Destiny's_blood_cover_final

Marie was born in Montreal (Canada) to a family with nomadic tendencies. As a result her childhood was spent roaming from town to town in Eastern Ontario. In 1996 she roamed further west in the province, attending Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. Along with earning a Bachelor's Degree in Religion and Culture with a minor in Archaeology (fields she has never once come close to working in, although they do come in handy for plot development), she also served two terms as President of the school's Science Fiction and Fantasy Club, an honor that she will never live down. Not that she cares to.

When not writing fantasy novels, Marie can be found engaged in the act of storytelling in any location where two or more people have gathered. She tells mostly original stories of her own creation or adaptations of fairy tales and myths.

Visit her official website at www.mariebilodeau.com.

Destiny's Blood by Marie Bilodeau

A thief of valuable blooms, Layela's dream is finally coming true with the opening of her flower shop on the small remote planet of Collar. But the disappearance of her twin sister leaves her with a difficult choice: to continue tending to her blooms and promising future, or to blend in once again with the shadows to find her sister.

She soon becomes the prey of two powerful assassins, of a colonel bent on revenge and of a mysterious sword-wielding stranger. Her only allies are Josmere - a feisty ether creature with the power to unlock the visions that assault Layela's mind, or to keep them from her - and a smuggling rogue, Ardin, hired to protect Layela at whatever the cost, even if that cost is her freedom.

Their journey takes them across several worlds as Layela discovers who she and her sister truly are. And before them awaits the mythical First Star, on a path to self-destruction and the annihilation of all life.

Unless Layela finds a way to stop it. But to stop it would mean sacrificing her sister.

Or herself.

CURATOR'S NOTE

One of several books in this bundle that get you started on a new series, in this case Marie's Destiny trilogy. Destiny's Blood won the Foreword Award and was a finalist for the Aurora. Destiny's Fall (also an Aurora finalist) and Destiny's War complete the series. Marie is a Ottawa-based writer who lights up a room the way her prose lights up a page. If you haven't read her work before, this book is a great introduction. – Douglas Smith

 

REVIEWS

  • "Marie Bilodeau knocks my socks off. She's got an amazing eye for detail and a sumptuous narrative voice. Destiny's Blood is a winner — another home run from one of Canada's best new authors."

    – Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of HOMINIDS
  • "This story is filled with action, suspense, and adventure. It is well written, with worlds and details all very alluring and well developed. The attention to detail is impressive, with a plot deep enough to submerse yourself in completely."

    – Desert Rose Reviews
  • "'Destiny's Blood' is a fast paced sci-fi adventure of love, politics and betrayal - with a little magic mixed in. The characters help draw the reader into their world, through the many twists and turns of the plot."

    – Dellani Oakes
  • "Marie Bilodeau's book, Destiny's Blood, is a fantastic adventure that never lets down the pace. This Aurora Award Nominee (2011) is fast paced as we are introduced to Yoma and Layela, twins who have had a sorrid past. It is Layela who wishes to settle down to a nice quiet life as a florist while her sister continues the theive's lifestyle. The twins are searched for by both evil and friendly forces to bring back life to the First Star. Throughout their adventures they are knocked down and rise up over and over to fulfill their destiny to ensure life continues in the universe. A great read, I can't wait to see what Marie has planned next."

    – Karen Dales, Award Winning Author, "The Chosen Chronicles"
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Layela had already jammed the key in the lock when she noticed that Yoma, her twin sister, was no longer beside her. Resisting the urge to simply walk into their flower shop and lose the last threads of her dream in the various exotic scents, Layela took a deep, stale breath and turned around.

The night was still thick, the darkness not yet pierced by the weak sun of Collar, but she still easily spotted her sister under a flickering streetlight. Yoma's features bore the same deep look of indecision that had been etched on her face since she had broken Layela free of the dark vision that had ensnared her dreams.

Darkness. A shiver ran down her spine and Layela wished she could remember more of her vision than just a vague impression of thick tar smothering her mind and clutching her stomach. She tucked her hands into her pockets to ward off the cool night air and walked back towards her sister, one quick step after another falling on the dark, familiar pavement.

She came to a stop beside Yoma, who was looking up towards the sign of their shop. Layela glanced sideways at her, ignored the clinging nausea left behind by the vision and lack of sleep, and forced a smile as she spoke.

"It reads Sunrise Flowers, Yoma. Maybe glasses would be in order?"

"Maybe it should be Sunset Flowers," Yoma said, so softly that Layela strained to hear.

"What do you mean?"

Yoma lowered her gaze, focusing on the palm of her right hand, curling her fingers into a fist before flexing them again, her green eyes flickering with indecision.

"Yoma, are you all right?" Layela asked, wishing she could laugh her sister's behaviour away and dispel the growing queasiness of her stomach. Too much was at stake now and everything should be going smoothly. Had she not planned for every eventuality? Wasn't today supposed to be the start of something new and safe for both of them?

Her sister gazed, eyes unfocused, at the sign. Growing increasingly worried, Layela put her hand on her sister's arm and whispered her childhood nickname, the same name Layela used to whisper when calling out to her sister after waking from a dark dream.

"Feathers?"

"Some things should end, and others never begin," Yoma whispered, turning to face Layela, all hesitation vanishing as they locked eyes. A new edge lined her voice as she spoke. "These hands are meant for thieving, Layela, not for cutting flowers!"

"What are you talking about, Yoma?" Layela asked, fighting to keep her hands at her side; they twitched to slap sense into her sister. "You love flowers, too. You're the one who always stole them for me!"

Yoma looked away and Layela's stomach somersaulted. She could feel her sister slipping out of her grasp. She struggled silently for the right words to bring her back, but Yoma answered before she could find them.

"I love them because you do," Yoma said, her voice picking up speed. "But they aren't me. You're finally taken care of. Maybe it's time I take care of myself, now."

"What in the forty bloody Solarian Stars do you mean I'm finally taken care of?" Layela's voice echoed across the empty buildings. "We take care of each other — it's always been that way. And this," she said, wildly pointing at the shop, "is the result of that! What do you bloody think we've been working so hard to achieve?"

