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Vagabonds

By Piper Cleaveland All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

Chapter Three

The air up here was sweet and fragrant, carrying with it the cool chill of the mountain’s distant breath. Grace walked in long striding steps, practically gliding down the hidden path concealed amongst the ferns. The trail was called a stag trot, one of many that the pronged beasts used in their daily migration up and down the ridgeline. Stag trots weren’t known to most and could only be recognized by hunters and people of the foothills, those who were trained to spot their softly hidden paths where they snaked playfully through the grasses. For ages these trails were used by the select few who could see them, following the hidden lines of safety through otherwise impossible and dangerous terrain. Matthew’s grandfather had been a hunter in the northern forests long ago and had passed the skill of tracking the stag trots on to his son, who passed it on to his. Now Matthew and Grace shared this knowledge together and would often spend a long afternoon tracing the imprinted paths through the bluffs and up the mountain’s side. They had gone pretty far on them too, but always turned back before reaching the place where the snow fell all year round.

Today she remained out in the open, just between the waves of rock that scrapped up from the foliage to her left and the overarching loom of the pine forests to her right. The trot brought Grace into the clear. Here the slopes roamed with little interference of road,rock,or tree. She walked out upon its open face, completely exposed to the sky. Ironwood was no more than ten minutes away, though with the height of the surrounding trees you couldn’t see it,the noise of the Central Road was blocked out too, making the area feel delightfully set apart.

Looking upon the land that lay before her, Grace felt as if she could almost hear it beckoning.

Run with me! The mountain breezes cried. Feel my strength beneath your feet, said the earth, I will support you and make you faster! Grace quickly undid the buckles at her ankles and freed her pretty pink toes, pressing them deep into the soil. She took off, leaving the shoes behind.

As Grace ran she reveled in the wind that pressed against her face and pulled playfully at her hair. Adrenaline filled her lungs and pressed up against the swelling of her heart. Her legs pounded faster against the ground, trying excitedly to match the electricity that ran over her skin and continued to push her harder and harder. Everything within her was unusually clear and ecstatic;all thoughts of the upcoming ball and the preparations of first contact, it all slipped away. Grace didn’t care. At this moment, with the wind at her back and Matthew’s kiss still fresh on her lips, she felt totally at ease. She could handle whatever was waiting behind the tree line, whatever was expected of her at home, and whatever hovered above her in the sky. Surging with love-struck confidence she ran blindly on, unburdened and completely unaware.


The field through which Grace ran was fully exposed to the iron sky. Up there, far beyond the expanse of air and wind, the silent vessels were moving. Layer upon layer the battleships hung, drifting onward in their stoic formation. The fires in their front furnaces burned hot, the blue energy of their back turbines glowed cold, setting the space around them to quiver with the odd distortion of their power. Beyond the scars of their outer walls,the vessels concealed the remains of a dark refuge. Once magnificent war ships of unimaginable power, these metal giants had long ago been carved out, made hollow by their people so as to hold a greater, yet less dignified purpose.

The massive piping system curled up like a rib cage inside the iron beasts, coiling protectively around their centers where they bore the alien’s home. In these cavities, shack like dwellings fell upon one another, building themselves into ungodly towers that rose up toward the ceilings of the ships, some hundred stories high. The slums were crowded and full of noise. Everywhere people pushed and shouted to one another. Some bartered over the scraps of metal they had fashioned into tools and trinkets, some pulled carts made of old wicker behind them as they ran, ushering passengers through the smoke and steam that leaked out from every spigot on the iron walls. Soldiers marched among the masses, speared rifles in hand as dirty children ran between their legs. From stories above, women leaned out their windows and called to the boys below, old men sat in doorways and picked at the skin that was falling from their bodies, and from any location, somewhere in the distance a baby was always crying.

The flag ship was toward the front of the formation, more fearsome than those that followed it, and considerably larger in brawn and artillery than those that hung protectively around its flanks. This vessel, in all its daunting glory, harbored more than the impoverished and infirm, cradling within its chest the last of once proud nobility. Placed above the capital slums, a palace had been wielded into the battleship. Its once white walls now cast a yellowed and weathered face upon the lives of those that lived beneath it, seeming to sigh shamefully as it sagged against its supports, gradually yielding into the welcoming pull of gravity and time. One day, metal that was never meant to hold up stone would turn to rust, and the palace would take its inevitable plunge, falling upon the people who every day had looked up and praised its everlasting strength.

