The alien planet Baroque isn’t where I dreamed I would be as a little girl on Earth. But after slavers abducted me and I spent years in misery, it’s a safe home.
I have friends. A job. A life, even if it’s sometimes a lonely one.
The last part is fine with me. Better to be lonely than trust any of the Broqu on the planet. They only protect us because we’re a gateway to their Goddess, a being I’m not even certain is real. I want nothing to do with Broqu.
Then that safety is ripped away.
Because my protection here? It comes with a price. And three handsome Broqu lords have approached me with an offer of the unthinkable.
“You had three days to tell me you needed more stasek meat, Heryam! How am I supposed to find the delicate ears of a stasek in two hours? You know they’re endangered and forever on backorder!”
“How was I to know that the delivery would show up with a vekking shaurcul eating half my fresh produce!?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose as a tentacle wagged angrily in my face. “Heryam, you had time to check your produce and you didn’t. There aren’t enough butchers on this planet to get us what we need and now we have at least a hundred people without a plate tonight. Do you know how much tickets to this event cost? Thousands in credits, Heryam.”
Three tentacles went into the air at his frustration. One had a rather large knife that glinted in the blinding white light illuminating the event center’s sparkling kitchen. “How do you propose I fix it? Cook old shoe leather to feed these rich vhrinuts? I cannot create something out of nothing.”
Would hammering a rusty nail into my big toe be better than this? Absolutely. Did I still have to deal with this? Absolutely.
I whipped out my tablet while knives went flying in my peripheral, the kitchen bustling with activity despite the mangled produce. At least we still had our sides. Shaurculs were meat-eaters and so the vegetables sat pristine still in their boxes next to the overflowing bags of trashed stasek meat. What had happened to the shaurcul when they opened up the stasek and found the little weasel-like rodent sitting like a fat cat on top of it, I didn’t know or care. Probably someone’s lunch, and good riddance to the little butthead. The clank of pots and pans and the hiss of blue flames created a good ambiance as I scrolled through the virtual shelves of the planet’s butchers, the staff’s busyness keeping my heart from exploding out of my chest from anxiety.
I turned my tablet around to Heryam. “What about lecels fish? That’s pretty hoity-toity, right?”
Heryam’s tentacles stopped waving and he pulled down his spectacles to peer at my tablet with shiny blue-black eyes. Despite his five tentacles and blob of a body as large as one of the industrial ovens we stood in front of, he reminded me more of a walrus than an octopus or squid. He snorted through the two holes below his eyes. “It’s only forty-five kilos!”
“How much more do we need? About twenty? I’m sure I can get twenty kilos somewhere else. It’s not as hard to get as stasek and a majority of guests noted no preference on the type of meat served, so we’ll save what stasek we do have for those who did specify stasek and we’ll have lecels for the others. I mean, does that sound feasible? You’re cooking it, after all.”
A gasp escaped him. “I am no mere cook.”
I wish I had spectacles to peer over my nose at him with like some grouchy librarian. “Pardon me, can you use your diverse and fantastic culinary artistry to prepare this fish into hundreds of plates?”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic about it,” Heryam muttered. A blase tentacle wave later, he approved the purchase and I headed out of the kitchen through the swinging door and into the church. Fairy lights twinkled overhead as engineers worked on setting the right mood. Only a third of the tables had been dressed so far and, after I finished the rush order on the fish, I hefted a box of flowers and a vase from the pile with a grunt and dragged them to the closest table. Idle hands and all that.
So dinner was on course… tables… the stage was already set, the lighting absolutely perfect for the auction. I’d tucked the remote away so it couldn’t be lost in the melee of people running back and forth. Overall, though I’d been awake for what felt like seven straight days on Baroque as I organized the annual Baroque Tribute Ceremony. Everything was falling into place exactly as it should, no major hiccups at all and now we were well into the eleventh hour.
“Was it the white flowers above the windows and the drapes by the doors or was it the other way round?”
Kelly walked up to me, a harassed expression on her face and drapes haphazardly balled in her hands. As one of the many humans helping me put together this event, seeing her harassed made me instantly wary. Party planning was like herding a dozen cats over white rapids. One cat leaping would see the whole herd jumping into chaos.
I peered over my blue and white arrangement and furrowed my brows at the drapes in her hands.
“Those aren’t the right ones. That’s extra from the stage. The drapes you should put around the door are those packed over there by the bar—make sure all the wrinkles are ironed out.”
