Chapter Twenty-Three – The Half-Lion Mercenary
In the end, Citlally Winterhawk was given three units of Endan’s blood. She slept through most of it, and when she woke up she found herself ravenous. She was much calmer, everyone was relieved to see, and within a few days was released from the medical center of Nebula Station 246.
She and Endan Clarendon were inseparable. Neither went anywhere without the other, and she clung to his side like a magnet clinging to the hull of a ship. Mannarius went with them more often then not, intent on keeping his promise to look after them until they were safely back home on Earth. Citlally often joked that it was the human girls he was really interested in, but she knew deep down inside that he really did care about their safety.
Doctor Tahkuta assigned the couple to one of the most coveted rooms on the station: the garden apartments. There were several units reserved for the medical center on the grounds that it was a therapeutic way to recover from all sorts of ailments. For all of his arguing with Endan, it truly was important to him that his patients remain healthy, so he insisted that Citlally convalesce in the garden.
It turned out to be their favorite place to explore. It was peaceful there, and most of the time the two humans were the only ones to be found (the other rooms there were unoccupied at the time). There was a pavilion in the middle of it, a place where they could sit and talk about everything that had happened. Endan could not remember much of it, but he was at least able to recall his life back on Earth as well as their time on Space Station Regulus II.
Sometimes they would run out of things to talk about, and simply enjoyed accessing the pavilion computer’s database. There were daily flight records there, ships coming in, ships flying out, uninteresting things like cargo and passenger lists. The interesting part was the jump-gate. They could see whenever it was activated; where the gate led to, what was coming through, all the details. There was only one time since Citlally’s arrival that a ship came in from Remote Outpost 3-14. It caught everyone’s attention right away.
“We I’ll be!” Captain Mannarius said as he watched the video feed from the jump-gate. “He really had the nerve to come this way.”
“What is it?” Citlally asked. “Do you recognize that ship?”
“That star-skipper? It’s my cousin, the young bastard,” Mannarius said in a tone of complete irreverence, “What does he expect, coming here now, I wonder?”
“Ye’ve mentioned him a few times,” Endan said. “Is he the one who had the information on how to find Citlally?”
“Information, connections, poorly-placed trust. You name it, the kid has it.” Mannarius studied Endan’s face for a moment and added. “Don’t get too excited. You wouldn’t like him at all.”
“Why not, if he made my rescue possible?” Citlally wanted to know.
Mannarius only shook his head. He quickly changed the subject.
It took over an hour for the ruckus to begin. It started with footsteps that pounded into the upper level of the garden, followed by shouting. It seemed as though someone was calling out for Mannarius, although the captain only grumbled and didn’t respond. Within a few more minutes, the heavy footfalls shifted, and a tall man emerged from the bushes beside the pavilion.
“Mannarius, hey!” the newcomer called out with a grin. “I finally made it!”
The captain of the Lionstar only glared at him. When Citlally looked him over, she nearly gasped. He was eerily familiar to her, with his shaggy brown hair and pale eyes that reminded her of hazelnuts. She remembered thinking, as though it had been in the distant past, that there was something different about him. He was part human, part lion – no, part Leomian. But she hadn’t known that part back then.
He rubbed one yellow-clad arm, then pulled his jacket over the soft-looking cloth. “Wow, these innoculations are intense! Did you guys have to get shots when you got here, too?”
Mannarius glared at him like an angry lion. “No,” he growled. “You’re the only one filthy enough to need innoculations every time you get back from what you call work!” He was breathing ahrd, and looked ready to roar.
The new arrival blinked when he realized how angry he was. “What’s wrong, Mannarius? Why aren’t you happy to see me? I told you everything that you needed to know in order to get her,” he said, pointing to Citlally, “off of Sardonia.”
“Who is this man?” Endan demanded to know, suddenly feeling very defensive.
“I suppose you could call him a cousin of mine,” Mannarius explained, “though the word doesn’t mean the same in our language as it does in yours.”
“He – he is part of your family?” Citlally asked in utter disbelief, looking at the captain with widened eyes. “Jalingan is related to you?!”
“Did the lizard horde follow you here?” Mannarius snapped, ignoring the human girl’s question.
“Not at all,” Jalingan replied. “I collected my pay and took my leave. I took off and I’m free. No more of that line of work for me.”
“A mercenary’s empty promise,” Mannarius seethed. “Why did you even come here?”
“I had to see how my favorite human was doing,” Jalingan replied with a grin. Then he looked over at Citlally. “And you look great!”
Citlally gaped, furrowed her brow, and looked between Endan and Mannarius for some kind of clue about what she should do.
