends about a mythical scaled creature that breathed fire and flew?”
“Many species have myths about monsters and creatures that never existed.” Radek was trying to play it cool, but his interest was piqued.
“Mhmm,” Vadir drawled. “Any of them have a word in their language for dragon?”
Vadir nodded, his smile broadening. “Really. As far as I can tell, it appears the Pyrosians weren’t the only aliens to spend some time on Earth.”
“Do you have proof of this? If you did, it could change everything! The priests claim any Romaki who defies the Gods and leaves the planet is punished and stripped of their magic. If there were Romaki on Earth in their dragon form, it proves the priests are wrong.”
“I don’t have proof, no. That’s back on Earth.” He paused for half a heartbeat before adding. “If you came with us, you could find the proof you need yourself.”
“Came with you to Earth? Leave Romak?” Radek was still trying to absorb Vadir’s news. His brain wasn’t ready to process an invitation to fulfill his greatest wish and visit another planet.
“That’s exactly what I mean. Unless you’d rather stay here and take your chances with Savta?”
“By Solun’s frosty beard, no. If I go with you, all I’m risking is the wrath of the Gods and the potential loss of my magic. That’s preferable to staying here with my mother and Savta.”
Vadir clapped a hand to his shoulder. “I thought so.”
“You realize if my parents figure out where I am and who I am with, it’s not going to go well for you or any future trade talks?” Vadir would have already done a careful study of the risks versus potential rewards before he decided to make the offer, but Radek still felt it needed to be said.
“True. But if you come back with verifiable evidence the priests are wrong, think of all the opportunities that open up.” Vadir spread his hands wide. “Increased trade. Renewed travel. Shipbuilding.”
“And since you’ll be the first to know what I find, you’ll have the advantage?”
“Exactly. I’m going to make a businessman out of you, yet, Highness.”
“Good. If this doesn’t work out the way you hope, I’ll be asking you for a job.”
Vadir nodded, his expression serious for once. “I’ve got your back, but I’m confident you’re not going to need my help.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“I am. I can’t tell you why, though. Ask me about it when we’re on our way home from Earth.”
“Believe me, I will. Which brings me to my next question – how do you plan on getting me off the planet?”
“That’s easy enough. Tonight, I’m going to take you and several other VIPs on a tour of my ship. When the group leaves, you’ll stay behind. Once we get official word the talks are suspended, Lisa and I will express our displeasure, return to the ship within the hour, and depart with my usual dramatic flair. We’ll be halfway across the galaxy before anyone knows you’re gone.”
Radek nodded. “That will work. I’ll leave a message behind, something to lead everyone to believe I left to avoid Savta and my mother but will be back in a few days. I’ve done it before. If I leave a few items with you tonight, can you bring them aboard with your own things?”
“Then, that’s the plan.” Radek looked around the grounds of the palace one last time. He’d grown up here, exploring every inch of the grounds. He’d learned to shift his form out in the wide stretch of lawn, practiced controlling his magic by freezing the fountains, and created a small crater in a distant corner while he was still mastering takeoffs and landings. If Vadir was wrong, this might be the last time he looked out at this view. He fixed it in his memory, then turned his back on the garden and all the memories it held. “I better start packing.”
“Shit!” Piper slammed her cell phone down on the table harder than she intended. There was a crackling sound, and when she picked it up again, the screen had a spectacular web of cracks in the center. “Double shit. This day better not get any worse.”
She could deal with a busted cell phone. She wasn’t coping as well with the news she’d just lost a job she hadn’t even started yet. The restaurant had burned down before it even opened. At least the owner had promised that once they got the insurance figured out they’d rebuild, and her job would be waiting for her. She’d find a way to get by until then, she always did.
“This is now officially a double shot of espresso kind of morning.” She set the phone down, carefully this time, and went to the kitchen in search of caffeine. After that phone call, she might even break out the whipped cream and vanilla syrup.
