“Good god, woman,” Commander Draven Lockley exclaimed, lifting her hastily to her feet. He guided her to sit on a padded bench across from Colonel Grimes, whose hand had stilled upon the helm of the ship.
“Luna?” Grimes’ face was frozen in astonishment. “What on earth are you doing leaping onto our air ship?”
She eyed them both carefully. She momentarily considered stunning them and shoving them out into the night sky. She might overpower one of them, eventually, but there were two of them. They were likely very quick and skilled fighters. She would only be able to stun one of them before it came to blows. Lockley kneeled in front of her. His eyebrows knitted together in uncertainty and concern. His breath was shallow and quick. She realized that her own breathing was slow and even.
This isn’t going well. She sucked in a rapid, shuddering breath. She let it out again in a quiet sob. She hoped they hadn’t noticed the delay. Grimes did not seem to. Lockley’s eyes narrowed slightly. He seemed preoccupied by more pressing matters at the moment, however. “What has happened to you, Luna? What has happened to your dress?” he asked. His tone was quiet and carefully gentle. He peered at her as though he feared a burst of manly vigour might startle her. Inspiration struck her.
Kai burst into tears. The men recoiled from her as though she’d struck out at them. Realizing they were, as any other man, terrified in the presence of a weeping woman, she sobbed desperately for a few moments before turning her watery, luminous eyes to Lockley. “The Duke…”
It was all she needed say. The words had an instant, startling effect. Lockley shot to his feet. His eyes flashed dangerously. “The Duke did this? Did he hurt you?”
The Commander exchanged a look with his companion. Grimes’ face was as white as marble. He nodded kindly towards Kai. Then he conspicuously turned his back on them and moved behind the canopy to escape her outburst. Kai watched him go from beneath her tear-soaked lashes. She swivelled her gaze back to Lockley. He kneeled in front of her and grasped her hands in his own.
“Tell me what happened, Luna.” Concern, confusion and indignation smouldered in his eyes and turned down the corners of his mouth. Then he paused. He lifted an eyebrow. He actually smirked. “That isn’t your real name, is it?”
“It was your friend who gave me that name. You never asked it.” She met his dark gaze squarely. She heaved a deep sigh.
“I did ask it. You would not give it to me. I am certain you spent the evening evading me.”
She turned her head away from him. “It’s Kaia.”
He moved to sit beside her. He wrapped a warm, comforting arm around her shoulders. She did not shrug him off. She did tense slightly. As if he sensed her trepidation, he drew his arm away. He turned to face her. “What happened to you, Kaia? What did the Duke do to you?”
“He deceived me…” Her mind raced. The lies poured from her lips in a soft, tremulous voice before she had even fully formed them. “He asked me to dance with him. I was very flattered. I’m a travelling circus performer, you see.”
“A circus performer?” he repeated in bemusement.
She winced imperceptibly. It was the first thing that had popped into her mind. Now it was too late to retract the idiotic declaration. She soldiered on. “Yes. I’m an aerialist. I have never received such exalted attention. I was quite taken in. The Duke told me he had…” She sucked in a shuddering breath. She flicked a covert glance at Lockley’s face. His brow was furrowed. His expression darkened as she spoke.
“Go on,” he urged in a gentle voice.
“It was foolish, really. I shouldn’t have believed him, but he told me he had a collection of art by the great Dray Ozell.”
She didn’t pause. “Yes. He was a great artist who illustrated the old carnivals and circuses. I was very interested to see his work. I had only heard of it before; he’s been dead many years, you see, and his work has been all but lost. It’s legendary among my comrades.”
“He did not have such a collection,” Lockley surmised. His voice was low and level. She studied his face carefully. She had laid it on rather thick. She would be lucky indeed if he had not already seen through the flimsy deception. Perhaps she could toss Lockley off the side of the vessel before his companion even noticed anything had happened.
“When I arrived in his private chambers, it was to find it was merely a tactic to seduce me…he…” She took another deep, racking breath. She looked away from him. Beside her, Lockley shifted. This time, he wrapped his arm firmly around her shoulders and drew her against him. She sniffled and spoke into the warm, solid expanse of his decorated chest. Men, she decided, were fools. “I refused him, but he is so big, so strong…he tried to force himself on me, and when I struggled, he threatened to lock me in his dungeon, to do terrible things to me…”
She was rambling. Lockley shushed her gently. “It’s all right now, Kaia. You don’t have to explain it to me. I understand.” He sighed heavily. He stroked a hand tenderly over her long, dishevelled hair. “What did you do? How did you get away from him?”
This time her voice was level. She might as well tell the truth. “I stunned him. I am a woman alone, Commander Lockley. I have to take care of myself.” She raised her arm. A smooth, metallic whirr preceded the snick of her retracted lightning wand.
