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Lunch, the next afternoon
ANYA DUBROVNYK EYED her future husband across the lavishly appointed banquet table. She hated him. Everything about Onred Stoystiya—from his beard, trimmed into a pointy goatee, to his dark hair, shorn so short that the middle-aged thinning at his crown was obvious. Most especially, though, she despised the territory baron’s black eyes, in which festered greed and lust.
“Good one, Joshua!” Laughter boomed from Onred’s barrel chest. It appeared he appreciated her protector’s dry witticism. It was a lie, as was everything about him. An hour ago Anya had learned, to her horror, that a demon lived in Onred’s black soul. He had proven it in a dead-end hallway, where he had cornered her with a chilling leer. He had said that he had already bought and paid for her. Now she was his. Those had been the longest, most degrading moments of her life. She felt soiled and devastated, and wanted a shower. But nothing could cleanse her mind.
Joshua Van Heisman did not seem to realize what a snake he entertained under his roof. That was because he focused only upon peace. Thousands of men had died last year at the hands of Onred’s bloodthirsty forces. Last night, Joshua had publicly accepted the bride price and ruled that Anya—as the deceased baron’s oldest daughter and his only legal heir according to the Old Barons’ Law—would marry and form an alliance with the Altai territory lord, Onred.
Peace on their eastern, mountainous border would finally ensue. However, the bloody skirmishes to the south, with her uncle, would continue.
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Even worse, he was unwilling to reconsider the matter. Before lunch, when with a trembling voice she had tried to explain to him why she could not marry Onred, he had listened. However, she’d been unable to force past her lips the details of what Onred had done to her. Joshua had dismissed her concerns as nerves, brusquely told her she’d be fine, and strode away. When she’d called after him, he hadn’t turned back. Clearly, he didn’t care how she felt. It had stunned her that her wishes meant nothing to him.
Had they ever? She bit the inside of her mouth to prevent unwanted tears.
What a fool she had been, and for so long. She had always believed in Joshua and trusted him. He had been honored and respected by her father, to whom bone-deep respect had not come easily—after all, Joshua had been young, at twenty-three, when he’d been promoted to second-in-command. And when her parents were murdered shortly thereafter, when she was thirteen, Joshua had become protector to Anya and her siblings, and soon afterward promoted to baron.
Anya had always believed that Joshua was special, although she’d always known that her aching hero-worship of him could never grow into anything more. Protectors and their charges were forbidden to commit the mortal sin of romantic involvement. Punishment, through the Old Barons’ Law, was swift, terrible, and irrevocable—for both parties.
In her secret heart, though, Anya had always adored Joshua. He was brilliant and fair-minded, and wore his role of command easily, as if it were a natural part of him. He knew who he was. But his eyes were what had caught her fancy at that young age. Those changeable eyes. Velvet brown most of the time, or a warm, rich tawny color when he laughed, or when he tried to mask deep emotion. Kind eyes, she had thought then.
And he had been kind to her and her siblings. He had also been a little distant, prodding, and challenging…especially to her. As the eldest child, she had taken on the mother role to the younger children. Joshua had approved, and had even expected her efforts. Once, he had told her that she’d done a good job. Anya had held that bit of praise close to her heart for a long time.
Anya cast Joshua another expressionless glance. Yes, she had always thought Joshua was quite perfect. These last twelve hours, of course, had proven something altogether different.
A giggle caught her attention. Marli, her youngest sister, whispered to Onred’s daughter. Marli was eleven, Emelie fifteen. Onred’s daughter appeared to be a very serious girl. She wore gobs of black eye make-up, which unfortunately brought to mind a raccoon, rather than a beautiful young girl. Her hair was bleached white. Never once had Anya seen her smile. Secretly, she wondered if the girl was lonely. The teenage years were hard without a mother, as Anya well knew.
Marli seemed to like Emelie. Anya’s sunny sister had spent the last two days dragging her new friend all over their sky city of Astana, trying to impress her. However, the city’s many technological innovations appeared to be the only things which sparked Emelie’s interest—especially the new DiaMoRCs (diamonite morphing resculpting compounds). Anya was lucky enough to enjoy a prototype in her compartment. Unfortunately, she had been alarmed to catch Marli demonstrating its abilities to Emelie this morning. It had been too late to stop the demonstration.