She paused, fighting hard to regain control of her seething anger. Yoma had pulled stupid stunts before and had always been too stubborn for her own good, but the twins had always supported each other and stuck together. That was how they had survived since they were orphans living on the streets. What game was Yoma playing at now?

"You're right, Layela. We do always take care of each other." Layela released a breath she didn't realize she was holding.

Layela grinned at Yoma — her sister was coming to her senses. She walked towards the door and opened it, but when she turned around, Yoma was gone, her thief's steps too silent for even her sister to hear.

***

The bell chimed as some customers walked out, and Layela couldn't help but look at the door, in case her sister also happened to wander in at the same time. She sighed when no one else walked in, and focused back on her young customer and the exotic bloom she now held. She began to sing, wishing her heart didn't feel so heavy.

Rise gentle flower, rise with the rain,

Rise my love, dare to bloom again,

Shine like the sun, like the light of day,

Shine, shine forever, always with me stay.

The Lacile flower's petals bowed and opened, responding to Layela's gentle urgings. She whispered the final words, the girl's look of wonder more beautiful to her than any light produced by the Lacile. She remembered the look of wonder on Yoma's face, years ago, when she had shown her twin the hidden beauty of the Lacile. Where was Yoma? She needed — no, she just wanted her sister by her side. This was their accomplishment, and she should be here to see it take flight!

"Does it always do that?" the young girl whispered, as if afraid of frightening the flower into hiding.

Layela knelt beside her, lowering the flower so that the child could fully see it.

"It only blooms once, but it lasts for a long time, if you take care of it and sing to it often."

Gently the girl touched the petals, a bit of the glowing pollen clinging to her fingers. She looked up at her mother, her small face imploring. Layela struggled back to her feet, still feeling sluggish from the lack of sleep.

"We'll take it," the mother said briskly, her foot tapping on the floor.

Layela nodded and carefully wrapped the flower in dark fabrics to preserve its glow. Even the weak sun of this planet could be enough to harm the Lacile, unlike the rest of her flowers. If not for strong lights in the growing rooms and special fertilizers to help promote photosynthesis, she doubted any of her flowers would live.

"Thank you," Layela said to the last two customers of the day as they left. She smiled as she stood behind the counter, looking at her already depleted stocks. It was a beautiful sight. She had been right, after all. Flowers were needed to brighten up the dark, bleak landscape of Collar.

As she looked around and found herself alone with her remaining blooms, her sense of elation was quickly crushed. The twins argued fairly regularly, but Yoma had never before left for so long without first warning Layela. Would Yoma really endanger all of their hard work for the adrenaline rush of thieving? Could she be in trouble?

She locked the shop, closing time having come and gone. Worry and anger strained her every breath. This was supposed to be for both of them. This was their work, years of planning, of sacrificing what little they had gained, and now Yoma decided she didn't want it anymore? Granted, Yoma had always been more reckless, but this was ridiculous.

She forced a deep breath into her lungs. Yoma would be fine, and would come back. Layela was only letting worry get the best of her because she was tired from last night's vision. She released the breath, her anger dissipating and numbness clutching her limbs.

She took another deep breath, trying to coax the more recent vision to her mind, but, as usual, she remembered nothing. Not this vision, nor older ones. She remembered very little about the visions imposed on her years ago, but she did remember how she had felt at the time, afraid and alone. Not fulfilled and secured like she felt now.

"I'm so happy for you, Layl," the voice came from behind her, and Layela quickly turned around, her mind racing to identify the familiar voice, disappointed it was not her sister's.

"Josmere," she said as she spotted the Berganda leaning against a wall, her skin and hair blending in with the surroundings. Her physique was human, but her skin was green, her hair revealed long curled leaves when examined closely enough, and her veins were filled with chlorophyll, not blood. By her simple travelling clothes, brown pants and loose beige shirt, Layela guessed she had just recently returned to Collar.

The day that Yoma left, her best friend happened to show up, after an absence of almost a year? Layela had never believed in coincidences, and this deepened her disbelief. At least Josmere's appearance proved two things to Layela: that Yoma probably had no intention of giving up her old ways as she had promised Layela she would, and that she was planning something probably stupid and more than likely dangerous.

"I'd have announced my presence sooner, but I was enjoying your singing," Josmere said with a slight grin, her eyes searching out Layela's.

"Why don't I believe your showing up here is a coincidence?" Layela snapped, walking towards the cash register to tally the day's sales.

Josmere's confusion did nothing to calm Layela. "What do you mean, coincidence?"

Layela shook her head, not willing to play along. She used to, when she was younger and more stupid. She had also once convinced herself that her sister would give up thieving, and that her powers of vision could be of use.

But not this time. She wanted nothing to do with whatever scheme they were involved in. She just wanted Josmere to leave and never come again. To leave her in peace with her flowers and satisfaction, without interference, without intrigue and without illegal activities. Visions tugged at her mind, refusing to show themselves but refusing to stay silent.

"Where's Yoma?" Josmere finally asked.

Layela looked up, disbelief pulsing through her like venom. But the green eyes looking back at her were sincere and lined with concern. If nothing else, after being tricked so often, Layela had learned how to tell when Josmere and Yoma were lying. They hadn't always excluded her, after all. Layela had been hurt badly a few years ago, and it had taken her months to recover. Ever since then, her sister and Josmere had been secretive, as though her protection relied on her knowing less.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Layela asked, her voice rising. "She left this morning without a word, and I haven't seen her since. And now you're here? Come on, Josmere, you can't expect me to believe that you don't know anything about this!"

"I was supposed to meet her here today," the Berganda responded, her head shaking her loose hair back and forth, intensity dripping from every word. "Here. Now. She's supposed to be here, Layl."

"What were you two planning that's so important?" Layela demanded. In all of the years that she, her sister and Josmere had survived together, never once had she known Yoma and Josmere to miss a set meeting. It was a practice that had saved their lives on more than one occasion.

Josmere shrugged and focused on some Booknot plants. They were well known for their sentient qualities, and were by far her favourite type of plant life. As a Berganda, Josmere had the ability to communicate telepathically with others from her race and with certain types of plant.

"They're very happy here," Josmere said, smiling at the plants. Layela resisted the urge to hit the woman in the back of the head. She had tried that too, once, and had learned that Josmere was not as weak as she looked.

