“Unlike fine wine, you don’t appear to age very well,” Brigadier General Rahoul Khan teased.
His xenology advisor (and long-time friend) glowered at him from across the train compartment. A series of storms precluded all but emergency air travel, and Khan most certainly did not consider a meeting to be enough cause to force himself to endure the miseries of flying through the kinds of weather that Britain and northern France were enduring. So he and his two staff members opted for rail in order to attend a conference in Granada, Spain. It had been decided by London that Khan, Major Maria de Alba y Rodriguez and Commander “Rachel Na Gael” would be safer in civilian attire, after the Spanish government issued a warning about possible Basque separatist terrorists in the northern part of the country. In order to cover for her physical problems, Rachel had used makeup to age herself until she appeared to be a human in her mid 80s. The results were effective but not very kind to her.
They had the six-seat compartment to themselves for the moment, so Rachel broke character enough to growl. Then she pointed out, “It’s highly unlikely I’ll live long enough to reach this age, so who cares what I’d look like?”
“And what if you do? You’ll be fussing at yourself for not being more careful when you were younger,” he twitted her, smiling to himself as he leaned back in his seat. Rachel grumped and fidgeted. She’d wanted to travel in her Goth outfit again but the general had vetoed it, lest she attract unwanted attention.
“Oh cheer up, Mrs. Patel. Grenada in the early autumn is lovely,” Maria told the civilian. “And you’ll find the gardens in the Alhambra and Generalife very interesting. They’re level, too, so you won’t have difficulty getting around.” The Spanish communications officer had been painting glowing pictures of the Moorish palace, but the pale brunette didn’t seem interested. Rahoul and Maria posed as a middle-class couple, two of the hordes of English tourists who visited Spain each year.
They arrived uneventfully and Rachel didn’t complain when her “daughter-in-law and son” insisted on carrying “his poor old mother’s” bags. She leaned on her cane and limped along behind the G.D.F. – Great Britain’s commanding officer and communications officer to their waiting car.
The car dropped them off at a very attractive resort facility outside the old city of Granada. It was the more-or-less annual meeting of some of the Global Defense Force’s top staff, military and civilian. The gathering allowed people to match faces to wireless voices, and to share more detailed information about what they’d learned over the previous year. After the brush with disaster that had been the meeting in Germany nearly a decade before, attendance to everything had been re-limited to military personnel and cleared civilians only. No spouses, and only three people from each branch attended, much to Rachel’s quiet relief. This is enough of a security risk as it is she growled to herself at the reception that evening, surveying the small sea of khaki, blues and greens.
Someone cleared his throat behind the British trio and Rachel spun around, incipient boredom vanishing into pleasure. “My lord General! What a pleasant surprise!” she exclaimed, dropping a small curtsey to an older gentleman in a beautifully tailored suit of European cut.
General Joschka Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg smiled at her and the others, extending his hand to Brigadier General Khan. “Bienvenidos a Granada, General Khan,” he said in accentless Spanish.
Khan shook the hand, replying in Punjabi, “Thank you, my lord General. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish.”
Honor satisfied, both parties changed to English as Rachel rolled her eye and Major de Alba looked puzzled.
“Retirement seems to be agreeing with you, sir,” Rahoul continued, inspecting the broad-shouldered Austrian.
The graying officer smoothed his neatly trimmed, light brown beard. “It was. Apparently someone decided that competence, experience and a few grey hairs were needed to keep youthful enthusiasms in check and so the Secretary and Generals Esterházy and Riley prevailed upon me to attend.” He reached over absently and collected two drinks from a passing waiter, handing one to Rachel.
Khan gestured toward the watching women. “Allow me to present Major Maria de Alba y Rodriguez, my communications officer. Major de Alba, General Joschka Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg, former overall commander of the Global Defense Force.” Maria extended her hand to shake and the Graf-General smoothly turned it into a hand kiss. The Spaniard recovered her aplomb quickly, dropping a hint of a curtsy as Khan sighed and Rachel laughed silently. “And that sort of thing, Major, partly explains how this gentleman became head of the G.D.F.’s military forces.”
“I had a great deal of help from several other G.D.F. members,” the Graf-General allowed, smiling as he tipped his glass toward Khan. But his eyes were on the xenology specialist.
“Where did you get your dress, Commander?” Maria asked the next evening as the Wanderer brushed wrinkles out of a mink-brown dress and matching jacket with amber-colored trim.
The Wanderer twitched her bodice straight and fastened the jacket frogs. “I borrowed it from the King-Emperor.”
“You borrowed it from who?” Maria repeated as she started pinning her hair up.
Rachel realized how strange she’d sounded. “Part of what you might call my other job requires me to be present at various ceremonies and diplomatic events, so I’m allowed so much per year from the Imperial Household budget for clothing. It remains the property of his Imperial Majesty, but there’s nothing in the rules saying I can’t borrow an outfit for occasions elsewhere,” she grinned and winked her good eye. “This was actually for a semi-casual afternoon reception.”
Maria tucked a stray bit of black hair into place. “If that’s casual, I’d hate to imagine what formal eveningwear is like.”
“Not so bad as you’d think, but the various Mistresses of the Robes and I have been fighting over that for centuries now! At least they know I have to be able to fight if need be, which I can’t do if I’m stuffed into a skin-tight outfit decorated stiff with gold wire embroidery.” She pulled a face.
Major de Alba gave her uniform one last check, removing a bit of nearly invisible lint from her skirt. “Thinking of elaborate clothes, Rachel, did you notice the Minister of Defense’s ‘cousin’ at the reception the other night?”
Rachel, who’d been more interested in comparing notes with an Israeli bio-weapon defense expert, shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.” You humans all look alike in formal wear she thought, but didn’t say aloud.
“She looks a lot like you, but about 15 cm taller. Light build, very long dark hair and a darker complexion, of course. Her eyes are pale green.”
“Well, no one’s going to mistake me for her, based on your description, unless she’s unfortunate enough to be in a car wreck.” Maria winced a little at Rachel’s brutally honest self-appraisal. Then the mood vanished and the alien flashed her usual grin. “Shall we go see if the Brigadier is ready yet?” They sallied forth, a familiar “step-tap-step” echoing as they walked down the tile-floored hall.
