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New Release on the Horizon: Edj of the Empire by Timothy Burns!

 
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We are excited to announce our next release, Edj of the Empire by Timothy Burns!

This thrilling sci-fi adventure featuring the swashbuckling Prince Edj will publish on October 10th. We know you’re going to love it and we’ve included the first chapter in this post. Why do we think it’s awesome? We’ll let our marketing copy explain:

Edj Dumarc LaRand Bronacious Tarkle, the son of Emperor Risherd Fontanue LaRand Bronacious Tarkle, and the Crown Prince and Heir to the Crystal Throne of the Empire of the Ninety-Nine Stars is on his way to Herrig’s World, a remote planet that rarely warrants attention. However, production of the ore critical to anti-grave tech, minzite, has recently cratered.

There are many ways to address the decline. The navy could be sent in to investigate, but they never do anything small. An official auditor could be dispatched, but he would inevitably find several perfectly good reasons for the decline and file a report saying, oh well, that's just the way it is. Or Edj could go and make a few quiet, discrete inquiries and find out precisely who is profiting. It seemed so simple when his father asked him to investigate matters.

But nothing is ever simple. What Edj uncovers on Herrig’s World is a plot to destroy the foundation of the Empire. With a mindbender named Mala and his loyal android companion, JD, in tow, Edj begins an adventure across the Ninety-Nine stars to stop the conspiracy in its tracks. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they expect. With his ship barely functional, and the odds stacked against him, can Edj save the Empire before time runs out?

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Chapter 1

{content Old Empire Archive

Coming to consciousness in a trash-strewn alley behind a dive bar on a rough-and-tumble mining world was quite a rude awakening, let me tell you. I suppose it beat the alternative, though - not waking up at all. Not that Sam would've let that happen.

I could tell there would be a knot on the back of my head even before I managed to convince my hand to undertake the monumental task of venturing up there to check it out, and I was right. I didn't expect that hand to come away bloody, but that it did so didn't really surprise me, either.

It had been one of those nights.

I suppose I'd better back up a little bit since I don't know who might end up reading this account. First off, I am Prince Edj Dumarc LaRand Bronacious Tarkle, son of Emperor Risherd Fontanue LaRand Bronacious Tarkle, Crown Prince and Heir to the Crystal Throne of the Empire of the Ninety-Nine Stars.

Yep, that Prince Edj. You might have heard of me, but if not, that's okay. You'd be surprised how many Imperial subjects don't even know they are Imperial subjects, much less who their next monarch will be. And you know what? That doesn't bother me one bit.

See, I know something that all those pompous, overdressed, kowtowing arrogant fools back at my Father's court can't even begin to comprehend: the average person couldn't care less what goes on in the Glittering Palace. What concerns them are their day-to-day affairs, not what's happening light-years away to people they've never met and who think themselves so much better than the commoners that, if they ever did meet them, would treat them like dirt anyway. Less than dirt, really. Dirt has value, while commoners are simply numbers in a database.

I guess that explains what I was doing out there on the very rim of the Empire. I don't have any more to do with those self-important, ego-inflated aristocrats than I absolutely have to. Don't get me wrong, now - I love my father. It's all the fools he's surrounded by I can't stand. And since in an Empire the size of the Ninety-Nine Stars there are always a ton of minor situations that need attention before they become major problems, I can always find reasons to be anywhere other than Alphum.

Like, for instance, on Herrig's World.

I doubt there are more than a dozen people on the whole of the capitol planet who've ever heard of Herrig's World, much less know that the place's only major export is minzite ore. Yet nearly everyone makes use of the antigravity and artificial-gravity generators the refined form of this extremely rare mineral makes possible.

There are any number of products like this, of course, available from only one or a very few sources but highly desired everywhere, in this great Empire of ours. Few, however, are as universally used as minz coils. So, when the production of something as valuable as this experiences a sharp decline for no apparent reason, it attracts attention.