Behind these walls, the metal world was ignored, the reminder of pain and poverty pushed aside by the brilliance of old royalty. Bavanti tapestries, once universally coveted for their achievement in color,now were beginning to unravel and fade. Every window and archway was engraved with swirling vines, the etchings robbed of the silver and gold leafing that once filled their shapes. Exotic plant life from their home planet flourished from soil troughs that ran parallel to the walkways, now running rampant over the fraying carpets and slithering into the grates of the ventilation shafts. The vegetation was almost untamable, a remarkable trait for the last of its kind, and though it gave a wild look to the low lit halls of the palace, the order was to let it grow, grooming them just enough to keep clear the spaces they were meant to enhance.

All of this held the last of a memory, a greater culture that once thrived in its creation of art, religion, and the expanse of philosophies. They were a people whose prosperity was once so that they had soared on the wings of science, building their ships that could take to the stars and unite their understanding with that of worlds beyond. Who had been strong enough in faith and culture to not let what was new change them, but continued to learn from expansion as their planet had remained strong in its traditions and cultural heritage. The fragments of such success still clung to what remained, but all that once prospered now struggled to survive. Just like its people, this place was dying, holding desperately onto its gilded appearance if only to remember what it was once like to be so revered.


In the highest room of the palace there was a private chamber. Here,amongst the mix of low arching draperies, and the peeking tendrils of morning light, stood a solitary man,wrapping his hands in long strips of white linen cloth. These thoughts of the past were that of their king, a title referred to by the Bavanti as the Zar, and the man who was now carefully applying the treated gauze to his rotted flesh.

He mused over the past in a contemplative yet pleasant silence, and hummed to himself as the long black bone of his fingers secured the ends of the wrappings in an experienced and practiced way. Every morning began with the same routine, but this morning he knew, was the start of something different. This morning marked the start of their salvation, and the end of a tormenting search for a cure that would save them at last.

“Your majesty,” a gentle voice called from behind him, “the UV chamber is ready.” The Zar turned and nodded, walking from the dark shadows of his royal chamber into the white light of the adjacent room. The woman who had spoken was waiting for him, wearing a white lab coat that went down to her ankles, her thick black hair,greying slightly with age,pulled back into a modest bun. She handed him a pair of protective goggles and gestured to the sterilizing room just beyond. The Zar paused in passing and smiled at the woman. She was his chief medical officer, a woman who had delivered him and his brothers into the world, who had survived the great exodus of their people, and whose dedication to their cause, as far as he was concerned, was the most responsible for keeping himself and them all alive for this long. She would never complain that the work was too much, or the responsibility too great. But he could tell from the purple rings that coiled beneath her once bright eyes, that time and pressure was taking its toll.

The Zar placed his bandaged hand on her shoulder, his black talons a stark contrast to the gratitude behind his soft touch.

“You’ve done more than anyone could ask for, Arogyada, and I thank you for that.” He gave her a pat and another smile before striding into the chamber. Strapping the goggles on, he took hold of a leaver on the wall and placed his other arm into a white, seamless machine. With a pull,the machine flooded the capsule in blinding light, a whirring hum filled the air and sent a tingling sensation through the Zar’s body. Doctor Arogyada watched on from the doorway. Even wearing goggles of her own she could hardly see her Zar through the blaze, let alone know that a wild and determined smile was spreading across his face.


The large glass doors of the control room slid smoothly open. A shout for attention rang out and all officers stood to face their arriving leader. The Zar strode in with an aura of immaculate glory. Besides the dramatic billow of his cape, or the procession of guards that marched obediently behind him, there was also an undeniable look of confidence that seemed to radiate from him this morning. The men had seen this look in their leader before; in fact it was almost odd to note that no matter how many times they did this, their Zar’s confidence always seemed to remain positively unwavering...even worryingly so. But as always his demeanor was infectious, so when he turned to them, his broad shoulders back, his iconic claws clasped behind him, and his eyes shining, the men found themselves once again inspired. The Zar gave a little speech, brief and direct, reminding them all what was at stake. And then with a nod and a few commands he set them into motion.