The Altai girl had watched in amazement as a graceful, potted red orchid had melted into a shimmering gray ball, and then reformed, sprouting four long legs and a circular table top. Marli had evidently typed “various” colors into the diamonite remote, for the tiny diamonite silicon chips had shockingly transformed the gray table top to look like a rainbow swirled lollipop. With an eye roll, Anya had shooed them out, pretending the incident meant nothing. In truth, she had been deeply concerned, since she was certain that their Altai enemies weren’t supposed to know about the new invention.
It was on her way to apprise Joshua of the situation that Onred had waylaid her. His request had been reasonable; to walk with him so they could become better acquainted. Against her better instincts, Anya had agreed. And then he had trapped her in that quiet, dead-end hallway, and muffled her screams with his meaty hand.
Onred now pushed back his chair. It squeaked alarmingly, probably because of the extra stone of weight around his middle. His thick tongue flicked out and ran over his lips, catching the last crumbs of the cobbler. Squashing his linen napkin into the table, he lumbered to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality, Joshua.” He shook her protector’s hand and then bowed to Anya, pretending chivalry. “I will see you soon, my dear. Emelie, it’s time to go.”
Relief lightened the girl’s sallow face. Without a word to Marli, she hastened to her father’s side and out the door, heading for the shuttle bay.
Marli didn’t seem to notice the snub, and eagerly wolfed down the last of her dessert. “Can I be ’scused, Joshua?”
“Me, too.” Anya stood before Joshua could speak. When she had gained the empty hall, she discovered she was shaking. She could not marry Onred. She would not.
“Anya.” Joshua’s voice came as a shock, for she had not heard his following footsteps. “What is wrong?”
“I told you before. I can’t marry him.” Her voice trembled.
“Don’t you want peace?”
“Yes, but not with him. I don’t trust him, and I don’t like him.”
“He gave us his word. We have to trust him. In any case, the deal is done. You will marry him tomorrow.”
“I won’t!” she gasped.
Something wild must have flashed in her eyes, for Joshua caught her wrist and held it firmly. “You have no choice. I told you. The deal is sealed. He paid the bride price.”
“I don’t care,” her voice rose. “I won’t marry Onred.”
“You will marry him.”
“I won’t!” Anya struggled to free herself, but in one blindingly swift move, Joshua jerked her up tight against his chest, her arm bent double, so she couldn’t move. His show of superior strength infuriated her.
“I am your protector. You will do as I say.”
“I hate you, you jerk!” She had never said such harsh words to him before, and guilt pinched. But it all was too much. Worse than anything, she felt betrayed. That this man, whom she had looked up to all of her life, would relinquish her to the Altai wolf—and all for a price. Because it would bring peace. …Or was peace the only reason why Joshua refused to reconsider the matter? A completely new, shocking scenario entered her mind, and she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before. Had he instead approved the match because it would protect his power? Was she merely a pawn, to be used to further his political goals? Nausea rolled through her. All of a sudden, she feared this was the truth.
Through clenched teeth, she gritted, “I will do nothing to please you again. Ever.”
His grip tightened. “You act like a child. Grow up!”
That he would discard her like this, as if she meant nothing to him—but perhaps this is all she had ever been. A game piece. A responsibility he had willingly taken on, all for the profit of payoff. After all, if she married outside their territory, he would stay baron forever. Had this been his plan all along?
Well, his plot had come to fruition. The good she had believed she had seen in him—their rare moments of laughter and equanimity, and sometimes even a deep, uncanny understanding of each other—must have been a product of her own fantasies.
At the same time, she had known this day must come. According to the Old Barons’ Law, it could be no other way. Once she achieved a certain age, Joshua would discharge his duty of her. All the better if he could successfully—from his viewpoint—marry her off to a territory baron who would promise to become Joshua’s blood ally. Her blood, of course, being the tenuous thread that would bind the two men and strengthen each of their territories and power.
