“…but you still have much to learn, Na’Sara,” her mentor said, his tone more exasperated than firm.
Na’Sara was getting used to the exasperation, and enjoyed it. It usually meant that even if she’d pushed the boundaries of their Order’s code, she’d achieved results he hadn’t expected. It was the older firm, dismissive tone she reacted badly to.
And, of course, with some twenty-five summers under her belt, any criticism stung more lightly than they had when, aged fourteen, she had been taken by the Order, her psionic gifts making it all but inevitable when a Marshal of the Order came to her planet on other business. Her head-fronds twitched, as they often did, in amusement.
Tanner’s eyes flicked from hers to her fronds, and he sighed. “I see you still don’t take my warnings as seriously as I mean them to deserve,” he said. “I can’t change that, of course.”
“No, Marshal,” Na’Sara agreed peaceably.
Marshal Tanner’s eyes remained serious. “At your age most new lessons are taught not by a tutor but by life itself, and by the Starsoul in her wisdom.” Tanner subscribed to the heresy that the Starsoul was not only conscious but close enough to physical beings in mindset that it could be understood. As part of that, he considered it female, and held just enough authority that he could gender the Starsoul openly. His place on the Council was fresh, but he held one nonetheless, and was protected by it.
“Well.” Tanner turned his gaze away from Na’Sara and looked over the wreckage of the room in which he’d found her, items strewn everywhere, a spy sprawled unconscious on the jessek table, one of his bodyguards slain, and the government functionary from whom he’d bought his secrets bound in stasis cuffs. “There is still a lot of paperwork to be done, and this must all be explained to the Governor.”
“Yes, Marshal,” she confirmed. “I suppose you will have me do the paperwork?”
“Yes, and I’ll explain matters to the Governor. But you can take the afternoon for yourself.” He smiled. “And you can handle your paperwork on the flight back.” Which was his gentle way of disciplining her for running off on her own. He’d get to handle the flight and she’d be too focused on other things to enjoy it.
She bowed her head, in acknowledgement and to conceal her smile. It was, of course, unspoken that the afternoon off was a reward for success. Which explained much about Tanner as a person, and even more about how they’d come to work so well together.
She stopped off at their ship before going into the city, in order to leave behind her ceremonial robes and change into something that suited the gleaming blue-steel cityscape she’d be spending the afternoon in. She collected a small handful of credits from the ship’s safe and headed into the heart of the city.
These were always the days she treasured afterwards. Her role in the Order took her from planet to planet, travelling almost constantly, but returning always to Homeworld (a name for a planet she still considered unfairly egotistical, even if it was the planet from which humans had spread originally, and even if humans’ fast reproduction and willingness to settle in any habitat technically capable of sustaining their life had made them the galaxy’s most populous race).
Yet what she saw of them, usually, were the space stations, the on-planet spaceports, council chambers and an assortment of crowded, seedy bars and shoddy, run-down warehouses or old apartment buildings, or luxury suites visited all too fleetingly. In short, what she saw of them was the in-between places where travel happened, and the places where power corrupted or crime paid.
These were the places their assignments and the Starsoul itself guided them to, but they were not places to be cherished or kept in memory. From her work Na’Sara remembered the lessons learned and the faces of those who she’d found to be guilty. From her few rare moments of time away from Homeworld that weren’t working came the cherished memories which enriched her as a person.
If Na’Sara had a heresy of her own, it was her belief that the Starsoul guided her to these moments just as much as it did to the threats that underlaid the galaxy.
She was reasonably certain that something was stalking her from ship to city - almost certainly an airborne drone of some kind; a lot of people wanted to know where the Order were at any given time. She kept her attention on it as best she could while enjoying the sights and sounds around her; her psionic ability gave her awareness of her surroundings, and tinged with precognitive intuition, it was very difficult to take Na’Sara unaware.