With the atmosphere buzzing and his grand entrance concluded, he gave a little wave to his security, releasing them from his side so that he could step away from their fortified spotlight.At the back of the large modern room a smaller alcove was sectioned off by heavily draped curtains. This was the lodge of the captain, a hardened Bavanti general who wore his years of combat like a story carved across his face. With him it was hard to tell where the marks of bravery ended, and the scars of disease began, and in an odd way they almost mended together in an unsettlingly complimentary way.

Captain General Vijayendra saluted the Zar as he approached.

“Are we in position of their capital, Captain?” the Zar asked as he stood beside him, both of their eyes scanning the room.

“We are, my lord, the alien’s base is just over this field. I’ve given the order to ‘all stop’ with our fleet centered directly overhead, as per your command. The Regent has been reached and we are go for first contact.” The General pulled back the dark curtain behind them, allowing the Zar to pass though. In this small, darker place, the soft glow of the Captain’s monitors tinted the room in a bluish hue, colors that shied timidly against the harsher glare of exterior light that shone through a crack between the outer curtains and the wall. An observing platform lay just beyond. On the multitude of screens, the Captain pulled up a series of maps of the area, photos of Juniper’s‘First Family’,and ongoing pages of scrolling text concerning their history and general background.

The Zar scanned over the information, nodding at the familiar briefing. He had studied the local structure of this peculiar alien hierarchy pre their arrival, though he thought to himself, one could hardly call them‘higher’ within reason. Their leaders were more of an assumed representative from what he could tell. No one voted for them as elected officials and they held no loyalties from the rest of the population that would imply a system of royalty. It seemed as if they were simply the ones who lived in the biggest house in the center of this tiny world, keeping the peace by their presence alone and settling the rare disputes now and then if they ever arose. Though, if the Zar remembered correctly, the moon of Juniper’s history held no record of warfare whatsoever.

They were just...simpletons, barely changing from how they were when they first crawled out of the ground, or however this particular species evolved. Granted they had developed cities, transportation and basic technology, but there was also the inexcusable factor of their famous contact with far more advanced alien societies, an experience of countless years of interstellar relations with outside influencers that should have brought on the usual conflict and development that is expected when worlds expand. And yet here was this tiny moon laid out before him, almost utopian in its ageless simplicity. Full of life,and ripe for change.

“What do they call it again?” He asked, his question breaking the thoughtful silence.

“My lord?”

“The capital. Their... tall house where the Regent lives, what’s it called?”

“Ironwood, sir. We have a structural analysis here taken from a recent scan, if you’d like to see.” The Zar shook his head, no longer interested in any more diagrams. Instead he looked toward the back curtain and the slip of scenery that was gradually passing by.

“Can we see it from here?” He asked then, giving the Captain General a curious arch of his brow.

“With scoped vision, yes, my lord. Would you care to use my glass?” The Zar gave a small twitch of his head, making an almost cheeky gesture with the added contemplative grin that pursed on his lips.

“Nah... Have the boys bring the mask. I’ll take a look with my own eyes.”


There are few things in Juniper that are truly terrifying. In fact, fear itself, except for in the most natural setting, is rarely ever known. One might fear thunderstorms when they are young. One can find fear in the howling calls of wild animals when lost in the woods, or in the cracking ice beneath their feet when the spring thaw comes early and the shortcut taken across the pond no longer feels like a good idea. But never before has there been a cause, found not in the eyes of the wild beast, nor in the swell of the summer storm, but in the face of a man... that would bring fear to this world of equal beings. Until now.

Through the drapery of the Captain’s lodge a procession of solders marched, carrying with them an object of unsettling presence. Upon a pillow of moth-eaten gold sat the mask of the Zar, the massive skull of a monster slain; a wicked deed done long ago by the Bavanti prince himself. The flawless white bone was as piercing as the predator’s teeth, each like a dagger curved down to merciless points. The backs ridged like a serrated blade, became sharper and sharper the further back they went. Empty pockets of cartilage puckered the bone, from the slicing cavity where its snout had once been, to the hollow grooves that ran along the creature’s elongated jaw. But amongst its deceased and terrible features, this animal’s remains were finely infested with the Zar’s own scientific touches. After carving the eyes from their sockets he had replaced them with a sight of his own;a pair of highly advanced glass orbs that would read and respond to his own visual movement within the mask, tracking and improving his vision as the digital pupils swiveled around in a most animated fashion.