Now, this could have been addressed in several different manners. The navy could have been sent in to investigate, but they never do anything small. A flotilla of a dozen or more starships would have arrived, and chances are production would've suddenly undergone a miraculous recovery. At least until they left, anyway. Or an official auditor could have been dispatched, but he would have found several perfectly good reasons for the decline and filed a report saying, oh well, that's just the way it is. He would be much wealthier by the time he did so, but, well, that's just the way it is.

Or I could go there and make a few quiet, discrete inquiries and find out precisely who was profiting when several different mining corporations all suddenly started reporting record-low production rates.

It sounded so simple when I told my father I'd look into things there. But is anything ever simple?

During the two-week hyperspace flight from the agricultural world Demetria, where I'd just investigated and solved a nasty case of well poisoning, I read up on all I could find about Herrig's World, which wasn't a whole lot. It's a relatively young planet, mostly jungle on its one huge continent, and its native life is at that stage in its evolution where every species is trying out all kinds of creative ways to kill and eat every other species. Think Earth's dinosaur epoch on mega-steroids, because life there found a way to make natural ceramics early on. Everything is armored in super-tough shells, and every creature has its own uniquely lethal means of getting at the delicious creamy filling of these hard shells.

Minzite mining is the sole reason for a human presence there, and temporary mining towns are practically the only settlements on the whole planet. People have been plundering it for something like 400 years now, and they still have to import virtually everything they use there. It seems that a world full of hungry beasts with armor-piercing appendages just doesn't attract many farmers or vacationers. Go figure.

The culture there is just what you'd expect in mining towns surrounded by lethal predators on all sides. Lives are cheap, passions run high, and everyone is armed to the teeth.

Oh, and did I mention the fact that the mines pay so well that, despite all this, people are willing to kill to get hired on?

It's not a place for the weak or timid.

Now you might think that I, being Crown Prince and all of that, would be so un-used to a place like this that I'd faint at the mere mention of such savagery.

Perish the notion.

I thrive on danger. I go out of my way to find situations where I can test my mettle against the worst this universe can throw at me, be it man, beast, or nature itself. I've wrestled a B'norr hyper-gorilla to the ground and bested an entire city full of professional Spak players at their own game. I am anything but weak or timid. I know the galaxy is a dangerous place, and Daddy didn't raise no fool, as the saying goes.

More than a few people have speculated that I have a subconscious death wish. Ha. As if.

What they don't know - what very few outside the Imperial household know - is that I am not allowed to die.

Note to the Imperial historians: since it is on your request that I am committing this record of my travels to permanent storage and you asked that I make it as complete and honest an account as possible, I leave it up to you to censor any details you deem too sensitive. I'll tell everything my way, and if you don't like it you can rewrite it to suit your whims. Isn't that what you historians do anyway?

The reason I put myself in dangerous situations is not because I want to die. It's because I want to really live. Since I know I'll keep on breathing until I reach a ripe old, old age, my challenge is to make my life worth something.

And how can I know this, I can hear you asking.

It's because Sam won't let me die.

He's good at his job, too. He's been keeping the ruling Emperor and Crown Heir from unnatural death since the Tarkle line was founded over a thousand years ago. He's the ultimate bodyguard, our Sam.

He's also a sentient black hole, a space/time singularity. Although he says he exists outside of time, he's been my constant companion all my life. He's also been my father's all his life, too, as strange as that sounds. Now, maybe some wirehead physicist can explain how the same entity can be in two - or sometimes occasionally more - places at the same time, but all I know is that he claims things look different from his perspective. To him it is always now, whether he is with me, my great-to-the-X grandfather, or one of my yet-to-be-born descendants. There is no past or future to him, yet he can remember what we've talked about or done in my past. But when I ask if he 'remembers' what will happen to me tomorrow, he just says it doesn't work like that. I gave up trying to make sense of it a long time ago.

