Shades of Honor(8)

By: Sandy Williams

“Major Liles, have your man take Hauch to a doctor. You might as well stay“—she scowled at Ash—”if Ashdyn will permit it. Your team will be getting a new assignment.”

The loyalty training relaxed its grip on her free will, but that didn’t lessen the tension in Ash’s shoulders. Tersa had acquiesced too easily. The prime wasn’t a pushover. She couldn’t simply be giving Ash her way just in an effort to appear accommodating. She must have already had plans to reassign them.

Ash held Tersa’s gaze a few seconds longer before turning to Hauch, who was still staring her down.

Mandell put a hand on the soldier’s shoulder. “Come on. You can settle this later.”

He helped Hauch hobble from the room.

“Everyone take a seat,” Tersa said. She followed her own advice, but Bayis remained standing.

“You’re turning this into a full briefing.” Bayis’s tone rivaled Rykus’s in the lack-of-inflection department.

“I’m making use of this time and interruption,” Tersa responded, “so, yes. This is a briefing.”

“This isn’t the way things are done.”

“Adapt, Admiral. And sit.”

Bayis’s gaze targeted Ash like this was her fault, but he complied with Tersa’s order.

Five chairs lined the back wall. Rykus grabbed two, then dropped one down beside Ash.

“It’s good to see you again, Rip.”

He didn’t respond. He just sat in his chair and faced the three people seated behind the data-table. Liles retrieved a chair and sat as well.

Casual as could be, Ash turned her chair backward and straddled it.

“Before we were interrupted.” Rykus fixed his gaze on Tersa. “You mentioned a meeting.”

“Yes. Five days from now. We have an invitation to meet a Saricean eminence. They will allow a single ship to depart a tachyon capsule in the Ysbar System. We will meet at Ysbar Station to discuss a settlement between us.”

“A peace treaty?” Rykus asked.

“Perhaps,” Tersa said.

Liles leaned forward. “They gave us a pass into Saricean space?”

“They did.” Tersa’s voice was bland compared to Liles’s. Like every other Coalition citizen and soldier, Liles wanted revenge. The Sariceans’ surprise attack at Ephron had killed thousands and destroyed the infrastructure of the planet’s capital city. It didn’t matter that the Coalition had been planning a similar preemptive strike. The Sariceans had beaten them to it, and it was time for payback.

“We will meet with the Sariceans as arranged,” Tersa said. “We will not use this pass to strike at them.”

“Then why do you need my team?”

“Protection,” Bayis cut in before Tersa could answer. “The minister prime intends to meet personally with the Saricean eminence.”

Ash’s gaze jerked back to the prime. Rykus went still, and Liles muttered a curse.

“They’re baiting you for an easy kill,” Liles said.

“It’s a diplomatic meeting. There will be no violence.”

Liles shook his head. “The Sariceans promised a nonviolent meeting at Gaeles Minor. Instead, they butchered our people.”

“People die in firefights,” Tersa said. “It was a battle, not a butchery. And I have reason to believe the spark that ignited that event may not have been the Sariceans’ fault. If I can undo the harm—”

“The harm?” Rykus’s quiet, lethal tone caused chill bumps to prickle down Ash’s arms. “We lost thousands of men and women in that battle. We almost lost the planet.”

Ash had to concentrate to keep her leg from jumping. The loyalty training flushed through her veins, attuning her to her fail-safe. She wanted him to give an order, something to do or say so she could morph the displeasure in his voice into—

She dug her fingers into her crossed arms and locked her gaze on the prime.

Ignore the pull and breathe, Ash.

Tersa folded her hands on the data-table. “I understand your sentiment, Commander.”

“If you’re willing to make a deal with the enemy, you don’t.”

Tersa lifted her chin, impervious to Rykus’s ownership of every molecule in the room. “The Sariceans have always claimed we fired first. Just like the pursuit force on Ephron claimed that you fired first.”