The dinner that night, hosted by the Iberian Branch, was in the old palace of the Alhambra overlooking Granada. It was elegant, quiet, and easy to secure should the need arise. Rachel found the sign cautioning “Reserved for the International Secretariat for Undocumented Migrations” amusing. She chatted with those few people she knew, listened to others’ conversations, and kept a discreet eye out for General von Hohen-Drachenburg. He seemed to have been captured by the G.D.F. headquarters group and she decided not to bother him.
Instead she studied the stonework of the Moorish palace and listened to the little history lecture about the place. Too bad your “golden age of toleration” didn’t exist, she thought. As little as I like medieval Europe, I’d rather have to live in Vienna in the 1000s than in Hispania, thank you! After all, she should know; she’d visited both. There was a brisk market for historic textile and artifact reproductions, and if some of them were created by the original maker, well, Rachel and her business partner didn’t charge extra.
Contrary to Commander Na Gael’s assumptions, Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg had been keeping an eye on her as well. Rachel stood at the edge of a group of South African and Brazilian soldiers, listening to them wrap up a discussion about hostile, sentient plants. She’d been about to make an observation when someone knocked on her mental shields. The Wanderer offered her comment, then turned to find Joschka at her elbow. “You’re joining me for supper,” he informed her under his breath, taking her arm before she could object. “If you will excuse us, gentlemen?” Joschka smiled at the others as he led the Commander away.
“I am, my lord General?” she inquired as he guided her through the clusters of Defense Force men and women towards the dining area.
“Yes. It was one of my conditions for coming.” He gave her a stern look. “And might I remind you, you are the senior xenologist currently working with the G.D.F. even if you don’t care to use your rank, and you need to meet these men. And please act professional. They are your superiors,” he reminded the young-looking woman. The brunette didn’t reply, instead smiling politely at the gathered diplomats and general officers. “Secretary, Your Excellency, gentlemen, allow me to introduce Commander Rachel Na Gael, the British Branch’s Xenology Specialist.”
She’d already met Lieutenant General Helmut Eszterházy of Hungary and Brigadier William Riley from New Zealand, but Secretary Jan DeBeers, Prime Minister Alberto Gallegos and Major General Kwan Lee from South Korea were new to her, and vice versa. Apparently they’d heard of her, or had been warned, because no one stared at her eye patch and scars. She shook hands with them in turn, then followed the Graf-General and the others to their table.
Despite Joschka’s warning, the Commander had no desire to exercise her infamous sarcasm or temper that evening. Instead she enjoyed a very good supper, politely declined the assorted wines and liqueurs and added what she could to the conversation and business at hand. It rather pleased her to imagine what her enemies would think at the sight of her dining with some of this planet’s leaders. They’d probably wrinkle their noses in disgust and mutter about mongrels and primitive backwaters. Then try to kill all of us. She sighed a little to herself and at Joschka’s curious look shook her head and smiled.
The sweet was flan, followed by fruit and cheese. Rachel nibbled lightly at the latter, then explained something about bio-cyber interfaces to General Lee as Joschka watched her out of the corner of his eye. He liked her choice of outfits for that evening; the brown worked well with her hair and there was just a hint of military in the cut and trim of her jacket. It was good to see her in something aside from severe grey. She also appeared more relaxed than she’d been for quite a while. Joschka sipped his wine and decided that indeed, the time had come to resolve a certain matter between them.
After the requisite speeches, the doors to the castle opened and the group had free run of much of the Alhambra, while one of the Iberian Branch officers who happened to also be a classical guitarist began playing. Rachel drifted along with Major de Alba and a group of interested listeners as Maria gave an informal history tour. Rachel made mental corrections to her associate’s account but kept quiet, not wanting to ruin other people’s evening. Lord knows, we get few enough peaceful moments in this lifestream, she sighed. Let the humans keep their romantic stories.
As she trailed along behind the others, a shadow emerged from deeper shadow and eased up behind her. Rachel had her cane raised and the blade drawn before Joschka came within reaching distance of her.
“Even here?” he asked, both humor and sorrow in his voice.
Utterly unrepentant, she sheathed the weapon and leaned on the cane. “Even here.”
“Come with me for a moment,” the Graf-General invited, and Rachel followed him into the clear fall evening. They walked past two fountains and into a garden that overlooked the city below the Moorish palace. Spicy scents from the damask roses, carnations and other blooms filled the night air and she sniffed appreciatively. “One understands why they view Paradise as a garden,” she observed. Joschka nodded his agreement. A hint of breeze slid over a low spot in the garden wall and the Wanderer pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders. The two warriors strolled the path through the dark garden in silence, simply enjoying each other’s company. For once Rachel felt completely relaxed and she savored the moment.
The Count of Hohen-Drachenburg and his companion stopped at a low portion of the wall and watched the moon rising over the palace and modern city. Rachel eased slightly closer to the old soldier and he put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her to his side. “A credit for your thoughts?” he inquired in Trader, her working language.
“Oh, just that this is bordering on too perfect. Nearly full moon, the scents of the garden, fountains splashing in the background with bits and phrases of Spanish music on the breeze, it all seems like a dream,” she sighed a bit wistfully.
Joschka reached his free hand into the pocket of his tuxedo jacket. “Indeed,” he replied gravely, “the only thing missing is a pair of lovers. But perhaps that lack can be remedied,” and he retrieved a narrow, silk-covered box.
Rachel half-turned towards her friend, giving him an odd look that shifted into one of surprise. “Ah, my lord, are you, um,” she stuttered, tongue-tied.
The graying HalfDragon smiled broadly. “I am. Come, sit here,” and he drew her to a bench where they could see but not be seen. She settled beside him and Joschka chose his next words very carefully. “I love you and I want you to be with me for the rest of my life, however long God grants me. Not as advisor or subordinate, but as partner, friend, and beloved.”