She stopped struggling. “I hate you.”
His eyes gleamed a tawny color, which matched his hair. A paradox, for his eyes were in truth a deep, velvety brown. His lips curled back so his white teeth showed in a smile. “You love me.”
For a second her heart stopped, and then it slammed harder. She felt cold, and then hot. “You mean nothing to me. Just as I mean nothing to you.” She twisted her wrist, and to her surprise, freed herself. “Isn’t that right?”
“I expect you to be on the next shuttle.”
Anger tightened like a knot in her chest. It felt like a fist squeezed her lungs so hard that she could barely breathe. So Joshua thought it would be simple to get rid of her? That she was still a child, eager to do his bidding, to please him?
No. At last, she had grown up, and now she understood that the heart of a snow leopard lived in him. No warmth. No laughter. Those fictions had been proven a lie. How quickly he was willing to sell her. For power. For peace. Should she feel flattered it was to the highest bidder?
Abruptly, she said, “How many Detsk did he give you?”
He didn’t answer.
“I want half. It’s my life that’s been sold, after all. Don’t you think I deserve something?”
Something flickered in those brown eyes. Guilt? Grim triumph flared. So, she’d struck into the heart of this cold, self-serving man, whom she had apparently never known.
“I’ll give you five hundred. It’s all you’ll need for your travels. You will need no money there.”
A more than generous sum, if it was just for travel money. But they both understood it was the bride price. Her life price.
Silently, she held out her hand.
Joshua hesitated for a moment, and then dipped into his pocket and withdrew a folded stack of bills. He didn’t bother to count it. Neither did Anya. But it was clearly more than five hundred.
Joshua silently watched her push the bills into her pocket. “The shuttle leaves in two hours. I expect you to be on it.” Abruptly, he turned on his heel and left her. His cream uniform, edged with gold, stretched crisp and taut across his straight, well-muscled shoulders. His tawny hair was so short now it didn’t even touch the collar.
Anya watched him go. With each step, her heart broke a little more, until it felt like millions of pieces of glass punctured her soul.
He had sold her.
He was finished with her.
Maybe this was the end of one part of her life, but Anya absolutely would not marry the powerful Altai baron.
She wanted peace, just as Joshua did. But she would not give her life to Onred to ensure it. Onred’s word could not be trusted. History had proven that he was a bloodthirsty monster. His moral character had been further proven in the hallway. He was cruel, perverse, and corrupt to his very soul. Once he took all that Joshua had promised him—goods, exchanges of minor sections of territory, and herself—the peace would end. This, she knew.
All the same, she would get on that shuttle, as Joshua dictated. It would appear to everyone, including Onred’s watching men, that the terms of peace were being met. But on the trip to the sky city of Bogd in the Altai Mountains, she would disappear. It was the only way to ensure peace. Forever.
“I have to go,” Anya said again to Marli, and stuffed another dress she would never wear into one of her mammoth suitcases. The other four were already filled. She had known since yesterday evening what her fate would be, and in the back of her mind a plan had emerged. The battle with Joshua in the hall had been a last attempt to delay the inevitable.
Anya told herself that she hated the cold, unfeeling man. She did.
“But why?” As the only child with blue eyes and blond ringlets in the family, Marli was adept at wrapping all of her older siblings around her little finger. Joshua, too, if the truth were told. But the tears in her voice now were real. “You don’t want to go! I heard your fight in the hall. Why is Joshua so mean? Why do you have to leave?”
Anya stopped packing and pulled her little sister into her arms. Marli’s tears soaked into Anya’s simple black shirt. Underneath, Anya wore an even thinner polymer shirt, suitable for regulating body temperature when subjected to extreme weather. She would need it later.
“I’m sorry, honey.” Anya’s own unhappiness gathered into an aching lump in her throat. “I’ll miss you. But I’ll come back.” If she could. She fiercely loved her brothers and sisters, and Astana was her home. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and she couldn’t bear the thought of parting with her family. Marli needed her. She was the only mother figure the young girl had ever known. Anya blinked back tears.