"You can have them, if you'd like," Layela said, keeping her hands busy rearranging some blue flowers with rotating hearts. "It's illegal to sell them in these parts, since they're sentient, but I had to buy them when some smugglers brought them in. The poor things needed a lot of care. Kind of like a Berganda would, were she to be beaten up by her friend."

Josmere ignored Layela's sarcastic comment, making Layela even angrier. "I think they're fine here," Josmere looked around the shop some more, her careful steps telling Layela that she was deciding what to do next.

Josmere stopped before some blooms kept in a locked glass case.

"Pomboms? You keep Pomboms in your shop?" Josmere asked, shooting an incredulous look at Layela, who simply shrugged.

"They're safe enough behind the glass, and in another two nights they won't be explosive anymore. They'll bloom beautifully and sell well." Josmere shot her a grin and continued looking around. Layela felt her patience dripping faster than the ink from the pen with which she was tallying sales.

Layela sighed. There was no use pushing for information, and if she kept Josmere close, then chances were she would see Yoma again soon. And then she could beat them both up.

Three loud knocks sounded on the protective outside metal door, scattering her thoughts.

Josmere reacted instinctively and was beside the door in moments, looking through a small window.

"Josmere, we're not on the streets anymore," Layela said, annoyed. "Normal people don't do that. They open the door."

"They don't look friendly to me," Josmere whispered, backing away out of sight. Layela sighed and opened the door, making sure not to show any hesitation to Josmere. Over. It was over, this life of running and hiding. It was why they had founded Sunrise Flowers — to mark the beginning of a new life. She had never before thought that she might have to pursue her dream alone. She clutched the side of the door, fighting the hollowness in her stomach.

Three men stood in the doorway. One, she guessed, was a government official, dressed in an expensive suit with an air to match it, fatigue plastered in the dark rims under his eyes and in the sparse growth of his beard. He jingled keys in his hands. The two others were marked by dark smoky uniforms and a sun symbol. Layela swallowed hard. Solarian soldiers had full jurisdiction on Collar.

She forced herself to keep her ground, her feet aching with the need to back up, to move, to run away. Every encounter she had ever had with Solarian soldiers had not been pleasant.

"Layela Delamores?" the government official asked, flashing his badge at her. Layela barely had the time to read his name, Coyal something or other, from the Ministry of Solarian Defence.

She smiled and nodded. She was not a criminal. She was a business owner. A flower shop owner. There was no need to act like anything else.

"May I see your Interplanetary Passport?"

No introduction, no hellos. It seemed like an arrest, but all they wanted was to see her passport, and the soldiers were not holding their guns. Not yet, anyway. Layela walked back towards the counter, her hands in plain sight and every step paced so as not to give the two soldiers any reason to believe she posed a threat. The two soldiers walked into the shop, their footsteps soft but still echoing on the clean floor. They followed her closely, their black and grey uniforms invading her peripheral vision on both sides, and she fought the urge to hunch her back.

Josmere was nowhere in sight, for which Layela was grateful. Although she doubted they would be interested in a petty thief this late in the day, she preferred not to find out.

Carefully, Layela reached into the drawer, pushing aside some papers to reach her digital passport. She recognized it by touch, its smooth cover cool and reassuring.

Yoma had insisted for a long time that they simply acquire fake passports, which would cost them less and be easier. But Layela had argued otherwise. She wanted to begin anew, and the passport was the first step to gaining that freedom. A nice, simple, legal step.

The government official snatched the passport from her hands, and Layela counted her blessings that she had insisted on the legal proceedings. The man was becoming more annoying with each passing second, like a slowly inflaming bug bite. He made a raw sound in his throat.

"I'm afraid we'll have to confiscate this," the man said, his mouth speaking the words regretfully where his eyes only spoke boredom. Another assignment completed, another day over.

"Why?" Layela asked, stunned.

"You are forbidden from leaving this planet," the man continued, ignoring her question, jingling his keys again. "You are forbidden from communicating with anyone off-planet, and you are forbidden from doing business on Collar until further notice."

"What do you mean?" Layela asked, her voice rising, her face and neck flushed with anger. They couldn't do this! What right did they have to do this? And why?

Yoma. The word sliced through every other thought, her anger growing deeper. Her sister had done something. Something stupid and illegal, and they had traced her back to Layela. If her sister wanted to throw everything away, fine, but couldn't she keep Layela out of it for once?

"I mean that you are basically under arrest, simply not in jail." He prolonged each syllable, as though he spoke to a child. He even stopped jingling his keys, to ensure she could hear him perfectly. "At least, not until we receive proper reason to put you there."

"But I've done nothing wrong!" Layela's voice resonated in the shop. "If I can't open for business, how am I supposed to pay for it? I need to sell to survive!"

The man simply shrugged, and turned toward the door.

"Wait!" she called after them, walking towards the men. The soldiers blocked her, their hands travelling towards their guns.

She raised her hands to appease them.

"I just need to know why you're doing this," she said, trying to keep her voice calm. "I need to know how I can help you clear this up faster."

The government official didn't even stop as he called over his shoulder. "You can't."

Backing away, the soldiers exited. As the door closed she could hear the jingling of keys.

Stunned, she didn't even notice when Josmere came out of the shadows and stood beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"I'm so sorry, Layl," Josmere said, but Layela barely heard her. She wondered what her sister had done now, and how much it would cost her.

Chapter 2

L

ayela fidgeted with the piece of paper. She set it down, grabbed a watering can and walked toward the ferns. The plants were a perfect burgundy and perky, but Layela poured water in their earth regardless. She looked back at the piece of paper. Maybe there was another way.

Water splashed on her foot and she backed up, sighing. I needed to clean the floors anyway.

She set the watering can on the counter, resisted the urge to stay there, and headed to the back, running a hand over Mama Knot's giant leaves and inventorying the plants in her head. What should she order next? Did it even matter now? With a firm hand she grabbed the mop and walked back into the store, cleaning her floors carefully. She considered waxing them too, but she knew she was stalling. Instead, she stopped in front of the counter, leaning the mop against it.