“Got it, thanks!”
“Nothing else? Everything else good?”
“No one’s said anything to me. All good, boss!”
Kelly had barely scurried off before Vuter stormed up to me, shaking a fist bedecked with pustules filled with poisonous gas. Burst one and you’re dead ten seconds after you inhale it. It made the Rasqun race a formidable enemy in hand-to-hand combat and it made it all the more alarming as he shook said fist an inch under my nose.
“The sound system hasn’t been checked!”
“That’s in your contract, Vuter,” I said, my flat, unimpressed expression making Vuter stumble short. Vuter was a great sound guy, a terrible businessman. “Your contract makes you responsible for that.”
His square jaw clenched, a muscle in his red brow pulsing as he glared down at me. “Well. It’s common courtesy not to surprise your sound engineer the day of with equipment as poorly done as this.”
“You were more than welcome to come ahead of time,” I said. “Should we revisit the contract now? I get that you’re mad, but there’s no way I can time travel and fix that. So what do you want to do, Vuter?”
What he wanted was to bitch some more, his eyes said so, but he wasn’t getting the response he wanted. I hardly ever gave people the response they wanted. It was an eternal failing of mine and why, despite numerous attempts to persuade me otherwise, I never participated in the ceremony myself. Sure, I would put together the party—that called to my obsessive need to control everything to the last detail—but the last thing I wanted was to act like I wanted aliens to paw at me and lavish me with attention just to get to my gooey human, psychedelic blood.
Because that was what all this was for. The history of humans commingling with the Broqu on Baroque was this: the Broqu enjoyed their mind-allowing drug of choice, alumeheo, which allowed them to literally see the goddess, so they all said. It was so reliable that the Broqu became the holy people of the galaxy. The problem was the side effect of said drug, namely death with a healthy dose of spontaneous combustion. It wasn’t a surprise to see use of alumeheo fall out of favor, a risk only the truly devout would take.
But the aliens of Baroque weren’t content with the drop to their recognition and status, not to mention the decline in tourists coming to pilgrimage on the planet, and so they looked for alternatives. What they found was that certain species, but especially those low on the food chain—thankfully for them—could withstand the drug without any side effects, not even hallucinations. All the Broqu needed to do was drink their blood to return to those blessed Burning Man concerts inside their head.
As soon as the Broqu figured out these fangless, clawless humans scattered throughout the galaxy could consume the drug without any ill effect, and those same humans were physically compatible with their species, it was all over for the humans. Baroque became our refuge, a refuge that came with a decree—any eligible human would be at the demand of the Broqu if called upon.
On one hand, Baroque was the one place I had ever felt safe in this awful galaxy. The commune was run in a business-like fashion, the humans were fed and kept healthy and well. We weren’t punished and we generally led ourselves. In fact, the human companion of the Broqu who owned the land the commune sat on actually ran the place.
On the other hand, it was essentially a whorehouse. The laws of the place—peace in exchange for your body—ensured it was so. We might be able to choose on the surface whether we wanted to participate in the tribute ceremonies or if we wanted to remain in support roles, like I did, but at the end of the day, the annual Tribute Ceremony was one event among many for Broqu to purchase a human companion. This ceremony was actually done for charity, while the remainder of the year, human males and females could be bought by the day or the hour. Paid for by providing us space, shelter, and sustenance.
Compared to the rest of the galaxy, I would choose this any day. Keeping my head down had worked so far. Oh, and having the inside ear of the man who scheduled everything. The other tributes could keep all the trinkets and gifts they earned playing blood donor. I wanted nothing to do with any aliens.
“We only have two hours until guests arrive,” I told Vuter. “Is there a reasonable chance you’ll be good to go by then?”
Vuter’s fists clenched but whatever instincts he had to murder me were curtailed by all the notable witnesses. “Fine,” he snapped and stomped away.
Good riddance. This was the final year we used his services. It wasn’t worth the headache when every other hour he had a new complaint.
“I see you are busy, but have you had anything to eat yet, dear?”
My smile turned genuine as Jonathan came up to my table. Another human, this one abducted from good old Kansas just ten miles from where I grew up, and somehow we’d ended up in the wider galaxy together. He had found his way to the commune on Baroque five years before I showed up, and he had taken my bruised and battered self and molded me into a useful, productive person again.
“I suppose I can stomach it—as long as it’s nothing out of this kitchen,” I said, jerking my thumb to point at the busy kitchen.