Raising the skull of the dead above him, the Zar slipped into his war face, securing a strap under his chin, and activating a switch circuit that was fused into the side. With a snap the skull came to life. Its artificial muscular system activated, pulling the jaw shut as it took a few seconds to synchronize the mask to the Zar’s movements. The electric eyes blinked within their sockets, darting around as they greedily sought out every detail of their surroundings. With his hood pulled up over the monster’s head, the mask and the Zar became one, their transformation complete.

Pushing the curtain aside he stepped out onto the platform, the fresh mountain air pulling at his cloak as it swept up around him. Beneath the Zar’s fleet the hills lulled in gentle waves between the clusters of forest, to the left the peeks of the famous Rourk mountains loomed up into the clouds, dwarfing even the highest ship in his formation. With his hands held regally behind him the Zar approached the edge, the robotic eyes twisting and adjusting with small buzzes and clicks as they focused on their target. Inside this monstrous face the Zar watched as the distance zoomed up toward him, adjusting for a moment before making clear the approaching structure. Ironwood. A very tall, very old building. It was in no way intimidating, nor did its appearance reflect any sort of grandeur or proof of importance. And yet it stood firm, as definite within its surroundings as if it were part of the land itself. The Zar noted this, and he’d admit that it made him think.

Among the many blips and blinks that were dancing across this interior monitor,one light in particular suddenly sprung to life, blinking softly in the lower left corner. The Zar turned his attention down, causing the shape to take full center on his sight screen.

Life form.

Native.

Female.

Status: In Motion.

More Information? ...

“Identify.” The Zar said, watching as the running figure was quickly scanned in a veil of thermal readings. It took a few moments but then the mask responded.

Identity found:

Local nobility.

Heir to the Regent.

Category: Youth.

A file on the girl appeared to the side, scrolling what little information his researchers had collected on her. It was interesting, he though, that one of these First Family members would be out here like this in the wild. The circumstances were very informal, but the Zar suspected that that would be true about most of the alien’s customs here. Still, he didn’t overlook the opportunity of the situation.

By his command, the general had established communication with the Regent not an hour before, confirming their first contact to occur upon the flagship’s arrival at Ironwood. Apparently some sort of ceremony was to take place, but that sort of thing was expected by now. Years of doing this had taught him that no matter the planet, galaxy, or otherwise, it was almost always the same routine. But his on going experience in these sort of...politics, had also taught him the value of having a little trust on the inside. The daughter to the Regent would do nicely.

The thermal lens masked the tiny figure below, hiding her in a blur of red and yellow.

“Switch to normal view.” He said and instantly the image changed, revealing a clear picture of the young woman. She had rose colored skin and vibrant pink hair, her smile shinning with a color that the Zar had never seen. Yes, he thought, the daughter of the Regent would do very nicely.

With a long black claw, the Zar pointed to her, signaling to his guards.

“The girl in the blue dress, I want to speak with her. Bring her to me.” And without a word his solders obeyed.


Grace had stopped to catch her breath, standing atop one of the grassy bluffs as she pushed back her wind swept hair. She filled her lungs with air as though starved of it, and yet the exhaustion that buzzed through her was as welcomed as an old friend. It was only then that she realized how long it had been since she had let herself go like this, how these last few months of preparation for the coming Memorial Ball had built up within her a subtle yet restricting sense of worry. It was a distraction that as a result had held her back.But now, knowing that her and Matthew’s season of waiting was finally coming to an end, she felt she could breathe again, and breath she did.

Ironwood was just around the bend, she could even see the tops of its many chimneys poking up over the nearest trees from where she stood. But as Grace made one last turn, letting her arms fall at last to her sides, she spotted something that caused her to pause. It was something above her that caught her eye, a shift of movement from one of the closest ships. Grace squinted and took a step forward, trying to make it out. Just overhead, hovering lowest to the ground was a vessel that significantly outranked the others. Its size was considerably larger, and it bared an artillery of weapons at its bow and flanks, a predator baring its fangs. And from the top most tower, that broke from its back like a fin from the water, there was a platform, a balcony of sorts where six alien figures could be seen.

