They had set out for Alfor many days later than the last of the other caravans that had wintered in the city, guarded by a scant force of children and old men, with a woman caravansi and no trade goods aside from the caravan’s own. It was not surprising that the good citizens of Ratzal were laughing behind their shutters as the caravan passed by on its way through the gates.
In the eight days that followed, only one thing had occurred to lift Alexa’s spirits and that was the discovery that Caer, for all his youth and apparent inexperience, was superb at his job and kept the caravan in better order with his ill-assorted, under-strength company, than her father’s captain had managed with a full complement of experienced Zoukai. Indeed, they had already made up over a day of lost time in distance on the road.
At least that had been the only thing to lift Alexa’s spirits, until last night when she had heard the roar of thunder overhead and seen the dark bulk of the spaceship come to rest on the mithan plateau only to explode soon after.
If the samples Caer had brought back were anything to go by, the plunder they could scavenge from the wreck would be worth at least five times as much as the entire caravan – all its goods, wagons and livestock and her own personal possessions included. With such wealth she could afford to pay rates that were she a woman, a man or a talking pony, she could still attract the best Zoukai. And then she could afford to ignore the bigoted merchants and expand the caravan to carry more and more of her own trade goods. It would make her self-sufficient and as rich as the wealthiest caravansi on the roads. Then let them laugh behind the shutters if they dared.
All she had to do was to collect the treasure and deliver it safely to the Alfor Fair.
Except, of course, it would not be as simple as that.
Quite apart from the bands of brigands and outlaws which were the scourge of the wastelands, other caravans would also have seen the explosion and sent their own Zoukai scouts to investigate. For such a prize she did not doubt that almost any caravansi would think nothing of attacking – and Caer’s small troop of Zoukai would be a poor defence against them.
Then there was Caer himself. Although the Zoukai brethren were renowned for holding to a high code of honour, such wealth could easily turn the head of one as precocious as her young captain – and that was something Alexa was not prepared to allow. The brigands and other caravans were an unavoidable hazard, but with Caer, she could be more certain.
The two girls had finished their work and she sent them to find her favourite robe, whilst she anointed herself with a rich, musky perfume. Her eyes narrowed critically as she examined her face in the polished metal hand mirror, and then she smiled. Caer would think her beautiful, of that there was no doubt and for herself, the thought of Caer was not unpleasant. He was unbearably arrogant, but young, healthy, strong and if not exactly her ideal of good-looking, he was very far from unsightly. At need, Alexa could make a virtue of necessity, but in this case, necessity linked hands, pleasantly, with her own inclinations.
The girls brought the robe and helped her to dress. It was of fine gauzy crimson stuff, almost transparent, woven with threads of gold and belted with a tasselled girdle. Alexa added the finishing touches to her make-up and shook her hair, letting it cascade unchecked down her back. One of the girls brought her jewellery box and she selected a gem-studded comb for her hair, several costly rings and a necklace of precious stones.
Satisfied at last Alexa assumed her place on the couch and allowed the flimsy robe to fall open around her legs to reveal the luxuriant inner curve of one thigh. The two slave girls stood staring at her, their eyes wide. She scowled at them in annoyance.
“By the lost gods,” she snapped. “Stop gaping like imbeciles the pair of you. Mari, fetch wine and two goblets. Rissa, go and find the Zoukai captain and tell him to come to my pavilion.”
The two girls scurried to obey their mistress and Alexa’s scowl turned itself into a secret smile. Her mind was looking forward to seeing the expression on Caer’s face as he came into the pavilion – and her body was looking forward to what would follow.
From The Fated Sky part one of Fortune’s Fools Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook
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