He held up two steaming bowls. “Tasty, bland noodles coming up.”
Perfect. I was happy to wrap up and follow him out the side door of the event center. Baroque itself was beautiful. This part of the planet was a lush and green paradise with sparkling blue waters and tall jungles teeming with life. It reminded me of the Amazon, if the Amazon were devoid of any hostile creatures or insects. Placid, safe Baroque wouldn’t allow any of its people to be injured by any nasty wildlife. So that meant the beauty before us, huge flowers turned toward the sun, vivid colors set against deep, lush greenery, was completely safe.
That was just fine with me. I wouldn’t say I was terrified of bugs … but I couldn’t say I wasn’t, either.
People hurried through the garden paths, some working on placing lights for the midnight stroll or hurrying inside to continue the setup.
Jonathan steered us to a stone bench off the main path and I gratefully took my bowl of noodles and dug in.
“You’re lucky you’re easy to cook for because I definitely didn’t know how to use most of the things in our kitchen.”
“That’s what you get, growing up using only the microwave. You should learn to cook sometime.”
He shook his loose, blond hair out of his face and slurped up a spoonful of noodles. “You should teach me.”
“If you know how to cook noodles, you’re set.”
“You have the palate of a five year old,” he sighed and we shared a grin.
Jonathan was only one of the two people I trusted in this messed up galaxy. One of the few who you could rely on not to sell you out for a few credits. My guard dropped in his company and I counted him as a true friend. Like me, he knew the dangers of the galaxy all too well. Our scars were similar and we’d discussed staying in the commune for the rest of our lives, an earned retirement after the trials we had been through.
I thought Morgan would be with us too… the three musketeers sticking together. But apparently she didn’t even have time for us anymore, not now she was the pampered plaything of some Broqu.
It took some humans like that. They grew attached to their Broqu masters. Even convinced themselves they were equal companions. I never expected Morgan would succumb to such ridiculous thinking, but she liked to see the good in everyone.
I knew what the world was like. Good was rare in this galaxy.
“Worse than last year’s,” Jonathan said with a grimace. “I doubt we’ll be setting any records tonight. Harvey will be pissed but…” He shrugged. “All our people keep getting snatched up.”
I scowled around my mouthful of noodles. “I noticed that the number of people volunteering tonight was less than usual. You’re saying that they’re really all taking permanent spots out there?”
“Yep,” he said, mouth popping on the ‘p’. I shook my head and Jonathan gave me a side eye. “You ever think about doing it?”
I snorted. “I would rather bury myself alive. You get the same outcome anyway.”
“So harsh,” he said with a chuckle, so I could tell he was relaxed by my response, probably thinking about Morgan too. “You never know, you might find a Broqu sugar daddy you like.”
“You could find one,” I replied with a pert look.
“Nah. Having to schedule all these booty calls day in and day out, I don’t have the energy to make any of my own.”
Jonathan was in charge of the commune’s schedule. Our pimp, basically. It wasn’t an easy job, but at least he could make sure our kind were being treated right. He looked over at me and I had the thought—not for the first time—that I could see myself settling with him. In his easy, carefree way, he complemented me. Maybe if we were both in Kansas we would’ve married high school sweethearts or our dentist or something… but here, you found comfort where you could, and the commune was my home.
Nothing would change that.
The snickering behind me was starting to get on my nerves.
“Don’t you have something to do? Away from here?” I snarled behind me at the two women giggling together.
One of them, rosy cheeked, trouble dancing in her eyes, grinned. “I don’t know, it looks like you need some help, Emery.”
Flushed from the roots of my hair all the way down my chest—a lovely look for sure—I glared at the two women and they giggled and wandered off toward backstage. Meanwhile, I reached up on my stocking feet and tried once again to grab the end of the string tied to the great white balloon caught in the eaves. Even on the bar top, I was just a little bit too short. Great. And now people were coming in. Super great.
I huffed under my breath. Finally, the number of disasters that could’ve occurred had dwindled down, fires all put out, people stressed but in the zone… and then this stupid balloon got away from me and now it was cheerfully bumping against one of the ceiling beams, its string a couple inches from my grasping fingertips.
Now I had spectators. Whisper-yelling at me as they passed by on their way to their stations as Broqu started filling the room.
“It’s just a balloon!”
“Just leave it be!”
I didn’t even offer a reply to that. Leave it be? Impossible.
“I suppose the bar isn’t open?”
