The Elf & Huntress Excerpt

Elf and Huntress New Front

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The Elf & Huntress is the beginning of a long and winding trail from power to obscurity, from infamy to glory for a naïve lass from the highlands. On a simple off-planet assignment she’s dragged screaming into an underworld she couldn’t have fathomed existed. A scarred and liberated prisoner, she rises to become the feared Captain of the Lascorii Secret Services, avenging nemesis of the vilest pirate plaguing the worlds underwritten by the Seranath Trade Guild, with a hand-picked crew—and one diminutive, rather officious Seranim Guild Agent who learns for herself that Wish is the most powerful thing in the Universe…

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Excerpt from: “Playing Favorites,” The Elf & Huntress  © 2013 by J.L. Lawson

“No I am not the Assistant Manager of the lab…” her nostrils flared with the riposte. She had to take a deep breath and remember that it really didn’t matter what this person, or anyone else for that matter, thought about her, her position, or the lab. She had a charter from the Executive Director to achieve specific goals—this cover was just that: a well constructed mask. In a gentler tone, “…I am just a struggling lass from the highlands, however if you would wait here, I’m certain I can arrange for you to interview one of the management.”

“Thanks Doll, that’d be super!” the agent grinned in triumph. “And if we could be allowed to bring along our cameras?…”

Tera was careful not to roll her eyes, but maintained her grip on civility. “I will see what I can do. If you will wait here?” And she finally made the foyer of her own facility. “Inger,” she needn’t have raised her voice; the Chief of Security for the labs was always at the doors in the morning. “Please find Clara or Jack and give them heads up that they have an eager journalist waiting out front…”

“Yes Ma’am. Und guten tag!” Inger was still trying to get used to the position, she reminded herself as she breezed passed the screening machines and the rest of the formidable security measures keeping plain folks at bay.

“Ms. Elphinstone, the progress reports from the night shift are on your desk and I made sure the department heads are aware of the meeting change.” Her lieutenants were nothing if not organized, she thought and flung her coat and shoulder bag onto the layout table next to her desk.

“Thanks Vince, now if the espresso machine is working…”

He winced and disappeared, closing her doors behind him. Talking to herself was just a way of organizing her thoughts she justified and opened her mouth to emphasize, “The Boss does it; must be useful…” reassuring herself. “Now,” she reached for the reports, hoping the milestones that were supposed to have been reached last night— “are we ahead or trailing?”

Vince glided to the desk, set down the demitasse and let himself out again. She reached for the cup; took a sip…

Her vision began swimming and the scene before her blurred. “Crap!” she struggled up against the restraints. “Another damn memory!” She tossed her head back and forth to get her hair out of her mouth and hopefully dislodge the probes and wires decorating her scalp; her arms and legs strapped so tightly to the bed/table their usefulness was passed futility. The caked and clotted bloody streaks up and down her arms and legs were testament that she had been out of the restraints at least long enough to gain them. “I hope that was entertaining enough for you!” she blasted, though her voice was raw and thin. “Whoop, whoop! Another exciting memory of reading reports! You guys are sooo not getting anywhere!”

Her minor rebellion in the face of her dire predicament was all she really had to keep her sanity over the last… how long had she been tucked away in this Naudi hell-hole? The dim and bare closet of a room with its blank walls and ceiling, and that smell! “What is this stench!” she repeated for the hundredth time at least. She had a suspicion that it was her own loss of hygiene… And again she tried to shake her head clear of the fog descending…

The night closed in on her where she crouched in the shadows of the alley. Her mind always drifted back to those morbid recollections when she wasn’t careful. The chill of the fog on her hands and face brought her out of her private hell. She glanced across the street for any sign that her marks had arrived without her noticing. Nothing. Just the erratic pulse of the abused neon sign over the tattoo shop window answered her scan. ‘Won’t be long…’ she muttered under her breath.

She stood and retreated deeper into the shadows. Circling the building without a sound through the narrow alleys was all that suggested she was haunting the shop across the street. The sounds of splishing steps grew louder as she emerged at her other secret peeping spot. The figures of a couple, both the same height, but one stumbling and reeling next to the other, solidified from out of the gloom. ‘That’s my Jack and Jill; tardy as usual…’ As they passed her station she crept out behind them before they could reach the flickering neon light. Silent as death, she slipped ‘a package’ into the coat pocket of the reeling fellow; the girl none the wiser for the movement. Tera was out of sight again in an instant into the vacant doorway of a neighboring shop. The tattoo parlor door opened and the tinkling of the little bell over it as it shut was dampened by the roiling mists at once.

Tera stepped out of the shadow and walked casually back up the way the couple had come. “Four, three, two, one…” There was a flash of light that lit up the narrow lane for several moments. At once it became darker than it had been but for only a split second. She lifted her wrist to her face. “Ready for pick-up…” she uttered matter-of-factly and continued on up the shadowy lane toward the brighter lights and festive shouts and music of the boulevard.

She threw back her overcoat and put on her best ‘let’s get this party on!’ face as she joined a band of revelers just coming out of one of the hundred bars and honky-tonks lining the strip. Her tight red dress glowed as bright as the thousand lanterns swaying overhead to mark the third night of celebration over the people’s recent liberation from their overlords. Her matching red heels clicked on the cobblestones behind the little knot of revelers. She moved like a drunken debutant until she reached the Underground. Slipping down the stairs she pulled the coat up tighter again and slumped onto a bench to wait for the train.

‘One more errand and I’m shut of this little backwater planet…’ she sighed and glanced down at her shoes. ‘And something more comfortable…’ The approaching screech of grinding metal heralded the train. She rose, intuitively glanced back and forth across the platform; no movement. She positioned herself near the boarding steps still semi-covered by the pillars. The cars stopped with a whistle and whoosh, the doors snapped open. She waited until the last second and leapt as they slammed shut and the train took off for the next stop.

There were only a handful of passengers. The rest of the district’s residents were all back up on the strip carousing and drinking their brains out. ‘Save two notable exceptions…’ she reminded herself with a grim smile. She made a little cough and brought her wrist to her face again, “Fourteen minutes till second package drop.” Her voice was low and her eyes took in the entire contents of the carriage. Still nothing. Through the windows, low lit side tunnels and the under-lit passing trains smeared by. A mechanical gong announced the next stop and she hunkered down in the seat, looking for all the world like a bag lady or other of the teaming homeless vagabonds that were ubiquitous of late.

An elderly lady and her nurse stepped into the car. Tera scrutinized the pair, ensuring they were who they appeared to be. Satisfied, she relaxed a bit and reran her next ‘drop-off’ in her mind. Another gong and she was up at the door as it opened, and was across the platform like a phantom, no one the wiser for her passage.

Again she emerged from her overcoat like a butterfly from a chrysalis and allowed as much attention to herself as could be offered by this new avenue of celebrants and their raucous singing, laughter and shrieks of ridiculousness. Two blocks later she pushed through the polished glass revolving doors into the elegant foyer of a grand building. Smiling coquettishly at the poor saps who drew the short straws for nightwatchman duties she bounced up the broad stairs drawing both their attentions absolutely. ‘Never under-estimate the power of moving mammaries!’ she grinned back at them when she reached the mezzanine and ducked into the ladies room.