She bought a dish made of local fish and imported spices, cooked on a hot plate before her eyes and wrapped in the leaf of the umwyne tree, from a street vendor and continued on her way. This, too, was part of her rituals for her free time; to explore the galaxy she defended, to enjoy its offerings. The fish had a strong, meaty flavour which worked well with the spices, and the umwyne leaf left a pleasant tingling sensation across her tongue and the roof of her mouth as always.
She wandered deeper into the town and visited a local clothes shop. By the promises of the signs outside this was high fashion, but it was so different from what was worn on Homeworld that she’d never seen its like before. The dresses were a single piece but designed to look as if it was eight or nine precision-cut strands of fabric, twining around the body in a way that showed off almost everything. She lingered over one in particular, in a bright turquoise that would stand out beautifully against her own umber skin.
True, she’d almost never be in a position to wear it, but the shocked and disapproving reaction she knew Tanner would have was tempting all the same. If it had just a little more cloth along a thigh, so she could conceal the hilt of her energy blade, it might have been worth doing; but her blade was with her at all times.
By the time she left the shop her sense she was being followed had gone. Whoever had been observing her had reassured themselves she was not investigating them, and recalled their drone or their watchers. She was idly tempted to try poking around and see if she could run them to earth - after all, if they’d been keeping tabs on her, it was likely the Order would frown on their activities - but held off. Memories like this afternoon were important even if they were not her work.
And they were often her motivation when she returned to duty. She, Tanner, and half a hundred others in the Order acted as the hand of justice - not law but justice - when officers of law either could not deliver justice or simply were not trying. Seeing the results - seeing happy citizens of the galaxy - made everything better.
The clothes shop turned out to be on the fringes of a beautiful street full of emporia dedicated to making everyone look their best. Fashion boutiques, perfumeries, hairdressers, beauty salons and more. Na’Sara window-shopped delightedly, skipping only the hairdressers. One jewellery store had a broad selection of decorations for head-fronds, though, and she spent some long time there.
After a moment’s uncertainty - she thought for a moment that the Starsoul might be directing her attention to something, but it wasn’t at all clear what - she moved on, and glanced curiously into the front room of the next business. This was not, it turned out, a bright window display, but a waiting room, with lush chairs and infosheets on the tables. There was a reception counter, and a visible door behind the counter into whatever the place offered. And there was nobody present. Na’Sara’s grew curious.
Moments into her curious gaze, the back door opened and a tall human stepped inside. His black tunic looked uncomfortably tight across the chest and around the shoulders, and evidently the fashion in service uniforms on this planet was for sleeve cuffs to sit an inch or so higher on the wrist than Na’Sara was used to seeing. His dark hair was slicked back, just long enough to drape over the collar, and there were two or three days’ stubble on his chin. Somehow the man and his clothing were completely at odds.
Na’Sara frowned slightly as he busied himself behind the counter. After a moment he looked up, meeting her eyes directly as he did. He smiled, and she smiled in response. He raised a hand and waved her in. Intrigued and uncertain of the business’ purpose, she went to the door and stepped inside, glancing around curiously once inside. On the wall nearest her was a row of certificates by some professional organisation.
“Welcome,” the human said. “Were you browsing?”
“I did wonder what services you offered here,” Na’Sara admitted. She drifted closer to the counter from the door. The sensation she was being watched had increased; if she could be further from the window, it would keep her out of observation, and whatever threat there might be to her free afternoon could be ignored.
“Ah,” he said, and smiled. “Forgive me, but are you an offworlder?”
He nodded. “You won’t have heard of many of our treatments, then. Natural health remedies drawing on planetary minerals and plant-life. But I am also trained in a few more widespread techniques. Massage, for example.”
Na’Sara had been taken by the Order when young, but she flattered herself she was not naive. The man was not interested in explaining these remedies to her. He might even believe they’d be ineffective on Ouhanian physiology. On the other hand, he was excited about the idea of offering her a massage, and while he held himself with the alertness of a warrior, his smile suggested he might be just gentle enough, without overlooking the attractiveness of a human’s strong arms.