The mug was almost empty by the time she started feeling better. She’d done some math, checked her bank balance, and sent out emails to a few contacts to let them know she was looking for employment, again. She’d also decided not to tell her sister about the fire until after they got to the stadium. Aria was going to meet her match from the Star-Crossed Dating Agency today, and she was already determined to turn down the match and retreat to her safe, lonely life as a single mom. If she found out Piper’s dream job had literally gone up in smoke, she’d use it as an excuse to stay home. Piper was determined to get Aria to the Gathering at BC Place Stadium. Maybe if she met this guy in person, she’d change her mind about turning him down.
Piper had joined the same dating agency, but so far there was no match for her in their database. Unlike Ri, if she ever got matched, she’d be ready to take off for another planet in a heartbeat. It would be the adventure of a lifetime. She could already see herself opening a restaurant on Pyros, offering Earth-style meals to an entire planet full of eager customers. Not to mention the fact that being on the other side of the galaxy might just put enough distance between her and Ri to let her live her own life.
Their mother had died when she was still a teenager, and Aria had stepped into the role of mother-figure and guardian, while Piper had dealt with her grief by rebelling against anyone and anything she could think of. She’d outgrown that phase years ago, but not before it had set the template for their adult relationship. It didn’t help that she’d moved back in after Aria had her baby. She adored Melody and was happy to help, but the second Piper moved home again, they’d fallen into old habits.
“And now I’m moping like a teenager. Next thing you know I’ll be digging out my black lipstick and writing bad poetry.” She drained her mug and headed for the bedroom. It was time to get ready for the Gathering. She’d already picked the perfect outfit, a cute blue and white mini-dress that happened to be a perfect match for her freshly dyed hair. She might not be one of the lucky matches, but she planned on looking good and enjoying herself anyway. If nothing else, five hundred hot aliens ready to meet their matches should make for a hell of a view.
Several hours later, she and her sister’s best friend, Haley, had claimed their seats and spotted Aria among the women nervously waiting to meet their matches. The stadium roof was open, letting the summer sunshine pour in. The organizers had set up a beautiful open-sided white tent decorated with lavish displays of flowers. Aria was seated near the front, close enough to the edge that they could see her as she bounced Melody in her lap. The women were all seated beneath the tent, chattering to each other as they tried to subtly sneak looks at the stage and the men standing around it. Judging by their matching uniforms and serious expressions, they had to be the Pyrosians, but apart from their larger builds, they looked human enough.
Movement on the near side of the stage caught her attention. She watched with interest as two men, both wearing what had to be hand-tailored suits, appeared. They were followed by several more of the uniformed aliens, who seemed to be acting as bodyguards. They must be VIPs. They were both good-looking, one dark-haired, the other so blond his hair looked almost white. It was the blond who kept her attention. He kept looking around the stadium, his expression one of intense interest. A blonde woman in a bright orange and yellow sundress joined the men, and Piper exhaled in relief when she greeted the dark-haired one with a kiss, but only smiled at blondie. Because it’s totally rational to feel possessive about a total stranger.
Once she got over her irrational response and focused on the woman, she realized she recognized her. “Is that one of the women from the Star-Crossed ads?” Piper asked Haley.
“I think so, yeah. So that guy she just smooched must be her mate.”
Haley started snapping pictures with her phone. Later, Piper planned to ask her for some of them since she couldn’t take any herself. Not with her phone in its current condition. More people started arriving, all of them smartly dressed and accompanied by a camera crew. They exchanged greetings and handshakes with the two men she’d been watching, and then all of them headed for their seats in a roped off area beside the stage.
Down on the stadium floor, the women waited for their matches with growing nervousness, and around the stage, there was a flurry of activity.
She didn’t even notice the space shuttle descending into the arena until everyone around her started to gasp and point upward. At the same time, several columns of identically dressed men marched into sight. They were all staring at the women seated beneath the tent, and even from this distance, there was no mistaking their eager, hopeful expressions. One day, she wanted a guy to look at her that way.
With that wish still in her head, she looked away from the spectacle to scan the VIP seating. The handsome blond she’d been crushing on was watching the shuttle approach, but after a second, his gaze shifted, and she could almost swear he was looking back at her. Before she could be sure, though, the stadium erupted into a cacophony of flames, fire, and screams.
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