The sound brought Commander Rada Lord Ni Drako to her feet from a dead sleep, blaster in hand. She crossed the distance between her sleeping platform and the window in two jumps, then stopped just out of easy blaster shot from the courtyard. Rada peered into the darkness.
Ten meters below her quarters, a pair of males circled on the stones of the courtyard, neck spines up, muzzles open to show their teeth. The strange hissing growl that had brought Rada running grew louder, then faded. She looked away from the males, trying to see motion in the shadows around the central courtyard. There, in the corner by the gate, three females watched, the two older keeping the younger wedged against the stones of the wall. Rada’s nostrils flared. If she opened the fragile sand-glass window, she’d smell musk and fear and soon blood as well.
A taloned forefoot touched her shoulder on her blind side. Rada froze, bracing against the window seat as Zabet rose up on her hind legs, peering out over her Pet’s shoulder. <<I see motion. What’s up?>>
<<Where are the guards?>>
Most likely hiding, Rada thought. Aloud she said, “Anywhere else they can find to be. They’re not suicidal.” Neither was she. Zabet dropped back onto all four feet and returned to the sleeping chamber. Rada followed. She slid the blaster back into its hiding place and laid down. She didn’t need to see what was going to happen next in the courtyard—once in a lifetime was enough.
Zabet settled down next to her Pet, stealing most of the tree-fluff-filled blanket, as usual. <<I thought the Azdhagi didn’t do that anymore.>>
“So did I, Boss. Apparently I was wrong.”
The first screaming snarl reached her ears and Rada clamped her hands over her earholes. The combat woke an answering snarl and she felt her claws extending as her heart raced and her sense of smell grew keener, picking up far too much from the night breeze despite the closed windows. Rada raised and locked her shields, but too late. She was death, she was fire, she was battle and blood. Rada fought her desire and lost.
Instead she got up again, took her sword off the rack in the main room and began to dance. The males’ emotions drove her and Rada sliced and parried, turning, cutting, flowing from corner to corner as she fought invisible foes. The snarls and screams grew louder, came faster, then stopped. Rada’s dance accelerated until a watcher would have thought she might transform into wind and fur. Then she froze, a statue in the darkness. Chest heaving, Rada sheathed the blade and returned it to the rack before stalking back into the sleeping chamber. She shoved her feet into boots and eased the wall panel open, slipping into the hidden corridor.
She took the back ways down to the closest soaking pool. She kicked off the boots and dove in. The hot water stung her, the pain driving the last of the bloodlust and fury out of her system. Rada surfaced and gasped, once more in control of herself. She paddled to the cooler, shallower part of the large pool. She rested her head against the talon-worn stone as her heart rate and breathing slowed. Her hair would be a tangled mess, her fur likewise, her head pounded and she imagined she could taste blood in her mouth. “So much for a quiet night” she grumbled in Azdhag.
Another few ticks of time and she would be able to return to her quarters. But she dared not look in the courtyard until after sunrise, after the heat had drained from the body. Or bodies. Rada bared her own fangs. If the female refused her consent, well, the male did not always survive the refusal if he tried to force the matter. All Healers knew what that sort of injury meant. And they were all female.
Now that she could think again, Rada wondered who the males were. She had a few guesses, but she had not studied them closely. She’d know soon, along with the rest of court and the Palace staff. How long had it been since the last mating battle? She closed her eye and tried to recall. When nothing floated up immediately, she heaved herself out of the pool and shook all over, then found the drying cloths and smoothed her fur, wringing out her hair as well, then finger combing the worst knots out. She pulled her boots on and set out, taking as much time as possible returning to her quarters. As she walked, she plumbed the depths of her memory. It had been at Burnt Mountain, that much she knew, in one of the outlying settlements that were considered odd even by local standards. But when? Several hundred years at least.
Rada opened the wall panel and sniffed. She smelled the aftermath, and incense. Incense? <<So you don’t behead a servant or one of your orderlies,>> Zabet informed her from the doorway. <<You’d probably kill one of the ones I finally got trained to my standards and I hate wasted effort.>> The True-dragon returned to the sleeping chamber only after she watched Rada take off the boots and lie down. Zabet stretched out beside the mammal, head on Rada’s chest. <<That bad?>>
“Worse. The more basic the emotions, the stronger.” And they woke something inside Rada, a bloodlust completely at odds with everything else she tried to be. If she thought too long about it, it would return, like the purple elephant from the humans’ stupid joke. At least she could channel it, most of the time. I wonder what Joschka would say if he’d seen me earlier? Probably wave his rosary at me, then run. He’s gotten smarter over the years. Exhaustion hit Rada, dragging her eyelid closed and pushing her into a dreamless sleep.
Luckily for her, she did not have an early meeting with King-Emperor Huang-Di. As it was, she found Zabet in the main room finishing the first pot of tea and waving an ornately painted talon at her mammal. <<Congratulations. I’ve had to tell half the Defenders and two-thirds of the servants that those are not your remains down below. You missed pre-dawn drill, and the silly reptiles put two plus two together and got eleven.>>
Rada finished buttoning her shirt, shaking her head as she sat down on a cushion beside the breakfast table. “And how many actually thought I’d be involved in that sort of thing, hmm?”
<<What sort of thing? All anyone found was a body so mangled they’re still not quite sure who is missing.>>
Rada blinked with disbelief, slipping into Trader. “Ne g’karlak?”
Zabet shook her head and made an Azdhagi emphatic negation with her weak-side forefoot. Now Rada’s morbid curiosity really wanted to see what the remains had looked like. If they couldn’t identify it quickly, that meant the hide had disappeared, and probably other large chunks as well, which suggested that—
Rada went absolutely still. Her fur rose of its own accord and the skin on her neck and under her hair crawled. “Oh fewmets. Dear lord, that’s . . .” She shook all over, trying to get her fur to settle. The tea tasted bitter and she knocked back two more cups, scalding her mouth, before she got the metallic taste off her tongue. Before Zabet could ask, Rada warned, “You really do not want to know, Boss. Take my word for it.”
Zabet tipped her head to one side, round ears flipping back as her whiskers waved up and down. Then she straightened up. << If it upsets you that much, you’re right, I don’t.>>
No, you don’t. It’s been almost a dozen centuries since the last case of cannibalism among the Azdhagi, and I only know that because I found it while looking for something else in the archives. The Azdhagi had, at one point in their development, eaten certain parts of defeated enemies raw. At the time Rada had noted the story and moved on. Now, well, her fur threatened to fluff again and she worked hard to stay calm and eat her breakfast like a civilized sapient creature. I wonder who the female was? Probably learn that soon enough, too.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.