The door had only just shut and she was transformed again. The seductive costume of the early night replaced by the dark matte skintight suit of a shadow. She leapt onto the sink counter and was inside the ventilation shaft without a sound. “Countdown to drop on my mark,” she whispered to her invisible comrades. “Mark.”

She moved like a cat through the winding shafts with the surety of one who had been there before. Suddenly stopping over a vented juncture, she rose up through the hatch and climbed the service ladder to the maintenance door above her. A moment to trick the lock and she opened the door enough to look down the empty upper floor hall.

She slipped a plastic wedge into the lock and let the door close, her ear pressed to its surface. The clomp of leather shoes barely rose in tempo as she listened. Again she held her breath, waited as the steps passed her door. She moved silently out into the hall, slipped another ‘something’ into the pocket of the suited gentleman just passing and was hidden in the alcove opposite her door in a blink.

The gentleman turned the corner at the end of the hallway and she opened the door behind her in the alcove. Crossing the suite, she burned the locked latch of the window with a pencil laser and pushed it open. The muted din of the streets below instantly pervaded the stillness of the vacant rooms. She crept out onto the ledge and began the short climb up the wall, moving like a spider over the glass and steel. At the roof, she picked up the backpack left for her there and pulled out her last disguise.

A roar erupted in the floors beneath her as she smiled mischievously and jumped from the roof.

The dank night air rushed over her face. She blinked back the gathering moisture in her eyes and glided toward the rows of piers at the harbor. Spotting the one vessel she knew was waiting just for her, she made a barrel-roll to drop some velocity and pushed herself into a spread eagle that fully dampened her descent. Dropping softly onto the upper deck of the ship. Two assistants helped her out of the flying gear.

“It’s good to have you back Boss;” said the slightly shorter of the two.

“Mistress is waiting. If you take my meaning, ma’am,” intimated the other.

The first one held open the hatch leading to the bridge of the vessel, “We’re cleared for lift off, at your discretion Boss…”

Tera marched onto the bridge and sat in the captain’s chair. “Let’s blow this backwater little satellite! Mama’s got an appointment with her majesty and she doesn’t want to be late.”

She turned to the pilot, “Our two ‘guests’ situated securely? Sadly, I over estimated the charge for the third… Que lastima…”

“Yes ma’am,” came the curt response as the ship shuddered and rose. “Anticipated docking in forty minutes…”

Tera touched a panel on the arm of the chair, “The Elf, here. Special delivery expected inside the hour. Please have my bounty waiting, we shan’t be docked longer than necessary. Her Eminence is expecting me and I won’t keep the Matriarch waiting!”

The blurred points of light through the main viewer crystalized into a familiar pattern of stars, then just as suddenly they blinked out as the little scout ship went into wrinkle drive. “Good. Alert me in twenty. I’m going to have a bath.” With that she left the bridge and sauntered across her quarters dropping bits of her clothes in trail behind her. “Shower.” She said with not a little anticipation in her voice. The hot spray of water and steam filled the bright chamber and she was enfolded. “Aah…”

Tera Elphinstone. Born Earth. Recruited Lascor Special Operations after first contact. Indentured Contract Operative for three years and four months following her extensive training period with the Selective Services Adminstration. Answerable only to the Matriarch. Anticipated release from indenture: three days, seven hours and… “Twelve minutes. Can’t come too soon…” she repeated to herself as she toweled off and pulled her court robes from the drawer. “Dressing like a geisha is one of the things I’ll be missing about this gig!” She writhed and wriggled into the costume and did a turn in front of the mirror, making a practice flourish. The translucent, billowing folds of the robes swelled then snapped around her figure like saran wrap in the blink of an eye.

“Perfection;” a voice uttered mechanically through the speakers as the Elf gazed, satisfied at the display.

“Yes. It should be; I’ve only done it a thousand times…” the Elf responded. “Inform the Matriarch the Naud’s last remaining ‘errant children’ from Tabila are on their way to the ‘re-education’ facilities.” She smiled “Via channels, naturally. A girl’s allowed a kickback from time to time. These two were very naughty boys and girls. The one I left in pieces was positively… evil. I’ll have his price in rhodium if you please.”

“Understood,” retorted the voice and the speaker went silent.

Under her breath, “Damn snooping, department staff…” she muttered at the pervasive monitoring busybodies who intruded at the most inopportune moments.

The Elf was on her last assignment. “Where shall I visit first?” she mused half aloud to herself. Crossing to the view port in her quarters she gazed out at the smears of light that were the passing stars. “Not a Naudi outpost or haven, that’s a given!” she stamped and turned to return to bridge. ‘Had enough of that lot on behalf of our latest well-paying clients…’ It was always best to appear at command when dealing with these quasi-directors. ‘Directors,’ she sniffed at the title. As if the witless automatons directed anything in reality. A pinging chime announced her return to the Bridge.

“Bring us out of wrinkle, and hail the Directorate of Naudi Diaspora Re-assimilation;” she commanded.

The screen filled with the well-groomed face of a man she didn’t recognize—and no wonder, the Directorate had a higher turn-over than a brothel of lepers. “Docking permission requested and bounty dispersement expected, as notified…” her com officer announced to the blank face of the director.

“Dock ten.” The face mouthed mechanically and added, “Disbursement delayed…”

The Elf leaned forward menacingly from the captain’s chair toward the screen. Through clenched teeth she repeated evenly: “If this delay is greater than a nano-second, this facility will be missing its charter the next second later…”

The screen blipped with static for a moment and the smiling face of a woman replaced that of the droll little man’s visage. “Miscommunication. ‘Delay’ is a misnomer. A simple exchange is all, we take custody of the packages and you have your bounty. No delay, I assure you. The Matriarch need not be involved in the slightest…”

“Satisfactory;” the Elf replied smoothly and cut the link. “Skip protocols and put us at dock ten. Now.”

“Yes Captain,” the smirking voice of her pilot answered. This was more like it!

There was a bumping and a sudden stillness. “Oops, we may have crumpled their umbilicals as we transited, Captain…” her pilot pointed out without remorse.

The Elf was at the docking hatch in a flash. Her two ‘packages,’ the ’emigrees’ who had at last been returned, flanked her, blindfolded and bound. She pushed them through to the platform ahead of her. The waiting ‘reception committee’ took custody and a tallish woman stepped forward extending a small shimmering cube in her hand as she did so. “Your bounty Captain. And may I add…”

“Not interested;” the Elf spat as she turned, grabbed the offered reward and shut the hatch on the emissary before she could finish her short speech. “Bounce!” the Elf said without hesitation.

The little scout ship blinked from the dock and was in wrinkle toward Lascor inside three seconds. “We’ll arrive at Court in eighteen hours and thirty-three minutes Ma’am;” the voice of her navigator announced over the speakers.