The tremble in her fingers threatened to rip the paper when she picked it up, and she forced her hands to steady. She set it down on the counter again, grabbed for the watering can and turned back towards the ferns, only remembering that she had already watered them when she saw the droplets still trickling onto the floor. She set the can down and grabbed the shears instead. Only the Growall plants had the constitution and speedy growth to withstand her current care. She hacked at them, feeling the page tug at her heart.

We always take care of each other, Layl.

She reached deep within the plant and hacked, her cutters sticky with sap, leaves and orange flowers littering the floor around her feet. Even the Growall couldn't take much more of this abuse. Layela lowered the cutters to the floor and sat in the middle of the orange blooms, their musky scent filling her nostrils.

Picking one up, she outlined each petal with her fingers, imagining it withering in time. Like so many other things.

"We do always take care of each other, Yoma," she whispered, anger fading from her as she spoke the words, a mantra she'd repeated since early childhood.

She felt tears well in her eyes as she thought of all the care and dreams that had gone into the forging of Sunrise Flowers, but she thought of her sister, who might be in trouble and in need of help, and the tears were gone as quickly as they had come. Yoma was all she had, really — and Josmere too, though the Berganda had chosen not to follow them in their flower shop endeavour. And this way she knew Sunrise Flowers would still be here, waiting for her and Yoma's safe return, harbouring their hopes in its old walls and radiant blooms. It's only temporary, she thought, her feet cold as she donned her old boots. Just temporary.

"I couldn't find out anything," Josmere called from the back as she entered through the storage area. "No word on Yoma, no word on why you're such a hot item right now, nothing at all. But I'm guessing she's not on Collar anymore. No one could hide that well from me!"

Josmere rounded the corner and stopped. Layela knew how she must look, sitting on the floor and surrounded by her chopped masterpiece. Raising an eyebrow, the Berganda reached behind the counter and grabbed the broom.

"Don't take it personally," Layela said as she stood up, "but I do like taking my frustrations out on plant life."

Josmere looked at her in shock before her face broke out in a grin. Although Josmere still seemed to be hiding something from her, Layela had to admit that the familiar face brought her great comfort. Especially considering what she had to do next.

She forced her legs to take her to the counter. Josmere recounted some of her searches as Layela swept; all of them led nowhere, not even to more questions. The Berganda's voice rose and fell again as her tale took her back through her frustrations.

"I did get you the stuff you asked for," Josmere said. She threw out the rest of the cuttings and, after wiping her hands on her pants, handed Layela a small envelope.

Layela looked inside: a new passport with a fake identity, and identification cards to match. Everything she needed to get off the planet.

"Thanks Josmere," Layela whispered, pocketing the envelope and picking up the document she had fidgeted with most of the day.

Without a word she handed it to Josmere, who took it without question. The moment it was out of her grasp, Layela wished she could hold it again and fidget with it until it was well worn and illegible.

"Oh Layl, I can't!" the Berganda whispered, her eyes widening as she read. The document was a clear contract, stating that she, Layela Delamores, signed over ownership of Sunrise Flowers to Josmere Berganda. Effective immediately.

"Yes you can, and you have to. It's only temporary."

"But I don't want it. This is yours, not mine," Josmere said, pushing the piece of paper back towards Layela.

Layela rooted her arms by her side, her fingers forming fists lest they reach out for the document before she could stop them.

"Josmere, I know it isn't like you to stay so sedentary, but I need you to do this." Her voice rose with the need to be understood; to convince Josmere, not to mention herself, that this was indeed the right course of action. "I can't do business right now, and if I don't make money, then I can't keep this place up. I have no savings left. Everything is tied into this place."

Josmere's eyes held hers. The small creases around them were the only sign of aging the Berganda would ever show.

"Bergandas can't own businesses in Solarian space," she whispered, as though afraid her refusal might shatter Layela like fine glass.

"If they wear regulation gloves at all times on Collar, they can." Layela gave her a thin smile. "It was one of the many reasons we chose this planet, should you ever decide to join us."

Josmere opened her mouth as though to say something, but then stopped and lowered her eyes. In the throes of her own grief over her flower shop, Layela didn't care to pursue the matter further. It was time to go.

"Besides," Layela added with a forced laugh. "You're a plant, so this should be easy for you, right? Just make sure not to sell yourself."

Josmere's frown lessened, and she looked down at the paper again.

"You're going after Yoma?" she asked without looking up.

"Yes. I need to know what's happening so I know how to fix it. I'm guessing Yoma has the answers I need." The last words were spoken with more bitterness than she had intended.

Josmere shook her head again, green hair tossing like leaves caught in the wind.

"Josmere," Layela said, her voice becoming more forceful. As she grabbed the Berganda's arm, the familiar tingle of Josmere's powers coursed through her fingers.

Josmere looked up, and Layela was surprised to see uncertainty in the green eyes. It was not a quality she had ever witnessed in the Berganda.

"You're the only one I trust to do this." Layela whispered, holding Josmere's gaze. For all of her faults and secrets, the Berganda had always been loyal to the twins, even when it would have proven wiser to stay away.

"I don't like this," Josmere said. "But I'll do it. Where will you begin your search?"

"I don't know." She studied the Berganda closely. "Do you have any ideas?"

Anger flashed across Josmere's face for a second. "If I did, don't you think I'd be out there looking? Bones, Layela, you two are my best friends, and if you think I'd endanger Yoma even if she'd beg me to, I wouldn't! I don't know what's going on any more than you!"

Layela studied her friend for a moment, inclined to believe her. She walked behind the counter to pick up her light travel satchel.

"Then I hope my instincts will guide me. That's usually enough to find her," she said. Josmere had witnessed enough of the twins' link over the years not to question it. She busied herself with the satchel so that the Berganda wouldn't see the lie in her eyes. In the past few years, her link with Yoma had weakened, to the point where Layela had not even felt the direction in which Yoma had headed.

When she dared look at Josmere again, the small bag secured around her shoulder, the contract was on the counter with fresh ink drying at the bottom. Suddenly, Layela's bag felt heavier.

"I'll do this, Layl," Josmere said, her eyes regaining their certainty. "But if you don't have luck quickly enough for my liking, I'm coming after you."