“Wait…” her husband began. “How do you know my wife?”
“I saved her life!” Jalingan replied, still beaming. “You’re very welcome.”
“You stupid bastard,” Mannarius screamed, “you nearly got her killed!”
The captain was already racing toward Jalingan, his fists flying. The mercenary was so unprepared for an attack that he had no chance of dodging the punch. He took a fist to his left temple, and was instantly on the ground, Mannarius on top of him. “Why the –”
Citlally winced as she heard static through her translator, and looked over at Endan. He looked like he was ready to join in on the fight.
“How could you send her to Sardonia, of all places?” Mannarius demanded to know. “Was it the long hair? You had to know she wasn’t a virgin – and what it meant they’d do to her!”
Mannarius went on screaming at his cousin, grabbing fistfuls of his jacket in what seemed like an effort to keep from punching him again.
“I – Let go of me, Mannarius!” Jalingan said as he struggled to keep his head from hitting the ground. “I figured she wasn’t a virgin. That was why I chose Sardonia. I didn’t want anyone on that transport to be forced to carry Wilang pups.”
“Don’t you know what the lavishta potion does to babies?!” the captain screamed. Citlally thought that she caught the gleam of tears in the corners of his eyes.
“How was I supposed to know that she was pregnant? I had no chance to get her out of there sooner. They had increased security in the halls, and by the time they were giving her the potion, it was too late.”
“The replacement!” Mannarius told him. “What about the replacement?”
“You didn’t tell me in time!” Jalingan explained. “I didn’t know that you were looking for a human girl until she’d already had two doses. Listen, Mannarius, I’m sorry. I –”
“You were on the Regulus II Station,” Citlally said, staring down at him her voice wistful, her thoughts distant.
Mannarius stooped shouting and looked up at her.
“When the K’zzyrch were herding us onto their ships… You were there.”
“So you remember something now?” Mannarius asked.
Citlally nodded. “You came over to me… when the station was tearing apart and they had to use air masks. You said that if I did what I was told, I could survive. So I didn’t fight them.”
“And you didn’t completely give in, either!” Jalingan replied. “The Wilang were this close to sending you away with the K’zzyrch – and the lizards do terrible things to rejects!”
“But either way…” Citlally went on, “you were on that space station with the intent to subvert what the K’zzyrch were doing, weren’t you?”
“Citlally,” Mannarius said is a warning tone, “don’t try to make him out to be some kind of hero. He’s foolhardy and reckless!”
The human girl shrugged. “He kept showing up. No matter where I went, he was there. Besides, he got you to come get me. Wouldn’t that make you reckless, too?”
Mannarius scowled, hating the idea that she might be right.
“In the end,” she added with a mournful sigh, “none of us knew about the baby… not even me.”
“A terrible load of good it would have done for me to know about it. The places where you can go and not have to end the baby’s life…” Jalingan shook his head. “They are selective, and in many of them the baby goes to somebody else once it is born. I don’t think I could have gotten you both out… especially not without a string of ships following us. I really am sorry, Citlally.”
“I know,” she replied, leaning against her husband for comfort.
“If Citlally believes ye were there tae help her,” Endan added, caressing her head as he let her move closer, “then I’m nae going to quarrel wi’ ye.”
Seeing that neither of them were furious at the mercenary for how things had turned out, Mannarius let him up. He dusted off his own jacket with a heavy sigh. “So now what?”
Jalingan took a careful step away from his cousin and looked Endan over. “Well would you listen to that accent!” he declared with a grin. Citlally could tell that his words weren’t going through the translaor. “It’s a good thing I have all the dialectical and accent codices for English. What is that? Irish? Scottish?”
Endan gave him a wary look, but Citlally could tell that it was the playful kind that harkend back to the friendly rivaly between the two cultures. “I’m Irish, lad. And ye’re Leomian, aren’t ye?”
“That I am!” Jalingan replied, his voice proud. Then he gave Citlally a knowing smile. “I can see – I mean hear – why you fancy him so much,” he said with a wink.
“Knock it off, you dirty idiot!” Mannarius snarled. Then he told the humans, “He’s only half-Leomian, and not the least bit worthy of the breed.”
Citlally could tell that Jalingan was doing his best not to look hurt, so she quickly changed the subject. “The elf who was with us…” she said, looking straight at him, “Is she still on Sardonia?”
Jalingan shook his head. “I got her off before the riot began.”
“Riot?” Mannarius repeated. “Did you actually start a riot?”
“Me?” Jalingan winked at his cousin. “If I had started it, do you think I’d actually be here? The Waulon decided that they’d had enough of the Wilang dominating them at the same time that the miners rallied together and refused to do any more work.”