“I’ll be in my quarters. Please knock three times….” That was ship’s code for disabling the snoop monitors’ signal.

A moment, and there came: “Captain, free to be yourself ma’am. All department signals jammed.”

“I’ll be in my quarters.” the Elf strode up through the short corridor removing her official robes as she went. “I need a nap…”

There is a back story to this little escapade.

The Elf; Tera Inghean Elphinstone, was the second child of a very happy couple residing on their ancestral highlands in the village of Fortingall. The Elphinstones were a modest folk but not provincial by any stretch. Their children, as they themselves before them, were shuffled off to the Universities on the continent as soon as admissions were secured. Tera and her older sister were natural scholars and graduated with highest honors in less than the prescribed four years. Fortunate, that. Their parents died in a rail accident a few months later.

Her sister, Mara, accepted a research/teaching position at the Max Plank Institute; Tera went into the corporate world with a definite attitude. The Drummond Group made her an offer she couldn’t refuse and in seven years after the first months of her employ, she became one of a handful of Directors overseeing the most vast and influential engine for change on the planet.

Then company operations took a turn for the interplanetary and Tera’s future went with it.

It seemed innocuous enough. Just a little assignment to inventory the Seranath Trade Guild holdings outside the Nourii systems before formal negotiations for merger would be drafted by the Drummond Group attorneys. A precious few people from Earth had ever heard of the Naud, let alone the Lascorii. The latter was intentional.

History Lesson One—the Lascorii:

Setting: Central band of star systems in Nourii traded space within the Orion Spur. Colonization had been ramped up to ensure that their hold on the habitable worlds nearest at hand provided a buffer. A necessary barrier of sorts for discouraging any other peoples from reaping the resources needed by their own ever-growing and expanding culture.

On one of those, less hospitable colonized worlds—Lascor—a strange mutation began to appear in the second generation of the settlers. The Emigration Commission’s lead biologists were summoned, tests and research concluded the unthinkable. The environment of the colony’s planet had worked with surprising swiftness to twist their genetic heritage. The younger generation suffered not at all in the rather dangerous environment of the planet supporting the remote colony. The only really disturbing side-effects of the mutation were that the offspring were all female and upon adolescence exuded a most distinct and powerful pheromone—Wonderful for further protecting them from the harsh atmosphere, however deleterious to common interaction with their former Nourii brethren.

The Lascor colony was quarantined, all settlers screened and those not possessing the mutation were evacuated. Sisters were ripped from brothers, wives from husbands and little girls orphaned by their grieving families. The ‘afflicted’ generation was abandoned to their own devices. The ‘Lascorii,’ as they were referred to by the hushed and shamed voices of the few Nourii directly involved in the action, were left without any apparent means of self-continuation. An all-female population boded ill for any future they might have wished for themselves, in the face of complete isolation, with the complete lack of Nourii contact there was a total vacuum regarding material support. That was well over twenty-seven hundred years ago.

At the time of the enacted quarantine, a mere couple dozen of the women were with child. Hope against hope arose in all of them that male children might be forthcoming. Some glimmer of a chance that perhaps their doom was not sealed. Such was their brief joy when in fact there were male offspring born. Sadly, as it turned out, they were sterile…

Lascor itself is situated at the farthest boundaries of Nourii occupied space and as such was visited infrequently by scout ships and the occasional trading vessels requiring refueling and resupply over the vast range of their routes. It took the Lascorii little experience with those impromptu ‘guests’ to realize what an affect their own bodies’ atmospheres had on the unsuspecting travelers—whatever their origins. In a word, they were mesmerized and compliant.

The first Lascorii woman to recognize the potential of their natural influence over any and all visitors also took advantage of that first opportunity from the unlooked for visitors to guarantee herself, and her clan, supplies from the visiting vessel, the indefinite company of several of the male crew and: children. She was Lei’tressa Reja Tei Emiclairsenne. Thereafter honored by her ‘sisters’ as Lei’tressa Reja Tei Emiclairsenne I, first Matriarch of Lascor.

With their survival no longer hanging in the balance, the subsequent centuries saw the blossoming of their society and culture. The force of natural selection had created them and their world; they responded the only way they could. They developed their own version of their history, codified their own traditions of proper conduct, of leadership, of succession, of lifestyle, training children—all girls for the most part—and most importantly for this particular story: their own very unique foreign policy.

It might occur to lesser minds and hearts that the use of the Lascorii Flame, as their singular enchantments were reverently referred to, might be used as a weapon of conquest, of absolute control and domination. That was not the path down which the Matriarchs of the Lascorii guided their people however. They had had to develop superior cunning, become masters—mistresses, rather—of illusion, supreme manipulators of deceit and misdirection as their native weapons. All valuable strategic tools in the arsenal of the most adept culture of espionage ever birthed in the galaxy.

The Lascorii exported their sole sovereign gifts to the highest bidders. A veritable black market of black ops. Ships, they had. Resources, they acquired. A reputation… they cultivated. The ‘Matriarch of the Lascorii’ became a title synonymous with power and unqualified obeisance among their clients; but with fear, mistrust and loathing from the Nourii peoples who had shuttered their memories of any connection with the shadowy sirens of Lascor.

It should not be surprising how several centuries of professional espionage shapes a culture. The children of the ‘royal’ household bore the brunt of the rigorous and methodical training disciplines prescribed for every Lascorii child—girl. The patterns of instruction, the structural scaffolding of their path began at last to resemble more the tenets of a spiritual discipline more than the rigors of clandestine occupational training. With that evolved an ethos of self-justice, a pervasive sense of destiny, an atmosphere not just of legitimacy—but de facto Lascorii superiority and absolute spiritual authority.

The Lascorii were nothing if not devout. That their ‘business’ was other peoples’ secrets was merely sauce for the goose, as it were. Fast forward to the last decades, and the emergence of a distant frontier world entering into the commonwealth of systems already enjoying peaceful trade—naturally moderated and manipulated by the shadowy puppet-masters of Lascor. A frontier world remote and isolated, now shedding it’s former provincial cosmic perspective and being welcomed by the rest of the civilized systems of the Spur—Earth, or as was referred to by everyone else: Enta.

While other cultures were securing trade agreements for import and export of goods and such particular to the worlds themselves, the Lascorii had a slightly unique take on the notion of import/export. The Lascor made sure they had the ‘pick of the litter’ when it came to developing ‘partnerships’ with the new people. Agents were dispatched and directives were issued demanding the best of the best be brought home to Lascor for possible ‘recruitment and training.’ As it happens in many quasi-religious movements, there is a drive toward selective proselytization that is too seductive to be ignored. The Lascorii had the rarest form of that infection. They ‘allowed’ selective inclusion into their ranks for the betterment of other cultures.

That was the sole charter of the Lascorii Department of Selective Service overseen by her eminence herself and offering term contracts of indenture to only the most fortunate of candidates—long contracts to those with obvious and demonstrable potential; short-term contracts to those of marginal ability but with verifiable possibilities. In the not so distant past of the aforementioned frontier world, that particular activity was referred to by the epithet: shanghai-ing crew-mates—a gross interpretation of the Lascorii version.