Marli looked up. “You promise?”
Anya pressed a kiss into the soft hair at her sister’s temple. Marli’s baby fine skin was damp from the exhausting ordeal of crying. “Sometimes life turns in directions we don’t want,” she murmured. “But I’ll get it back on track.” She bit her lip. She shouldn’t have said that to her unusually perceptive sister.
“I don’t know. I’m making it up as I go along.” That was true enough. “Now.” She squeezed her sister tighter, and then released her. “Will you get the others? I’ll need help to the terminal.” She had to try to be strong. If she could project confidence to her siblings, they would believe everything would be fine. It would give them a measure of peace.
How sorely Anya wanted to believe it, too. But her plan was far from failsafe.
Her sister paused near the door. “Joshua, too?”
Anya averted her face. “No. Not Joshua.”
“I’m mad at him, too,” Marli said. “I won’t talk to him for a month.”
“Listen to him. He wants what’s best for you.”
“But not for you. If he wasn’t so stupid…”
“I’m going,” the girl sullenly muttered, and the gun metal gray door slid shut behind her.
The dull gray walls of the room matched the bleak feeling in Anya’s spirit. She had programmed the depressing color into the paint’s tiny, diamonite silicon paint chips last night. Normally, she preferred a warm, toasted almond hue, with a mirage of surging and crashing ocean breakers on the wall across from her bed, but she couldn’t bring herself to enjoy the scene any longer. She had even turned off the sound system. It was utterly silent and barren in the room. It matched the desolation in her soul.
Anya lugged the suitcase to the floor to join the other four. Her fingers curled around her black overnight bag. She would carry this one herself. In fact, she wouldn’t let it out of her sight.
Don’t cry, she told herself again. But that was impossible moments later, when her siblings entered the room. The four were her only family in the world, except for her uncle Richert (Rik’ ert), a baron to the south, who had started a blood feud with her father shortly after Anya’s mother had married him, instead of her uncle.
Her twin brothers, Damon and David, approached first. They were fourteen now, and taller than she. Elise held Marli’s hand. Elise was sixteen, and with her long dark hair and blue eyes, looked very much like Anya. Elise’s features were perfect, whereas Anya knew her own nose was too sharp, and her mouth too wide. Like all of the inhabitants of Donetsk Territory, the five siblings were a mix of Eastern European and Russian descent. Once the nuclear holocaust had decimated the earth, the survivors had scrambled to claim new land. Eurasia, even now, was barely habitable, and covered with a thick ice sheet, which covered the deep scars in the earth.
Tears blurred Anya’s vision, and a sob closed her throat. “Let’s say goodbye now. I don’t want to make a scene in the terminal.”
Her brothers hugged her first, their arms all gangly bones and lean muscle. “We’ll come rescue you, if you need it,” Damon said. “The guy’s a jerk.” His face looked pale and sick in its earnestness.
“Don’t,” she told him firmly, with a rush of protectiveness. “Remember, I want peace. I want you to be safe. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
Yes, she would pursue peace, but by her own means. In fact, in the days to come, others would label her actions as selfish and immature. The truth was far different, of course, and far more dangerous. Even better, if her plan succeeded, she would win peace with all of their enemies—not just Onred.
“Take care of them,” she whispered to Elise, and then hugged Marli last of all. Her little sister sobbed without restraint, and clung to her tightly.
“You can’t go. You just can’t! ”
Anya held her for a long time, and tears ran down her own cheeks. Then, gently, she untangled Marli’s arms. “It’s time to go.” Her heart felt sick, empty, and fearful. She may never see any of them again. Her plan had so many holes. So many uncertainties. “I love you.”
Words seemed inadequate to express the deep emotions overwhelming her. It was a good thing Joshua hadn’t come. She just might flay into him for forcing her to leave her family.
For peace, of course. But for once in his charmed life, Joshua was wrong. The sweetest revenge would be to prove it.
Anya sat with her arms tightly crossed, struggling to barricade her emotions inside. She sat on a plush, cushioned seat in the baron’s official government shuttle. Beside her, the window radiated in the mercilessly cold, late afternoon sun. Tears slipped down her cheeks.
