“You had me arrested!” Hot breath riffled through Permac Sudé’s dark, full beard. Cold metal stung his neck. He knew the voice hissing in his ear. He suspected he knew the knife at his throat. It was probably the same one he planned to pick up when the door chime woke him. He jerked forward, not a smart thing to do with a sharp blade close to delicate skin, and any skin that close to a blade is delicate. No door chime. No knife on the table. How the hell did she get in?
He had survived thirty-four years of life without wounds or scars and had no desire to find out what it felt like now. She was skilled enough to expect his startled reaction and allowed the knife to follow his slight movement without doing any damage. Any allowance beyond that was unlikely.
“Don't move, Tokorellan.”
The knife pressed into his flesh. Permac sat awkwardly in the chair, not quite reclining, not quite sitting up. “How…” he croaked.
“Quiet! And if you use your tricks on me, I’ll know. Then, believe me; you’ll never sleep peacefully again.”
He doubted that he would do so anyhow. The muscles of his back complained, but he didn’t dare move. Moving was important. He wanted to jump up, to pace, to run, anything to use the adrenalin surging through his body. He realized he was blinking furiously in the dim light. It was the only movement he could make with any degree of safety.
“I can expl...”
“I said do not speak.”
The blade of the knife was no longer cold. The heat of his body had warmed it. Still, he felt a chill as it shifted again, not tighter but he was sure he felt it turn so that the edge would slice his flesh if either of them hiccuped. He hoped his racing pulse wouldn’t make some critical artery expand into the blade. He hoped his shallow breathing wouldn’t make him pass out and fall forward onto it. He hoped he hadn’t been as stupid as he felt right now.
He concentrated on the woman. Had she wanted to, she would have killed him already. Although he felt no immediate murderous intent, the fury was apparent and so was something else. Amid the boiling wrath he sensed a curiosity, maybe even a twinge of desperation. Any of that could be gone in an instant, replaced by murderous intent. By no means did he feel reassured. A bead of sweat tickled his face. The tips of her clawed fingernails bit into his neck.
“I’ve spent an entire year thinking about this,” she said. Permac stifled a groan as a muscle contracted. Her voice was directly above his ear. He hoped she was bending over and as uncomfortable as he was. “Sometimes I wanted to kill you. Usually I just wanted to hurt you. Never, NEVER did I think of you fondly, Tokorellan. Do you know what a Carratian prison is like? I'm sure you do. I'm sure that's why I was in one and you weren't. What the hell are you still doing here, anyway? Are you suicidal or just stupid?”
He sensed her anger rising to a new plateau and risked a whisper, “Linsora, neither of us was supposed to be there.”
“And what was I supposed to do. Turn you in?” She snarled.
“Yes, damn it, you were!”
Permac acted on her surprise.
He reached up. Grabbed her hand. Pulled it away from his neck. She yelped in surprise as he put pressure on top of her hand, forcing her palm inward as her wrist flexed. Her fingers opened and the knife fell into his lap.
“No tricks, Linsora,” he said, “just skill and patience.” He pulled her forward, gripping her arms as he stood, his lean, tan frame rising before her.
“Maybe now we can talk in a civilized manner.”
“The only way you'll ever be civilized is when you've gone to whatever serves for hell in your after world.”
He sidestepped a kick intended for his shin.
“Do you really expect me to believe that you wanted me to turn you in?”
“Yes! You were supposed to turn me in. Anyone else would have,” he snarled back at her. Of all that he remembered about her, he had forgotten just how much strength this short, slight woman possessed. At 6 feet tall he stood at least a head taller and over the past year he had ample time to hone his square Tokorellan frame into a sleek muscular shape. Leaning, as he did, toward the burly end of the physical build scale, he should have been able to hold her effortlessly, but she was like a wild creature, wriggling and unpredictable. Besides, Permac’s mother had made a point of teaching him never to harm a woman. But his mother had never met Linsora.
“I expected you to. They would have released you, come after me, and found nothing. Then we'd both have gone about our lives. But oh no, you and your principles wouldn’t have that. It’s far too simple! You admitted you had the artifacts. And to make it worse, you refused to tell them where they were.”
“At least I have principles. You, Tokorellan, have none.” Linsora spat the name of Permac’s race. “You and your mutant race are more despicable than…than anything I can think of. I should have killed you a long time ago.”
He felt the muscles in her arms relax. He knew the tactic. She hoped to lull him into loosening his grip.
“I know you can use a knife,” he said, not releasing her. “But don't compliment yourself by thinking you ever had a chance to kill me.”
“Really? Because of your skill and patience? Your little mind games?”
Her next kick connected. With a muffled, “Ooof,” he flung her across the room, his thin face winced in reaction to the sharp pain. She landed hard on the floor. By the time she regained her breath, Permac stood over her with the knife in hand. Besides not having any scars, he had never been in any kind of fight. He hoped just holding the knife, even without knowing how to use it, would be enough.
“Now we can talk,” he said.
Permac gazed down at the woman on the floor. Her eyes blazed a brilliant green. People of his race don’t have green eyes. Then again, neither did people of hers. Both Tokorellans and Khizarans were blue eyed. Her father, a green eyed Terran, had given her both her eyes and a stature shorter than most Khizarans, but no one who spent much time with Linsora thought of her as short. She extended her height with the force of her temper.