What's even stranger about his whole outside-of-time thing is that he always knows where to be to absorb a bullet or energy blast that's headed my way. I've asked him about that, too, and all I got was something about him being attuned to the space/time shadows of potentially fatal events.

Yeah, spooky, I know.

So yeah, I've got this microscopic pinpoint of nothingness that's always close by. And as you can tell, we can talk to each other, although we don't use sound. See, in addition to him being in control of his gravity and mass - he says these are leakages from higher dimensions that he can direct at will - he is also telepathic.

That's right, he talks to me just like psionics get in people's heads. No one around me can hear him, and they never know when I'm talking to him. It's kind of cool, really, but it would be better if he didn't have such a disapproving attitude towards gambling. I mean, how hard would it be for him to zip around and tell me what cards everyone else is holding?

But I digress. Basically, he's just there to keep me breathing. I've taken many a knock that I'm sure he could have warned me about, and that brings us back to my waking up in the alley behind the Crooked Shaft.

I'd set down at the spaceport serving the oldest settlement on Herrig's, a town bearing the ambitious name 'Good Luck City', shortly after local noon. My ship, the Wah, is, to all outward appearances, nothing special to look at and seems to be in need of so much work that even a semi-desperate thief would sneer at it and keep right on going, so I felt comfortable enough leaving it there among the other hard-luck freighters.

Both the spaceport and the town - it by no means qualified as a city, despite being nearly the only permanent habitation on the whole planet and having been there for over 300 years - were enclosed by an encircling repulsor fence that was a good 20 feet high. Seeing that made me really not want to meet any of the local beasts. Apparently the high oxygen content of the atmosphere let the natives grow to truly impressive proportions.

I'll tell you, I couldn't help but double-check the power cell in my blaster pistol. If the repulsor field on that fence ever went down things could get pretty hairy really quick.

In addition to the pistol in its low-slung holster on my right hip, I also wore my usual quick-staff - collapsed, of course - on my left. It felt good to be able to wear it, too. Whenever I have to visit one of the so-called civilized worlds and can't wear it, I feel like I'm missing an arm or something.

Anyway, for the rest of my outfit I'd chosen a blackened armored vest over a t-shirt, khaki cargo pants that had seen better days, and well-worn low-top work boots. I wanted to blend in with the local function-before-fashion mindset, giving anyone that saw me the impression I was just another scoundrel who wasn't afraid of a little hard work looking to get in on the big bucks to be made working the mines.

Or the bigger bucks to be made running ore out-system to unapproved buyers.

See, it's like this: minzite ore is so crucial to the functioning of our space-faring metaculture that one of my forward-thinking ancestor Emperors decided to tax the hell out of it. The rates are high enough when it's being sold within the empire, and truly exorbitant when anyone from outside wants any.

So while it's an accepted fact that some smuggling is unavoidable, there are all kinds of checks and regulations in place to try and keep the rate of it down to a minimum. The Imperial Trade Commission maintains an orbital facility here and has the right to board and inspect any vessel leaving the planet. Large commercial freighters are required to clear their cargo manifests with them before being given permission to depart, and smaller ships are subject to 'random' searches. To enforce their regulations the ITC maintains a squadron of starfighters and can, of course, call in the navy if necessary.

Yes, it had occurred to me that the sudden decline in reported ore production just might be related to an increase in illicit sales.

So, what was I going to do about it? Why, get in on the action myself, of course.

And where does any would-be smuggler worth his salt go to get the low-down on the local business opportunities? Where else but the to the saloons?

That's right - Herrig's World is so much like the Old West of ancient Earth in the minds of its inhabitants that the bars-slash-casinos are called saloons here. They might not have bat-wing doors opening off a raised wooden boardwalk, and there aren't brass spittoons surrounded by stinking globs of tobacco spit, but I'd bet if someone zapped a gunslinger from old Dodge City to here, he'd feel right at home.

