The Starlight Rite by Cherise Sinclair

  Table of Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Nexan Glossary

  Loose Id Titles by Cherise Sinclair

  Cherise Sinclair

  The Starlight Rite

  Cherise Sinclair

  The Starlight Rite

  Copyright © August 2010 by Cherise Sinclair

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  eISBN 978-1-60737-831-0

  Editor: G. G. Royale

  Cover Artist: Anne Cain

  Printed in the United States of America

  Published by

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  This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


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  * * *

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  Chapter One

  Damn him. The fat, overly jeweled Nexan she’d chosen as her target had picked up two companions in the fancy men’s club. If he’d left by himself, she’d have managed him easily enough, considering how drunk he was. But two more?

  Grinding her teeth in frustration, Armelina Archer settled lower in the small space between the two solacars and watched the fat man stagger out of reach, taking with him the jewelry that would have bought her next few meals and provided some money toward a ticket off-planet.

  That just isn’t fair. She huffed a bitter laugh. Nothing had been fair recently, not since she’d landed on this horrible planet.

  Why had she ever come here? But she couldn’t have known what would happen. Couldn’t have known that her husband—someone she’d thought she loved—could be so evil. A monster.

  She closed her eyes, hearing again the ear-cracking booms as the ship exploded in the dock, taking with it the bodies of the crew she’d come to love. The monster had paid to have her murdered, and they had died instead.

  She swallowed hard. Cap and Johnnie and Pard—my fault that they died. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “so, so sorry.”

  Tears slid down her cheeks. Night after night, old Cap had sat with her in the tiny lounge, a comforting companion as the stars streamed by. Now he was gone… No, don’t start again. She scrubbed her face with dirty hands and grimaced as grit abraded her chapped skin. She hadn’t had a shower since the night of the explosion over three weeks ago.

  Stranded on a strange planet. No friends. No money. Of anywhere in the galaxy to end up flat broke, the frontier planet Nexus was the worst.

  As the evening air chilled, Mella waited. Another customer left the club, but an attendant drove his horse and carriage up to the door. A horse. How could a space-faring people still use such antiquated transportation? Why didn’t they stick to solacars?

  The club door opened again. Music spilled out, her own voice singing a love song filled with joy. Oh Prophet. Mella wrapped her arms around herself and breathed hard against the wrenching pain. Her voice. Her song—written before her parents and sister were taken from her in a fiery hovercar accident. She hadn’t written or sung a note since. All her joy and creativity had dried up like an unwatered, unloved plant. Mama, Daddy, Kalie… Why did you leave me? I miss you all so much.

  She shoved away the growing ache and concentrated on the goal. The air slowly chilled, and the low chirps of sleepy avians stilled. She’d grown stiff by the time another man finally emerged from the club. Leaning on a cane, he limped down the steps and—oh yes!—actually continued across the manicured purple grass that served as a walkway. Maybe…maybe…

  Mella edged out from her hiding spot as he headed toward the car lot. Empty street, disabled guy. She squinted. With only one moon in the sky, she couldn’t determine his age. His long black cape disguised his build, but he was tall—very tall—with broad shoulders. Still…crippled. She could just knock him down, grab his totepurse, and run really, really fast.

  Pretty dangerous.

  Pretty despicable. To steal and maybe even hurt someone. But did she have a choice? Damn this planet that had no charities or help for the penniless. They put the indigent up for auction to the highest bidder and would do the same to her if she got caught. She’d end up working her indenture off in the mines, pulling weeds on a farm…or servicing men in a brothel. A brothel. This terrifyingly immoral world allowed sex not just for reproduction, but for…for recreation. She could be forced to couple with strangers.

  Her fingers trembled. She needed money to eat. And to return to Earth before Nathan discovered she was still alive.

  Pulling out her tiny knife, she kicked off her shoes. Her bare feet soundless, she ran after the man. As he leaned on the cane, she came up behind him and slammed into him with her shoulder.

  He went down like a toppled tree, landing with a low oomph.

  She ripped his coat open, grabbed the totepurse, and slashed the strings. Success! One step back and suddenly a hard hand closed around her ankle. She tried to yank away, but his grip only tightened.

  “Let me go!” She kicked at him with her free foot.

  She had time to think mistake! before he yanked the leg supporting her weight right out from under her. Her shoulder and side slammed into the ground, and for a second, she couldn’t get a breath. Run. Gasping, she elbowed herself upward, and he came down on top of her, pressing her flat on her back with his heavy, muscular body. Her fingers curled into claws, and she tried to scratch him.

  A viselike grip caught her wrists, and he pinned her hands over her head.