Eagerly she stepped closer, excited to see what their visitors would look like, but as she did she found herself met with a feeling that... she didn’t quite understand. It was then that Grace first beheld the monster, a daunting figure whose dead face and burning eyes struck her so suddenly that she felt almost hurt by its gaze. The alien was looking at her, even from under the dark hood of its billowing cloak, far away in the distance,she could see its eyes staring deliberately at her own, and though she couldn’t explain it, somehow she knew that it had been looking at her long before she had looked back.

Grace saw it raise its arm, not yet realizing that it was pointing her out to the four figures standing behind it. By the time they had leapt off the platform and began scaling the outer walls,it was already too late. Grace had never feared another person before, she had never had reason to until now, but as the four quick, heavily armed alien figures jumped from the battleship, landed on the opposite side of the field after a terrifying fall and began suddenly sprinting toward her, she simply couldn’t help herself.

Grace spun on her heel with a speed she didn’t know she had, pushed into running by a fear she didn’t understand. But with her confusion and previous exhaustion she wasn’t fast enough. The aliens crossed the field in a matter of seconds, one of them leaping into the air and landing abruptly in front of her. She screamed in shock, pulling back suddenly and backing away as the alien stood before her. One of the others came up on her from behind, the second two blocking her in from the left and right. Grace spun around, looking for an escape but finding herself hopelessly trapped. She couldn’t focus on any one of them, only seeing them all as parts of each other. Their faces covered in expressionless masks, their heads bound in cloth, their bodies armored and poised for attack. Yet even in this unexpected fear she could recognize their likeness: intelligent, bipedal with an upright stature, two arms, two hands that at the moment were clutching their weapons with fierce intent. These people were not unlike herself and so why, why were they acting this way?

Suddenly the soldier in front of her was speaking, his voice muffled by his mask and clouded with accent. The one to her right grabbed a hold of her arm and before she knew what she was doing Grace had already pulled away, swinging back with such unexpected force that she accidentally struck the soldier standing behind her.The alien shouted what must have been a curse and raised his weapon to her. Even in the commotion Grace tried to apologize, gasping back her words as his rifle was brutally swung toward her. The blow might have been meant for her gut, an attempt to strike her with the length of the weapon to knock the air from her lungs and weaken her resistance, but Grace had moved with skittish quickness, sliding away from the blunt-force impact, but still trapped by those around her, she was unable to avoid the strike completely.

After that moment the fast, heart pounding sensations stopped, their angry shouting and her own heavy breathing all were silenced by an awful and searing feeling that was suddenly spilling from somewhere on her body. Grace staggered backward; her hand went to her side, clutching at a hot sticky spot above her hip where the blade at the end of the alien’s rifle had torn pieces of her dress causing the frayed fabric to tickle against her fingers. Numb and painless, she swayed in the dizzying spin of confusion that seemed to be pulling her from herself. She raised her hand, saw it marked with hot red blood, and fell.


The Zar knew he wouldn’t have to wait long for them to return with the girl. His boys always did as they were told; they were very good about that. However, he would admit that though their commitment was unquestionable their tactics weren’t always sound. This truth was proven once again when the Zar rose to receive the Regent’s daughter, readied his royal charm to impress, dramatically pulled back the exterior curtain and... found the girl unconscious and bleeding in the arms of his guard.

“What the hell is this?” he said, instantly dropping his regal airs, “You were supposed to invite her here, not slice her up and kidnap her!” The soldiers shuffled awkwardly under incredulous gaze of the demon mask.

The one holding the girl, shifted her weight in his arms before responding, “She resisted, my Lord, assaulted a soldier while he was enacting an order by your imperial highness...”

“She assaulted one of you?” The Zar interrupted, “Really?” The soldier didn’t know what to say, the military mask that the man wore was as blank as the face beneath it.

“Umm...” But the Zar silenced him with a wave of his hand.

“Never mind, just bring her inside.” He held the drapery open for them as the soldiers entered, motioning to a padded bench along the back wall of the small dark room. “Put her there.” As if it were a burden for him to say. The soldiers did as they were told and backed away.

“Apologies, my lord,” the first one said, “shall we send for the doctor?” No longer needing the intimidation factor, the Zar pulled back his hood and deactivated the mask. Undoing the strap he freed his head from the weight of the monster skull and stood there for a moment, mask in hand and silently thinking. The Zar looked upon the wounded girl with the calculating curiosity of his true eyes and decided on something else.

“No.” he said at last, “no, don’t bother with that. Bring me my kit though, I’ll tend to her myself.”