Rachel looked away briefly as he finished, then returned his gaze. The moonlight glittered off a tear and Joschka thought she had never seemed so beautiful as she did at that moment. “I, Joschka, I want to accept. I’ve loved you since we were in the Scouts and I still do. But . . .” and her voice trailed off as she turned away again.
“But what Hairball?” he prompted, disappointment starting to rise.
“Are you certain that what you love is really me and not who I was all those years ago, before?” and she gestured towards her battered face.
He shook his head. “Rada, those don’t matter. I’ve known you at your lowest and seen you at your worst, and I still love you. You’ve been tempered and tried and your heart is as beautiful as ever.”
She ducked her head a little at his declaration. “Two things you need to know, Joschka, before I can accept. First, part of my agreement with Master Thomas was that I remain celibate. I’ll have to ask him to release me from my promise and there’s a chance he might not.” Joschka shrugged a little, dismissing the possible complication, and Rachel took a deep breath before going on. “Do you remember that September?”
How could he forget? At his grim nod she gathered herself and continued very quietly, “What you saw was not the worst of what they did to me. Even if Himself releases me, I, ah, can’t be for you what Magda and Adele were. Because of the injuries and internal scarring, it’s no longer physically possible for me to . . . to have normal sexual relations.” She looked away from his shocked expression and his anger.
The silence seemed to stretch on forever as the HalfDragon considered her words and the implications in them. Rachel hung her head, rising and turning to leave as Joschka’s reaction confirmed her fears. “Good night, my lord General,” she whispered.
“No, Rakoji! Don’t go,” Joschka hissed, lunging for her hand and drawing her back to his side. He took her face in his hands, tipping it up towards him. “It does not matter – I still love you. And at my age, sex is no longer so important.” He wiped a tear off her cheek with his thumb. “Rakoji. I just want to see you across the library fireplace from me in the evenings and to have you by my side for the rest of my days. What say you, my love? Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she nodded in his hands, smiling and crying at the same time.
He released her to open the box, revealing a necklace of rectangular, faceted blue-grey stones in a silvery mount. Joschka lowered the gems over Rachel’s head, then fastened the clasp at the back of her neck and ran gentle fingers over the piece and the throat beneath it. “My father gave this to my mother when they were formally betrothed. I’m the first to leave home and they gave it to me for my chosen beloved.” He pulled her close and they kissed. She scooted nearer and settled comfortably into his arms, eye still damp.
“Forgive me for making you wait so long, Awful Clawful. I thought you’d given up,” she admitted, leaning against his shoulder.
His beard tickled her cheek. “No, Hairball. I loved Magda and Adele both very much and I honor their memories, but my feelings for you only slept; they never died. As great King Solomon wrote ‘Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it’.” After a long minute he asked, “Why did you never say anything?”
She hung her head. “Because I wanted you to be happy. When we were in the Scouts you talked about how much you looked forward to finding a stable place to live and raise a family. I knew I couldn’t give you children or settle down and make a home with you, so I never asked Himself to release me from my promise to him. Later on you were happy with your family and I didn’t want to disturb you.
“And I was afraid.” Rachel looked up at her friend, the fear in her eye making him squeeze her tighter. “The Traders would have,” she broke off, then tried again. “Even now, if they catch you with me, they,” and he put a finger on her lips, stilling her as he shook his head.
“No, they won’t. Not while I live. Rakoji, I swear this to you: they will have to come through me and all of Drachenburg to touch you again.” His eyes turned faintly red as he spoke and she shivered at the threat, even though it was aimed at others.
In response she embraced him and he stroked her hair and her back, kissing the top of her head. They heard voices approaching and he stood, leading her farther into the shadows of the garden. They walked arm in arm and she touched the necklace. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Joschka.”
“You’re welcome.” He looked up at the stars and almost full moon. “It was the only thing I took with me when I left home, Rachel. I’m the youngest of four and knew I’d never inherit. Since I didn’t have any skills aside from blade and blaster, I joined the Komets.”
“That makes two of us,” Rachel said quietly. “Blake Krather did end up with some interesting people under his command.”
The man snorted at the understatement. “He had a knack for collecting eccentrics. Ingwe Adamski also.”
She chuckled at the memories. “Well, no normal person is going to sign up with a bipedal raptor with purple eyes and orange plumage, are they?” It had been a bad joke back then and still was, given Adamski’s skill and lasting reputation.
“Were those his real colors?” Joschka had always wondered.
“Alas for him they were, although Major Gupta told me that Adamski’s markings were quite subdued compared to other members of his species. But that’s why our dress uniforms were black and grey – the only colors that wouldn’t clash with him!” she chuckled and Joschka joined her, then swept her into a hug and kissed her again.
“I wish you laughed as much as you used to,” he whispered.
She smiled up at him and hesitantly stroked his cheek. “Maybe now I can.”
After another comfortable silence, she sighed. “Leopold is going to be scandalized, you know.”
Leopold’s grandfather made a slightly rude noise. “He should have been around when his grandmother married me. There are days when I wonder if he is a changeling, because I know he didn’t get that from her or me!” He thought for a moment. “What’s Rahoul going to say?”
“After he picks himself off the floor, then lectures me about relationships between ranks?” she asked, then shook her head. “No, that’s not fair to him. I think he’ll roll his eyes and sigh. Then give me no end of a rashing. He’s suspected for a while,” Rachel told the Graf-General. “On the other hand, Panpit will laugh and be delighted, and start asking what kind of ceremony there will be, and if there will be babysitters available.”
“Hmm, I thought as much.” He stopped. “Do you want a church wedding?”
The pale brunette took a deep breath. “I don’t know, my lord. How badly will it complicate matters within the House? Plus there’s having to persuade Himself to release me. And for that matter, I’m still Lord-Defender, and a Guardian, and something tells me that commuting to Great Britain every day from Schloß Hohen-Drachenburg is not really an option.” She sighed and Joschka echoed her.
“And then there’s the whole Protestant/Catholic difficulty. Drat it. Love does so complicate matters,” he mock-complained, drawing another laugh.
“If anyone should know, we should, my lord,” came the rueful response.
“Well, I’ve managed to corner and capture you. That’s enough impossible doings for one night,” Joschka chuckled and kissed his love’s hand. “We can solve the rest of this planet’s problems on the morrow.”
