Read The Moon's Shadow Online

Authors: Catherine Asaro

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Opera

The Moon's Shadow (10 page)

The people here seemed oblivious to the change in the space station. Perhaps only an empath or telepath could detect that sense of
ending.
The stronger psions among their providers might have sensed the Lock’s sentience, and its end, but they seemed too traumatized to respond beyond the limited sphere of their existence.

Corbal’s lover, Sunrise, was unique as far as Jai had seen; much less withdrawn than other providers, she could operate beyond the strictures of her constrained life. No wonder Corbal used her as a spy. Other Hightons could learn a lesson from him, though Jai doubted they would acknowledge it, and not only because they were too arrogant to admit they might be wrong about the inability of providers to think. For them, letting a provider develop self-worth was dangerous.

Corbal was waiting for Jai to answer his implicit question—why Jai had just sat in the chair. Jai said nothing; he had discovered silence could prod Aristos to speak, as if they couldn’t bear a hole in the webs of discourse they wove around themselves.

“I’ve heard it said that sons are their fathers reborn,” Corbal finally said. “I’m not so sure that is true.”

Jai knew Corbal meant the previous emperor, Jai’s father. He evaded the implication by turning it around. “You doubt your rebirth in your sons?”

Corbal actually smiled. “Gods help Eube, should that ever happen. One of me is enough.”

“You think so?”

“Indeed.”

Pah. Jai was heartily sick of that word. “Do you know, Cousin, if one could put a price on a word—say, ‘indeed’—we Hightons would be unbearably wealthy.”

To his unmitigated surprise, Corbal laughed. “Some might say we already are.”

Jai blinked. Corbal had a sense of humor. Although it wasn’t exactly the star-exploding discovery of all time, it did surprise him.

With his elbow on his knee, Corbal propped his chin on his fist. “You found the Lock dull, eh?”

Jai suspected Corbal’s friendly display was meant to relax him, so he would confide more about his experience. He decided to play along, probing for information.

“It bored me,” Jai said. “Nothing works.”

“What did you expect it to do?”

Good question. “You’ve often been on the bridge of a ship. Lights glow. Voices hum. Levers move.”

Corbal shrugged. “Only when the ship is in operation. Leave it inactive, and it has no use for glows, hums, or motion.”

Jai thought of how ESComm had wrested the Lock from the Skolians. “Unless thieves steal it for their own use.”

“Indeed.” Corbal’s mouth quirked up. “If you will allow the word.”

Good Lord—another joke. Jai smiled slightly. “I will indeed.”

A strange look passed over Corbal’s face, then vanished. Longing? Jai caught a surge of emotion from Corbal, one the Xir lord smothered as soon as it emerged: longing and loneliness. For all his children, peers, lovers, and heirs, Corbal was lonely for a family. His moment of humor with Jai gave him just a glimpse of what he lacked.

No hint of Corbal’s thoughts showed in his manner. He continued to study Jai. “Perhaps the thieves need someone to wake up the ship.”

That sounded like ESComm didn’t know the Lock had been active earlier today. Perhaps Kelric had awoken it when he joined the Triad. Jai was certain, though, that Kelric had later killed or otherwise ended the Lock, ensuring the Aristos couldn’t use it. And the Lock had let him. Whatever its wishes, they apparently didn’t include serving Eube.

“Perhaps the ship will never wake again,” Jai said.

Corbal’s gaze narrowed. “That would be a great sorrow.”

Jai didn’t answer. It wasn’t a power play this time; he didn’t know what to say. Fatigue wore on him. He had left the palace many hours ago and hadn’t slept since. Stretching out in the cushions, he closed his eyes.

Corbal spoke, but Jai couldn’t concentrate. His mind drifted in the hazy state just before sleep. Someone laid a blanket over him, but it was a few moments before Jai drowsily opened his eyes. Corbal was sitting in a corner of the room, beneath the lamp, reading a holobook.

Jai’s lashes drooped…

 

Slowly waking, Jai lay among the cushions, warm beneath the blanket. Darkness had fallen outside, beyond the parchment-like screens. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, his contentment fading as he remembered dinner.