“Forgive me, your majesty,” the Captain General cut in,“but we’re almost to their capitol. You’re needed on deck to oversee the landing.”

“It can wait. Set the engines to the lowest setting. We’ll hover the rest of the way to give us more time.” The Zar could feel Vijayendra’s eyes on him like a persistent and uncertain cloud. Finally he turned to the man and met his experienced concern, saying, “Well we can’t very well arrive with her like this. They’d think it an act of war. Twenty minutes and then I and my guest will be ready for the big meet and greet down below.” One of the soldiers returned, handing a med-kit to the Zar.

“That’s all, Captain.” He said and sent the proud man away.

As the drapes fell behind him, the Captain’s lodge was once again dipped in a mild darkness. The sounds of the command deck muffled behind the thick fabric, the hum of the engines gradually dying down as his orders were carried out. Everything seemed to fade away until the only real sound was the wounded girl’s heavy breathing. The Zar didn’t help her right away, but stood there for a minute, just taking her in.

She seemed very plain in comparison to some of the aliens he had come across upon his journeys. Accept for the curious pigmentation of her race that accounted for the candy coloring of her sugar pink skin and bright rosy hair, this young woman essentially resembled his own kind. She was almost Bavanti, save for her health.

He set his mask in the corner and knelt next to her on the floor. From what he could tell the wound wasn’t that bad, it had just bled a lot and made an awful mess of her little blue dress, whose fabric he tore to get better access to the area. Removing the ruined white sash from around her waist he lifted her up slightly into his arms, holding her weight easily with one hand. As he handled her, he was sure to be very careful, the tips of his knife like fingers just barely brushing her soft bare flesh. With the clotted fabric out of the way the woman’s midsection was now fully exposed, her flat stomach rising and falling slightly as she breathed. The deeper the breath the more the cut in her side would bleed,the more her pretty pink flesh would twitch with pain.He also noticed that she had a bellybutton, and found it adorable.

After cleaning the area he took a medical needle and thread and set to work stitching her up. It would likely scar, but with the image of the small white line just above her pink hip, he thought it would suit her nicely.


Grace gradually came to, finding it hard at first to tell that she was awake at all with how dim it was within her new surroundings. At first she felt pain, though that was only for a moment. She couldn’t focus on the small pricks of the needle threading through her when the feeling of something else far more foreign was seemingly dancing against her skin. Dizzy and slow, she lifted her head, and looked down at her abdomen where some dark figure was leaning over her, causing this odd sensation.

Grace blinked. And then blinked again. What she saw didn’t make sense to her. Long black daggers dipped and swayed over a very sensitive gap on her side, the tips of their blades would tickle her skin with the gentlest touch for but a moment before gracefully pulling away and causing a tightening feeling to ache in her flesh. The pain that she couldn’t feel had blurred her vision, but the confusion that was rising inside her was clearing it rapidly. Gradually the knives turned to talons which then turned into hands. Hands, Grace then realized which belonged to the man who was leaning over her.

Startled and not yet fully conscious, Grace abandoned all means of proper protocol.

“What’s wrong with your hands?” her voice was soft but blunt with uncertainty. The man glanced at her with startling clear blue eyes, catching Grace off guard by how transparent they looked amongst the darkness of his face. Looking back to his work he smiled in a gentle laughing way.

“What isn’t wrong with them.” He said plainly, as if it were the most common thing in the world. Patiently he continued to sew, his black bandaged hands waltzing back and forth over her vulnerable belly, and yet they never touched her for more than a second at a time.

“My name is Aadinath.” He began slowly, keeping his volume low, and his tone friendly, “I’d like to apologize for this accident. It was not how I wanted our first encounter to go.”Grace had to think for a moment, trying to sort through the strangeness of her current position to recall what exactly had happened.

“I ...was attacked. By four men from one of the ships.” Her voice was as distant as her thoughts. Slowly she looked around. “Is that where I am now? With them?”

The man nodded slowly, encouraging her to continue figuring it out.

“And you... You’re one of them?”

“I am.” He said “Are you surprised?”

“More so by the minute.” Grace said. Her breath hissed with a sudden pain, her hands clenching briefly at her sides as he pulled the thread tight on the last stitch.