“The bar is open for me to kick you in the face if—”
The words died on my tongue as I stared at the alien leaning on the end of the bar. “Oh.”
He smirked, his obsidian horns reflecting the globe lights overhead as he tilted his head. “I think I’d prefer a drink, if you don’t mind. Although maybe I can help you in exchange for said drink.”
I noticed his face first. The scar running in a jagged line across his cheek. The glint in his eye. The upturned left corner of his mouth. Was he laughing at me? There was no mockery in his eyes, though, only a smile that faintly touched those blue irises. Two obsidian horns, shaped like a ram’s horns, jutted from his forehead. There were numerous scratches and scuffs; no matter how much paint he put on them, it couldn’t hide his fighter’s past. This was a male who had seen combat. Not like Vuter, shaking his fist at helpless humans. This was a warrior and he leaned casually against the bar, and waited for my answer.
There wasn’t any point in being more embarrassed than I already was. That ship had sailed.
I looked from him to the balloon. “I’m not letting you on this bartop,” I said.
“It wouldn’t fit me anyway.” Understatement of the century. He was built like a side-by-side industrial fridge. Muscles rippled under his suit as he straightened off the bar. “But I can lift you up.”
My eyebrows raced for my hairline. “Lift me up?”
“Yeah. With my hands.” He held out his hands and wiggled his fingers. Two huge dolphin-sized hands.
I scoffed. “Yeah right. You want to pick me up?”
He lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. “Sure. We can’t let a rogue balloon ruin the party, can we? Before you know it this place will be descending into chaos.”
The chatter of the growing number of guests filing into the room washed over me. Not many were looking toward the bar yet, but that could change at any moment. I had seconds at most.
I narrowed my eyes at the Broqu. “You want to help me in exchange for a drink. What kind of drink you want?”
His laugh startled me. It seemed to surprise him too, and the Broqu’s eyes lit as he took me in from my stocking-clad legs to my rumpled silk blouse and the hair I hadn’t run a comb through since the crack of dawn this morning. “Come on,” he said as I experienced a wave of self-consciousness, helped along by how pristine his charcoal suit was, “I promise not to order the expensive stuff.”
But his eyes were dancing and I was jittery, unable to glance away from him for very long. Something about him managed to put me at ease immediately and it was worrying and, well, worrying.
“All right,” I said slowly, “make sure you don’t order anything expensive. This is for charity, you know.”
“Is it? What charity? I didn’t look at the ticket.”
“The commune, actually.” Rich as sin aliens. Thousands in credits to show up and–
And the smirk playing on his lips made me narrow my eyes.
“You knew that already.”
His full bottom lip stretched out as his smirk widened. “Can you blame a male for trying to start a conversation? I get the feeling you’ll run out of here as soon as you get my help.”
“I wouldn’t.” I totally would. “I’m a trustworthy sort. I planned this party, actually, so I really have nowhere to go.”
“Is that right?” An eyebrow raised, looking around the room as people sat at the elegantly decorated tables, the gentle music welcoming people in as they arrived. He turned back, impressed. “Good. Now all we need to do is capture this one errant balloon.”
Did I imagine he was looking at me differently? My throat thick, I swallowed and ducked my head. “Yes, well, balloons first and then your drink…”
My mouth was running away from me and I couldn’t catch it no matter what I tried. Too jittery. Too nervous as I watched him slip between the barstools next to me and hold up his hands.
“Well? Are you going to turn around?”
I really agreed to do this? Those hands were waiting and I gave him one last wary look before turning my back to him. He was the perfect height to slide his hands—huge, alien hands, slightly cool, calluses catching on my silk blouse—and then there was the grasp of his hands on my waist and my feet left the bar top.
It took two tries for my slippery hands to get a hold of the balloon’s string. But I eventually wrapped my hand around the string and yanked it down like the troublemaker it was. As soon as the Broqu let my feet hit the bartop, I scrambled down, and hid my flushed face inside the mini fridge.
“So what can I get you?” I asked, voice muffled, my back to the room and, most importantly, him.
Rushing footsteps saved me from more interaction with the alien. It was Kelly, panting and with her hair half done up and the straps of her shoes unbuckled. She crouched down beside me and put her hand to her chest for a moment before she whisper-hissed, “Emery, you gotta get behind the stage. There’s something wrong with wardrobe! The girls are freaking!”
“Great, let’s go!” I said, popping up like a mad jack-in-the-box. The bartender was crossing the room, flicking a piece of lint off his jacket like he had all the time in the world. I waved at him, pointed to the Broqu, and said, “Give him whatever he wants on the house.”