Groggy, he climbed to his feet, letting the blanket fall to the floor. He was alone now. Out in the hall, he found two of his bodyguards. They escorted him to his guest suite and accompanied him inside, but when they tried to follow him into the bedroom, Jai balked. Neither guard seemed surprised. They took up posts outside the room.

Relieved, Jai entered his bedroom and closed the screen quietly, caught by the hushed sense of the late hour. The night was synthetic; it came when the light panels in the “sky” darkened and slid back, letting starlight flood the residential areas of the habitat.

A dim lamp glowed in one corner, an orb on an antique stand. Jai stripped down to the stylized loincloth Highton men wore under their clothes and crawled into his bed, a far less ostentatious affair than the one in his room at the palace. He appreciated the elegance of this simple, airy house.

Jai stretched—and nearly jumped out of bed. He wasn’t alone. The silver provider lay sleeping near him, on top of the covers. He froze, his hand clutched on the thermal blanket he had been pulling over himself. With a sigh, the girl rolled toward him, onto her side.

Good gods. He had a full view of her now, with no one to intrude on his appreciation. A spectacular view. She had a tiny waist and well-rounded hips, and her thighs were full and smooth. He imagined how they would feel with his hips between them, and sweat broke out on his forehead. And her
breasts.
He couldn’t figure out how her nipples stayed erect. The silver rings around them accentuated their size. He wanted to say sweet words to her, but he couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t sound clumsy, besides which, she was asleep.

No wonder the Razers hadn’t argued when he told them to stay outside. Jai had told them to bring her here so no one would hurt her, but he knew what everyone thought. Although Kaliga could have objected, Jai doubted the admiral would deny the emperor such “hospitality” for the night.

Jai knew he shouldn’t wake her. Kaliga would surely question her tomorrow; whatever she discovered tonight, the admiral would soon learn. She couldn’t detect anomalies about Jai if she slept the whole night. Kaliga might wonder about the imperial libido, or lack thereof, but he wasn’t likely to suspect Jai was a psion.

But he so wanted to touch her. He struggled to distract himself. He had barely even held a girl, let alone slept with one. During his years in exile, he had naively assumed he would leave Prism, find a wife, bring her back, and love her the way his parents had loved each other. Then ESComm had ripped his father away, and Jai’s mother had hidden her children on Earth. Jai had never really recovered from the shock of his immersion into human culture. Shy and reserved, he had kept to himself, unable to forget that entire civilizations considered his father a despot and his mother a dictator. They had taught him everything he knew about honor and decency, yet the rest of humanity reviled them.

Jai knew the truth now: he would never have what they had shared. His marriage would be a chilly union with whatever Highton woman became his empress. It would have to be a visitation marriage; he couldn’t share his life with a lover whose very presence crushed his mind. Refusing to live with her would make him look even more eccentric, but it was better than her discovering that his purportedly Esteemed Highness was a psion.

Who else could he love but a provider? Yet that way courted disaster, for she could sense his differences. Nor would he ever know if she really loved him or was only acting as she had been bred and trained to behave. For all that he wanted her, she made him feel vulnerable, as if she could hurt him, not through any wish of hers, but because he felt raw in her presence, uncertain. But Jai craved affection, and here was the silver girl, warm and sensual in her sleep.

Unable to resist, Jai slid over to the girl. Then he stopped, afraid she would scream if she awoke to find a man she barely knew leaning over her. He had to remind himself this was his bed. After a moment, he cupped his hand around her breast and slid his thumb over her nipple. When she flinched in her sleep, he froze, afraid he had hurt her. He suddenly hated Kaliga, knowing the Aristo could do whatever he wanted to this girl. Strongly empathic, Jai couldn’t separate his desire for the silver girl from his emotions; he wanted to protect her, to wrest her away from Kaliga.

As he caressed her breasts, she rolled onto her back and sighed. Her fragrance made him lightheaded. Aristos heightened the pheromones a provider exuded to intensify the sexual experience, but he hadn’t expected the effect to be so intense. As a psion, she would also produce chemicals targeted for other psions. For him. It was nature’s compensation for the fatal recessives associated with the mutations that created psions; their low birth rate was offset by how diligently their pheromones prodded them to reproduce.