History Lesson Two—The Naud:

From the boundary worlds of the Spur bordering the Sagittarii Arm, a people arose who weren’t given to peaceful coexistence in any form, whether with themselves or, as it became apparent, with anyone else. Their only solidarity came in the form of mutual cooperation when they encountered ‘visitors’ the first time. That first trading scout ship disappeared and was not heard from again. The Naud were not inventive, they didn’t construct engineering marvels, they weren’t even terribly adept at finding their way around. However they discovered that they were masters at usurping technology. The first scout ship, her crew summarily dispatched, became the Naud ticket to other worlds ripe for the picking.

Lacking any navigational prowess, it took centuries for them to stumble upon the civilized worlds of peaceful commerce. Their infrequent encounters with any vessels in their path added to their fleets and to their ever growing arsenal of destructive technologies. One of their talents lay in the twisting of useful and harmless technology into offensive destruction. That talent aided them in so far as the worlds they ultimately found offered little or no armed resistance. Their empire was in its infancy, but growing rapidly and becoming a force to be reckoned with by the elder alliances of worlds established in the central bands of the Spur.

The Naud methods of operation had changed little from those first early days of raiding and pillaging: Make first encounter, Determine the worth to themselves of the resources available, Commandeer the technology—and enslave those who knew how to use it, until such time as the Naud themselves were competent enough to operate it, Dispatch ‘assistants,’ Move on to the next. Simple.

So it happened that when Tera Elphinstone, on her reconnaissance mission for the Seranath Trade Guild and Drummond Group, blithely showed up on one of the worlds infrequently visited by the Naud, she was ‘welcomed’ with a bit more than open arms. She was ‘invited’ to remain indefinitely as a ‘special guest.’ Her ‘hosts’ were more than a little curious about the frontier world of her arising and more importantly the technological achievements of that world. Her extended stay with the Naud ‘interviewers’ was a living hell in the midst of which she had a growing wish to just die and be done with it. It was a stroke of greatest good fortune for her, then, that a Lascorii Contract had been accepted by the Matriarch to penetrate the ranks of the prison world in which Tera had been a heavily restrained guest. Within a fortnight of the Lascorii infiltration of the odious network of interrogation levels at the main complex, Tera was found, identified as being unique among the other inmates of that particular ring of hell, and as quickly liberated from the escape vessel chartered to remove many of the more valuable ‘guests.’

She was offered transport for return to her former life, yet to her way of thinking, the obligation to her rescuers outweighed the mundanity of the interplanetary surveying she had occupied herself before her Naudi ‘vacation.’ She was enfolded into the Lascorii Selective Services almost as soon as her physical and mental wounds were healing and she was exemplary in adopting even the most nuanced of the culture and its people. It was during her training period that the Matriarch herself took special notice of the immaculate young warrior rapidly rising through the programs.

The Elf shuddered out of habit when she awoke from her nap and looked out of habit at the scars on the backs of her hands and arms. A grim reminder that she had successfully graduated (read: been liberated) from the nightmare that was the ‘Naudi Investigation Institute.’ She had, from the capable and brilliant Director of the most prestigious trade and negotiations entity on her home world—through the bowels of hell itself—to become the multi-talented, superlatively lethal Lascorii bounty-hunter in the direct employ of her eminence the Matriarch herself and a bit more than even that….

Perhaps the waking nightmares would one day abate, she hoped once more. The desperate memories of the early days of her ‘interviews,’ the cell, the mind-games, her memories exposed, abused and twisted under the expert manipulation of the Institute’s best torturers… the endless physical abuses… Then came the rewarding days and nights of mental, spiritual and physical training under the careful mentoring of her Lascorii sisters that made her now: death personified should she be required… or merely inclined…

“Captain,” once again as she had upon every other opportunity, her pilot whispered uncertainly as the Elf prepared to disembark for the Court. “If she offers a second contract—and she rarely does personally, if ever she has—what are you going to do?”

The Elf glanced back at the, still young, woman she considered a friend. “Stop saying that!” Taking a deep breath she answered more evenly, “At least I’ll negotiate for un-indentured status—I’ve earned that much over the last nearly four years. Contract or no, I am Lascorii now. The Matriarch knows that more keenly than anyone.” The Elf didn’t mind that her last comment might be a little ambiguous.

“My little Elf! How comforting to have you near once more.” So began the private audience. “Now let us have a good look at you…” Waving her hand in a small circle the Matriarch made it perfectly clear what Tera most cherished: that the Matriarch was genuinely fond of her, and that she herself was very fond of her.

Tera made the requisite spin, making as she did so the ritual movements and flourishes. Her mentors would have been proud, she was certain. Under her demur smile and unabashed expression of devotion, Tera’s heart was swelling with sincerest adoration of this woman before her. That wasn’t a by-product of her orientation, training in the disciplines; that was the result of the Matriarch’s plucking her, alone of all the others before and after her, from out of the handful of elite candidates the Department of Selective Service had produced, and making Tera Elphinstone her adoptive daughter… Unprecedented!

And—the second best kept secret on Lascor—which is a secret wrapped in a riddle, enfolded in a enigma, tied into an labyrinth of anathema and dangled in plain sight; a shining jewel of mystery and allurement—Tera Inghean Elphinstone was first in line to the Matriarch’s throne over all of Lascor and its vast networked empire. Tera cautiously glanced around the empty reception hall.

“Mother, thank you for letting me come home…”

Reja Emiclairsenne V responded with warmth and a sigh. Her own natural daughter had fled Lascor upon reaching responsible age. Reja knew where she was, but refused to intervene in what her daughter chose for herself as her own vision of destiny. Then Tera entered her life. It took only a few months of their constantly in each other’s company hat Reja bestowed on Tera the gift of the Lascorii Flame. The biologists of Lascor are without peer in the Spur—they had to be. It had only been a mere few hundred years before they had identified and isolated the genetic signature in their genome that set them apart from every other people so distinctly—that was the singular best kept secret of the Lascorii, and only the Matriarch herself controlled it. Tera’s heart nearly burst with honor and pride when that boon was gifted her.

“Oh, my little Elf, I have missed you so…” she took the Elf’s arm and they strolled the gardens, chatting and giggling as the girls they felt when in each other’s company. “And have you any opportunity for practice?” Reja turned the conversation to the practical after a while. Her curiosity was genuine. While the Flame was ‘always on’ as it were, it could be amplified at will—with a bit of personal manipulation, the techniques for which were trained into the girls of the royal household from their earliest adolescence. Tera wasn’t born Lascorii. But what the Matriarch was just now referring to was something beyond the ‘usual’ applications of the Flame.

The closest members of the royal household, from the first days of the first Matriarch, possessed within themselves the ability to exponentially amplify the Flame to the effect of a lethal weapon. That was the boon Reja bestowed on her daughter, and it was that in particular that she was curious just then.

Tera smiled, “Only when it is impossible for anyone to tell that I am the source… I was able to even make a remote experiment of it on my last contract! It was spectacular.”