The bartender saluted. “Yes, sir, boss, sir!”
Ugh. Drunk. Whatever. I didn’t have time.
I glanced back as I followed Kelly through the door to the backstage. Why I did it, I didn’t know. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity. But something within me wanted one more look, a glimpse of that stranger with his half-smile.
He wasn’t looking my way, and my heart sank. I winced. Silly woman! Why would he look at me, some crazy woman jumping on bar tops without her shoes? But I lingered there anyway, using one last moment to watch him smile and tip the bartender before he turned away and strode off.
He had a really nice backside.
“I see that you have a new admirer,” Jonathan said behind me. I let the door close with a slam, cutting off the view of the tables and the guests.
I made a face as I spun toward him. “Don’t jinx me like that, I swear to God—”
He laughed and clamped his hand on my shoulder. “The girls are having some issues with the size of their dresses,” he warned me. “Watch out for those claws.”
“Will do,” I said, and hurried on, vaguely aware of him opening the door and peering out at the guests behind me.
Why was I so concerned about some Broqu?
It had thrown me off my game. That was it, plain and simple. But I shook my head and told myself firmly that at no point in my history had I ever thought favorably of an alien, and at no point would I start. I didn’t have time for aliens who had more money than God… I didn’t have time for aliens, period.
Backstage, women and men chatted, some laughter, but the panicked whispering drew me like a compass finding north. It turned out that only two of the tributes had an issue. They’d gained weight since the tailor had measured them. Not unusual on our rich diet, but not the time. Luckily, we had some women who were between sizes and could squeeze into them, leaving their dresses for the other women. Crisis averted with minimal pain and I was happy again as the emcee tested the mic outside on the stage.
I headed to the front of the line where Jonathan stood with his clipboard, ready to start the lineup. “Good luck!” I whispered to the first woman in line, nervously bouncing on her tiptoes.
She grinned. “Aren’t you supposed to say break a leg?”
“That’s for a performance!” I said with a laugh.
Jonathan waved her on as the emcee called for the first tribute of the night. Her sequined skirt slipped out of sight and I turned to Jonathan. “Feeling like we’re throwing them to the sharks?”
He shrugged. “It’s what they signed up for.”
“And you,” I pointed out. He rolled his eyes and I found better things to do elsewhere. Since I wasn’t on the menu tonight, I headed for the tables in the back where I had arranged the gift bags earlier. It had taken two weeks to organize the little bags for the Broqu and it was one of my favorite parts about the annual ceremonies. These rich Broqu didn’t know much about the galaxy off Baroque, so they were always delighted by the novelty items I stuck in these. A bit of harmless fun.
My mind went back to the Broqu at the bar and I wondered who he would be going home with tonight. Faintly, I knew it was stupid to keep returning to thoughts of him. But he compelled me in some way, and I couldn’t shake it. I was supposed to fear aliens. I did fear them. So why was I thinking about him?
Maybe it had something to do with being taller than him at the bar. I’d been able to look down at the Broqu and hadn’t felt a smidgen of fear. He was also handsome, I suppose, in the way you didn’t want to tell your mother about. I grimaced. Handsome or not, thinking about him was only distracting me.
Why would a rich, spoiled Broqu have a scar? Broqu didn’t fight. There wasn’t some underground fight club here. A main tenet of the Broqu race was that they didn’t fight. They used their holy status to claim exemption from the military, so Her Imperial Majesty’s fights didn’t concern them. If they weren’t holy, they were rich, and could tithe away any responsibility to the military.
Yet that scar, deep and ragged, and his rough horns bespoke a past littered with pain.
Sighing, I shoved the thoughts away. A fanciful imagination, pretending he wasn’t like all the others out there. Here to purchase a human to grace his arm. That was all we were to them: blood bags they could stick their dick in.
It was Kelly, tugging on my sleeve and trying to get my attention. I jerked and she jumped back.
Jonathan was behind Kelly and his face was grim. “There’s been a call. Your name.”
My brow wrinkled. “What?”
“Someone called your name. A lord.”
Numbness spread upwards from my fingertips, encapsulating my wrist and spreading tentacles up my arm, past my elbows over my shoulders. There was a buzzing, painful noise in my ears and I had to look at Jonathan’s lips. He repeated, “He’s put a claim on you, Emery. The lord has put a claim on you.”