Layela nodded and walked toward the door, trying not to look at the red roses on the right that she had been growing for years, or at the white Lichta flowers that she had bargained three days to acquire. She tried to ignore the musky scent of the Growalls still dancing in the air, and the soft rustle of Mama Knot's leaves as the large Booknot swayed, agitated by Layela's unhappiness and departure.

The door was smooth and cold to the touch, and she closed it quickly behind her before she could relent and convince herself that her dream, her freedom, her flower shop were more important than her sister. It would be too easy to turn back.

It had been too long a road to Sunrise Flowers for the dream to set in one day.

***

The man stood by the railing, his cloaked body outlined by the setting sun. He did not move, did nothing to draw attention, but Avienne Malavant approached him very warily.

Something about the man's calm yet ready posture told her that he was a warrior, and probably a dangerous one. Avienne glanced sideways from him and assessed her brother's appearance. With his black leather pants, loose tunic and vest, he could be just another merchant. But his confident walk and the gun at his waist marked him as something much more dangerous. Not to mention the sword he insisted on strapping to his back, despite Avienne's teasing and protests. She wished she could tease him now, but despite his casual steps, she could feel tension flowing from him as they approached the stranger.

Why tonight of all nights? Avienne thought, consciously trying to keep her hands steady. Fidgeting would not do.

Her brother walked up to the man, his stride unwavering.

"Beautiful night for a flight, isn't it?" the man said as soon as the two siblings came within earshot.

Avienne's pulse accelerated, though she was careful not to show it. So the man knew they were smugglers. He must have been the one who had sent word he wanted to hire them. If not, he certainly had picked an odd phrase to open the conversation. Besides, this was not a place a man came to unless he had some illegal or immoral business to take care of.

"That it is," her brother Ardin said nonchalantly, leaning casually on the railing beside the man. Avienne stood off to one side, close enough to intervene if necessary. She let her brother do most of the talking on these occasions. It had been her experience that in her line of work, men were taken more seriously. Most men did not like talking business with a woman they would prefer to see in their beds.

The men stood silently and Avienne ran through the possible outcomes of this meeting. The most likely was that they were about to be hired, but being raided or killed also had high probability.

"Anything we can do for you?" Ardin finally said. Avienne hid a smile. Her brother had never been patient.

"I need one of the quickest, strongest and most discreet crews in the entire star system to take care of a very important mission. With suitable compensation, of course."

"You've certainly come to the right crew," Ardin said, pride filling his voice.

"That's what I was told, and I've researched extensively."

"Good. I'm sure you also found that we're not the stupidest crew around. We won't take a suicidal contract just to fill our pockets."

"I'd expect no less."

"Then what are we talking about?" Ardin said. Avienne winced at the impatience — worse, curiosity — in her brother's voice. His decisions were not always the most sensible. Avienne had always blamed it on his sense of adventure and undying curiosity — things that she had hoped he would outgrow when he reached manhood. Too many odd adventures and questionable decisions had since occurred for her to continue to hope.

"A young woman needs protection, although she may not realize it. You may have to convince her to come with you, and bring her to Lockor for her own good."

"Kidnapping?" Ardin said, his voice conveying disapproval. There were laws that even smugglers wouldn't break. Stolen goods were not a problem; stolen people were a different matter entirely.

"Not quite. It's where she needs to go, she just doesn't know it yet."

"Still sounds like kidnapping to me," Ardin said, looking sideways at the man.

The man shrugged. "You'll be keeping her safe and protecting her from those who will try to harm her."

"Who wants to harm her?" Avienne asked, drawing attention to herself.

The man did not even bother turning toward her. "Solarian Government. Maybe an assassin or two."

"Is that all?" Avienne replied sarcastically. "If it's too dangerous, we can't do it," she said, her blood boiling. Ardin tensed as her words bit the air, words he had often used on her. "Our duty is to our own."

The man turned around slowly and locked eyes with hers. "Remember those words, Avienne Malavant. Remember them well."

Ice rushed down Avienne's spine and she fought not to let it show. The man turned back to lean on the railing. So he knew their names, as well. That did not comfort her.

"Anything else?" Ardin asked.

"Yes. You must find her quickly, bring her to your ship and get her away from Collar. If you fail to do this, I won't be able to compensate you."

Ardin looked off into the spaceport where their ship, the Destiny, was docked. Avienne followed his gaze briefly. Although an old, unidentified model, its dull metal and battle scars were more beautiful to her than any of the newer ships in the port. But still...

Acid sloshed in her stomach and her heart skipped a beat. She forced herself to look away from the old ship and back to the man. Her brother was only second-in-command, so the stakes had to be good for him to accept this mission. He would need to justify his decisions to the captain, a man with a kind heart but little sense of humour when it came to the safety of his ship and crew.

Hopefully this decision is better than the last three missions he decided we should accept, Avienne thought, almost smiling. Her brother's voice broke through her musings.

"How much are we talking about?"

The man reached inside his cloak. Avienne tensed, her fingers grazing the hilt of one of her throwing knives.

He pulled a pouch free from his cloak. Avienne focused on his other arm in case the pouch was intended to distract them.

Her brother opened the pouch, and she heard his breath catch as he looked inside it. From the corner of her eye, she saw something sparkle. Lonil diamonds would give off that light.

"This is a down payment. Bring her safely to Lockor and I'll double it."

"That's a king's ransom!" her brother hissed.

"I know." the man said, his voice distant.

Ardin shot his sister a quick look. She shrugged and grinned. It had been a while since they had made good money. How difficult could it be to protect one girl and get her safely to her destination?

Her brother smiled. "What do we need to know?"

Chapter 3

T

he docks of Harbour Bay were littered with ships, from single pods to large commuter and freight vessels. Located on the remnants of the old bay that had once housed the biggest trading stations, the Harbour Bay docks were the perfect portrait of Collar. Everyone was simply passing by, all social classes and walks of life mingled without pause, and so many non-natives travelled the streets that a blue-haired Collarian was a rare sight.

Strolling amidst the various merchants pushing their wares and fortunes on the travellers, Layela carefully inspected her surroundings. She was intent on avoiding all Solarian soldiers and surveillance equipment, not wishing to test their determination to keep her on Collar. Thankfully, the nature of Collar did not encourage Solari mingling too closely — the strategically located planet stood at the centre of three major solar systems and relied on trade.