“Sounds like some of your friends were involved,” Mannarius scoffed.
“This has been a long time coming,” Jalingan told him with a shrug. “The rebels made their way into the government buildings and found the communication grid. They’ve been contacting home-worlds and friendly planets ever since. I have never seen a K’zzyrch presence withdraw so quickly! With any luck, the Wilang and Waulon will be able to make peace with one another and move their civilization forward together.”
Mannarius did not look impressed. “I suppose the next thing you’re going to tell me is that you’re through with mercenary work.”
“Through?” Jalingan asked. “I will never be through – not until the K’zzyrch and their –” static again, which Citlally took to mean language that she did not care to repeat, “are vanquished! Being a mercenary under them gets me into places that most other people can’t get out of. I am done helping them with their slave business, though.”
“You’re a little too good of a mercenary,” Mannarius muttered, his disdain for his cousin’s chosen profession as clear as day.
“Hey! I don’t like pretending to serve them any more than you like seeing me do it.” He ran his fingers through his hair in hopes that it would looked less disheveled than his cousin had left it. “I don’t know why we have to keep going over this.”
“Citlally remembers you being there when they attacked the space station and blew it to pieces,” the captain pointed out. “You could have interfered with them getting there, you could have sabotaged their weapons – anything but go along with them and let them do it.”
Jalingan glared at Mannarius with such malice that Citlally was sure that he wanted to punch him. “It doesn’t work that way,” he said from between gritted teeth.
“So you keep telling me,” the captain replied.
“How does it work?” Citlally chimed in, seeing that their argument was going to go on and on if she did not intervene.
Jalingan looked over at her. “Mercenaries are assigned to specific jobs. I took work in controlling prisoners, which meant that I had no access to their weapons. Only the K’zzyrch have have access to those sections, and if I were to enter an unauthorized area, that would arouse their suspicion.”
“That reminds me of something that I once heard,” Citlally said. “You can’t go against your employer, or else…”
“Or else you’ll never be able to get far enough away from them!” Jalingan finished for her. “And you’re right; my work is too important for them to find out about. If they knew that there was even a single mercenary working against them, they would suspect that there were dozens more.”
“And would they be right?” Endan asked him.
“Man, don’t you know –” Jalingan stopped himself and rubbed the back of his head. “No, I guess you couldn’t have known.”
“Known what, exactly?” the human man asked again, a confused look on his face.
“Even if you knew before, the k’zshyrk would have made you forget all about it.”
“Quit saying it like it’s a good thing,” Mannarius snapped at him. “I’m sick of your ‘it’s all for the better’ attitude.”
“But it is,” Jalingan retorted, trying to sound bold, as though he would absolutely not back down about it.
“What are you two talk about?” Citlally wanted to know. “Can you not just come out and say it?”
“It’s the best-kept secret in the Orion Arm,” Jalingan told her.
“And the most widely know one,” Mannarius added.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Citlally said with a weary sigh.
“It doesn’t have to,” Jalingan replied. “The fact is, the K’zzyrch are hated by a good many species out here, yet their fanaticism has made them too powerful for even their own good. Attempts were made to defeat them ages ago, but failed.”
“A lot of lives were lost,” Mannarius added for him.
“That’s why we decided that we had to gain their trust,” Jalingan went on.
“By working for them.”
“Would you stop interrupting!” Jalingan crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his cousin. “Geez, your sarcasm undermines everything we’ve been working for. Where’s Dhruv, anyway? He always knows how to reason with you.”
“Maybe when you stop getting people killed,” the older lion snapped back, “I could stop being sarcastic.”
“Hey! That’s a low blow, Mannarius.” Jalingan looked even madder now. “I got her out in time, did not I?!”
“Easy with the finger-pointing,” Citlally told him, pushing Jalingan’s hand away from her face.
“Sorry,” he told her. “Anyway, a lot more could have been lost because of that attack on Space Station Regulus II. They have way fewer slaves now, and their supply looks less and less lucrative these days. Citlally isn’t the only person we freed, and a lot of others ended up in situations a lot better than they could have without my being there.”
“Is it just you doing all this?” Endan asked.
“Not at all!” Jalingan answered. “I am just a small part of something trying to make the galaxy a better place to life.”
“Don’t be fooled by this humility,” Mannarius told them. “He only acts for his own selfish purposes.”
Those words sounded strangle familiar to Citlally, but she did not comment on it just then. “There are a lot of you, then? What is your group called?”
“Don’t you get it?” Jalingan looked straight at her. “We don’t have a name. We’re the best-kept secret in the galaxy!”