Eternal Flame

m/f space opera
romance space opera

Chapter 3: Evacuation

The colony had been safely evacuated by the time Nami returned, and she sighed in relief as her captain rushed to help her into the ship. Once they had rendezvoused with her main warship waiting in far orbit, she was ushered into the hospital area and pushed onto an examining table before she could even protest. As the doctor pulled off the bandage delicately and began cleaning and stitching up the wound, Prince Aaron entered the room in a fury, no doubt angry that her absence had delayed their departure. At the sight of her injury, he went pale and grabbed her hand.

“What happened?” he asked softly.

She explained about the glider but left out Bertran, not wanting Aaron to know that another member of the royalty was in the vicinity, and not wanting him to see her interest in the other man. He stroked her head, wincing sympathetically as the doctor sewed the wound together.

She watched him carefully, a feeling of disappointment beginning to overwhelm her. Prince Aaron, heir to the throne of Calib, had been the one to encourage her to join the army, the only one who thought that a female even had a chance. They had been children when he had kiddingly ordered her into the army after she had pummeled one of the older stable boys for making unwelcome advances, but as they grew up, he continued to encourage her. His father, the King, disapproved of their friendship but could do nothing about it, watching in vain as his royal son chose to spend his time with a slave. She had joined the army and learned how to fight, and moved far away.

Although he didn’t know it, she had actually forgotten about him, so caught up in the excitement of her new life. She steadily rose in the ranks, and soon was selected to lead the entire army, putting her directly under the Prince’s command, since the king wanted his son to have the experience of war before ruling. He had grown in the years she had been away, and was now a strong, tall, moderately handsome man. When he sought to take their friendship to the bed, she hadn’t protested. Couldn’t protest, to some degree. Refusing him would have cost her the job, and she loved commanding the army far more than she cared about who slept in her bed.

Now, though, she was beginning to grow bored of him. His tan complexion and ebony hair somehow faded in comparison to Bertran’s brilliant beauty, and she dreaded spending another night with him. The doctor finally finished with her side, and she sat up and stretched experimentally. Still painful, but it would go away in a few days. Aaron helped her up and wrapped an arm around her waist, leading her towards his bedroom.

“No, Aaron,” she protested, pulling back and ignoring his anger. “I want to make sure everyone’s safe first, and I have to find the families of the ones who died with me.”

“I wouldn’t want to distract you from your duties,” he said. She could hear the resentment in his voice, so she kissed him lightly on the cheek before rushing away.

She entered the main hall, where her captain and officers all waited impatiently, smiled reassuringly, and sat down at the head of the table. She briefly explained what had happened, marking the planet off their colonization list.

“I want you to find out what happened to my glider, though,” she ordered. “There’s no way I could have gotten that far off course without some sort of interference.”

“Are we returning to collect it?” one of her men asked, and she paused. They would need to see it to figure out what was wrong, but she didn’t want them to see the tower, especially if Bertran were still there.

“Only if you absolutely have to. We don’t want to disrupt the sentient creatures,” she said quietly, and they nodded, three of the engineers immediately leaving to examine the remaining gliders.

Turning back to the map of the Unclaimed Quadrant, she sighed. “All right. We’ve secured that planet and will just have to change the rating to hazardous so no one else tries to colonize. Was it just the natives attacking, or was another army in this area?”

“We haven’t found any signs of anyone else,” her captain said, and she sighed. So the colonists had manipulated the army into trying to eradicate a sentient species. They would have to be dealt with, and she would probably have to give testimony when they were brought before the court to be held to account. An annoyance, but at least changing the rating on the planet should avoid future problems.

“We should probably return,” her captain said, pointing to several nearby systems. “Kreutzer’s pushing along the border. Nothing serious yet, but we think they’re preparing for a major attack soon.”

“Then let’s head there, Gareth,” she said, sighing and leaning back. “I’ll transfer to the main warship once we’re at the border.”

She spent most of her time on a single warship, usually with Leon, her second-in-command, but she had gone with Gareth’s warship to help with the evacuation in case another army was nearby. She would be glad to get back to the ship she considered home, though of course most of her personal belongings were on the planet of Majal, not on any ship. She traveled between ships too often to justify bringing anything personal with her, and she spent enough time on Majal that it was more her home than anywhere else, even if she were far more comfortable on her ships.

She was exhausted from the chase, her injuries, and her activities with Bertran. She left the details of the transfer to her captains as she headed back to her quarters to relax and shower before joining Aaron. He was rarely on warships with her but had insisted on joining her on this mission. He would transfer back to Majal when she left for Leon’s warship, and she would be glad to get rid of him for a while. Idly, she wondered if Aaron would want to make love that night, or if would be too angry. Either way, she would have to go see him, but she hoped it wouldn’t turn into an intimate evening.

After turning down several corridors, she paused. There was a group of people along an intersecting hallway, unaware of her, but she heard her name.

“-heard Ultia and the Prince are lovers, and that’s how she got the job.”

“Nonsense. Haven’t you seen her in battle? She earned her job.”

“Still, they’re pretty close. Haven’t you at least wondered about it?”

Nami knew her cheeks were red and she rushed past the intersection without looking to see who it was. She hoped it was a civilian they had rescued, but she knew it was her own soldiers, her own men. They obeyed her, but they didn’t quite believe that a woman could do everything she could do. Some of them thought that Aaron was the real genius but because he was a Prince and forbidden from taking part in battle, he used Ultia as a surrogate. Others, like these men, simply thought they were having an affair and that was how she became commander.

At least one of those men had stood up for her, she thought. That was a welcome change from the days when everyone assumed she was a joke. She had worked hard and long to get people to take her seriously. She hated the fact that some of the rumors were true, and she and Aaron were lovers. She would give anything to make it so they weren’t, but Aaron insisted that they be together and he not only outranked her, he knew her deepest secret, one that was even more damning than being a woman. If he revealed her secret to anyone, she would be kicked out of the military at once.

She finally found her way back to her rooms and once she was inside, she collapsed on the bed and rolled up her sleeve to look at the tattoo. The brand that marked her as a slave. No one knew except for Aaron. She was Aaron’s property, and their relationship remained one of slave and master. She shivered. Some people guessed; they had seen the tattoo and knew what it meant. But she had never revealed her secret to anyone.

As a child, she had been raised as Aaron’s playmate. When Aaron began to take too much of an interest in her, a slave and a commoner, the King had grown concerned, but she had been bought to entertain him and Aaron reminded her of that sometimes. She was Aaron’s amusement and toy, and if he wanted to use her, he had the right. After all, the papers that released her from slavery were in his possession and could easily be destroyed. She could be a slave again at the drop of a hat if she didn’t obey him.

It was a frightening position to be in, but she had never chafed against the restrictions before. Perhaps, she thought, it was because she never had any comparison before. She had only slept with Aaron in the past, but something about Bertran had lured her and she was grateful she had gotten a chance to experience him. Only now, she knew that Aaron was subpar, and she would be disappointed in him no matter how hard he tried.

She took a few long breaths. As much as she longed to go to sleep, she knew she had to go to Aaron. Whether they made love or not, she would be disappointed now that she knew that men like Bertran existed.

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