Starless: After Ice Book Three

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Joh’s lifter whirred past sandy Phyrnosian houses.

Hatchlings waved to him delightedly as they tried to catch the attention of his Gilahawks; adults ran into the street, wanting to buy a skin or bit of vine, but Joh wafted past as quickly as his lifter would go, staring straight ahead. Isela needed him. She had never really needed him before, never even asked him for anything. Joh had no hatchlings of his own, no living family—and neither had Isela. He was pleased she’d thought of him when she needed help.

One of his hawks crept forward to stick its head under his arm for reassurance. They didn’t often travel so fast, and the creature was unhappy. “Nearly there, old fellow,” he said, smoothing its skin. “If all goes well, tonight we’ll sleep under the open sky. You’ll like that, won’t you?” It huddled against him unhappily in response.

Isela’s house stood apart from all its neighbors. Most Phyrnosian houses were the color of meat or almonds, but Isela’s was a pale, shell-like blue. On a street of relatively stocky houses built deep into the ground and fortified over the centuries, the Greithing house was narrow and tall, reaching for the sun like a delicate spiral. Rather like one of Isela’s horns, Joh realized.

It was laced with windows, as all the Greithings loved to cultivate green life. Joh smiled, remembering storm-lit afternoons in the tower drinking homegrown with the Count. Raptor had felt the sessions were inappropriate to continue after Isela’s father was killed; it was unseemly, he said, for a trader to take tea with a Countess.

Joh brought his lifter in up to the threshold stylishly. He leapt to the ground and ran to the door. A small package was propped beside it, just as she’d said, but—should he knock? Then he heard a faint ringing. It was the thruscreen built into his lifter. His stud-hawks had gathered around it with interest. Joh hurried back.

“Yes?”

It was Isela. She was standing in one of her gardens, half in darkness, and visibly shaken. “Joh,” she said, urgently. “Quickly—” she blurred, turning to look at something behind her. “He’s coming!”

The screen went black.

He ran back to her door and swept the tiny bundle up in his arms. It was even lighter than he’d expected, and warmly shifted in his hands—a girl, Isela had said. He’d never seen a human child before. Not up close.

The door flew open. Raptor erupted from the darkness, eyes flashing.

“You,” he said. He came forward, snapping his teeth. “Give it to me.”

The Gila-hawks came forward, spreading their wings, ready to launch at a word from Joh. But they would have been nothing to Raptor, who was one of the largest Phyrnosians ever born.

“It isn’t yours,” Joh said. He took a few steps back.

Raptor hissed.

“There are Phyrnosians watching you, Commander. From every window. They’ve been wondering about the rumors, you know. About you and your men. You want to add fuel to that fire?” Joh stepped calmly up into his lifter and put Isela’s package down beside him. His heart was racing.

Raptor stood blinking. “You’ll never get her off this planet alive, trader,” he said.

“Perhaps not,” Joh said. His lifter whirred to life. “But perhaps so. Reason enough for an old trader to try.”

Raptor shrugged. “There are more practical purposes for a bag of flesh. You and Isela are like hatchlings, still playing with your food.”

“You want to destroy everything she’s ever loved! You think you can carve her world down to nothing, until she has nothing but you? You overestimate yourself, Commander—and you underestimate the galaxy.”

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