  Face-to-face. Oh Prophet, he isn’t old at all. In the glimmer of the parking-lot lights, she saw dark eyes in a lean, hard face. He was probably around forty Earth years. A man in his prime. A major mistake.

  “Stop struggling, or I will hurt you,” he said. “Badly.” His voice was deep. Authoritative.

  She couldn’t quit. But he didn’t even seem to notice her furious thrashing as he secured the grip on her wrists with one hand and his iron-hard legs pinned hers.

  With his free hand, he g
rasped her chin, turning her head from side to side, despite her attempts to jerk away. “Quite the dirty little thief, aren’t you,” he mused as if he were lounging idly at home rather than lying on a frantically struggling person. “I don’t usually see female thieves.”

  She pulled at her arms. Trying to throw him off, she jerked her hips up…and froze as the hard ridge of an erection pressed against her mound.

  Her breath stopped. Nexans had no rules about sex. He could… Terror clamped bands around her chest, and she yanked at her trapped wrists. “Don’t touch me.”

  “Ah, an Earther. Interesting.” His hand left her face to stroke her breast, his touch disconcertingly gentle. Warm even through her clothing. “You’re a lush little thing. Not at all like our Nexan females.”

  No one had ever touched her like that. Not even Nathan when they coupled. Her heart hammered as she realized he could easily take her right here. He was strong—too strong for her weakened state. “Let me go,” she said, realizing her words had sounded like a plea.

  “Ah, laria, I cannot. The law is clear on this.” With a flash of white teeth, he sat back and flipped her over. Pinning her in place with a knee in the small of her back, he lashed her hands together, using, of all things, the cord she’d cut from his totepurse. “You’ll be in front of a judge before the sun rises.”

  * * *

  He had the little thief to thank for adding some interest to a boring evening, Dain mused, but the excitement had come at a price. The gods knew he’d rather be scorched on Ekatae’s sands than continue on medical leave for another Neman mooncycle. He shifted in the hard chair and rubbed his leg, trying to ease the pain from the fall and subsequent wrestling bout. Comfort was sorely lacking in the small judgment room where he and the judge waited. Used for trials without publicity, the stark white room held only the judge’s chair at one end and several chairs for witnesses.

  And a restraint pen for the accused by the door. Unlike the backcountry, Port City had all the amenities.

  The judge noticed him massaging his leg, and her lips compressed. “Did you reinjure your knee in the altercation? Did the doctor look at it?”

  “It’s fine—” Dain stopped as Srinda raised her eyebrows. Scorch all truth-reading judges. And his cousin from the Minerind kinline had less patience for evasion than most. “Yes, the doctor checked my leg.”

  “And he said…” Srinda prompted.

  “Another three weeks of leave, more x-scans in a week,” Dain growled, knowing she’d look up the information on the infodisc if he didn’t tell her. By the gods, he hated to add the crime of injury to the little thief’s transgressions—no matter how embarrassing it was that she’d managed to take him by surprise.

  The door opened, and a burly enforcer pushed the thief into the room and into the restraint pen. He activated the controls as he stepped back, and red force lines sprang up around the young woman. A sizzling zap and a sharp cry showed the thief hadn’t been in an r-pen before or else she’d have known not to touch the field.

  Leaning back, Dain studied the criminal. Not a youth, maybe in her late twenties. About five feet five. The long braid appeared light colored, but she was too dirty to tell. Same with the skin. Her big eyes were a startling green color. And that body… Even her baggy men’s attire couldn’t hide the lushness of her figure.

  His fingers remembered the heaviness of her breast and tingled to touch her again. This time without clothing in the way. It had been a long while since he’d felt so intrigued—so aroused. Not since he and Kritadona had backed away from contracting.

  As he watched the thief, she composed herself and looked around the room. When her gaze met his, she blinked in surprise.

  “We will begin now,” Srinda said. “Recording on. Records, display the infractions.”

  The list of offenses appeared on the wall, rendered in Trade language so the prisoner could read it. The little thief was lucky the truth-reader had no reason to dig further. Considering her dexterity at cutting his totepurse, she’d obviously done it before.

  Srinda tilted her head at the young woman. “You gave your name as simply Mella and carried no ID. It makes no difference; we consider the names of criminals to be unimportant. These are the offenses you are charged with. Is this list accurate, or are there any you wish to dispute?”

  Hands clasped in front of her, the girl read the list. Assault on a citizen, attempted theft from a citizen, infliction of injury on a citizen. The green eyes widened. “Injury?” She looked at Dain and bit her lip, her sense of shame as obvious to him as when he caught his nephew teasing his nieces. “I…”

  After a hard breath that jostled her lovely breasts, she frowned. “Would claiming mitigating circumstances gain me any leniency?”

