Then she got hold of herself. She and Lliant could die in the next few blinks, that was true. But it was also true that without aid, they were soon to perish anyway, as indeed were all their kind, scrambling even now back on Valeron to send off a few of their number to dubious safety. Nothing was more certain than the fact that the Ekhat would return to extract vengeance for their lost ships.

The three were staring at her, two of them Jao, the other, one of the unnamed aliens. She noticed, off to the side, the newcomers had rounded up a few Anj and were guarding the little serviles, rather than exterminating them. How very strange.

Even stranger was that the aliens evidently intended to keep one of the Ekhat alive, even though they’d severed all of its limbs. For what possible purpose? she wondered.

But, whatever the aliens’ intent, they had not fired upon her or Lliant. So at least they were not purely murderous. With a great effort, she put aside her useless fear and then jetted toward the alien who seemed to be in charge, the one with the yellow thatch of fur on its small head. Lliant followed, she noted with approval. If they were to have any chance of surviving, she would have to find a way to appeal to this alien creature.


“Heads up, Major!” Burgeson called.

Tully turned to find the captured pair sailing through the debris field toward him.

“They do not seem to be armed,” Kaln said as she trailed after them, good ear pinned, weapon ready. Nam krinnu ava Terra came too, his gun trained upon the aliens. “And, Major Tully, one of them managed to say so — in Jao.”

In Jao? Tully studied the creatures. Did the Ekhat perhaps keep some of these — whatever they were — around as linguists or translators?

“Stop,” he said in Jao, as the one in front neared. It complied, employing its suit jets for station-keeping. “How are you called?”

“I am Jihan,” it said. He could see a strange fleshy serrated corona rippling across its head through the suit’s helmet. Its skin was a dusky silver, its eyes gleaming black slits. If the two of them had stood face to face on the ground, it would have been head and shoulders taller. “You — rule Jao,” it said, sweeping an arm toward Kaln and Nam, who both promptly looked affronted. “Jao — our — old enemy.”

For a translator, Tully thought, the words certainly weren’t coming very fluently.

Then it straightened, raising its head, seeming to tap into an inner store of words. “The Lleix have proposal,” it said slowly, in heavily accented Jao, “one to set your people free to come into own.”

“It must belong to the Ekhat,” Burgeson said in English. “It’s just as freaking nuts as they all are!”

“You already fierce warriors,” Jihan continued carefully in Jao, obviously producing each syllable with a great deal of effort to get the sounds right. “No one could dispute. The Lleix believe you great people. You have to reach for the freedom Ekhat masters never allowed.”

Mallu joined them, his ears wavering. “What is this?”

“I have no idea,” Tully said. “Do you recognize the species?”

“No,” Mallu said. “But the Melody may have many client races we have never encountered.”

“Jao-slaves!” The alien, Jihan, gestured at the Krant-Captain, then turned to Tully. “You rule now! You!”

Kaln’s good ear twitched. “It believes we are your slaves,” she said, and even with his poor ability to read postures, Tully was sure he detected a sudden intent-to-commit-mischief in her lines. The Senior-Tech jetted between him and the two captives. “You are correct,” she said and pointed at herself, Mallu, and Nam, “we are but lowly Jao slaves.” She swept her arm back toward Tully. “That, however, is Tully, master of many great ships and eater of Ekhat!”

“Now, hold on –” Tully began. Since first accepting Jao into his jinau unit, he knew full well that what passed for Jao humor was about as far removed from dry wit as you could ask for. And once they got amused by something, they almost always took it too far.

The alien stiffened all the way up to its corona. “This very one — eat — the great devils?”

“Yes — while still alive!” Kaln said, positively gleeful. She pointed to immobile body of the one surviving Ekhat. “Eat it still alive!”

Tully winced. Even if this creature were only an Ekhat servile, there wasn’t any point in deceiving it. He raised his voice. “Kaln, this is not the time for –”

“We needing — help,” Jihan said, its fleshy crown rippling. “All Lleix — needing help — now!”

Its companion hung back, regarding them with an inscrutable black gaze. Maybe they weren’t Ekhat serviles at all, but captives. How was he supposed to figure this out? “You are Lleix?” he said, struggling to pronounce the name. The closest he could come was “Laysh.”

“Yes, yes!” the alien cried.

Tully rolled his eyes. He was good at fighting, but he sure as hell wasn’t trained for this. “Are there more Lleix on this ship?” he asked. If so, he thought, poor buggers, they were most likely all dead.

“No, on planet!” Jihan said, waving an arm. “Valeron! On surface!”

“But– ” he began.

“Lord Tully rules twenty planets!” Kaln broke in. “He brews soup from lakes and straightens rivers with his bare hands!”

Tully turned to the Krant-Captain for assistance, but Mallu was looking distinctly amused. Jao humor. Right.

“Kaln, go back to the assault craft!” he said desperately. If he understood the alien correctly, at least one of the worlds in this system was inhabited by these Lleix which made this some sort of First Contact situation. That meant Kaln was screwing the proverbial pooch.

The tech gazed at him, eyes flickering with merry green fire. “Pool Buntyam,” she said. “Tully is like Pool Buntyam!”

“Great,” Tully said under his breath. Whose bright idea had it been to tell the Krants tall tales?

Well. His.

“And then there is Bab the green ox –” Kaln continued.

“Shut — up!” Tully said and glared Kaln into blessed silence. He closed his eyes for a second, trying to think. “This is way above my pay grade,” he said. “We need to contact Caitlin and Wrot.”

“Cat-lin and Rot?” Jihan said. “These rule — as well?”

“Yes, yes, Caitlin!” Kaln said, still clearly on a roll and enjoying herself far too much to let it go. “Queen of the Universe, ruler of all and possessor of many many fine green ox! Wrot is of course her faithfullest slave. She lives on a comet and uses stars to cook comestibles!”

“Queen?” Jihan said. Its corona fluttered.

“A queen,” Kaln burbled on, “is a female ruler who –”

Tully reached over and punched Kaln’s radio off. Then they all stared at one another, human, Jao, and Lleix. How in holy hell had Kaln even heard of “lords” and “queens?” He’d suggested that Caewithe Miller tell the Krants a few simple tall tales, not relate a goddamned entire fairy tale book!

He should have known better. With a name like “Caewithe,” the lieutenant had to come from a family with one of those Celtic fetishes. Probably got fed ancient mythology with her mother’s milk, and cut her teeth on legends as she was growing up. Could read runes by moonlight and recite the Iliad from beginning to end.

This, he thought grimly, was going to take some explaining.