I know I certainly did. I made for one of the larger ones.

The early-afternoon clientele - I hesitate to use the word 'crowd' to describe at most 20 patrons in a place that could easily hold ten times that many - of the Crooked Shaft was mainly men who had the look of unemployed-but-hopeful potential miners. There were a couple of women included in this mix, too, once I took a better look around; ladies they would never be called. The real 'working ladies' would show up about the same time the miner's work shift ended, I was sure. And then there were the three or four - one I couldn't be sure of - professional gamblers that were inevitably attracted to places like Herrig's that offered good pay to not-so-good men.

They were just who I was looking for.

My first stop was at the bar, of course, since everyone knows that a newcomer who doesn't check in with the bartender first has no business being in a place like this. It still being rather early, I asked for a cup of coffee. The price was, as expected, quite high, but I didn't quibble. I certainly didn't want to come off as a guy who couldn't afford to spend a few credits.

The man behind the bar looked like he might have been a minzite miner in his day. Of medium height and stocky build, his scar-covered bald head and bloodshot eyes told a tale of a hard life that was only accented further by the cybernetic right arm with which he handed me my coffee. He sounded friendly enough, though, when he asked me if I was new to Herrig's.

I couldn't deny it, not that I wanted to. "That's right. Just set down today, in fact," I told him.

He looked me up and down with the appraising eye of someone who knows what to look for. After a few moments of this silent scrutiny he told me, "You might just have it in you to make a go of it here."

I thanked him, not sure what I might have said if I hadn't measured up to his standards.

((He looked you over with more than his eyes,)) Sam said directly into my brain. ((That arm of his has some sort of active scanner in it. I cannot tell how many of your implants he picked up.))

That's something else about Sam. He can see in just about every range of the electromagnetic spectrum. A radio transmitting shines like a light panel to him. Now, he's not a computer. He can seldom decode the signals that he sees, but he always knows they're there. And sometimes knowing is half the battle, as some philosopher once said.

(Whether he did or not, I can't see it making much of a difference in how much he charges me for a drink,) I replied silently. I like to throw non-sequiturs like that at him every once in a while, just for the fun of it.

"So, you'll be looking for work, then?" the barkeep asked.

I nodded. "But maybe something that pays a little better than busting rock. I've got my own ship and she'll carry more than you'd think, if you get my drift."

In the timeless tradition of bartenders everywhere he swiped a damp rag across the bar as he looked around to see if anyone was paying us any attention. He must have been satisfied because after a few seconds he said, "You know you could lose that ship of yours if you get caught carrying ore." It wasn't a question. "But if you're determined to try and make a run anyway, I hear there may be certain individuals around town who have been known to set up shippers with clients that prefer to remain a discreet distance removed from us here."

Jackpot! And on my first pull of the handle, as it were.

"Now that might be information a man could use. Yes indeed."

I sipped my coffee, leaning against the bar like I had all the time in the galaxy. Undue haste in these types of dealings is often a sign to one party or the other that something is not on the level.

While I waited for him to make the next move, one of the hopeful miners came up and ordered a pitcher of beer for him and his companions, who were seated around a table playing cards. With my practiced eye I saw it was a low-stakes game, which explained why none of the professional gamblers were involved.

When the man had departed with his beer, the barkeep explained that his usual afternoon waitress had unexpectedly quit on him yesterday and he hadn't found a replacement yet. "I heard she left with this fellow she'd taken up with whose contract was up. For some reason, he couldn't get off-world fast enough. So now, here I am short-handed again. I tell you, friend, there just ain't enough women on this rock."

"I can't imagine why not."

"Hmph. Anyway, about what I was saying. You think you might be interested?"

Upholding another age-old custom, he cast a meaningful glance toward his tip jar, which held mostly single-credit coins and a few fives.

Taking the hint, I casually reached into the inside pocket of my vest. (Is anyone watching?) I asked Sam.