Lockley eyed the small, brass weapon in interest. He nodded gravely. “I stunned him, and I ran,” she continued in a low voice. She looked down. She covered her wrist with her hand as she slid her sleeve over the stunner to conceal it once more. “But he is so strong; it did not stop him for long. He sent his guards after me. I wasn’t able to make it to my own airship before his man caught me up. I panicked and jumped into the first ascending flyer I saw.” She looked up to meet his intent gaze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
Lockley shook his head earnestly. “No, Kaia, you did the right thing.”
Colonel Grimes poked his head into the deck from behind the torn canopy. He exchanged a look with Lockley, who nodded and stood to speak to him in hushed tones. Grimes glanced at Kai over the commander’s shoulder. His brows knitted together in a concerned expression. Kai lowered her gaze. She sniffled softly into her sleeve as she listened to Lockley’s murmured words.
“The Duke attempted to force himself on her. She stunned him and barely escaped.”
Grimes’ expression changed. His eyebrows rose in interest. “That’s very impressive.” He leaned towards Lockley, speaking as though Kai were not in the small ship and could not hear them over the hum of the engine and the flapping of the wings. “But, good god, man, what are we to do with her?”
Lockley glanced over his shoulder. Kai wiped her eyes theatrically. She turned a brave look upon him. “We cannot allow this to go unpunished. Kaia, where can we take you?”
Her eyes narrowed for an ephemeral instant. “To Queen Jila.”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Grimes said, nodding vigorously as if the matter had finally reached a satisfactory conclusion. “This is an international matter for the Queen to sort out. She will decide how to deal with Julian. We will take her home to Varuna straight away. It is on the path, after all.”
Kai sighed heavily in relief. If they suspected there was anything amiss with her story, their expressions did not reveal it. She smiled meekly at them both in turn. “Thank you, Colonel. Commander.”
Grimes nodded brusquely. He returned to the helm, as if relieved to be away from the weepy, distressed woman. Lockley sat across from her upon the bench. He watched her quietly, as if awaiting signs of a renewed onslaught of tears. Kai gave him a wavering smile. Then she swept the small ship with a narrow, wary gaze.
“Where are your women?”
Lockley blinked. “Pardon?”
She realized she had spoken in a tone that might have been considered slightly sharper and sterner than was appropriate to her imagined predicament. It would little do to be too terse towards her saviour at such a crucial juncture. She ducked her head demurely. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Mrs. Grimes and your companions are not travelling with you.”
“The Colonel and I received instructions from our King to return to the palace in Leza at once. There is a matter that requires our immediate attention. Mrs. Grimes and the others did not wish to leave the palace before the pyrotechnics display and will return in Lady Lorelei’s airship.”
Kai did not reply to this. She was silent for a long moment, staring down at her hands. She felt Lockley shift abruptly. He moved to sit beside her on the padded bench. He draped an arm around her shoulders once more. This time, she flinched. The commander pulled away from her instantly. He returned quickly to the seat across from her. There was a sheepish expression on his sculpted features.
“I am sorry,” he told her in a low voice. “I won’t touch you again. I was mistaken in thinking you might require comfort.”
Kai stared at him. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. A woman in her wildly imagined situation might require comfort, she mused. Still, she ought not to allow the commander of an enemy country’s royal army to take liberties with her, even if Leza was only a potential enemy at the moment.
As if he sensed the sudden tension in the hull, Grimes peered through the canopy to rejoin the conversation. His voice was light, as though he were attempting to distract them from the awkwardness of the moment. “Did I hear right, moonbeam? You’re a circus performer?” Grimes asked. There was a definite note of amusement in his voice.
Kai’s head snapped up. She eyed both the soldiers carefully. There seemed to be no suspicion of her deception in their gazes. In fact, they looked quite keen on the idea. If she was going to continue the charade, she may as well make it good. “Yes, sir. I was raised in the circus. My parents, they were performers, as well.” She lowered her head. She dropped her voice to a sad, hushed murmur. “They died many years ago. I was brought up by my troupe. We have been travelling all over the world together as long as I can remember.”
“What were you doing at the palace?” It was Lockley who asked this. He wore the same frank, trusting expression with which he had gazed at her upon their first meeting. For a moment, Kai was astonished at the Lezan guards’ credulity. Leza bred them handsomely, but it didn’t seem to breed them clever.
She hesitated a theatrical moment. “Gate crashing,” she admitted finally with a snuffling laugh. “My troupe hasn’t performed many shows lately, and I heard about the party. I thought…perhaps it would be a ripping good time. A nice distraction.” She sighed deeply. “It was not what I had hoped.”
Grimes’ voice was gruff. “This would never have happened in Leza. Duke Julian is an awful cad.”