Of course, as with all other trading planets, smuggling had become the norm. The Solarian Government, in a rare show of wisdom, had put very little effort into stopping the illegal trade, just enough to appease the merchants from their other planets. In actuality, the government funded quite a bit of the smuggling, hoping to acquire cheaper merchandise than their own taxes would allow.

Layela navigated the crowded streets and wished she could see green again, could touch a silken petal and smell life blooming around her. But Collar's vegetation was sparse, the darkness too great and the development too dense to allow for any life other than its own. Instead of the carefully chosen blooms of her shop, her senses were now assaulted by hanging meats, ale and sweat. She quickened her pace, hoping to soon find a suitable ship. The sooner she left the planet and found Yoma, the better.

She spotted a small bar, tucked away from the rest of the merchants, its doors kept closed and its facade uninviting. Perfect. Having grown up on the streets, even though on a different planet, Layela knew how to recognize certain areas. A dark bar where few were invited and even fewer questions were asked probably held the ride she was seeking.

She readjusted her pack and approached the door. Unzipping her coat, she let the pommel of her gun, tied at her waist, show a bit. Weakness and vulnerability would not be assets in this situation. She wished the weapon didn't feel so heavy, the weight tugging at whispering visions.

Without hesitation, Layela opened the door. Her eyes, already used to the dark landscape of Collar, quickly adjusted to the darker room. She walked to the bar, her head held high but avoiding eye contact. Nobody needed to think she was looking for someone in particular. Too many people in here would take offence to being recognized.

"Something I can do for you, miss?" the barkeeper asked without looking up from the glass he was pouring.

"I'm looking for transport off the planet," she answered casually.

He looked up and leaned in, foul breath coating her face as he spoke. "Where to?"

She fought the urge to back away. "Anywhere with a safe landing." She slit her eyes and took a step closer, trying not to breathe in his stench. "And no 'hidden fees.'"

He responded with a gapped smile and an appreciative look down her shirt. Layela's cheeks felt hot as she straightened her shoulders and forced her shirt to hug her body again. The man's smile widened, and she swore she could smell his breath escaping through the holes in his teeth.

The door swung open and shed light into the dark room, both Layela and the barkeeper looking back at the intruders, a melee of young scraggly youths laughing heartily and calling for ale. The barkeep ignored them and focused on Layela again, the teasing gone from his eyes.

"Got passport?"

She nodded to him. She did have a passport. It did seem valid, but with the limited time and money Josmere had taken to acquire it, she doubted it had been entered in the databases. That was riskier business, with longer delivery time and more expensive work. A legally-run operation would do a background check — something she wanted to avoid.

"Ship leaves in half an hour, through the back," the barkeeper said, offering her another gapped smile as she tipped him. She walked through the back door, her hand on her gun. Inanimate goods were not the only profitable trade in this area.

The ship was in the next room, on a small landing pad. A boy stood at the door, all grins as he glanced at her passport and accepted her money. It amounted to most of the proceeds from the first day's sales, and she cringed. She hoped Josmere could use her talents of persuasion to make up for the loss.

The shuttle seemed to be rusting before her eyes. She held back the urge to touch one of the large corroded spots, for fear the whole thing would crumble. She glanced around the rest of the bay, and sighed when she saw no other shuttle. Runaways can't be walkers. She walked to the open mid-ship door on the side of the ill-looking vehicle, grabbed both edges of the shuttle's mouth and hoisted herself up into its stifling warmth.

A tall man was already sitting on a cramped seat, wearing an expensive-looking suit that covered most of his darkly tanned skin — an unmistakable mark of a passer-by through the dark landscapes of Collar. There was nowhere else to go, so she took a seat beside him. His insulted eyes peered at her for a second before lowering again and reading the paper document he adamantly clutched. The ship had no windows and its interior smelled of wet dog. It would be a long trip.

Sweat trickled down her back and she began to wish she had more than one spare shirt. The engines powered up, their thunder roaring in her ears. The shuttle jostled once and Layela gripped the side of her chair to keep from landing on the man beside her.

Bang! Layela's legs went flying up and she almost followed them, somehow managing to stay on her seat. She gritted her teeth, wishing she had a seat belt to count on.

The man beside her was not so fortunate. His document flew up, but not quite as high as he did. Within a heartbeat, he landed back on the small section of floor, his legs tangled above him.

She would have laughed if she hadn't been so busy clutching to the seat for her life.

She braced for the second take-off attempt, the noise ringing in her ears. The shuttle shot forward, throwing Layela against the back of the seat and trapping her there as it picked up speed, her sweat-riddled shirt plastered to her back. She managed to move her head just enough to see the man still scrunched on the floor, his tanned features more green than brown.

She forced her eyes to stare forward at the dim metal wall, wondering how soon before they cleared the atmosphere and, hopefully, received a moment's reprieve from the various laws of physics tugging at their bodies. The shuttle jostled and the lights flickered, and Layela closed her eyes. The ship was small and with few supplies, so they would likely not be going far. Anator, Grimsvll, Rockt...Layela listed the nearby planets she was aware of, forcing her mind to go over the few details she knew of them. Her first priority would be to get aboard another ship and go...go where?

Her arms ached from clutching her seat and her legs were shaking from the exertion. She forced her laboured breath and tense muscles to relax a bit. Her instincts would guide her. Surely they would. Just because they hadn't worked of late, it didn't mean they wouldn't now. Maybe she had simply been too occupied with all the details of opening the shop and had not paid enough attention to her connection with her sister. Guilt tugged at her for a moment. Maybe if she hadn't been so absorbed, she would have spotted Yoma's discontent and been able to prevent all of this.

The shuttle slanted forward and Layela wrestled with her muscles, raising her tired legs just enough to catch the wall and keep herself from flying forward. The man rolled on the floor. Although she couldn't hear anything over the roar of the engines, she could see that he was moaning. She was starting to fear she would never hear anything again.

The shuttle dropped again and the lights flickered, and Layela swore she heard, even over the engines, a blast from outside. The shuttle rocked and tilted, descending in a rapid nose dive that forced Layela to completely rely on her outstretched legs to keep from faceplanting on the dirty metal wall. This time she distinctly heard two blasts.