  Dain’s eyebrows rose at the clever question. The little Earther was more educated than he’d thought. Interesting.

  Srinda shook her head. “I’ve heard about your planet and the convoluted laws you use for justice. Here, the law is simple. If you committed the offense—for whatever reason—you pay the penalty. In addition, on Nexus, a convicted criminal’s commitments, whether social, moral, or financial, are severed during the indenture period. That means job obligations, spousal contracts, or social duties are all null and void.” She paused.

  The thief nodded slowly.

  “So.” Srinda leaned forward. “You are assessed four hundred royals for these crimes.”

  In spite of the dirt, the Earther’s face paled at the sum of her debt.

  “Two hundred of that will be paid to Nexus for the cost of your trial and auction.” The judge gestured toward Dain. “Two hundred goes to the victim, Kinae Dain of the Zarain clan.”

  The woman’s hands clenched.

  Srinda took no notice. “You had fifteen royals on your person and said that is the extent of your resources. With fifteen credited, you owe three hundred and eighty-five. The indenture period is calculated for a set ten royals per day, regardless of the selling price, so you will serve for thirty-nine days in whatever capacity brings the most return to Nexus. Since you inflicted physical damage on a citizen, your indenture is unrestricted, meaning the purchaser of your contract may use you in any way he sees fit, as long as your body is not permanently damaged.”

  Srinda paused, but the girl didn’t respond, although her eyes had widened, and she appeared close to hyperventilating.

  “You will be tested and prepared per regulations, and your contract will be auctioned off in the Port City plaza tomorrow morning. No matter your selling price, you will serve the full thirty-nine days; however, you will receive half of any amount over the three hundred and eighty-five upon the fulfillment of your indenture period.”

  The thief stood silent in the r-pen, and Dain felt a moment of pity. A lot of leeway existed between comfort and irreparable damage, and many owners went as far as they could.

  “Is any part of what I have explained unclear to you?” Srinda asked.

  The thief shook her head. Her lower lip quivered before she pressed her lips together.

  Brave little criminal. Intelligent, courageous, proud. Beautiful? A man had to wonder what she would look like all cleaned up. Dain steepled his fingers and considered.

  Perhaps he’d pay a visit to the market in the morning.

  * * *

  Now what? The next morning, Mella sat on the tiny cot. Her arms wrapped around her legs, she rested her chin on her knees. Exhaustion weighted her limbs, and her eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep. Even after she’d managed to doze off, nightmares of blood and knives and explosions had roused her over and over.

  At least the jailers hadn’t treated her badly, although they showed her no more respect than a stray dog. They’d brought her breakfast—nothing fancy, but any decent food tasted wonderful these days. She hadn’t minded the hard bed, considering the night before her arrest, she’d curled under a bush to stay warm.

  The cell was tidy enough, but the odor of fear and sweat overwhelmed the lingering
scent of an astringent cleaning solution. The stench of her own terror likely added to the mix. They were going to sell her.

  Stop. No panicking. Maybe her indenture period wouldn’t be so bad. She snorted. It was going to be bad. They auctioned off indentured slaves in the Port City plaza. Naked. Handled by the potential buyers. After one glimpse two weeks ago, she’d never returned to that side of the plaza.

  Now she’d stand up there on an auction stage.

  What kind of person would buy her? Her stomach clenched. After breakfast, they’d brought in a testing infounit to discover her salable skills. Sitting at the archaic machine, she’d selected cook and quickly learned the unit would verify any skill she claimed to have. When she couldn’t give the ingredients for a common meat pie, the program deleted cook from her list.

  She did possess a talent—singing—and a pity she couldn’t claim it. Not if she wanted to live. Too many people recognized her voice, even on this antiquated planet. If rumors started, the monster would learn she’d survived the explosion.

  And yet… She stared at the gray walls around her. No skills meant hard labor…or a sex slave. Hard-labor slaves tended to have short life spans. But to serve as a sex slave—an unshuline?

  She’d always behaved properly. If she’d had a few fantasies as a girl… Well, undoubtedly so had others. Mella shook her head. Over the past few weeks, she’d learned her fantasies had been very, very tame. Her tour of the rediscovered planets in the galaxy had revealed more than she’d wanted to know about sex. On Maliden, citizens actually held hands in public, right out on the streets! She’d even seen one couple kiss.

  On Earth, the shepherds would have arrested them. Whipped them.

  On Krador, men and women stood on special stands to sell their scantily clad bodies. Prostitutes, she’d learned from the hotel concierge. Earth didn’t have whores, at least none that Mella knew about. Whorehouses had been burned during the Moral Wars forty years ago. Only married couples had sex and only for reproduction. Decadent, sensual indulgence was a route straight to hell.

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