((One of the female miners keeps glancing your way, but she is occupied at the moment. Other than her, no one has shown any undue interest in you.))

Selecting four 20's by feel, I quietly slid them onto the bar under my hand. As soon as I withdrew, the coins vanished into his rag. A timeless classic never grows old.

The barest hint of a smile made a brief foray onto his face before running back into hiding. "As it so happens, one of the fellows we were discussing usually puts in an appearance here most evenings, say from 7 to 9 or thereabouts. If you were to be here then, it would be my pleasure to put in a good word on your behalf."

To a true player, the game is everything. "Well now, that would be mighty kind of you. I'd be much obliged."

"Nothing to it. All part of keeping my customers satisfied."

So, business taken care of, I saw no reason not to relax and enjoy myself. Seeing as how there was an empty seat at the table with the two gamblers and three miners, I sauntered over and got myself invited to sit in. Poker was the game, and for the next few hours I gave and took in about equal amounts while the bar grew quite crowded and significantly noisier, until at last I decided I'd waited long enough.

Since I had enjoyed the laid-back low-pressure way our games had been played, I arranged for one of the hopeful miners to win a sizeable pot from me, then used that as my excuse to withdraw. "It's been thoroughly enjoyable, gentlemen, but my stomach is getting far too familiar with my backbone," I told them, and that was that. I usually gamble because I enjoy the companionship, not out of any desire to win a huge fortune. Something to do with growing up rich, I suppose.

The place was quite rowdy by this point, which didn't surprise me at all. In fact, if it hadn't gotten a little energetic I would have wondered what was wrong. The one place that was an island of calm was in the immediate vicinity of a particular corner table. It came as no shock to me when my bartender friend pointed out the man holding court there was the one I needed to talk to. He had already mentioned me to him, he said, so I casually worked my way to the periphery of his domain.

Foral Tenew, the man's name was. Expensively dressed in some fashion designer's idea of show-the-wealth and a shipload of flashy jewelry, he was a tall, slender guy with too-perfect facial features and a flawless olive complexion. Everything about him screamed new money makeover. I started to wonder if I was already on the verge of cracking the whole missing-minzite mystery wide open on my first day there.

Turns out I was wrong.

He was seated between a gorgeous redhead in a nearly transparent sheath of a dress and a pair of bio-augmented toughs. He and the redhead

 had glasses of some no-doubt pricey concoction before them, while the muscle boys sipped draft beers.

Seeing me approach, he whispered in the redhead's ear and she got up and left in the direction of the bar. I wasn't supposed to hear him say, "Keep an eye on this one but give us some space," but that's what my hearing augment is for.

"Why don't you join us, my man?" he said in a friendly enough manner. I got the distinct impression that his tone - indeed, his whole demeanor - was a practiced act. What it concealed I didn't know yet, but even that first line was enough to make me wary.

"Arll tells me you're a freighter pilot," he said after I'd slid in beside him. "And that you might be looking to pick up a cargo."

I distinctly didn't like this guy; there was just something that screamed 'sleazeball' in his every action. Still, he was the only lead I had at the time so I swallowed my bile and acted nice. It was either deal with him or go back to the spaceport and start asking the other pilots where they were going and who they were selling to. At least with Tenew I stood a slight chance of not being lied to or shot outright.

"That's right. And he tells me you're the man who can hook me up with the best buyers."

"Yeah, good ol' Arll. So tell me a little about yourself, Mr. Pilot. How do I know you can get my merchandise where it needs to go?"

"Well, for starters the name is Jed Ecnirp." I didn't offer to shake hands. For one thing, I wasn't sure I trusted myself not to crush his into a bloody pulp. He just had that effect on me, and I didn't even know him yet. Sometimes I wonder if I'm a little bit psychic.

And yes, I used my standard pseudonym. You'd be surprised how few people ever catch on to the joke.