That delighted her mother to no end. “And what are you going to tell your crew when it is obvious that you are remaining in close contact with me? Are you going to invent another ‘Contract’—un-indentured this time… I really liked that touch! Inspired…”

Tera giggled. “It wasn’t so clever, really. The service has thousands on contract, and who renew in spite of their expressed disgust with the service… Take Reia, my pilot for example. She wouldn’t dream of a life outside Lascor circles—all whining to the contrary.”

Reja shook her hair and the air around them shimmered with light. The Elf sighed, “And I have to learn how you do that! I love it!”

Her mother guided them back inside the hall and toward the banqueting rooms. “I have a little surprise for you…”

Tera was careful not to ask. Special surprises and gifts from the Matriarch were not to be taken lightly or for granted. They entered through a side door into the now very crowded ‘throne’ hall—there is no throne, just a raised dais and a chair, a very plain looking chair at that. Instantly every knee was bent to them. Reja whispered to her, “I have gathered these to witness your ascension as heir apparent. You shall not live a secret, hence forth…”

Tera’s mind raced. This was grander… so not on her radar… so improbable… “But mother,” Tera whispered in return, “what if…”

“Shush darling one. Reja Tei left a vacuum in her wake. I must have an heir and you know it.” She waved for the ceremony to commence, “Besides, what better way to make sure you keep coming home than to turn over the Matriarchy to you!”

Tera Inghean Elphinstone had to agree with that reasoning. Although truth be told, coming home was her singular delight anymore. The tedious contracts she was compelled to fulfill, the odious clients she’d had to appease… She smiled and endured the rite. She would never have to take a contract she didn’t want, ever again! “Now that’s a perquisite I can get behind…” she smiled genuinely as the minister presented her for the first time to the Court as: “Tera Inghean Elphinstone Emiclairsenne Tei I; the Lascorii Heir Apparent; Chosen Princess of the Hundred and Seventeenth Matriarch of Lascor. High Priestess in the Royal Order of Geishas, Keeper of the Eternal Knowledge and Wielder of the Lascorian Flame.”

Tera looked out at many of the familiar faces, mostly her own royal sisters—who served as the Matriarch’s personal bodyguards; no more lethal individuals in the Spur—and many others whom she did not know. But all of them bowed their heads low and offered for the first time to her their fealty. For Lascorii, that is an eternal bond and obligation—and one of the very reasons her mother’s natural daughter had escaped at just the moment she did. It was about to be ‘her time.’ Tera’s royal sisters were the daughters of the Matriarch’s sisters by blood, and each of them to a person, personally approached and vowed her life to the Heir Apparent.

As they retired to the dining halls for the celebratory banquet, her mother whispered, “I won’t be surprised if ‘the Elf’ were to become quite the phantom of mystery in the Spur before long. None of our predecessors ever left Lascor after initial installation. You are a rare and unique future Matriarch—besides the obvious. The only real concern I have going forward is…”

An ear-splitting alarm cut through the Court, followed by concussions from the direction of the space docks…

“What the…” the Elf breathed and chased after the bodyguards instantly hurrying the Matriarch to the fortified inner palace. “Who in their right mind would…”

The answer to her half-formed musing presented itself nearly at once. A Naudi battle-cruiser settled over the palace, casting a fetid shadow over the gardens and spires as the smaller fighters swarmed the skies beyond and around the capital city. Tera caught up to the Matriarch and her mother finished her sentence, “…revenge on you for the miscalculations of your predecessors. The Naud are not very happy with our ‘participation’ in their internal affairs it would seem.”

The Matriarch gave a nod to her security; two of them separated themselves and flanked Tera. “These are Isin and Senta. All your sisters volunteered to watch over you, these two are specially devoted…” her mother nodded. “Take the Reaper and get off-planet at once!” Without hesitating Tera bowed obediently. With her new personal bodyguards, one ahead of her and one behind, they slipped through the hidden passages to reach the caverns beneath the palace.

“Isin, send someone to fetch my crew, if they are still alive. Get them down to the Reaper. We’re going to offer the Naud a curt reply to their rude intrusion…”

Her crew were under the inadequate cover of one of the landing platforms; their ship, along with every other vessel at the capital’s space yard, was smoldering in its bay. Having one of the Matriarch’s own security fetch them and take them who knew where was unsettling enough, that they were running toward the current weapons fire was icing on the cake.

They wove through a maze of corridors and passages none of them suspected even existed. A mile or more away from the palace grounds proper, they stood before a cavern. They were prodded to venture inside; they turned a corner in the tunnel and gasped.

Isin was waiting and growing perturbed at their lack of alacrity. “Don’t dawdle! Get aboard!” she commanded.

It took no more coaxing. Reia muttered as she ran up the ramp, “Great! And stealing the Matriarch’s private yacht. This day is not going at all well…”

Isin giggled as she couldn’t help but hear. “Don’t look so glum. It’s not stealing, if that’s all you’re worried about.” She slapped the controls to close the hatch behind them..

The Elf was in the Captain’s chair noting with satisfaction that her mother’s ship was even more heavily armored and equipped than her own. Correction: her previous ship. Her crew, Reia, pilot, Jista, the navigator and her lieutenants, Song and Pim could only stare in shock as they entered the bridge.

“Captain?” Reia mouthed in a whisper.

Senta stood between them and Captain’s chair. “This is not just Captain. This is Tera Inghean Elphinstone Emiclairsenne Tei I; the Lascorii Heir Apparent; Chosen Princess of the Hundred and Seventeenth Matriarch of Lascor. High Priestess in the Royal Order of Geishas, Keeper of the Eternal Knowledge and Wielder of the Lascorian Flame…”

The Elf spat with anger, “…And one royally pissed off bitch!” She added to the gaping faces of her little crew, “Your contracts are hereby renewed, and released from indenture. You serve me willingly or not at all!”

Reia’s voice was stronger all of a sudden. With a glance at Senta, she repeated, “Captain?” Senta made the most imperceptible movement toward her. “I mean: Orders, your Highness?”

The Elf laughed grimly, “Get me on that Naud ship!”

Only Isin and Senta smiled knowingly at that. Reia, Jista, Pim and Song complied with obvious reluctance.

“Ready to bounce,” Reia called from the helm a moment later.

“And Captain,” Pim offered, “may I come along?”

The Elf’s sisters looked with new admiration on her lieutenants.

The Elf shook her head, “You’re good, perhaps better than most, but what I have to do now is beyond your talents— Assassination isn’t on your resumés that I’m aware of…”

Senta explained it simply: “The Matriarch has groomed the Elf personally for the throne; the flame in her is death.”

The Elf’s expression was impassive.

Jista wondered aloud, “Then what’s the point of two more personal bodyguards if the Captain is so lethal on her own?”

Isin replied through clenched teeth, “We are bound to the royal line; we are her sisters by honor and blood! For through the Elf’s heart and veins flows all the royal blood of Lascor. That was the gift of the Matriarch. We serve or die.”