Inside the terminal, her younger siblings mingled with other well wishers, and waved whenever she managed to look. Each glance at her family stabbed a fresh knife of pain through her heart. Anya disengaged a hand and waved again. A hot lump closed off her throat, and she stared down at the black bag at her feet, willing the tears to stop. The bag contained everything she would need to survive in the snow for several weeks.
Of course, her five monstrous travel cases, stuffed with her superfluous belongings, had been checked into cargo. To all appearances, she had packed for a permanent farewell. No one had noticed her best winter boots on her feet, or the ultra thin, but heavy duty parka she wore. Underneath her black pants and shirt, she wore fiber thin snow wear. She had set the thermostat to cool, so she wasn’t too warm inside the winter layers. A solar panel was built into her parka hood, and would provide all the electricity she would need.
Onred’s men occupied seats nearby. Anya had placed an electronic notebook on the seat beside hers, discouraging others from sitting there. Her gaze strayed again to the terminal and she found herself searching the dwindling crowd for tawny hair. When she realized what she was doing, she berated herself.
The shuttle jerked, and then slid forward, propelling her in a direction she did not want to go; taking her from her beloved city of Astana, possibly forever. Childhood images tangled with a flood of memories: Astana’s warm, sparkling walls when crisp, summer sunshine streamed through the windows; the laughter in Marli’s eyes at Christmas time; coming home after a two day military survival trip with her father and Elise… How beautiful Astana had looked then, growing larger and larger as they’d flown home; a silvery, saucer-shaped city perched on a steel stalk, far above the earth.
And now she was leaving her home and family—perhaps forever. Anya blew a flurry of emotional kisses to her siblings. A flash of cream on the upper concourse caught her eye.
Joshua. Her hand froze, lips puckered, still in the motion of blowing her last kiss. He watched as the shuttle slid forward, faster, until he was out of sight.
Anya jerked her chin forward. Her heart thumped in uncomfortable, erratic beats. So he had seen her off? It meant nothing, of course. He had probably watched to make sure she had obeyed him. Well, now his duty was fully discharged, and he could retreat to his office and toast his success at having won the most important peace negotiation in Donetsk Territory’s history. And he had ensured his title of Baron for life.
Anya closed her eyes. She didn’t care.
Time to orchestrate her disappearance.
JOSHUA SLAMMED BACK another shot of raw alcohol. He rarely drank liquor, and this particular brand tasted bitter and foul. The truth was, he wanted to punish himself. And he wouldn’t mind deadening the pain roaring through his heart and mind, too. Nothing would ever be the same again. But he would live with it. It was for the best.
With a curse, he hurled the glass into the hearth. Flames exploded up into a hot, roiling inferno. Joshua seethed another curse, this time at himself. “It’s for the best.”
Why couldn’t he believe it? Why did fear clench his gut? Why did he feel like he had just made the biggest mistake of his life?
“It’s for the best.” His jaw hurt from clenching it so hard.
Was that why he had agreed so quickly to let Onred have Anya? To get her out of his life and his city, so he wouldn’t be tortured by his own dishonorable weakness anymore?
But this didn’t feel better. It felt like death.
Ten years ago, it had all started so differently, and with such promise. When Joshua had learned that Jason Dubrovnyk’s will had designated him to become protector to Jason’s young brood of five, along with the help, of course, of their nannies, he had felt honored. It was nothing short of a miracle, for a man from his background. His new duties wouldn’t be strenuous; be a strong male influence on the boys. Keep the girls in line.
But then proof surfaced that the baron’s first-in-command had poisoned the baron and his wife. The murderer had wanted power, but wasn’t willing to trust fate for it.
Fate. Joshua smiled without humor. Fate and superstition tangled through the odd laws of the Old Barons in middle Asia, frozen in a perpetual ice age ever since nuclear war had destroyed most of the earth a millennia ago.