Despite her concerns, the meeting went well and uneventfully. Commander Na Gael’s presentation on biosynthetic manipulations and vivicontrol mechanisms was well attended, and she managed to gloss over how and where she’d learned about that kind of technology. Khan thought she’d done a decent job and the Graf-General agreed. “She’d probably be a good classroom instructor for us, if someone could ever get her to settle down long enough and she kept her attitude in check.”
“Too bad the world will come to an end before that happens, Sir,” Rahoul reminded his former superior.
“I don’t know,” the Austrian mused. “She’s much improved over when I first met her.”
Before the British officer could change topics slightly, one of the Italian contingent drew the Graf-General aside and someone else came up to ask Rahoul a question regarding an earlier talk they had both attended. What Rahoul had wanted to ask Joschka about was Rachel’s recent behavior, but he couldn’t locate either his advisor or the Austrian again, even after the final session that day.
The next morning Rahoul decided to confront his subordinate and he managed to catch her the as she prepared to leave the meeting area. “Commander Na Gael, what’s going on?”
The one-eyed brunette seemed confused. “What do you mean, what’s going on, Sir?”
“You’ve been smiling like a cat locked in a creamery. In my experience, that means that you’re up to something.” Khan could imagine a number of possibilities, none of them conducive to his peace of mind.
Well, she did owe her nominal superior the truth, if only for all the grief he’d taken from her over the years. “The Graf-General and I have reached a long-delayed agreement,” the Wanderer said with all the dignity she could muster. “He made a proposal, I accepted his offer and a bargain was agreed to. If you will excuse me?” and she slid away before Rahoul could finish sorting out what she’d said.
He frowned as she vanished. It couldn’t be that she was transferring to Vienna. The Graf-General had retired and it would be General Esterházy who’d be asking for her, and he hadn’t. And if there was anyone who did not need Rachel’s security and xenology skills, it would be Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg. “An agreement and a proposal,” the South Asian officer repeated to himself as he thumbed through his schedule. “A proposal?” The light dawned abruptly and he stared back the direction his friend had gone. No wonder she seemed happier than he’d ever seen her! Well, well. He smiled to himself as he hurried to his next appointment. Not that he was going to give her any grief about it. Nooooo, none at all.
Meanwhile, down in the old heart of the city, Rachel tagged along behind the Graf-General as he hunted through a series of shops. She understood very little if any Spanish but did her best to look interested and harmless. They went into a very nice boutique that sold women’s accessories and she smiled as the clerk took in Joschka’s clothing and manners. The attractive young woman became very helpful indeed and Rachel stayed out of the way as the older gentleman and the clerk looked at different items. After several minutes, Joschka seemed to remember that Rachel was there. “Come over here, please,” he requested, and she did. “Turn around,” and he held something up against her hair as the clerk commented, then apparently suggested a slightly different scarf. “My granddaughter has hair almost as dark as yours and I’m looking for her a Christmas present,” Joschka explained in German. Rachel gritted her teeth against a smart remark, saving it for later. Her friend paid for his selections, then handed them to her. “If you’d put these in your bag please, Miss Na Gael?” The clerk said something and Joschka replied, smiling at Rachel and letting her hold the door for him.
This was all together too much like her apprentice days for Rachel’s comfort and she was about to tell Joschka so when he gestured for her to precede him into another shop. More discussion, and the older lady proprietor studied Rachel carefully. She disappeared and then returned with an incredibly soft wool shawl. Rich browns and ambers flowed across the piece and embroidered golden waves decorated the ends just above the thick amber-colored fringe. At Joschka’s instructions Rachel took off her leather backpack and he draped the piece around her shoulders, then stepped back, studying the result. He asked the lady something and she nodded and pulled a tray of hairpins and clasps out from under the counter. He selected one in a Moorish pattern with small dots of amber in it and held it against Rachel’s hair. “Yes, definitely,” he decided, purchasing two clips and the beautiful shawl.
“In case you don’t want to wear the jacket with that dress,” he commented as they left the shop.
“Thank you! They’re lovely, my lord General!” she exclaimed and he smiled and took her arm.
“A lovely frame for a beautiful picture, Rachel,” he said gallantly and she flushed a little under her cosmetics. She’d put in green contact lenses and wore tan makeup, hiding her scars and letting her blend in better with the crowds in the old city. Joschka continued, “The young clerk complimented my taste in mistresses. But more tactfully than that.”
After a few more stops, including a toy store and a religious goods seller where Joschka bought a rosary for his youngest great-granddaughter’s pending First Communion, they found seats at an outdoor café for coffee and pastries. Rachel took off her bag and set it between their chairs, out of sight of passers-by. She sipped her tea and watched the people as Joschka checked items off a list. He started to say something, but Rachel’s intent body language stopped him. “See something?”
She tipped her head slightly. “Those protesters over there. The third man from the front – he’s not moving like the rest of the group.” The group in question carried signs in Arabic, Spanish and English demanding the return of “Al Andalus” to the domain of Islam. One young man wasn’t carrying a sign, but instead had a bag over his shoulder and watched the buildings to the side of the group rather than the crowd or the other protesters. Rachel hesitated for a moment, then lowered her shields and tried to get a general read of the emotions flowing around them.
She picked up boredom, mild interest, annoyance at the blocked traffic, watchful interest from several plain-clothes police officers monitoring the protest, and an all-too-familiar “scent” of hatred, fanaticism and nearly overwhelming sexual excitement. Rachel laid her hand on Joschka’s arm and turned towards him. “We need to get away from here, Sir. Something bad is about to happen.”
He knew her well enough not to question her. Joschka caught their waiter’s eye and paid, senses on full alert as he looked around the plaza and side streets. “More trouble,” he observed under his breath as a quartet of young men with bright green bandanas, scarves or shirts sauntered around a corner towards a Japanese tour group. Like the man who’d caught the Commander’s attention, these men moved as if they were carrying something fragile or valuable in the satchels and packs and their eyes burned with an angry passion.