Senta reminded, “Every Matriarch, from the very first, has died of natural causes. That unblemished record will not end under our watch!”

A little while later above Lascor, “Put her over near that outcrop…” The Elf pointed through the screen. The looming hulk of the battle-cruiser overshadowed the near mountains and the relatively small, lithe Reaper was easily concealed amongst the crags. The Elf glanced quickly to Isin and Senta, who had already decided between them which would accompany the Elf. “I remember rather vividly how the Naud layout their vessels,” the Elf sketched out how she intended to move through the vessel and just precisely who were her primary targets. Following that briefing, she whispered, “Ready?”

Senta grinned maliciously, “Trembling with it…”

The Captain announced to the crew, “The escape pods are too small to show on their scanners. They are magnetically configured, so once attached to that… monstrosity, begin a fifteen minute count, then recall the pods at that moment. Understood?!”

Isin nodded. Pim and Song went to the pods to reinspect the controls one last time. As Senta and the Elf made their way to them also, the Elf began, “Stay close and be the eyes in back of my head…” Senta nodded curtly.

“One other thing,” the Elf admitted, “I’ve only practiced a handful of times… This may get real messy, really fast.”

Senta grimaced, “I have virtually no practice at all I’m embarrassed to say. But as weapons go, I’m your girl!”

“Fifteen and no more;” the Elf reminded Pim and sealed herself into the capsule.

“They’re away! Begin the count,” Isin announced to the bridge, though the others could see that for themselves on the screen spanning the front of the bridge.

Reia turned to face Isin, “Why isn’t the capital returning fire?”

Isin chuckled, “All the Naud can do is burn and scorch buildings and ‘things.’ They are no real threat to our people just now. They know us well and realize implicitly that they’ll have to thoroughly suit up to make a physical invasion of our world—which I rather doubt they’ll attempt on a first run. You are from Jontun?”

Reia nodded. “First in my class out of Selective Service…” she added proudly.

“Of course, or you wouldn’t be part of my sister’s crew. My point is that you perhaps don’t realize that Lascorii do not deal in armed confrontation as a rule. So no ‘return fire’ as you put it.”

“But…” Jista started to protest.

Isin elaborated, “’Avoid the sword when a needle will do, avoid a needle when a fingernail will suffice, avoid soiling your fingernails if a word is sufficient. If words are inadequate; flame ’em!’ Just an old adage…”

“So,” Reia interpreted, “which are they going to use over there?” she motioned to the pods, now secured to the underbelly of the beast.

Isin gazed at the scene, “The Elf has history with them. Fifteen minutes will be an eternity for many of the souls on that ship.”

The Elf and Senta cut through the outer skin of the hull in nothing flat. They entered a vacant utility shaft beneath the ship’s engine rooms. Up through the meandering shaft like water rising in a glass tube, they reached what the Elf was sure had to be the Command deck level. They cut the bolts holding shut the hatch in front of them and pushed through in a flash.

The corridor they emerged into was comparatively tranquil. No rushing soldiers or armed sentries other than those required for stations keeping; and why should there be. There was no fire fight with the planet below, no aerial dog fights to support. Just bomb the living crap out of everything on the surface. The Naud could do that in their bath robes. The approaching knot of officers coming on or going off-duty caught the two women off guard; Senta dispatched them rather quickly with a precision laser knife. They didn’t even make too much noise going down. It was the detachment of patrolling soldiers they happened upon short of the bridge that they thought would surely set off alarms. The Elf and Senta amped up their flame to somnolence-inducing levels and as the dozen Naud wavered in a drowsily drugged state, the ladies slipped through them, lasers slashing precisely and efficiently through the falling bodies only to face the two sentries in front of the access to the bridge. They were down in a blink; their imploded skulls the only testament that the Elf really needed more practice. Senta chortled, “I’m pretty sure the flame isn’t supposed to do that…”

The Elf’s nose was still twitching at the Naud stench in her nostrils. “Maybe a bit too much attitude?” she hissed through her teeth as they pressed into the bridge.

Senta began a methodical plasma bolt pattern cutting down each officer in turn at the stations ringing the command center. Sirens and alarms rang out all over the ship, while the Elf marched straight through the melee to the single person in the Captain’s seat. As the Admiral raised his pistol, his face became contorted, then collapsed into his neck, and it didn’t end there. His torso folded in on itself until there was only a puddle of goo dripping from the seat of the chair.

“Now for the ship itself…” the Elf exclaimed as Senta sealed the bridge doors to interference and located the branch of the utility shaft servicing the bridge proper—the part they couldn’t cut through before without tipping their hand prematurely to the bridge officers.

The Elf reconfigured the ship’s navigation and laid in a wrinkle course for the cruiser that would take it to the one place she’d dearly love to have it visit. After jury-rigging the weapons systems into an auto-destruct of sorts, she blasted the controls of every station. “No doubt there are secondaries and back-ups of back-ups,” she rose slapping her hands together as if dispelling the grime from her skin, “But by the time they get this straightened out, it should be too late.”

Senta waved for her to join her at the shaft panel, “Time to go sis.”

They descended as quickly as they’d risen just minutes before, though now they were blasting every conduit and wire harness they passed. “Ten seconds by my count…” the Elf grinned sincerely enjoying herself. They lowered themselves into the pods and resealed the hatches.

“Bounce them back, Now!” Isin exclaimed as the seconds drained from the counter on the Reaper bridge.

Pim and Song’s voices came over the speakers, “Got ’em!”

In moments the Elf was in the Captain’s chair once more and commanding that they return, but to the palace space port instead of the cavern. The receding silhouette of the massive cruiser diminished to a dot in the sky above them. It winked out as the Elf followed her crew and sisters down the ramp onto the scorched and still smoking remains of what had been one of the most elegantly appointed ports in the quadrant.

“Isin, please alert the Matriarch that the interruption to our banquet has been quieted.” To her other sister she intimated, “I was so looking forward to that gorble-berry cobbler…” Senta licked her lips in sympathy and couldn’t help but giggle—an uncommon and incongruous sight to behold of one of the twelve royal sisters, so generally taciturn and dour.

Senta related every moment of the surprise attack on the Naudi cruiser to a hushed audience of courtiers and royal family. The descriptions of the Elf’s use of the Flame brought gasps and not a few raised eyebrows. It seems the Flame, in it’s most lethal manifestation, only ever, at most, renders the victim drained of blood to the brain, and only once ‘on record,’ at worse, caused slight bleeding at the ears.

The Matriarch looked at the Elf, who at that moment was wearing a most sheepish expression. “I told you, and I told Senta, I hadn’t practiced enough…” she defended.

The Matriarch raised an eyebrow, “Perhaps ‘practice’ is not the preferred course for you in this instance. It would seem that that might be exceedingly over-excessive. Moderation in all things.”

The Matriarch’s sisters repeated aloud the axiom, “Moderation in all things.”