It was not forbidden for the Order to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, nor even to cultivate relationships and take lovers, but it was frowned on nonetheless.
And yet Marshal Tanner’s example showed that what was frowned upon could often be what the Starsoul wanted, and Na’Sara felt there would be pleasure to be found in following that smile for a time. She dimpled, dipping her head slightly so she could look up toward him. Her head-fronds twitched optimistically. “How much?” she asked.
His smile grew, and a thrill of anticipation ran through her. There was strength to him, after all, but no great power. The Starsoul meant any trepidation she had could only be about things that could easily be overcome. So why not?
Negotiation was no great chore, and swiftly dispensed with. The man led her through into a back room, aggressively clinical in its white walls and bright white light, with a single poster on one wall that bore anatomical diagrams for multiple civilised species on one wall, a low shelf below it with various bottles and accoutrements below, and a chair; a great clinical construction of shining chrome and clean leather, infinitely adjustable, with headrests, armrests, and footrests, right in the centre of the room.
“Please,” he said, “Take a seat.”
The butterflies in her stomach intensified for a moment, but she looked again at the chair. Complex as it was, there were no restraints, and Na’Sara more firmly dismissed her concerns as being the heightened paranoia of having earlier been followed by the presumed drone. This was not her Starsoul connection at work; this was just the point where intuition became suspicion.
She settled herself firmly into the seat and tried to relax. The masseur smiled and passed by her to the collection of bottles at the side of the room. He loitered there for a moment and picked up a bowl, into which he mixed oils from two or three of the bottles. Bringing it back across the room, he unfolded a panel at the side of the chair into a tray, where the bowl was placed. Na’Sara sniffed interestedly at the oil, receiving the faintest notes of a musty floral scent.
The masseur dipped the fingers of one hand into the bowl and let the oil warm between his palms, stepping behind her. It was not a position she’d expected a massage in, yet it was more respectful than she might have felt concerns over. From behind, his hands came round for his fingers to rest on her temples, where they described firm, slow circles at first. The pressure of his hands sent a frisson of pleasure through her scalp and, now warmed, the oil aroma had many more layers to it, notes of scent she hadn’t noticed at all without body warmth behind them.
Most were foreign to her, extracts of planets from worlds she had never encountered. A few seemed familiar, though in their co-mingling with others it had become difficult to identify them. There was a tingle across her forehead and, somehow (and inexplicably) at her nose and lips.
At her first wistful sigh, his hands moved on, taking position firmly at the base of her head-fronds. Na’Sara was about to voice her discomfort, but then skilled fingers slick with the oil that tingled so pleasantly wrapped themselves around each frond, not tightly but firmly enough to engage the skin all the way along, and not tugged but caressed his way along them, spreading more of the tingling sensation throughout her.
It was a common mistake among other races to ignore how expressive Ouhanian head-fronds could be and treat them as unusually unified hair. Where hair emerges from the body with only a little time as live matter ahead, the head-fronds are part of the living organism, as touched and empowered by the Starsoul as anything else. And they were sensitive - highly sensitive, to the point that she’d been ready to protest when his fingers first touched them. Most races treated them too roughly, and pain without pleasure was the inevitable result.
Something in the way the moment had felt had interrupted her thought process, and then she’d continued to enjoy the sensations - his handiwork was skilled indeed, and the tingles were no longer just in her head-fronds and where she’d breathed in the oil, but instead seemed to wrap around her whole head, setting her spine alight with delight. The aroma of the oil was stronger now, and Na’Sara closed her eyes as she tried to place that familiar note.
“That’s good,” the man breathed softly. His voice was low, gentle, but confident; he knew what he was about, and he was clearly enjoying himself. Na’Sara’s skin prickled with an excitement that mirrored what she heard in his voice. Her nose and her mouth were alive with the scents and even the flavours infused into the oil. Her body was alive with the masseur’s skilled hands; teasing, probing, stimulating, her mind alive with his touch more than her own thoughts.