“There now, that’s the last of it. I just have to cut the thread, so it might pull a little but it shouldn’t hurt too much, alright?” she nodded, biting her lip in anticipation. But the man did not use his claws like Grace expected and in fact shocked her when he leaned down, his face inches from the bare flesh of her stomach, and used his teeth to cut the string instead. They must have been equally sharp for the thread broke instantly. Grace couldn’t help herself and gasped. Even though the moment was over before it began, she still shivered from the inappropriate proximity of the stranger, the cool brush of his breath having just barely kissed her skin,left her covered in goosebumps.

“All done.” He said, as if nothing had happened. He held up the freshly cut thread and smiled boyishly, “Had I known of your curious coloring, I would have provided pink string to match. I hope black isn’t too disarming, Miss...?” She swallowed, sitting up slowly and sheepishly pulling the tattered fabric closed around her stomach.

“Grace. Of the First Family.” She hesitated adding her title, but somehow it felt comforting in this situation. The man with the mysterious hands smiled softly again.

“Of course you are.” For a while he didn’t say anything, just sat there kneeling at her bedside with a curious glint in his eye. Trapped under his gaze, Grace took the opportunity to stare back at this alien man, with his dark caramel skin, raven black hair and fairly groomed face, always looking back at those terrible hands and those terribly crystal clear eyes. “Well, my lady Grace of the First Family,” He said at last, rising to his feet as he spoke, “Now that we’ve been introduced I think it’s only right that I tell you why you are here.”

“You know? I thought that...that thing was in charge.”

He arched a brow, looking confused. “Thing?”

“Yes!” She said, unable to conceal the touch of fear in her voice, “I saw it on the balcony of one of the ships before I was attacked. It pointed at me, it looked...dead.” Grace hesitated using the word, afraid that saying too much about this man’s leader might offend him. But he started laughing and Grace looked at him confused.

“Oh no, sweetheart. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but... well, here.” He picked something up from the corner of the room. Grace leaned over to see what it was before jumping back when he turned around again. It was the face! That terrible face that had infected her with fear, which had gazed hungrily from the sky with such a malicious stare, was now held ironically in the alien hands of the man who had healed her. He chuckled as he turned the massive skull over easily in his claws, its loose jaw swinging open without control.

“The ‘Thing’ that summoned you, Grace, was me. I meant for my men to escort you here, just so that I could introduce myself,get to know you and... learn what to expect when I meet the rest of your family. I’m afraid they were a little too brash with collecting you and for that I apologize again.” Had she not been in shock, Grace would have been tempted to scoff at this statement. ‘A little too brash’? Her torn and tattered state was more than a result of brashness, not to mention the countless fallacies in standard ambassadorial ethics that he had already enacted with this intimate meeting.

But Grace wouldn’t have said any of this, even if she wasn’t scared silent by the skull and the man holding it before her. Now that her clarity had returned, her training had come back to her too, and gradually she was realizing just how significant this moment was. Not only had she accidentally made first contact with the alien leader, but he had... healed her? Sent his men after her? Touched her? Grace suddenly felt extremely unprepared.Where to go from here?

“So...” she finally said, “Do I call you Aadinath or may I inquire as to your title?” Once again the man surprised her by taking her words in the best of humor, a trait about him that Grace was finding hard to understand.

He chuckled, “Yes, Grace, I do have a title. Though in your company, I’d hope that we’d be more personal with one another. I’d like it if you called me by my first name, no one ever does anymore.” Grace felt like blushing.

“Well, for the sake of formalities. Later on, I mean.” She said. He nodded knowingly, and tucked the mask under his arm before squaring his shoulders and raising his head regally to address her.

“Aadinath Kahn. The savior of Ferdous, the star prince, and Zar, leader of the Bavanti people. At your service, my lady.” He gave her a bow so practiced and refined that she couldn’t help but curtsy in return. Though when she did she buckled over in pain, clutching her side and the forgotten stitches sewn there. The Zar didn’t hesitate to catch her, and that startled her more than the act itself. One of his clawed hands held gently onto her arm, the other covered her own hand as it held her side. How he knew to be so gentle with such a dangerous... infliction was impressive, but there was also something about his confidence in it that was none the less unsettling, as if he denied the claws potential, and that worried her most of all. Grace, however, just smiled and thanked him, trying to think of a way to get out of this man’s company without breaking every rule of diplomacy that she had been taught.