Was someone shooting at them? Layela forced herself to inhale the heavy, stale air. Another blast. She was certain they were under attack. The blood drained from her face and she grasped the seat harder, wishing she could do something — anything but sit and hang on for dear life. Had she picked a shuttle from a warring faction? Was the man beside her hunted? She wanted to scream at her own carelessness. Her worry for her flower shop and her sister had made her act too rashly.

The shuttle buckled again and landed with a crunch, bouncing Layela on the seat and knocking her teeth together. The engines powered down and their deafening sound ended. Her ears still tingled from the noise and she barely heard the man's swear as he climbed back into his seat, a look of deep insult on his green face.

She allowed herself a moment to breathe, trying to steady her heart. Her fingers felt numb and cold with the fear of imminent death. She would throttle Yoma as soon as she saw her. It would be a fitting greeting.

A few minutes passed. Layela strained her ringing ears, but the walls were too thick for her to hear any sound aside from her own ragged breathing. She sat back against her seat, hoping her tension would drain. The businessman beside her held his document with shaking hands, a strange but comforting company.

She looked back, but there was nothing there to see except more metal. She just wanted to be off Collar, towards some mystery planet, so that she could beat her sister up. Was that not a simple enough wish?

The door opened beside her, and she barely had the time to gasp before two Solarian soldiers boarded and grabbed both her and the businessman.

Fingers dug into her arms as she was dragged out and thrown against the hull of the ship, the side of her face hitting the cool surface with a force great enough to split the skin at her hairline. Warm blood trickled down her temple.

Her gun was quickly removed, as well as the knife in her boot. The businessman beside her whimpered as they searched him for weapons.

"Layela Delamores," the soldier said, his voice young underneath a gasmask as grey as the rest of his uniform. "You are under arrest for attempting to leave Collar illegally."

Metal cuffs bit deep into the skin of her wrists. Before she could regain her bearings, she was in a shuttle, buttressed by two soldiers, flying towards what she guessed was one of Collar's many detention centres.

How had they found her? Did they have every smuggler on alert for a reward? Did they question Josmere? Were they watching the flower shop?

Questions assaulted her like a thousand needle pricks. Each small, but together more than she could handle.

The only thing of which she was now certain was that she had gravely underestimated her current importance to the Solarian Government.

***

"Very quaint," Avienne grinned. The old, dull concrete building was a silent warrior against weather and the passing of time.

"I can't believe it's a flower girl," Ardin replied, shaking his head. "I just can't believe that a little flower girl would be worth so much!"

Avienne laughed and slapped her brother on the back. She was enjoying this mission. If the flower girl came willingly, she could maybe stock up on supplies afterwards. They could use a few choice items for the long journey ahead, and with the down payment, they could afford them.

She repressed a grin and looked sternly at her brother. "Ardin, it's not just any flower girl. She's a business owner!"

Ardin opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again and examined her closely.

Sweetly, she looked at him and smiled. "What?"

"What are you so happy about? You didn't even want to come."

She bent in and he jerked back as she kissed his cheek, sending her into ripples of laughter again. "You're too suspicious, Ardin! It's a nice day, and we've actually got some money, and if we finish this simple job, we can get more. It's great!"

"It would be greater if Cailan allowed us to use more of the money to finish the mission, and if I believed this actually made you happy."

Avienne looked at the front of the shop, crisscrossing metal bars protecting the beautiful blooms inside. She sighed and shook her head.

"It does make me happy, because maybe we'll have heat and fresh food again, and maybe we'll actually open some of the extra rooms again. And maybe this little flower girl will be grateful to us and help us revive our gardens. That would be nice, too."

Ardin merely grunted in reply, making Avienne grin. She wished she could explain more to him, but feared that he wouldn't understand. Maybe she could use her share of the profits to travel a bit, without the Destiny. Maybe she didn't need to stay on the ancient ship with its ancient crew. And maybe, just maybe, her brother would choose to follow her, where they could have a home built of materials other than metal, metal as empty within as the space it protected the crew from.

Maybe.

"I hope this is worth it," Ardin mumbled as he opened the door, and Avienne followed, smiling as dozens of scents soothed her senses. She wished she could comfort her brother, whose main concern was that this would lead to kidnapping. And Ardin, a man whose practicality was only challenged by romantic dreams of heroism, would not easily accept such behaviour from himself.

That's why I'm here, she thought, resisting the urge to flip one of her knives. It wouldn't do to let anyone know that she was armed with more than the one protective bullet allowed on Collar.

The shop was fairly busy, which surprised Avienne. Two customers milled by some large orange flowers, three more where some pink blooms seemed to glow.

Ardin looked around, and Avienne linked arms with him, satisfied at his slight groan. She dragged him towards some multi-coloured flowers, wondering if the strong honey smell emanated from them.

"May I help you?" a voice chimed behind them, and Avienne hoped victory stayed from her eyes. This was going to be too easy. All they had to do now was convince the little flower girl to come with them, or use a bit of force if necessary. That would have to be her contribution, of course! She fought her growing smile as she and Ardin turned around, holding back a curse as they came face to face with a Berganda.

"Are you the owner?" Ardin spat out in surprise. Avienne winced.

The Berganda's smile did not falter, but Avienne saw something dangerous cross her green eyes. She looked down, seeing the regulation gloves safely secured. She had heard what those of the Berganda race could do with their touch, and did not intend to die at the hands of one.

"I'm sorry for my brother's rudeness," Avienne said, all smiles. "We'd just heard of a particular young woman gifted with plants." Avienne glanced at the Berganda and gave a short, sweet laugh. "Although, I guess you would be great with them, too."

The Berganda seemed to relax a little, but her smile was too unmoving, too frozen, for Avienne to let her defences down. She let her right hand fall casually at her side, where she hid a throwing knife at the belt of her pants, without a pause in her speech. The Berganda was either fooled or enjoying Avienne's performance, and so she continued.

"What was her name? Lale Dem…no, more like Layla Moras?"

"Layela Delamores," Ardin said bluntly. Avienne wanted to hit him.

"I guess that's it," Avienne said, hearing the strain in her own voice.

The Berganda's eyes lit up at the name.