“This way,” he ordered, steering her with a hand on her shoulder. She carried her backpack by one strap over the other shoulder. With her free hand Rachel unfastened the buttons of her knee-length black coat and Joschka caught a glimpse of metal underneath.
They had just rounded the corner when all hell broke loose behind them. Something exploded and people screamed as gunfire snapped, followed by two more explosions. Joschka pushed Rachel down but she twisted and dodged his hand, dropping her bag as she turned back towards the plaza. “Commander, no!” But she eluded him, vanishing against the panicked crowd. He cursed and grabbed her backpack and let the crowd carry him farther away. Then he slipped into a courtyard, waited a moment and edged his way back through the frantic people towards the plaza.
Rachel ducked and wove her way through the panicked humans to where she’d seen the quartet of jihadis. They were shooting at fleeing tourists and locals and her lips peeled back in a snarl as she started to draw her own weapon. Then she stopped and swore: she was limited to direct self-defense only. By the Debt Collector’s hollow heart! What the fuck do I do now? A cry of pain decided her and she set to work Healing the closest injured. She’d assisted a mother and child to shelter when a shot spanged off the stone wall by her shoulder. Thank you for the invitation, dead meat.
The Wanderer drew her pistol, eased out of cover and dropped the gunman with a shot to the chest. One of his co-religionists tried to get even, only to join the first gunman in eternity when his head exploded. Rachel managed to severely wound and probably kill a third terrorist and possibly injured a fourth when whizzing bullets persuaded her to look for different cover. At least one of the policemen had also started returning the jihadis’ fire, so Rachel holstered her own weapon while she moved. As she ducked and trotted, she searched for injured. The brunette threaded her way through a cluster of escaping tourists, letting one of the assailants get past before doubling back to the plaza again, once more in her role as a paramedic.
Confident that any remaining attackers had not gotten a good look at her, Rachel returned to Healing those who would benefit the most. She took care of four or five seriously injured people and settled down one or two hysterical women and children. The Wanderer didn’t do anything obvious, focusing on internal wounds and bleeding control, things that wouldn’t give her away. So intent was she, and so confident that she’d eluded the surviving jihadis, that she didn’t look around or watch her back. As she started to rise from her latest patient, someone grabbed her and struck her from behind. The blow stunned her but she still managed to hurt her attacker before another blow knocked her unconscious.
Meanwhile, the Graf-General had also begun working back through the plaza, taking charge of the people still milling around to get them moving the wounded out of the way of the arriving Cuerpo Nacional de Policía and paramedics, and to protect any evidence. Even in civilian clothes, it was obvious that he knew what he was doing and a pocket of order began forming in the chaos of the bombing. As soon as men from the CNP and the GEO, the Spanish counter-terror branch, arrived, Joschka identified himself, briefed them and stepped back, looking for his fiancée. But there was no sign of her. He tried searching for her mind and scent but found nothing. Growing increasingly worried, the Graf-General eased away from the plaza, retraced his steps to the courtyard where he’d left Rachel’s backpack and dug her “cell phone” out of the bag, dialing Khan. “Command One, we have an incident. There’s been a terror attack and Manx One’s missing.”
A very angry Rachel came to on the stone floor of a musty room, her head aching. Where and when am I? She started to sit up and discovered that her hands had been cuffed in front of her and both her pistol and boot knife were missing in action. Church bells rang nearby and she thought she could hear a vehicle outside the shuttered window, but no human voices. Rachel got to her knees, then stood and tried the window. The thick shutters had been locked and she could see a metal grill through the slit between the wooden panels. Next she tried the door but it was locked from the outside and even her claws wouldn’t get through the heavy wood. So, is it the jihadis or the police? She decided to settle down and save her energy. And let her head quit pounding.
The bells chimed another two hours before she heard someone coming. By then she’d managed to get rid of most of the concussion’s effects and was on her feet beside the door when it opened. A young man with black hair, an olive complexion and a nasty look in his eyes shoved into the room, obviously expecting to find a dazed and helpless captive. What he found instead knocked him onto his ass, kicked him in the groin and head for good measure and was halfway down the corridor when a larger man grabbed her. Rachel’s second assailant didn’t waste any time choking her into submission, then dragging her into another room.
While the large man held her, a third figure, wearing a scarf over his lower face, undid her cuffs only to re-secure them behind her back. Rachel’s captor shifted his grip to her arms, pinning them back so tightly that it hurt. The masked figure demanded something in Spanish. Rachel shook her head and he repeated his question, including something about “político ministerio de defensa.”
“No hablo Español,” she said, then gritted her teeth as her arms were forced up, straining her shoulders. “English, not Spanish. No hablo Español,” she repeated a touch frantically.
Rachel lowered her shields enough to read her captors’ annoyance and disbelief. Scarf said something in Arabic and Muscles released her arms. Rachel gasped in relief, lowering her head for a moment. A hand dug into her hair and jerked her head back up.
“What is your name?” a thickly accented voice demanded.
“Rachel ni Panguar,” she replied, angry enough that her own accent came through. The men hesitated, confused by the sound.
“Who are you with?”
She looked her most innocent and confused. “I’m not with anyone. I’m here on a shopping trip.”
Mask’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t lie. What is your name and who are you with?”
Rachel cowered, repeating “Rachel Ni Panguar. I’m here from England on a shopping visit.”
Mask backhanded her.
An hour later the jihadis tossed her, rather the worse for wear, back into the original room. They had not learned much from her but she’d learned far too much from them. In the end they’d bound her hands behind her with bare steel wire, knocked her around a little more and promised worse. Once alone in her cell, she started trying to work her hands free. After that attempt, Rachel didn’t struggle any more against the wire securing her wrists. She could feel the blood already oozing from the cuts and didn’t want to sever a vein. Although it would serve them right to come back and find their “prize hostage” dead she snarled. Then she thought back to what she’d sensed from the three men and her snarl changed to a hiss of fear.
Joschka had finished giving the Grupo Especial de Operaciones officer his observations and statement, and then met Brigadier Khan at the gate of the place where most of the G.D.F. members were staying. Khan led him to his own room, muttering under his breath in Punjabi. “God damn her!” Khan swore as soon as the door shut, drawing an angry look from the Austrian. “She’s too valuable to go charging into harm’s way like this! Even if she is a paramedic. And the little fool knows it!”