Still, the genetic combination had been kind to her, softening the angular Khizaran lines and, Permac never failed to note, somehow packing Khizaran proportions onto a shorter body, making her, well, just curvier than most. If she wasn’t so irritable and irritating, he thought, also not for the first time, I might... He shook his head. He found her intriguing. And tiring.
He wiped his forehead. His thick, shoulder length dark hair stuck to the sides of his face and, he noticed for the first time, was wet with sweat. Stabs of pain shot from his lower back, the result of quick movement from a cramped position. His shin hurt. He could almost feel the outlines of a boot-shaped bruise forming.
Linsora’s heavy auburn hair was purely Khizaran and, Permac noted, in a great deal of disarray. The usual single braid she wore was partly unraveled and stray threads framed her tanned face. He reached down to brush a strand from her forehead and she slapped it away as she would a buzzing insect.
“You’re bleeding,” she said. “Good thing the knife isn’t as rusty as your skill and patience.”
His hand was sticky. He touched his neck and found it sticky, too. With all the other aches, he hadn’t noticed his neck was cut.
“Damn it, Linsora!”
She shrugged and offered a tiny smile.
Without taking his eyes off her, he fumbled for some kind of cloth on the table behind him. He yanked the entire tablecloth off, sending an assortment of cups and plates clattering to the floor.
“You won’t die,” she said. “The cut’s already sealing. Better to leave it alone than stick that cloth on it. When’s the last time you washed the thing?”
“I don’t need your medical advice.” Permac stuffed the tablecloth under his chin. He pulled a chair from the table and sat with a thump. “Look, neither of us was supposed to be in that prison. You knew I had the artifacts. There was no reason for you not to tell them that.”
“No? You honestly believed they’d have released both of us?”
“So you were protecting me?” Permac daubed the tablecloth at his neck. He couldn’t quite remember when he had washed it. The cut had stopped bleeding so he tossed the cloth back toward the table, annoyed that she was right about the cut and his housekeeping skills.
“I was protecting the artifacts. How was I supposed to know that telling the Carratians you had them wasn’t the same thing as handing the artifacts over on a plate?”
“Because I risked as much as you did to collect them,” Permac said. “Did you let me help you just because I was convenient?”
“You offered to help. Why, I don’t know. I’d have done it on my own.”
“But you didn’t send me away, did you?”
Permac thought the look on her face was somewhere between exasperation and amusement. “You think you’re easy to send away? This isn’t the first time I held a knife to your miserable throat. That’s usually enough of a hint. But you were always there. And you’re still doing it.” She breathed heavily. “I hoped there’d be a trial. They accused me of theft. I figured they’d have to specify just what it was I stole. Then there’d be a chance for publicity and I’d have accomplished my purpose. But Carratian justice is convenient. I was charged and sentenced in a private court.”
“They don’t want the artifacts. They just don’t want anyone to know about them.”
“And that makes your argument pointless. Even if they had the artifacts, they’d still have to get rid of me. And if I told them about you, they’d be after your head, too.”
“Maybe not. We can say anything we want. Nobody has much good to say about Carratians. Without proof, we’d be just a couple more people griping about their business practices.”
“So, where are the artifacts now?”
She seemed ready to spring to her feet and Permac was assaulted by a wave of pure venom. He kicked her boot lightly with his foot, “Your turn to listen and not move. Yes, I sold them. Why do you suppose I'm here? Why do you suppose you're still alive?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “When I realized you were going to insist on upholding your principles I made some contacts with parties at the prison. I do have friends in low but useful places. For a price, they agreed to look after you.”
He leaned toward Linsora, “I do know what a Carratian prison is like and you were spared the worst of it. Trust me in that. I felt stupidly responsible for you although right now I'm not quite sure why. I stayed here, sold the artifacts quietly, and paid off the guards.”
He felt a softening, immediately replaced with a renewal of ire. “You did this for a year? I’m not ungrateful, but what happened? Another two months and I’d have been released. I wouldn’t be a fugitive and I’d have some sort of future. Instead I'm dragged out of the prison and brought here? To YOU!”
Permac exploded in frustration, “You would NOT have been released! You’d have disappeared!” He added more softly, “I had another plan in mind closer to your release date, but the guards I paid were being transferred. I had to arrange your escape now.”
“I'm afraid those guards will have some bruises to explain. I don't react well to being kidnapped in the middle of the night. By the time we got to this building, they just gave me this and left.” As she reached into a pocket on the sleeve of her jacket, Permac knelt and grabbed her ankle, bringing the knife close to her before she had time to react.
He thought she was about to stick her tongue out at him, daring him to use the knife. He didn’t think he could. He was sure she believed he wouldn’t. But she was raised in a knife-wielding culture where anyone with a knife was someone to be respected. He didn’t blink. With exaggerated caution, Linsora retrieved a small box with a blinking green light. Permac recognized it as a field modifier, that's how she had gotten into his apartment. One swipe of that and the flimsy Carratian locks and security systems would be turned off. He let go of her ankle and returned to the chair. “They said they had done enough and that you were more than welcomed to me. After what I said when I learned where they were taking me, I don't think they wanted to witness our loving reunion.” Linsora took a deep breath, “You could have let me know what you were doing.”
“No, I couldn't. I didn’t think you’d have welcomed the help. Right now, though, we have to get out of here. You’re a fugitive and I haven't exactly felt secure. I’ve heard of a Terran exploration ship that’s looking for crew. They're going so far out they'll take anyone they can get without a lot of questions.”
“Permac Sudé, you have ruined my life,” she muttered.
“And you haven't brightened mine any,” he said with disgust.