"She used to work here," the Berganda said, her voice adopting the same sing-song quality as Avienne's. "But she left to find rare Collarian flowers with her sisters Lale and Layla."

Avienne groaned. The little Berganda was having fun with them.

"Excuse me," the Berganda said, leaving them and turning her attention her customers. When the last three filed out with their colourful purchases, their glances sternly avoiding the siblings, the Berganda followed them, her gloved hands locking the door and lowering the blinds.

"Now then," the Berganda said, turning around, freeing her slender left hand from the worn leather glove. And then the right.

The Berganda observed them closely, her calculating eyes taking in every detail, leaving nothing for granted. Avienne flipped out one of her knives and spun it in the air, catching it without breaking eye contact with the Berganda.

"Who are you, and what do you want with Layela?" the Berganda said, no hint of fear in her voice. Not a good sign.

Ardin shook his head and sighed, looking down at his comm link, where Avienne could see a silent text flashing. "We just want to get her to safety, that's all."

The Berganda smirked. "I'm sure you do. You certainly look like the hero types."

Avienne gritted her teeth, knowing Ardin would not take kindly to that. She glanced towards her brother, who simply kept shaking his head. "Come on, Avienne. We've no business left here."

Without a second glance he unlocked the door and walked out, leaving Avienne and the Berganda to face each other. Avienne shrugged and flipped her knife once before making it vanish again within her clothing. The Berganda seemed to hesitate, but accepted Avienne's show of peace and whipped her gloves back on.

The Berganda seemed to relax a bit. "What do you really want with Layela?"

Avienne shrugged. "Like my brother said, to protect her. But we don't know anything else." Then she added under her breath, "Except that if we don't find her, we don't get our profit."

The Berganda called out as Avienne pulled the door open, "Better give up on your pay, then."

Avienne paused and looked back. "Not the most positive thinker, are you?"

The Berganda gave her a half smile. "For a Berganda, I'm actually quite positive." She brought her hand up and left it lingering there, the implication of her gloved hand unmistakable.

"Right. Time to go," Avienne said. "Thanks. It's a beautiful shop!"

"I'll let Layela know that when I see her next," the Berganda called as the door closed behind Avienne, who grinned. Like the Berganda had any intention of leading them to her friend. A good bait, though.

"I never knew Bergandas to be loyal to anyone but their own," Avienne said as she joined her brother by the side of the building.

"Speaking of being loyal to our own, Lang's in jail."

Avienne groaned. "Again?" Lang was not one of their original crew, but he'd been working with them for a few years.

Ardin's jaw was set in a stubborn line. A look Avienne knew all too well.

"Come on, Ardin," Avienne pleaded. "He might get sent to a mining colony this time, and he's too soft. He wouldn't even last a day. We can't let him rot there."

Ardin began walking, but Avienne refused to follow. "If you don't get him out, I will, Ardin."

At those words, her brother did stop. "We'll have to break him out, unless you intend on paying the fee on his head."

"Why? How big is it?" Avienne asked. Ardin merely shook his head.

"So we break him out. How hard could that be, with the right distraction?" She smiled and winked as she walked passed him, back towards their shuttle.

He groaned again, and she laughed.

"Let's get Lang, and then we'll try getting this Layela one more time before we leave the planet. Maybe we can convince the Berganda to tell us her whereabouts." She ran her finger along the smooth pommel of her gun. With just one bullet per gun allowed on this little planet, it could be a bit of a challenge.

Her brother shook his head and didn't answer, but he would go along with her. She was certain of it.

Avienne looked back at the flower shop one last time and spied the Berganda in the window, watering some flowers. For someone whose friend was in apparent danger, she certainly didn't seem very concerned.

***

Layela leaned her head against the window, watching the dark landscape of Collar spread below, her heart thudding as she wondered what fate awaited her. It was not the first time she had been arrested because of Yoma, and it would not be the first time she would neither talk nor beg.

Still, her skin tingled with fear at the thought of the pain that might soon follow. Her eyes and throat felt dry, and she wished that she could have some water. Her arms and wrists ached, firmly secured behind her, her hands numb from the tight cuffs. She closed her eyes, fighting back the memories. These were soldiers, men with laws they had to obey, she repeated in her mind. This was not some ill-fated capture by security guards who held no respect for law or life.

She would be fine. She was no longer on Thalos IV.

Her breathing calmed, her mind slowed and she reopened her eyes. The shuttle was approaching an ugly grey building, "Gullwing Detention Centre" marked above the shuttle port's entry.

"Time to go," the guard said with a half-grin as the shuttle landed. The doors opened and Layela was shoved into the dimly lit metal bay.

She gritted her teeth as fingers dug into her arms, the two guards well armed and well muscled. They followed the yellow-lit corridors, marking the path to the judgment rooms. Soon she would learn what she was accused of. But then, the guards veered off into another corridor lighted in unfamiliar green. Layela felt her gut turn. They were no longer heading for the judgment rooms, as by law they should be.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked, her voice cracking.

She bit back a cry of pain when they answered by digging their fingers so deep she thought her bones would break.

"I have the right to fair judgment," Layela said, her voice gaining strength.

Her answer came swiftly as a blow to the back of her head that sent white spots rushing into her vision. She staggered and fought to regain her senses, or at least keep her footing as they pushed her forward.

A guard grabbed her arm and wheeled her around, grinning wildly at his captive. His face loomed over hers. Layela quickly brought up her knee and made contact, and the guard was down and moaning.

The quick movement made her dizzy and she took one step back to gain her bearing, but another guard kicked her down. She landed hard on her side and back, the cuffs biting deeper into her wrists. Warm blood pooled in her hand.

She raised her legs and kicked, satisfied with a connecting crunch. Quickly, she pushed herself up, as much as she could with her hands still bound. Before she could get up and run, an arm locked around her neck and pulled her to her feet.

She would have gasped if she could breathe, but no sound could escape her. The guard choked her a second longer and then threw her into a small metal room. The door shut behind her, the air suffocating, and memories assaulted her — memories of another small room, alone with her nightmares and her pain.

She bit back a scream and pushed herself to a sitting position, her arms aching, her wrists bleeding, and fought the urge to cry.