Aside, and for the Elf’s ears alone she confided, “I couldn’t have done better myself. And I once had to remove a Selenian tyrant from office with only a scant window of a few seconds while passing his entourage on the street. The accounts afterwards suggested he’d been victim of a falling piano or some such thing. It was a mess… and did not enter our official records!” She couldn’t help but giggle at the recollection.

(At this point, it may appear to the uninitiated that the Lascorii are a most callous, ruthless, vicious and bloodthirsty lot. However nothing could be further from the truth. They are not necessarily bloodthirsty. And one must remember that although they have relationships with nearly all the peoples of the Spur—save the Nourii—they are pariahs, outcasts, officially anathematized. That duality is their reality and has shaped to a great degree their own sense of what survival actually means.)

The celebratory banquet stretched into the next day. The Elf was lauded by all Lascorii as having been the ideal choice of the Matriarch for ascendency. That reflected well on the Matriarch as well as the entire royal family for their participation in the training and ‘special’ development of the Elf as a premier Lascorii—however unorthodox her ascendency actually was. There had never been a non-native Matriarch in the long history of the people.

Reia, Jista, Pim and Song were allowed to have a suite adjacent to the Heir Apparent’s rooms in the palace for the nights they remained on Lascor. Each of them, also not native of that world, remarked again and again as they peered out at the great capital city from their balcony, just what a remarkable sight it was to behold where ever they turned their gaze: women, women and more women. So few males to be seen anywhere that they turned that into pastime; a game—keeping a running score of the rare numbers of males spotted in a day.

And although the four crew-mates had arisen on worlds that had their own fashions and styles of colorful costumes, to be sure, nothing could compare with the vast near cacophony of brilliant colors and textures sported by every individual woman on the planet. Then there was the reality that those weren’t just women but Lascorii and to be so surrounded by that much Lascorii pheromone was beyond intoxicating, it was causing them to doubt their sanity—on those few occasions they ventured out of their rooms at all.

It had been one thing to be shut in a ship with the Captain. Her atmosphere didn’t seem to be quite so overwhelming for some reason. The Elf didn’t make it patently obvious that she’d had the air exchangers on their little scout ship replaced with the extra-heavy duty versions typically used on ships three times her size. But the Palace and their near future was another matter entirely. The crew was now faced with the prospect of three Lascorii women on the same ship with them and they were in a quandary as to how they were going to fulfill their sworn commitment to the Elf under those extreme circumstances.

“We could just wear full suits and helmets…” Pim offered the most unpopular solution first.

“We could just wear breathers like I’ve seen divers in water wear…” Reia recalled from her own home world.

“Or perhaps blinders and breathers and…” Jista counted on her fingers, “…just end up with full suits again, like Pim already said.”

“There has to be some reasonable solution to this.” Reia was adamant, “We are committed to serving the Elf!” Her friends nodded certainly at that confirmation of their mutual interest.

“There is something you haven’t considered yet…” the Elf’s voice made them jump.

“How did you sneak up on us?! I didn’t notice a change in the air or my thinking…” Song had to know. This situation was encouraging. “Can you control your atmosphere so completely then?!”

The Elf shook her head, “No it’s not that simple. Although I can amplify it, I can’t actually diminish it substantially.”

“Then how did you sneak up on us just now?” Pim asked, truly impressed.

The Elf smiled, looking over their shoulders. “The same way my sisters just did, actually…” The four wheeled around and were staring into the smiling faces of Senta and Isin.

“How are you doing this?!” Reia insisted, then she gripped the arms of the two friends closest to her. “And why aren’t we enchanted just now with three of y’all so near?!”

Isin strode to a chair and sat down. Senta did likewise, as the Elf leaned back against the side table next to the window by which her crew were holding conference.

“Like most things on Lascor; it’s a secret.” The Elf seemed to be enjoying this. Her crew waited; they knew enough not to try and pry or quiz the Elf. She sighed, “You are going to have to have figured it out sometime soon anyway…” and she crossed to sit on the floor tailor-fashion between her sisters. “Although we cannot truly diminish our atmospheres… take a really good look at us…”

Her four crew narrowed their eyes as if squinting would increase their perceptions. Song shrugged, “You look as healthy, tan, and beautiful as ever.”

“Three peas in a pod,” Pim added resignedly.

“Not very observant,” Isin teased.

“Probably don’t know what color are the Elf’s eyes even…” Senta joined in.

“Certainly aren’t paying attention to the obvious…” the Elf added to the fun as well.

“Okay!” Jista exclaimed, “What are we so obviously missing?!”

Isin stood up and slowly turned a complete spin in front of them. When their faces still weren’t registering the ‘clues,’ Senta said, “Do that again sis, let’s see if this helps…” and she knelt next to her sister as Isin began another very slow spin. Senta pointed at Isin’s ankles, then her wrists, then a barely perceptible line encircling Isin’s neck… “Anything?” Isin asked as she finished the display. The Elf was struggling to keep from bursting into laughter at the faces of her crew screwed up into very deliberate thought and inspection.

Isin and Senta threw up their hands and plopped back into their chairs. “They’re hopeless!”

The Elf seemed to have given up as well. “Never mind then;” turning to her crew she smiled, “Suffice it to say, y’all will not have to wear full activity suits just fulfill your duties aboard the ship.”

Shaking off their disappointment in observation exercises, Reia asked, “And just what ship might the Heir Apparent be expecting to commission for her future adventures?”

“And upon what sort of adventures might we anticipate voyaging?” Jista wanted to know as well.

Isin and Senta were just as curious. They had spent their lives in service of the Matriarch nearly completely here on Lascor with only a few legitimate contracts sprinkled over a dozen years. “Truly, beloved sister, where might we go?”

The Elf leaned back, her knees brought up between her outstretched arms and clasped hands. She smiled, “I can take any contract I wish…” she began coyly. “…And I’ve always had a yearning to see the beauty of Sheranara and the Gorim Stations, not to mention the Nabiou twin planets—they say they are absolutely identical; mirror images of each other…”

Her audience was clearly in the palm of her hand now. “But what I think I’d really most love to do, now that I do have other over-riding obligations and responsibilities, is…” and she let the thought dangle in the air between them a moment too long.

“What?!” all four crew nearly shouted at once.

The Elf glanced at her sisters; they were almost as anxious to hear. “Is to take the Seranath Trade Guild Contract and…”

Shock rippled through the room. In whispered tones Isin and Senta both repeated, “The Seranim have offered a contract to the Lascorii?! That’s unprecedented…”

“Nevertheless, it is on the Matriarch’s desk as we speak. I should very much like to petition for that contract. It is a directive of sorts: reconnaissance of the frontiers for any Naud incursions and report locations and routes, or deal with it directly if possible… or request Sargassian fleet assistance.”

“The Nourii can’t have signed off on that contract! And they have two voting seats on the Seranath Trade Guild Executive Committee!” Senta insisted.

“As I understand it,” the Elf interjected, “this is another exclusive contract between the Seranim and the Lascorii—not a Guild action, per se, at all—no committee—And that is not unprecedented in any way at all. We’ve been serving Seranim contracts for ages! You know: those special little ‘one-ups-man-ship’ errands they so dearly love to play out with their rivals.”