Jai bit his lip, fighting his need for her. He ought to roll away. Another sobering thought came to him: he had no wish to impregnate this girl. If she bore him children, they would be powerful psions, a dead giveaway he wasn’t pure Highton. And it horrified him to think his children would be slaves. What if he couldn’t protect them? He would have to sire an heir on his empress, but that child would be more than half Highton. His heir would transcend. He couldn’t bear knowing his legitimate children would threaten him just by existing, even if they never knew the truth about him, and no matter how much he loved them.

Then it occurred to him that Kaliga probably took steps to ensure she didn’t become pregnant. Corbal certainly did with Sunrise. Jai was starved for affection, mourning the loss of his family, and here lay the silver girl, tousled and inviting. He couldn’t give her up for tonight.

Stretching out on the bed, Jai pulled her into his arms. She stirred, her eyelashes fluttering, her breath warm against his chest. Not wanting to alarm her, he only pressed his lips against her forehead, restraining himself.

She nestled against him. “My honor at your company, Your Highness.”

Encouraged, he slid his hand down to the silver triangle of her G-string. It crinkled under his touch—and disintegrated. Startled, he looked down; it had turned into glitter that dusted her thighs, sparkling in the dim light.

“That’s pretty.” He traced his finger through the glitter. Her skin felt smooth, like satin.

The girl laughed softly. She moved her hips against him with a curious mixture of innocence and temptation, as if she had no idea of the effect it had on him. But when she kissed his dark-haired chest, he stopped stroking her, mortified. He had read on a web site selling hair-removal tech that such body hair disgusted women. The holos had shown impossibly well-muscled men with perfectly smooth chests. The vendor had apparently done a good business.

The girl was watching his face, her head tilted as if she were listening to a distant conversation. Then she ran her hand through the hair on his chest. “Such a man,” she murmured. “So strong. So sexy.” Sleepy desire flowed from her mind and rolled over him.

Knowing she wanted him so much was even more arousing than the manufactured pheromones or her vanishing clothes. He held her tight against his body and kissed her hungrily. She felt incredible in his arms, and she seemed to sense how he wanted to be touched before he knew himself. He tried to hold back, afraid he would lose control and hurt her.

Finally he could take no more. Groaning, he rolled the girl on her back and covered her with his body. He reached to remove his loincloth, only to find it was already gone. The girl felt right. He wanted to whisper endearments, but he feared to sound foolish. Her mind was a sensual haze of arousal, so much so that he wondered if she had been drugged with aphrodisiacs. He pushed away the thought, needing her too much to believe synthetics produced her loving response.

So Jai held her and kissed her and moved with her in a rhythm more dream like than real. In the heady rush of his hunger, he whispered, “I love you, beautiful silver girl.”

“And I you,” she murmured.

Jai took her with tears on his face, knowing this charade was the closest he would ever come to love. Then he could no longer think at all. His body turned into a nova and he lost control in a burst of sensation.

Sometime later Jai became aware he was lying with the girl. When he lifted his head, she dimpled. “Such sweetness, Your Highness.”

Jai reddened. “Sweet” wasn’t how he wanted his first lover to think of him. Other words came to mind: powerful, masculine, virile. Somehow, though, “sweet” was all right from this silver girl.

Shifting his weight off her, he pulled up the quilt, cocooning them in its downy nest. It was like submerging into clouds. The girl closed her eyes, her lashes long and glimmering. He felt her satisfaction, and was gratified that he had given her enjoyment. He gathered her close. “I wish you could stay with me.”

She fitted her body against his side and laid her head on his shoulder. “You are kind.”

Kind. He winced, remembering how he had so passionately sworn his love. What an idiot. Yet even now, he could say it again. He wondered how he would respond when her pheromones were no longer influencing him. Well, what did it matter? She felt good and he liked her. That was enough.

“Maybe you could come home with me,” he said.

“Your Highness honors me.”

He could tell she didn’t believe he would take her anywhere. Such declarations from Hightons were easily made and easily forgotten. Her mind gave no hint that she suspected the truth; unlike Sunrise, Corbal’s lover, this girl couldn’t imagine anomalies. The idea that the emperor might be a psion was too strange for her to conceive.

But she did think him handsome. He grinned. Then he said, “Jai.”

Her lips curved. “Jai? What is that?”

“My name.”

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