Anyway, I went on to tell him that I'd been running shady for a dozen years and hadn't been caught yet. I informed him that there is considerably more cargo space in my ship than is apparent and that its engines are well above average for a vessel in its class. In other words, feeding him exactly what he wanted to hear. And none of it was untrue, either. I just didn't tell him how I'd come upon such a special ship or just how special it really is.

I also hinted that I was not above employing certain illegal defenses if the situation ever became desperate enough, which earned me a toothy smile. This was just further confirmation of his character, as if I needed it.

Which I certainly didn't, not after what he said next.

"Good, good. I like what I'm hearing, Mr. Ecnirp. Now tell me a little about yourself. I didn't get to where I am now -" He waved his hands to point at, I presume, his clothes and jewelry. "- by placing blind trust in just everyone. No, sir. There are too many people in this galaxy who will say anything, promise anything, then cut and run the first time things get a little sticky. Oh, I'm not saying you're like that -" he gave a humorless laugh and false smile. "- but maybe you are. I just don't know yet.

"So here's the deal," he said, shifting to a harder, more business-like tone. "Anyone who works for me has to prove he's got what it takes before I'll trust him with my merchandise."

I didn't like the direction in which this interview was turning, but what could I do? Some kind of test was always possible in this kind of operation, and it's not like I'm overly squeamish. "And how would I do that, Mr. Tenew?"

There was that cold, predatory smile again. "As it just so happens, the mining company I am affiliated with is getting ready to move one of its work towns. And lucky for you, their clearing crew is moving out tomorrow morning. You'll go with them, and if you survive I'll know you've got what it takes to work for me. Deal?"

What choice did I have? I needed to know who he's selling to, and the only way I was going to find that out was to go to work for him. I agreed to his terms but did so in a way that made it clear that if he didn't have a haulage job for me on his return, I would be very unhappy with him. "Alright, if that's how it's got to be. But let me tell you something: I'm a hard man to kill. When I get back I expect you to honor your word as well. Cross me and you'll need a lot more protection than Bo and Luke here."

The sneer on his face said what he thought my chances against his bio-augments were, but the slight tremor in his voice told me he wasn't 100% convinced of his safety nonetheless. "Now, now, there's no need for threats, Mr. Ecnirp. Demonstrate your loyalty to me and I'll reward your service. I'm a man of my word."

"Good. I'll be seeing you."

As I got up and left, I didn't need Sam to tell me his two bodyguards were sizing me up. I'm sure they thought they could take me. After all, I'm just an average-sized man and they were bulging with augmented muscles and full of all sorts of internal enhancements. But what they didn't know is that I have some enhancements of my own. I just don't want any of mine to show. The element of surprise can be worth a lot in a fight.

***

I didn't have to ask what a clearing crew is because I'd heard all about them from the men I played cards with earlier. As hard and tough as they tried to appear, and as badly as they wanted work, not one of them was desperate enough to sign on with that company. Clearing a new site in preparation for one of the mobile towns to come in is considered the most dangerous job on the whole planet, and with good reason.

All the wildlife in the selected area had to be driven out before the repulsor fence could be erected, and according to the Indigenous Life Protection Act - an Imperial decree wrangled by some bleeding-heart lobbyist group centuries ago - every effort had to be made to do so without harming the native creatures. Never mind that the creatures in question are so strong and well-armed that armored vehicles are to them merely soft wrappers containing delicious food. They are the ones who need protecting from us vicious, bloodthirsty humans.

And since the best way for us to stay alive is to take advantage of our small size and nimble ability to hide among the ceramic foliage, we got to go in there on our own two feet.

Needless to say, there weren't too many volunteers for the job. One of the gamblers had even warned me not to be anywhere near the east end of the spaceport field in the morning or else I might get 'invited' to join the departing crew. When he said that I had thought it sounded like a very sensible idea to be elsewhere then. Now here I was planning on going there on purpose. Sometimes my life is just one fun adventure after another.