“And the Matriarch is persuaded that it’s perfectly fine for her own beloved Heir Apparent… that it is absolutely safe going into harm’s way chasing after Naud?!” Reia was skeptical.

Isin, Senta and the Elf had to laugh out loud at that. “You mean like the little errand into ‘harm’s way’ we took just a few days ago before we could finish our banquet?”

Four very chagrined faces gazed back at the sisters. Jista shrugged, “When do we leave for the hunting trip?”

Reia insisted, “And I still haven’t heard: what ship do we get to use?!”

The audience was arranged within the week. All preparations for the Heir’s contractual responsibilities, as well her personal obligations to the Court had been most thoroughly reviewed and established clearly to the Matriarch’s satisfaction. At the formal bestowal, “So it is with great confidence that I bestow this contract on the Captain of the Huntress!”

A ripple of surprise ran though the select members of the Court in attendance. “The Huntress?” murmured through them.

The Matriarch smiled to her Elf, “I called in a few favors with the Nabiou and Sargassians.—the only people able to build decent ships around here. All very hush-hush of course. No one, even after our long and mutually profitable relationships over the years with so many of this Spur’s peoples, is presently willing to admit direct intercourse with Lascorii.”

“When will she arrive?” was all the Elf could voice.

“She’s already arrived,” the Matriarch smiled teasingly, happy with her secret coup among her own most inquisitive family. “Has no one toured the reconstruction at the space port today?”

All thirty, or more, women dashed without a thought to etiquette to the high court terrace. Like girls watching for the first signs of an approaching parade they squinted toward the space port at the far perimeter of the palace grounds where the rest of the capital city arose. A hush fell on them as the Elf and her two closest sisters waded through them to the balustrade. A gleaming ship, obviously the larger sister of the Reaper sat on the highest platform. Engineering crews were refitting her with certain ‘improvements’ only the Lascorii possessed for their own uses on their own ships. They didn’t have a ship-building industry of their own, and the truth of it is that they’d never had cause to initiate such a venture. As the Matriarch alluded earlier, their needs were fulfilled for the asking from the plethora of current and former clients—all of whom wished to keep that relationship out of public knowledge.

“She’s beautiful…” the Elf whispered into her mother’s ear.

“Only the best for my little Elf.”

The Elf went to her knee before her mother. “On behalf of myself, my sisters and crew, I thank you most humbly for your thoughtful consideration and bountiful gifts.”

The Matriarch was visibly embarrassed. She reached a hand to her daughter as she glanced furtively at the others on the terrace, and whispered, “Dear, we do not bow…”

Louder she continued, “You are to be ‘on task’ according to the terms of the contract, by no later than the end of the week. It’s been ages since I traveled to nearer the center of Seranim-traded space, but I’m fairly sure you have to get underway immediately to hope to fill the initial clauses of our agreements,” her smile was wavering. She was essentially shooing her daughter out the door and she had severe mixed emotions over that situation.

The Elf made the slightest gesture to her sisters. They understood implicitly and bid their leave of the Matriarch. They headed to their apartments and then to round up the crew. As the Elf took her leave, the Matriarch intimated, “Dearest, I have taken the liberty of offering you a couple other candidates for your crew—it is a larger ship than you’re used to, you know. They are waiting at the Huntress for your consideration. Take them or don’t, but do consider them. Adieu.” The Elf carefully only inclined her head and left, a tear trickling down her cheek. That she was so loved and could love so deeply the woman she called mother had long ceased to amaze her.

She was in for another little surprise as she approached the Huntress’s docking bay on the high platform. “Well I never…” she muttered. Two very familiar faces beamed back at her.

“Permission to come aboard my Captain,” said the shorter one.

“Ravena! Elenir! How… When…” the Elf sputtered.

The taller one, Elenir—not as tall as Pim and Song; few people were as tall as Atrians, save the Malekiaii—she jested, “I do hope your commands and directives are somewhat more succinct!”

The Elf straightened up, “Permission granted. I presume you each can find your way around a starship?”

After the Matriarch had first made it clear that the Elf should be brought into the family, all those years ago, Ravena and Elenir were assigned as the Elf’s personal tutors in astro-navigation, strategic maneuvers and counter-assault, weapon’s systems, shipboard horticulture and cooking. The latter were each of her mentor’s specialities as it turned out and the Elf ate like a Princess over the course of those many months. Which of course she was, though she didn’t yet know it at the time.

“We may be able to figure out where the toilets are…” Elenir retorted and picked up her and Ravena’s duffles.

“Lead the way, oh illustrious one,” Elenir continued, following their former pupil onto her ship. And what a ship it was.

Generally speaking, the exception being the Reaper—the Matriarch’s personal yacht—the Lascorii made do with pretty run of the mill even second hand scout ships for transportation and fulfilling their contracts and such. Even the Elf’s former ship was just a modified little scout. It was in those ‘modifications’ that the Lascorii ships were distinctive. More about that later. The Huntress however was not a run of the mill ship. Like the Reaper, she was custom built to specifications the Matriarch negotiated personally. And her design, both externally and internally, was absolutely a one off construction—save that she did look more like the Reaper than any other ship.

Isin and Senta were closely followed onto the platform by the Elf’s own crew of several years, Reia, pilot, Jista, navigator, Pim and Song, her lieutenants and general ‘get-it-done’ girls—the one’s who took care of the galley, ship’s repairs, maintenance, medical and away mission particulars. As they all boarded and made their way to the bridge, admiring every panel, bulkhead and viewport on their way through the ship, the surprise of being greeted by Masters Ravena and Elenir was icing on the cake. Senta and Isin rushed to embrace their mentors while Reia, Jista, Pim and Song could only surmise that this was a ‘good’ thing. That and they were feeling a little light-headed in the presence of five Lascorii. Their own trepidation about how they should fare over the course of this contract renewed itself with a vengeance.

Before the Elf made the formal introductions, she whispered an imperative to Isin, who instantly herded Elenir and Ravena to the crew quarters on the plausible errand of getting them settled. “As you’ve noticed, the Huntress is quite a large ship, as far as our experience goes…” she nodded to her four crew.

“And since this contract is of a somewhat indefinite nature, and we shall be traveling so very much farther than ever we have before, we shall all be rotating through bridge responsibilities and all the other necessary chores the Huntress shall require of us.” She’d stalled long enough; Isin gave her the thumbs up as she returned with their new honored crew.

“To that end I am pleased to welcome aboard, Master Elenir–the Matriarch’s chief of stellar navigation, and who happens to make the best moo shoo pork ever put in the mouth. And Master Ravena—the Matriarch’s chief minister of strategic operations, and also the finest gardener Lascor has ever produced!”

Both women nearly blushed at being so highly commended to their new crew mates. Truth be told, they begged the Matriarch to let them come along on the contract, not just because Court life was a thin substitute for the proper application of their gifts, but to serve the Heir herself, on a new ship, on such an indefinite contract to the ends of the frontiers… That was not to be missed.

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