Joschka started to say something equally harsh about Rahoul Khan, then stopped himself as Rahoul pointed. “Eyes, my lord General,” the officer cautioned and Joschka took a deep breath to bring himself back under control.
“Rahoul, it’s done. She’s probably alive, probably within fifty kilometers of here.” Joschka got up and paced a little, then settled down again. “Any suggestions?”
Rahoul ran his hand through his short black hair and took a settling breath of his own. “First, we both calm down. Can you contact her if someone boosts you?”
“I don’t know. Remember, she’s an empath, not a telepath, so she works through emotion and not words. You actually might do better trying to reach her,” Joschka pointed out.
Rahoul shook his head as he drummed his fingers on the windowsill. “Only if she’s in her cat shape, my lord General. Otherwise we have to be within a few meters of eachother to work well.” He stared out the window, thinking hard, then turned back to Joschka. There was a mix of emotions in Rahoul’s expression as he studied his former superior. “She’s my friend, but you love her. Or so I guess,” and the Austrian nodded. “That trumps my skills, Sir.” After a thoughtful silence, Khan smiled, an expression that boded ill for his advisor’s assailants. “However, if memory serves, Major de Alba has a ‘cousin’ who might be of more prosaic assistance. If you can find Rachel, I believe he can get her out of wherever she is.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.” Joschka turned to go, then stopped. “Thank you, Rahoul. I’m surprised you’ve not gone grey by now!”
Khan chuckled. “Wait until the twins get their learners’ permits! And sir,” he put his hand on the larger man’s arm, “Congratulations, sir. You made a good choice, even if I do want to throttle her just now.”
“Let’s find her first. Then you can have whatever I leave of her,” Joschka promised.
Rachel’s head felt better, but that was the only improvement in her situation. The jihadis had questioned her again just after their evening prayers, with the same lack of success they’d had the first time. They had finally decided that she was not the Defense Minister’s mistress, but knew little else, since her ID had been in her bag. Bloody amateurs she thought to herself as she worked herself into a sitting position later that night. Again, she’d gained much more from them than vice versa and what she’d learned scared her. Not for herself, no, but for the humans in and around the old city. She leaned her head against the thick stone of the outside wall and considered her options and plans. Rachel had to communicate with someone and that someone had to believe her and get help. She was hungry, thirsty and tired, and her bad leg ached, as did her new bruises.
The Commander stared into the darkness, gathering her strength. Then she reached deep inside herself, to the old fire that she’d let sleep for so long. The Wanderer fed it with images of what could happen if she failed in her efforts and felt the rage, bitterness and fury building within. Her lips pulled back as she snarled, then reached out.
After an unguessable amount of time, Rachel found her target. <<Joschka>> she called, feeling his own search.
<<Rachel! Thank God! Where are you? >> His mind voice strengthened as the link solidified, fed by her anger and his concern. It was still weak, but would hold long enough, maybe.
<<Somewhere in the old city. That’s not important, Graf General. There’s a bomb.>> Rachel smothered her own desires for rescue, hiding them from her love.
Joschka frowned where he lay in his room, deep in a focusing trance. <<The bomb squad can take care of it, Rachel, where are . . .>>
<<NO! Not a conventional weapon>> she corrected, blasting through the link. <<A dirty radioactive bomb, in conjunction with a remote-triggered truck bomb, General. It’s somewhere in or around the Cathedral and they’re going to detonate it within the next 48 hours.>>
She felt his surge of fear and the equally strong will shunting it aside. <<Send me what you have from them and who to look for, Manx One.>> She did as ordered; passing along everything she’d managed to read from her captors. It drained both of them but Rachel had no choice. Neither did Joschka, once he realized the full extent of the jihadis’ plans.
<<Manx One, I have a contact within the GEO and will personally see that they act on your information. Now, Rachel, how are you and where are you?>>
She didn’t lie, exactly. <<I’m fine. The creatures can’t seem to decide what to do with me for the moment, so I’m safe, just tired. I’m in a quiet neighborhood, near a street but without many pedestrians, in an old building by a church with bells.>> Rachel gave him everything she’d heard and seen, trusting Joschka to sort through the information.
<<Love, be careful>> he sent, and she tasted his love, pride, worry and fear for her. She caressed him as best she could, reassuring him of her own love.
<<I’ll try. I’m wearing out, Joschka. God bless,>> she sent back.
<<I’m on the way, Hairball. Love you>> and he closed the link.
She let herself slump onto the floor, eyes closed. Thank you, holy Lord God. Whatever happens, they’ve been warned.
Joschka recognized a kindred soul in “Capitan Rodrigo de Vivar.” The Spaniard’s dark green eyes were those of someone who’d spent a long time in a nasty, unforgiving part of existence and somehow managed to retain both his honor and his faith in the good. “This is the information I have, Capitan de Vivar,” Joschka began, outlining what the Commander had sent him.
The Spaniard frowned. “What you say, General, is very interesting. But, and I’m sure you understand, we can’t close the entire cathedral and surrounding area on just your source’s word. There have been too many false alarms recently for me to get authorization to shut down the core of the old city without very, very good and verifiable intelligence. Who is your source and how did she get word to you, if she’s being held by supposed terrorists?” The man’s distrust was obvious and Joschka didn’t blame him, even though his anger rose a notch.
“She’s a fellow soldier with both counter-terrorism and demolitions experience, Capitan. As to how she transmitted the data, all I can say is that she was part of an experimental communications development program.” Joschka hoped that would be enough to satisfy the officer, but of course it wasn’t.
“I need more specifics, General von Hohen-Drachenburg. We both know terrorists do not, as a rule, give information like this away, and I don’t care to be led into a trap or to have to tell my superiors that I evacuated the old city without cause.” Capitan de Vivar started to get up as if preparing to leave.
Joschka pulled the Commander’s G.D.F. clearance pass out of his pocket and slid it across the table, along with his own. “Run these through your computer, Capitan. It should clarify matters,” Joschka said, putting weight behind his words.