Kai smiled wanly. “It would never have happened at home, either.”
Lockley shot to his feet. His features were closed and dark. He paced towards the front of the ship. He peered out of the canopy into the night sky. “I see the Scyllan Sea below,” he murmured in a low, husky voice. “We are nearing Zooni and Queen Jila’s palace.”
Kai touched her waist subconsciously. She felt the parchment there, still safe despite her daring escape. She sighed softly in relief.
She felt Lockley’s eyes upon her. She folded her hands in her lap. “Shall we call your Queen?” he asked. “We should inform her of your arrival.”
She smiled at him. “Yes, please. I would be most grateful.”
Lockley glanced at his colonel. Grimes was already punching coordinates on the large, round numbers stamped upon the long, skeletal brass keys of his console. The incandescent glass mounted on the console upon a thick, brass easel began to shimmer and glow a pale, milky blue. After several long moments, a dark, patrician face appeared on the screen. His expression was perfectly gracious, despite the late hour of the call.
“Yes?” Abraham asked courteously. His dark, almond shaped eyes swept the interior of the airship. When they found Kai, his expression remained as politely neutral as ever. Their eyes met briefly. She thought she saw a very slight waver upon his lips, as if he were suppressing a smirk. “Can I help you?”
Lockley stepped in front of the screen. His back was so perfectly straight, he might have been carved of marble. “I am Commander Lockley of the Lezan Imperial Army. I regret to inform you that one of your citizens has been the victim of a terrible crime.”
Abraham’s expression now revealed his surprise. His eyebrows knit together in confusion. “In Leza?”
Grimes’s voice was gruff with indignation. “No. In Tyr.”
Abraham’s gaze flicked to Kai. She gave him a small, tight smirk behind the soldiers’ back. Abraham nodded curtly. “I will call the Queen directly.”
For a moment, the screen swirled again. Then Queen Jila’s face appeared. She looked slightly harassed, as though nothing could be more inconvenient than a late call from the guards. Kai did not doubt Abraham had warned the Queen of her predicament on the other side of the glass. Jila’s long, dark hair was braided down her back. She still wore the smart, grey day dress in which she’d conducted her daily audiences, despite the lateness of the hour. She had, of course, been anticipating Kai’s return and had yet to retire for the evening. Kai doubted she had expected this particular turn of events.
To the Queen’s credit, her face did not alter even slightly when her gaze found Kai, sitting meekly on the bench behind Commander Lockley’s erect figure. If she was irritated or amused by the situation, her expression did not reveal it. Kai wondered what sort of reception she would endure when she arrived at the palace. “Commander?” Jila asked in an authoritative voice. “What is the meaning of this? My major-domo tells me one of my people has been the victim of a crime.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Jila’s eyes flicked to Kai. If they revealed more interest than concern, the Lezan guards did not seem to notice. “What sort of crime?”
“A violent crime, I believe, Your Majesty.”
Kai met her Queen’s eyes. Jila looked grave. “I see. Yes, that is dreadful, indeed. I wish to speak to her at once to ascertain the details of the transgression. Please, bring her to my airstrip straight away.”
Lockley bent in a curt bow. “Yes, Your Majesty, as you command.”
Jila appraised him sombrely. Her eyes flicked back to Kai. “Commander, I thank you for bringing my subject home safely. How did you come to be in her company?”
Lockley smiled. Jila’s elegant eyebrows rose ever slightly. “She found us, Your Highness, and requested our assistance in fleeing Tyr. We could not refuse a lady.”
Jila inclined her head. “Of course. Thank you. I will have someone waiting at the airstrip to collect her.” Her head lowered, as if she were reaching for the console. She lifted her gaze abruptly to Lockley once again. Her voice was perfectly even. “Is there a reward you would request for your service?”
Lockley glanced over his shoulder at Kai, who gave him a small, wavering smile. “No, Your Majesty. Her safe return is all I require. It is our duty to protect the weaker sex.”
Jila’s lips turned up in a smirk. She did not respond to this proclamation. Her screen swirled. Her image disappeared, leaving the glass blank once again. As he returned to her side, Kai smiled at Lockley. “Thank you, Commander. I am in your debt.”
He sat beside her. As if he sensed the strengthening of her spirit by the appearance of her Queen and the promise of her safety, he wrapped an arm loosely around her shoulders. She did not flinch this time. “No, Kaia, it is all I can do. You have had a very dreadful experience. I would wish to do more for you, if only I knew what I might do.”
Grimes rolled his eyes at his superior officer over his shoulder. He returned his attention to the helm, spinning it smoothly onto the course towards Zooni. Kai smiled shyly at Lockley. “You have done quite enough, Commander. More than I could ever ask or deserve.” She looked down at her hands. “Certainly more than I deserve.”