Where had she caught that scent before? It was something familiar… something she’d not smelled in a long time…
Something, she abruptly realised, from her own planet. Something she associated with her mother… with memories she’d suppressed so long she could hardly dredge them up now. Her mother had smelled like that a lot. Her mother, who’d often seemed absent even when she was present…
Na’Sara was still trying to think why that might be when a sudden, firm tug on both her head-fronds seemed to pull not her head but her mind down, down, down-
Suddenly she found her senses all but gone, her awareness down to a pool of bliss that enveloped her mind. His touch wasn’t so much gone as irrelevant, just like her thoughts, as she found herself discovering the pleasure of absence.
There were words in the fog around her, but she did not hear or heed them. She did not think. She gave herself over entirely to experience, something which did not seem to need her own input.
“You’re doing so well. Such a good girl, and so happy. The happier you feel, the easier it is to comply. And you want so much to comply, don’t you?”
“….Yes. I want to comply.”
“Compliance makes you happy. You’re so used to taking guidance from the Starsoul, after all. You have plenty of practice complying with the wishes of others. You’ve been trained to it. And the Order trained you well, didn’t it?”
“The Order trained me well. I’ve been trained to comply.”
“So if you simply comply with someone else’s wishes, not the Starsoul, it will still feel fulfilling, won’t it?”
“It will still feel fulfilling.”
“Such a good girl.”
In her dreams she revisited a mission Tanner had asked her to handle herself, on an investigation two years ago. Not her first solo outing, but one of the earliest. They had come to believe that a notable businessman operating out of the moon of Garromo was aided by a figure of shadow, one of the sorcerors who twisted and corrupted the Starsoul’s gifts to turn them to selfish and often brutal ends. They had lacked only proof.
While Tanner had led the businessman and his security on a merry chase across the moon, Na’Sara had watched his main offices, waiting for a sign of movement. When an unpleasant, ominous figure had left, she had taken advantage of his absence to enter the offices and find the data they needed. With the sorceror himself absent, her intuition, her agility, and her skills had made it simple enough to extract the small crystal drive not connected to his public network.
The proof was not needed for their battle with the sorceror, but it made prosecuting his employer much easier.
In Na’Sara’s dream many of the details were strangely changed. Gone were the gleaming spire-pointed high-rise buildings of Garromo. Instead, the building was squat, blocky, made from the same off-grey stone as most of the buildings in the city where she slumbered. The figure of the sorceror was no longer the slender, inhumanly tall shape his workings had warped his body into, and instead of the loose robes so like those worn by her own Order, he wore a business suit in a style Na’Sara didn’t recognise. Nonetheless, once he left the building, she followed her mission and moved in.
The world around her was certainly strange, but her memory of the mission served her well. She entered through the window, her energy blade carving a hole and melting the edges of the glass into smoother, blunter lines in a single effortless sweep of her hand. The room was dark, but unlike in reality, it didn’t have that dank, damp unpleasantness which had invaded her senses the first time. And the drive was not seated in a private terminal; it was in a safe on the wall. She burned through the lock with her energy blade and patience, opened the door, and took what was inside.
At that point the dream diverged entirely from her memory of the mission; the moment the drive passed the edge of the safe, an alarm began to sound. Na’Sara went from dreamlike precision to keen alertness.
As the door to the dark storeroom opened, she was already moving behind it. Two security guards spilled into the room; she reached out with her mind and shoved one of them forward, sending him stumbling across the room, out of control, to crash into a desk with an impact that drove the breath from his body.
The second went down to a clean kill, her energy blade passing effortlessly through her neck. She hadn’t emerged from behind the door, finely-tuned senses augmented by the Starsoul telling her these two were not the only threats. A flare of energy strobed out of the doorway as the guard behind them fired, blind, at the threat he knew must lie inside the room.