The man did and to Joschka’s great satisfaction Capitan de Vivar’s eyes widened as he saw the results. “She’s your source, sir?”
“Affirmative. You see why I’m inclined to take her seriously. And why I can’t say more about how she contacted me.” Even the barest bones of the Commander’s security access and skill certifications were enough to impress most intelligence personnel and Capitan de Vivar looked up at the Austrian with a new seriousness.
“Sí, General. Here’s a map of the Cathedral and surrounding area . . .” and the two men pored over where, how and the best way to find the item in question.
“I defer to your expertise, Capitan. I just ask that once we find the device, you use some of your resources to find her.” Joschka shoved the surge of worry aside and forced himself to be cold. “She’s too valuable a tool to leave in enemy hands.”
“Certainly, General. And we owe her that much at least,” and the men set to work.
Some time later Rachel heard a welcome voice in her mind. <<Rachel? Rachel can you hear me?>>
She squinted, groping for the contact. <<Affirmative. Go ahead >> Fatigue and thirst made her curt.
Joschka’s relief was plain. <<I’ll be en route to the Cathedral, with some GEO members and a counter-CBN weapons team, very shortly. Do you have anything more?>>
She hated to say it, but she had to. <<Affirmative. They’ve moved their timetable up. You have 12 hours or so. They’re waiting for final orders.>>
He started to ask her another question and she cut him off. <<Love, they’re outside my cell. Good hunting.>>
Joschka gave de Vivar the new information. Then he went into the beautiful Baroque and Renaissance Cathedral of the Incarnation, studying the soaring white and gold interior of the huge church. He genuflected to the Presence, then lit a candle to Santiago and offered prayers for the men and women searching in and around the edifice, and for his fiancée. Holy Lord God who sent Saint James and Michael Archangel to lead and protect Your faithful, be with us. A quarter of an hour later, he looked over at the sarcophagi in the royal chapel and whispered an urgent plea, then went to find Capitan de Vivar.
The Captain had even worse news, at least as far as the Commander’s safety. “We just received word that someone called the Israeli embassy an hour ago, claiming that they had a female Israeli agent of some kind hostage and will execute her in two more hours if they are not provided with transportation and safe passage out of Spain. Then they sent a picture.” He handed Joschka a copy of the image.
“That’s her,” Joschka confirmed, wondering as he did, Rachel, are you playing some kind of game with them? “I trust their demand was rejected?”
“Of course. We no longer negotiate with would-be terrorists,” de Vivar reminded the Austrian.
Rachel had known she was really in trouble when Mask addressed her in Hebrew. She’d sung hymns in the language and had picked up a few more words (the rude ones) from Captain Moshe ben David, so she recognized the tongue, if not what Mask asked her. One word she had understood – “Mossad.” Well, she’d just confirm their wrong guess and see what happened, in hopes that it would keep them from paying much attention to the search around the cathedral. She’d replied to Mask in Hebrew, calling him and his friends very, very bad things. Bad enough that he’d hit her again, much harder than before.
Then he stared at her face and at something on his hand. Ut oh the Wanderer’s stomach clenched a little. Her cosmetics bonded to her skin so they couldn’t rub off easily, but apparently after almost a day and a half the chemicals were breaking down. Mask took a rag, and as Muscles and the third man held her still, he spat on her cheek and then rubbed the makeup off from under her blind eye, revealing her scars.
That clenched her identity, as far as the jihadis were concerned. It also gave Mask an idea as to how to take care of the encumbrance that she might become. She had seen the smile creeping into his dark brown eyes and hadn’t cared for it one bit. Then Muscles hauled her to her feet and Mask punched her in the stomach, hard. As she wretched and gasped, the youngest man jammed a rag into her mouth and gagged her. Then he reached into her shirt and groped her breasts, until Mask cut his fun short. Ja, don’t want him touching an unclean kufir now, do you? Not that I can give you that kind of pleasure, slimemold’s degenerate cousin. The boss barked an order in Arabic and Muscles had put something on her wrists that caused her even more pain. She glowered at them, earning another blow to the head. The kick she landed on Muscles on the way to her cell cost her a slap and knife slashes that left her face and chest bleeding. It also took the last of her energy.
Once back in her cell Rachel lay down on the floor, carefully avoiding putting pressure on her hands and wrists. If Joschka and the Spanish found the bomb and then could locate her within ninety minutes, she’d be fine. And if not, well, she’d decided on plans B and C. Sorry beloved. I may leave you waiting once more she thought apologetically. Then the half-blind brunette closed her eye, relaxed her muscles and willed herself into unconsciousness.
Half an hour after Joschka confirmed Rachel’s identity, one of Capitan de Vivar’s experts sounded the alarm. “Begin evacuating the area, now! We found it. And there’s more than one.” Joschka wasted no time getting out of the way as GEO, CNP and bomb disposal people swarmed the plaza and Cathedral. The items in question had been secreted in a series of very large decorative planters near the edge of the plaza, by a main entrance to the area, although the truck bomb was still missing. Lead glazed pottery – cute Joschka thought as he listened to the briefing. All right, Rachel, he told her, wherever she was, we found it. Now it’s your turn.
The terrorists may have known bomb making but their communications were woefully insecure. Or someone had gotten lazy and careless. They’d called the Israeli embassy on a land-line phone and the embassy’s own security people had traced it back as part of their standard threat response procedures. The location matched the description Rachel had managed to get to her superior and as soon as the bomb’s location was secure, Joschka and a group of heavily armed policemen and GEO troops were en route to their next objective.
“Check every room, but be careful! They probably have booby traps scattered around,” the Policía captain ordered. Joschka reached for the Commander’s mind but could no longer find it. Her mental trace had vanished.
At least her captors had retreated so abruptly that they’d left a set of car keys, two computers and some cell-phones behind for the counter-terror people to analyze. The soldiers moved quickly and carefully through the old building and Joschka growled when they found the execution chamber. A wire noose hung from a thick beam in the ceiling and three cameras had been set up to record events. Judging by other things in the room, all the equipment had been used recently and the Austrian braced himself for what they would probably find. Oh little one, I’m so sorry that we’re late, he sent toward her, wherever she might be now.