With my business in the bar concluded at last and having had nothing more than beer and a plate of nachos while I gambled the afternoon away, my stomach begged attention. I decided that I owed myself a better dinner than the Crooked Shaft could offer, especially considering the new job I was setting out on tomorrow, so I began working my way through the boisterous crowd toward the door.

Now, normally I prefer not to spend evenings alone, and almost certainly not after a long flight. On Herrig's World, though, I was ready to make an exception. The 'professional' ladies available at the bar all seemed to be too used-up for my taste, and there didn't appear to be any other options. Even the miner chick that had been eyeing me earlier was nowhere to be seen, so I was all prepared to go it stag when I beheld such a vision of feminine perfection that my breath caught in my throat and my heart skipped a beat.

And no, I'm not making this up. That really happened. My neuroware even logged it to my medical profile.

Hair the color of burnished bronze floated in playful curls around a face that a Greek goddess would have killed for. Lustrous emerald eyes twinkled amongst prominent but not over-large cheekbones, an adorable button nose and a sensual mouth with lips that had to have been made for kissing.

A pale blue and silver dress hung off one dainty shoulder and was cut to give her ample cleavage magnificent exposure before descending via her flat stomach and slightly flared hips to end in a knee-length pleated skirt. Even her toes, seen at the tips of her sparkly sandals, were perfectly shaped and adorned by glossy blue polish on their nails. She couldn't have been more than 25 standard, and the top of her head only came up to my chin.

I was smitten, no doubt about it.

When I saw her she was standing alone just inside the door, looking over the crowd as if she knew she could have her pick of any man there. I almost felt sorry for them, for I knew they didn't stand a chance; not once I set my sights on her.

"They are all unworthy of a goddess such as you," I said softly, hang taken a position beside her as if it were my right to do so.

She turned those intoxicating green eyes upon me, flicking them quickly down and back up. "Is that so?" she replied, her voice a warm, sensual caress upon my ears.

"Indeed. For how could any of us lowly mortals ever hope to join you, who shines with the radiance of the heavens?"

"Is there not one here who might aspire to forestall my loneliness, then?" She pouted and my heart melted. And her words, they set my soul alight. I could listen to her melodious utterances forever.

"There is one, unworthy though I may be."

"And who is this one who presumes to be of more worth than these other poor wretches?"

Oh, her every word was honey to a man starved for any sweetness. I offered her a sweeping bow and said, "None other than your humble subject Jed Ecnirp, your grace. And may I beg to know by what divine appellation I may address you?"

Her smile could brighten a faded sun. "I'm Nicolette."

Nicole-ette. Such a doubly feminine name was an absolutely perfect fit for this amazing woman. I could not imagine any moniker more appropriate.

"Nicolette," I said, luxuriating in the feel of it on my tongue. "I have longed to meet you my entire life, yet I knew it not until this moment. Please, would you care to join me for a drink? Or dinner? Or a life of extravagance in the Glittering Palace on Alphum?"

That heart-warming smile continued to radiate its life-giving essence on me. "Perhaps a drink first. Then we can talk about where to go from there."

I could see my entire future opening up before me from that moment on. We would fall madly in love, and when I finally revealed to her that my offer of the palace was for real, she would gladly consent to be my queen. It was all falling into place so perfectly.

That, of course, is when everything went horribly wrong.

One moment I was offering the love of my life my arm to escort her to a table, the next I heard some kind of commotion behind us and Sam was warning me to duck, now!

The crackle of a blaster bolt ionizing the air where your head was a second before has a way of engraving itself in your memory. This one sounded just like the others I've heard, yet there was a big difference. This time I had someone else besides myself to worry about.

Relieved beyond measure to find her unharmed, I pulled Nicolette to me and began working us toward the door. I had to get her to safety before I could deal with whatever was happening behind me.

I was so preoccupied with this that I never even sensed the blow coming that knocked me out.

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Erik Evans