Although the Old Barons had wanted to keep power in their families, they had superstitiously chosen to surrender the ultimate, trump card to fate. They believed power should flow to its intended recipient—whomever that might be. As a result, the Old Barons’ Law stipulated that only the oldest child could inherit. If the oldest child died, or if the girl child married out of the territory, power would go to the late baron’s first-in-command. Unless, of course, the baron bequeathed power before his death. A rare occurrence. Jason Dubrovnyk certainly had not done so.
Shocking to all, after Baron Dubrovnyk’s first-in-command was executed, Joshua, as second-in-command, was next in line for power. He had become interim baron; a position which would last until Anya grew up and married, when her husband would become the next baron. Joshua had taken the job in stride, and with single-minded tenacity had learned all the intricacies of the baron’s duties in six short months. Plenty of advisors helped him, but he had found his own way, all the while negotiating the far more tricky duties of protector.
The oldest of Baron Dubrovnyk’s children was Anya, and she had been thirteen when he had been thrust into the role of protector. His own life had turned upside down at a similar age, so he empathized with what she was going through.
At first, Joshua had believed himself blessed. To become both baron and protector at such a young age was an unbelievable honor for a young man who had come from absolutely nothing. He had been twelve when he had joined the army. By sixteen, he had earned more medals for valor than most men twice his age. Afterward, he had transferred to the air fleet. He was fearless in battle, and praised by all of his commanders. And shrewd. A man they wanted in their corner.
When Joshua turned nineteen, Jason Dubrovnyk heard about Joshua and enlisted him into the elite service. The rest was history.
Overall, Joshua thought he had done well. The job of baron was difficult, but a perfect fit for his aggressive, take-no-prisoners personality. He had even grown to like the children, which was a good thing, as protector. The world was his…except for one thing. Protector was a sacred trust. On oath, the baron’s family had become his own. He could not become romantically involved with one of his charges.
Of course, the Old Barons’ Law was meant to keep protectors from gaining power by unscrupulous means, such as by marrying the oldest female heir. If Joshua did break this sacred trust at any small point, all power and position would be stripped from him. He would become as an enlisted soldier again, and the baron’s daughter would lose her inheritance to power. But even worse, if a larger offense was proven, both culprits would be stripped of all possessions, and cast from the territory forever. Joshua’s honor would be forever lost, for he would have taken advantage of one of his charges. A heinous crime, especially to the Order of the Barons, who highly prized their children.
And now Joshua had finally discharged his duty. Anya was about to safely marry another. He had kept his honor and pledge to her father. And, by an undeserving twist of fate, he would remain baron.
With a mocking twist to his lips, Joshua raised his glass to heaven. “Your daughter is safe from me, Baron. Of course, Onred…” A hoarse bark erupted. It should have been laughter, but it burned, as if the very flames of hell licked down into his soul. Just the thought of that grubby bastard touching Anya… All rational thought abruptly left his head.
He snarled out a string of curses, wishing he could send Onred to the blackest pit of hell forever.
Anya surreptitiously checked her watch. Ninety minutes of the journey had elapsed. Time to put her plan into motion. Finally.
She pulled her carry-on bag onto her lap. With a fake frown, she rummaged through it, aware that Onred’s men watched her every movement. At length, and with an audible sigh of success, she pulled out a compact. Of course, she had known its location the entire time. Although the compact appeared to be a frivolous item, it also doubled as a compass.
Anya peered into the small mirror, pretending to study her face from all angles. She squinted, as though it were hard to see. Finally, with a sigh of disgust, she shoved the compact back into the bag and stood. Handles slipped over her forearm, she headed for the women’s restroom.
Onred’s men, and one of Joshua’s, hidden in the last seat, continued to watch her, but did not interfere. Where could she go? Already they were speeding over frozen wasteland, several kilometers above the earth’s surface. She glanced outside, at the massive Tien Shan mountain range rapidly approaching from the south. In half an hour, the shuttle would pass over the northeastern ridge and head southeast to Bogd, Onred’s main city.