Na’Sara shifted stance, taking a two-handed grip on the hilt of her energy blade as she held it overhead. At the right moment she brought it down in an arc, carving through the door itself by the hinges and allowing her to will the door forward, smashing the gunman across the room ans stunning him against the wall.
She turned to face the first guard who’d entered the room, now facing her and drawing his blast pistol. If he’d been quicker off the mark to draw, he might have been a threat. Her Order training, though, made her just too fast for him to cope with; she was on him before he could fire. No need even to test her defensive kata; instead he fell, run through on her energy blade.
Despite the tenets of the Order and its reverence for life, she stopped on her way out to kill the other guard.
Later she would wonder at the dream, ask herself what it might hold for her future, and worry that the Starsoul would see the impurity that must lie at the heart of such a brutal fantasy. She would weigh her actions in real life against the self she’d glimpsed in the dream, especially her actions when Marshal Tanner was not present to act as a conscience for her.
“It was a pleasure to comply.”
“Of course. Still, it was a pleasure best not remembered.”
“Don’t worry… that doesn’t mean we’re done.”
Na’Sara’s eyes drifted open. She must have dozed off at some point…
The man’s hands had strayed. Her civilian clothes had been parted, and now his fingers were playing with her body in ways she hadn’t anticipated. Shuddering blissfully, she arched her back into his touch, and was rewarded by a throaty purr of satisfaction. Thumb and forefinger caught nipples and tugged. Na’Sara’s breath came out in a happy gasp.
There was a clunk from below her and the chair reclined. The masseur stepped out from beside her and stooped to kiss her, and Na’Sara opened her mouth eagerly.
Whatever was in the oil, he’d clearly used it to take advantage of her. It was unjust. It was wrong. And yet it was somehow easy to simply comply.
There would be time to do something about it later, she told herself, as she felt him unfasten more of her clothes. She braced her feet against the foot rests and let him slide them apart until he could step in between them.
She heard his own fastenings unclip, and smiled. His hands now on her belly, her thighs, and everywhere that same tingling, intoxicating sensation from the oil…
It was frowned on in the Order to take lovers. It was also very tempting.
She let him do what he wanted. Just lying back in compliance felt wonderful.
“This will be the only thing you remember, yes?”
“Yes. The only thing I remember.”
“It’s all perfectly understandable. You don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. It’s perfectly understandable.”
“It won’t surprise you if I see you on other worlds.”
“And you’re not going to notice the little addition to your energy blade, are you?”
“Because I want to comply.”
She wrapped her legs around him tight as she felt him grow closer to the moment. They were moving in sync, her body echoing his, their needs and lusts so intertwined. His hands left that delicious oil wherever they roamed and she basked in it, the bliss of absence adding a delicious fog to the world as she humped back against him.
He probably had a real fondness for Ouhanians - his oils having that strange familiarity, it made sense to her that he was one of the many who considered her race a fetish - and while usually that was a source of frustration to her, here she was happy to comply with his fantasy.
She was just glad they were in a back room, where his moans and grunts and her own loud cries of pleasure could not be heard outside.
“Well, Na’Sara,” Tanner greeted her that evening, back at the spaceport. “We have another assignment, so Homeworld is at least another mission away. I trust you aren’t too disappointed that we have longer to wait?”
“Of course not, Marshal,” she replied, and smiled. “Where are we going?”
“Something a little different this time. An auction on the blackest of markets. Among the galactic fringe, on Gradinar.” His lip curled slightly in distaste. “The Order have received reports that items of ancient sorcery are for trade. Which means-”
“Someone’s uncovered another cache from the Age of Fear.”
Tanner nodded. “I’m afraid so. We’re not the only ones being mobilised, but I think we may just have the best chance. The Starsoul - she knows what she’s doing.” He paused. “It may be a lot more dangerous. Will you join me?”
“Yes, Marshal,” she said. “Happy to comply.”