“That’s quite the name.” she said backing away slightly. He humored her with a smile.

“The Zar is fine. But only for formal occasions.” He seemed to be able to tell that she was uncomfortable now, maybe since she kept attempting to cover herself, or perhaps he had simply picked up on the informality of the situation, but either way the Zar was obliging her unvoiced pleas at last.

“Why don’t we get you back home, Grace. I’ll be meeting with your father soon and if you’re to attend the ceremony, you’ll be needing a new dress.” She didn’t really know how to respond to that, other than to nod in agreement, silently grateful to be leaving.

The Zar seemed to be smirking about something, though Grace couldn’t be sure for he had put his mask back on before she could really tell. With a click of the switch panel the monster’s eyes became his, their yellow gaze jumping toward her with a whirl and a click, the robotic iris’s spinning in endless circles as if they were seeing her ever detail. He pulled up his hood and extended his hand to her. Grace looked at it, hesitant to accept.

“Can I ask you something, Aadinath?” She suddenly asked, intentionally using his name “About... your hands?”

If skulls could smile sweetly, this one would have. “Another time.” He said, “I’ll tell you all about it. For now, all you need to know is that you are perfectly safe. C’mon. I’ll take you down.”

“Down?” Grace asked, but she had already placed her hand in the Zar’s bandaged palm. The next thing she knew he had pulled her against him, slid his arm under her legs, and swung her up into a bridal position. Startled, she squirmed in his embrace and instinctually wrapped her arms around his neck. Reason had no time, for he had already pulled back the exterior curtain and was walking toward the platform’s edge in long fearless strides. Grace could taste the words of protest forming on her tongue but as he leapt over the side and plunged them into free fall, they were instantly lost, swallowed up by a loud and unexpected scream.

Just as his soldiers had, so too did the Zar expertly scale the exterior rigging of his ship. Holding Grace with one arm, he used the claws of the other to cling and climb down the many pipes, bolts and random outcroppings that made up the metal typography of the alien battleship. Grace squeezed her eyes shut, holding desperately to the man who seemed to be trying to kill her. Again she felt her stomach heave as they would plummet through another gut-wrenching drop to land swiftly on a ledge before jumping again. The worst was the last fall. Grace’s scream was more of a whimper as she buried her face under the jaw of the mask, her forehead pressed against the warm skin on his neck, desperate in that terrifying moment for anything that felt secure. As she thought it, she felt herself shift in her carrier’s arms, his other now free,wrapped carefully around her, covering her wounded side and pressing her close against him so that when they landed, she hardly felt the shock, her body completely unharmed, and the stitches intact.

She stayed there, clinging to the alien prince for a moment longer than she probably should have, waiting for her head to stop spinning and for her stomach to retreat back down her throat before she even dared open her eyes. When she did, she looked around and noticed that they had landed just at the end of the field where she had been taken, still concealed by the last cluster of trees from the prying eye of Ironwood windows.

“Wouldn’t want to give them the wrong idea.” The Zar said with an electronic wink, reading well the expression on Grace’s face. “I’m sorry if that frightened you, but it’s the quickest way down and up. Saves us having to land the old beast every time. How are you feeling? Are you alright to stand? Yes? Good.” And he set her down on her own feet, straightening out some of the more tattered pieces of dress around her abdomen.

In the most nonchalant way possible he said, “If you’re family asks, tell them that I accept full responsibility for this little mishap and that I will explain everything at first contact tonight. Though... on second thought, maybe for the sake of first impressions we should keep this between us.” He looked her over, seemingly pondering the situation.

Grace was at a loss for words. She felt completely dumfounded by the whole experience and simply wrapped her arms around herself, hoping it would make her feel a little less exposed. The skull faced man before her did something then that sealed her reserve. He unhooked his cape, its heavy material cascading through the air as he draped it over her slender form, and secured it at her collar.

With his hands on her shoulders, he said, “There. Our little secret.” Then, taking the monster’s jaw in one hand he pushed up the mask, revealing his own face beneath as with a brush of his claw, he tilted her chin and placed a modest kiss upon her cheek. Then rising to his full height, he lowered the skull and stepped away, half bowing to her as he backed across the field. The Zar called out a farewell and a promise to see her tonight before turning and walking back in the direction of his ship, leaving the Regent’s daughter standing speechless on the hillside.

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