After locking the restroom door, Anya quickly set to work. She pulled off her jacket and slipped on an ultra-light, specialty vest, and then she slipped knives, a laser gun, and back up solar charges into the loops in her belt. Next tucked in were matches, a solar light, rations, and a cup-sized water purifier, complete with instant heater, to melt snow into a hot drink. The minimum needed, should she lose her bag. She pulled her parka back on, and adjusted the top pouch of the underlying vest. Last of all, she tied the bag to her arm with thin black rope, which matched the color of her parka.
Done. Although her heart beat rapidly and nerves twisted through the pit of her stomach, Anya left the restroom with a bored expression on her face. She wandered to the window and looked down at the barren wasteland far below, which was bordered by the craggy Tien Shan mountains. She searched for the dip, indicating the pass through the towering mountain peaks. There it was, to the south—the Dzungarian Gate. Her second destination.
Her first destination, however, was this white, barren, no-man’s land; but at a point as close as possible to the Dzungarian Gate. She glanced at her watch. Previous calculations told her that only two minutes remained. Heart beating harder, she swallowed and stared outside. From this vantage point, it was impossible to tell that lakes lay beneath the unending sheet of snow. Snow drifts had claimed frozen Lake Zaysan to the east, and to the west, Lake Balkhash. This wasteland, with temperatures which reached as low as -42° C in February, was far too desolate for human habitation, but she would survive well enough. Her hard, militaristic father had trained both of his oldest daughters in the basic elements of survival. He had wanted them to be prepared for everything.
Anya was glad for that now. But she hoped she would meet no snow leopards. The animals, which used to prowl the higher mountains, now hunted the warmer, lower elevations in search of food. Her laser would protect her, of course—provided she saw the animal before it sprang upon her.
Beneath her lashes, Anya glanced sideways at the cabin. One of Onred’s men watched her, but the others had closed their eyes, intent on a nap between here and Onred’s home city of Bogd, more than an hour distant.
She wandered toward the pilot area. No one followed her. This was going to be easy. Anya actually felt disappointed. She found she was itching for a fight. Was it because she was sick of feeling impotent, with her entire life dictated by others…duty, the Old Barons’ Law…. Ultimately, of course, by Joshua. The gray door to the cockpit was at hand. She pulled the laser from her belt, yanked open the door and barged into the small space.
“Get out,” barked the pilot.
“You don’t belong…” The sight of Anya’s laser shut up all three crew members.
Slowly and distinctly, she said, “Open the emergency door.” As trained by her father, she knew that the cabin, at these low altitudes, was not pressurized. Opening the door would harm none of the cockpit crew, who were seatbelted, in any event.
One man’s hand crept across the dashboard. Anya whipped her laser toward the emergency door handle and fired. Green lights flickered in the cockpit, and something sizzled. An acrid smell drifted to her nose. Everyone froze, staring at the madwoman who had invaded their cockpit. Anya shoved the laser into her belt, ran for the door, and rammed a shoulder into the emergency release bar. The door jerked right, and air blasted into the cockpit. A hard lunge, and she was through, falling into empty, cold air, hurtling toward the earth.
Soft snowflakes brushed her skin as she yanked and jerked at the vest under her jacket collar, searching for the ripcord. Where was it?
Below, the flat snow pack and a few huge drifts rushed closer. Her fingers finally brushed the knotted cord and yanked. With force, the parachute popped the back of her head as it shot from beneath her jacket collar. The next second, the billowing chute jerked her body, stopping its death fall.
All was silent. She didn’t hear the shuttle. It was probably long gone. Cold snowflakes kissed her cheeks. The earth continued to drift closer—faster than she had expected. She bent her knees, bracing for impact. One of the drifts looked huge and bulky, as if it hid a gigantic boulder, but before she could adjust course, she hit the ground with teeth rattling impact. Clearly, an ice sheet lay beneath the surface of the deceptively soft looking snow. She tumbled hard and spun sideways into the craggy rock. Pain slammed into her shoulder and head, and then she lay blessedly still.
She was safe. And, for the first time in her life, completely free. No one—not duty, not the Old Barons’ Law, and not Joshua—would ever rule her life again. It was a surprisingly freeing thought. With a faint, grimacing smile, Anya slipped into blackness.
End of Excerpt…
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