“In here!” a voice called from two doors farther down, and the captain and Graf-General looked into the small, shuttered room.
“That’s her,” Joschka confirmed as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Please merciful Lord, please . . . Rachel lay partly on her back, hands behind her. When the CNP man gave the all clear, the HalfDragon knelt by her side after making certain that her body had not been booby-trapped. Despite all appearances she was alive and Joschka cut away her gag, using one end to wipe some of the blood off her face. The woman still didn’t move and Joschka began rolling her fully onto her side. “Nasty bastards,” the sergeant hissed when they saw the cuts and bruises on her face and on the side of her head, the glass-powdered wire binding her hands, and the blood on her clothes and the floor.
A shout of “Allahu Akbar!” and gunshots from a different part of the building sent everyone into defense mode and Joschka cringed as he remembered the still un-located truck bomb. The Policía captain slammed the door shut as he and the sergeant went on alert and Joschka dragged Rachel into a corner out of any lines of fire (and away from the side of the room closest to the road), interposing his body between her and the entrance before drawing his own weapon. Rachel moved under his hands and he helped her into a sitting position. Her eye snapped open and she stared around the room. Then she realized who crouched in front of her. “My lord General?” she croaked.
“Rachel! Thank God,” Joschka breathed, clutching her tightly with one arm as he trained his pistol at the door. Rachel buried her face against his chest. He held her there for several long minutes until the police outside the room gave the all clear. Then the sergeant tossed him a pair of wire cutters and Joschka holstered his weapon and set to work.
“I want the bastards, Joschka. I want them to suffer,” she snarled after she’d gotten some water. “And I’m not going shopping ever again!”
He didn’t answer, but concentrated on cutting her hands free while she briefed the CNP officers. The Austrian nobleman’s mouth twisted into a snarl of his own at how she’d been treated, although he admitted to himself it could have been much, much worse. “The idiots first thought I was the Defense Minister’s ‘cousin’, then decided that I was an Israeli, probably with Shin Beit or Mossad,” she explained as one of the paramedics rinsed and bandaged her wrists. “After all, what other woman would be armed and daring to fight back against ‘warriors of the Prophet’?” She didn’t mention how she’d goaded them.
As soon as they got word that the truck had been found in another building, the policía gave Joschka permission to move Rachel out of her cell. Hohen-Drachenburg hadn’t lost any of his strength over the years, as he proved by picking the exhausted, light-headed and rather surprised Commander up and carrying her out of the cell and into the cool, misty afternoon. He noticed something and frowned. “Love, where’s your necklace?”
“In my satchel, with General Khan. I put it there when I showered yesterday morning and decided it would be safer with him if I wanted to try on scarves. I’d hate to snag something expensive,” she explained as Joschka set her down on some steps behind the cover of one of the police vehicles. “He’s borrowing the laptop and I just let him have the entire bag. I hope he didn’t eat all of my dried beef and cuttlefish!”
Joschka gave her a faintly disapproving look. She glanced around and continued in Trader, “Did they find the bombs?”
He nodded. “Affirmative. The cathedral plaza has been sealed and a disposal team is at work. We went there first.” He looked away for a moment. “That’s why we were almost too late.”
Rachel shook her head. “No, love. I’m only one person and that thing going off would have caused who knows how much pain and mayhem for the innocents here. Remember Portobello Road?” There was sorrow in her eye as she laid her hand over his. “We both know how this Universe works.”
Joschka had to agree but that didn’t make him like it. Instead he took her battered hand and thanked God that they had found her. And the bombs.
Six hours later, Joschka looked up from his book and smiled. In light of the security situation and the need to fully debrief Commander Na Gael, he, General Khan and the GEO commander on site had decided that Rachel was safer in a different location that night, one closer to the local GEO and Policía posts and where she’d be (despite her vociferous protests) under strict and discreet guard. Thus the pillow in his lap, with her head laying on it as the rest of her curled up on 2/3 of the couch in his suite while she dozed. Joschka rested his hand on her shoulder, reassuring himself that she was all right and feeling the faint vibration coming from her. By now nothing about her should surprise me Joschka mused. Even that she purrs!
After another chapter she stirred and he helped her sit up. She’d been hungry and dehydrated and she drank another glass of water, then disappeared for a bit before returning to the sitting room.
“A pfennig for your thoughts?” she asked, slowly stretching her arms and shoulders. The muscles ached and the cuts on her wrists stung as the scabs pulled taut.
“That I don’t want to see you in danger ever again. And that I know I might as well ask the jihadis to become Franciscans, because it will be more likely to happen than you not being yourself.” His heart ached at how often he’d come close to losing her, even before today. And those where just the times he knew about!
She nodded, expression grim. “You understand me too well, Joschka. I ‘read’ what the nasty creatures had planned for me. If you’d not found me, I was going to sever my veins with the wire rather than give them the pleasure of using me in their sick propaganda.” Joschka knew she’d been serious and closed his eyes against the pain in his heart.
“Love, are you still sure you want me?” a quiet voice asked as she settled beside him.
“Yes. Absolutely yes,” and he turned slightly, taking her hand and holding it over his heart. “We’re both soldiers, Hairball. I know what that means and I’ll take every moment I can get with you.”
She put the pillow back and laid down again, smiling. He stroked her hair, lightly scratching between where her ears had once been. “Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that I found your backpack, with my purchases in it, all safe.”
“That’s good,” she replied. “I’d hate for you to have to try to convince that nice lady in the accessory shop that shrapnel holes came under her guarantee.”
He shook his head at her graveyard humor. “Commander Na Gael Ni Drako, in thirty-six hours you’ve managed to give me two years worth of grey hair, irritated General Khan by missing his lecture session, and ruined a bombing. I don’t suppose you have anything to say for yourself?”
A tiny smile tugged the corner of Rachel’s mouth as she turned her head so he could rub under her chin; her eye wide open and innocent. “Mew?”
The HalfDragon laughed so hard that he dropped his book.
(C) 2016 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved