G2A Many GEOs

Coronation Day

KilledKella Jul 5th, 2019 (edited) 5,520 Never
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  1. <All characters are property of Akella unless otherwise noted.  The following work belongs solely to the author (SabatonBabylon) and Akella.>
  5.                                                               Coronation Day
  6.                                                                 ~Chapter 1~
  7. Chapter 1 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/ruX58Nw
  9. “Lady Keiko you look positively radiant.  Lord Torando is a lucky man,” the handmaiden proclaimed with a titter, placing the finishing touches on the silken wedding kimono that hung in a shapely fashion from her lady’s slim shoulders.  Keiko nodded, turning her head left and right to better take in her holographic image which rotated before her, emanating from a display built into the marble floor.
  11. “Yes...I suppose he is,” she agreed absently, a hint of melancholy in her voice.  “Lyria, do you think I could have a moment to myself?”
  13. “Oh, of course your majesty.  I daresay this is quite the occasion for all of us.  Should you need me please don’t hesitate to call.  I will return when it is time for the ceremony.”  With that the princess’ attendant bowed and left, softly closing the towering wooden door to Keiko’s private solar behind her.  It had been nothing but a non-stop procession of well wishers and attendants all day, long before her marriage and coronation would even begin.  With but a few moments left of 'freedom', Keiko looked away from the three dimensional hologram of herself and around the chamber.  It had been her private retreat since she could remember, a circular room of tall sandstone columns, wide arches, intricate screens that allowed the dry summer breezes to circulate freely, and of course her plants.  They were quite simply her pride and joy, her labor of love since she had been given the space and garnered the will to maintain it to her liking.  All around her sprouted a bevy of palms and ferns.  There were cyprus and other warm climate conifers, bonsais, and even a handful of thick-trunked local trees that she’d managed to keep reasonably sized thanks to their planters.  Green was all around her, though she found the color didn’t suit her much.
  15. “Did it really have to be jade?”  She muttered, grabbing a handful of the thick silken garment and running it through her fingers.  Her pads moved from the watery feel of the fabric to the rougher golden embroidery.  “I look like some sort of scarab.”
  17. “I must agree with you, my lady.  Jade is not your color.”
  19. Keiko’s blood ran cold as a heavily modified voice invaded her sanctum.  With a subtle hand motion she switched the configuration of the projector before her to standard mirror, allowing her a glimpse of the crimson shadow behind her.  With practiced grace she turned and extended her arm, willing a magicka revolver into her palm and pulling the trigger as rapidly as she could, her aim assisted by the lack of recoil.  After all, one’s life force made the best ammunition if one could harness it.  The best ammunition until it deflected harmlessly off her target’s chest, of course.  Keiko’s cold blood turned to ice.  The brown eyes behind that mask danced with delight.
  21. “You surprise me, lady Keiko.  I didn’t know you were such a good shot,” the voice said, casually dusting off the site her rounds had impacted.  That was always his favorite part, the greatest perk of being human in a world made human-less.  There was that moment, always that moment when some underbelly scum thought they had him, that victory was theirs, only for their magicka weapons to be rendered null and void against his very biology.  The armor only made it better, a second skin of reactive fiber, ballistic plating, artificial sinew, and of course his own blood.  The outer weave gave it a finish that danced crimson in the low light.  The mercenary found it a tad dramatic, to be sure, but the psychological effect on his opponents was more than worth a bit of drama.  That being said, he found his joy quite fleeting.  The princess’ amber eyes were captivating and afraid.  He liked that far less.
  23. “So that’s it then?”  She asked, raising her voice bravely at the figure who had quite literally stalked out of the very shadows of the doorway.  “You’re here to kill me on the day of my coronation?”
  25. The mercenary cocked his head in thought.  “My lady, if I had been sent to kill you I’d have already done it.”  His bravado fueled a righteous anger within her.
  27. “So abduction then,” she hissed.
  29. “Indeed.  I ask that you make this easy on both of us and come with me, lady Keiko.”
  31. “How many did you kill to get here?”
  33. “None.”
  35. “And I should be expected to believe you?”
  37. “The entire palace would be in an uproar if I had.  Listen to them,” the mercenary suggested, watching as her large ears twitched and swiveled to take in the noise of the crowds milling around outside the palace.  She could hear the fanfare and jovial mood even from their sheltered location.  “I do hate to disappoint them all.”
  39. <Sure you do, bastard.>  “Very well,” Keiko replied with far more confidence than she felt, undoing the embroidered belt that secured her wedding dress and folding it precisely in her arms.  The silk dress parted to reveal the fur just below her neck.  She turned from him, allowing the robe to slip from her shoulders and fall from her body.  It was true.  If he’d been sent to kill her she’d already have a hole in her skull.  In a strange sense she was utterly secure in turning her back to him.  To her perverse delight the mercenary stammered at her.
  41. “Lady Keiko what in the name of-”
  43. “Is that it, mercenary?  The body of your queen sends you into a tizzy?  You who somehow managed to get this far, unnerved by a woman?  I hope you’re getting paid quite a bit for this job.  Maybe you can afford a new voice modulator, one that doesn’t crack when you see a woman’s backside?”  She laughed to conceal the utter terror forming in her breast, neatly folding the dress in shaking hands, perhaps to buy just a little more time.  “If you insist on taking me from here I’ll not be dirtying this dress, garish as it is.  I don’t think you deserve that satisfaction.”  The mercenary remained silent, though a tentative look over her shoulder confirmed that he’d not turned away from her.  If he had he’d be a truly awful gun for hire.  “How long do I have?”
  45. For a moment the mercenary stood stock still, his eyes drawn to the subtle curvature of the canine-anthro’s spine.  She was an impeccable specimen, of that there wasn’t any doubt.  Her limbs were covered primarily in black fur, with the occasional white finger or toe as well as a handful of spots here and there.  Her chest was different, mainly a dusky savannah gold with splotches of black and white throughout.  He’d not seen her front other than the barest hint of the white fur of her chest, but he was sure it was equally enticing.  What held his attention, however, was the row of golden plates that accentuated her spine.  He counted twenty in all, beginning at her lower neck and extending down to the base of her tail.  Each was wider than it was long and featured a sunken diamond of magicite in the center, the iridescent stones shimmering like the night sky as the diffuse afternoon sun filtered through the solar.  The rest of his brain finally jogged back into action as she repeated her question with a swish of her black tail, tipped with a fluffy white tuft at the end.
  47. “How long do I have, tall, dark and distracted?”
  49. The mercenary’s first impulse was to grab her and haul her sarcastic ass out the service corridors, but he’d never been involved in a case where his target played a cooperative role, or at least an acquiescent role, in their own abduction.  He breathed heavily through his nose and activated the encrypted comm link he’d established between the members of his crew.
  51. “Talon, how long?”
  53. “Shift changes in five.  Call it ten max.  What the hell’s taking so long, Seth?”
  55. “Understood,” he replied gruffly, denying his partner any further information.  Talon was an exceptional sniper and lookout, a cassowary who played to his strengths and had a set of his namesake talons waiting for anyone who got too close.  He was a good merc and drinking buddy, but he was too damn nosy for his own good.  “You have five minutes, lady Keiko.”
  57. “I suppose that’s more than most of your hapless targets receive,” she shot back, walking over to a wardrobe carved of yellowwood and removing a long linen cloth that she threw over her neck and expertly wrapped around herself, covering each breast with an X-like pattern before allowing the fabric to encircle her waist and fan out, forming an oblong skirt of sorts that came down past her right knee and rested just below the middle of her left thigh.  It covered everything necessary and would allow for freedom of movement.  Keiko quickly stuffed another similar item into a sling bag she’d typically use for her gardening, along with whatever electronic devices she could find at hand and a couple other items of clothing.  Her spine went rigid as she heard hard steps on the floor behind her.
  59. “The bag,” Seth demanded, taking it from her and scanning it and its contents quickly with the optics built into his mask.  Far as his gear could tell there was nothing that would allow her to be tracked.  “Your eyes then.”
  61. Keiko looked away from him in fear, that jagged oni mask and the suit were too much.  She certainly didn’t want him this close, looking at her that intently.
  63. “We don’t have time for this.  I’m only going to disable the connection to the central Alhamkara network, nothing more.”
  65. Keiko shut her eyes tightly and took a steadying breath before looking back at him.  She watched his brown eyes as they moved quickly over her irises.  Seth easily found and cut the link to the central information networks of the country as well as a handful of private lines of communication that she would have been able to make use of within the palace, trying his best to not drown in those deep amber pools.  Wild dogs apparently had wild eyes.
  67. “We’re going, now.”
  69. “And where are we going, exactly?”
  71. “You really think I’m going to tell you that?”
  73. “It was worth a shot.”
  75. “Hmph.  Put this on,” Seth commanded, reaching into the bag on the back of his waist and withdrawing an uninspiring gray cloak.  She complied and took a closer look, noticing fine metallic fibers within the weave.  She was almost certain she would be invisible to cameras and other surveillance.  There weren’t even holes for her black-furred ears, which were forced to lay as flat against her head as she could get them.  She contented herself by making note of her abductor’s mask and helmet as he donned his own cloak and led her to the door of her solar before speaking to what had to be one of his compatriots.  The audio was garbled intentionally by his mask, a mask with no ears.  Either he was of a species without much need for larger helmets or he’d gone through serious amputation in order to wear something that fit his skull so closely.  “Whatever you do, do not stop, do not hesitate, do not look back, and do not disobey my orders.  Do that much and I can guarantee you’ll live to see the sunset.”
  77. “And beyond that?”  She demanded as they slipped into the empty corridor and moved along a wall that led to the servant’s passages.  He’d timed it perfectly.  
  79. “We’ll see.”
  81. The wild dog felt her legs quake and nearly give way as they stumbled along yet another passage she’d never known about, her claws clicking and clacking against the stone along with his boots, every footfall echoing around them.  Down and around they moved, never encountering another soul.  Somehow even in the midst of a royal wedding and coronation there was enough room to spirit away the princess herself.  She’d known the mnyama had been growing in strength for years, something she had every intention of addressing as matriarch of Alhamkara, but this was unprecedented.  Kidnapping her right from under not only her father’s nose, but her groom’s as well on this of all days?  It appeared the rumors of a particularly effective and particularly shadowy lone wolf mercenary were true, and that someone had amassed enough credits to employ him on this sort of job.  The implications were...disturbing.
  83. <Wise ones, lend me strength,> Keiko pleaded as her masked assailant led her hooded figure out of a small passage and into the anonymous throng of citizens awaiting the announcement of their princess’ union to the lord of the neighboring kingdom.  It was a union to bring about peace and prosperity between nations and a chance to rekindle some of the glory of the time of humans.  With every step through the crowding throngs she was spirited away from that world and into the dark underbelly from which this mercenary, this creature, was made manifest.  
  85. “Oh, and one more thing, my lady.  If you try to scream or run, one of us will kill you,” he promised, fingering the onyx handle of a curved blade that rested at his hip.  She kept her head down and tried not to weep.
  87. \-----
  89. Keiko checked her lens and saw that it was now close to sundown.  In a perverse way the mercenary had been right.  She’d said nothing, kept her head down, and not tried to run, putting one foot in front of the other and wandering wherever the figure with the strange armor and mask led.  Lo and behold she was still alive, though she knew not where she was.  They’d passed out of the palace district and the market district long ago, ending up in a seemingly never ending maze of claustrophobic alleyways, broad avenues, neon signs, holographic displays, and a mixture of less well to do and shady figures going about their lives.  The streets were clean and clear with trees and shrubs to be seen everywhere, lending a well manicured and gentle touch to the brick and mud buildings around them.  She took pride in that, at least.  It was so strange.  For her entire life Keiko had always been attended to, always observed.  She enjoyed her gilded cage but was wise enough to see it for what it was.  Hearing about the city from her network of spies and informants was one thing.  Walking the streets herself, stepping around puddles from last week’s rain, hearing the call of vendors and whores, looking every which way as no one paid her more than a passing glance...it was strangely thrilling.  That was, of course, until she remembered the reason no one looked her way too long, the armored hand that guided her and the mercenary it was attached to.
  91. He had remained silent since they’d fled the palace.  Occasionally they would stop and he would incline his head, perhaps listening to whoever was on the other side of his network.  Other times he would gently steer her into an alley, only to have a police or military patrol walk by a moment later.  Every move was calculated and calm, never giving off an air of hesitation or panic, and certainly never indicating he felt any nervousness at having captured Alhamkara’s princess on her wedding day with nary a struggle.  She didn’t fight him and he hadn’t harmed her.  It was a temporary truce that had her heart straining against her ribs, wondering when the Sword of Damocles above her head would fall and end her life.
  93. “My lady, if you would follow me,” the mercenary ordered, having guided her into yet another alley and up the worn stone stairs of a non-descript apartment building’s back entrance.  For a long moment they stood on the stoop, gazing at the weathered metal door.  Graffiti and banged up garbage containers were there only defining features of the back street.  She couldn't see any cameras either. “Talon, Argos, we clear?”  Seth demanded, the bloody glow of his armor contrasting with the flickering LED above the door.
  95. “Affirmative, Seth.  No pursuers.”
  97. “And the building?”
  99. “Zero activity in the annex.”
  101. “Good.”
  103. Keiko looked up at the mercenary with hesitation as he extended his arm and something in the door’s security system recognized him.  The lock clicked open and he pushed the door inward.  Her ears twitched as creaking metal and a dingy, poorly lit hallway greeted her.  The terror inside grew stronger and she breathed heavily to steady her feet, which she now realized were aching after half a day of walking around the city.  At his insistence she moved forward over the threshold, shuddering as the door closed behind her.  <Trapped like a rat.>
  105. “Sybela, sitrep,” the merc continued, leading her up a flight of stairs to their right.
  107. “What do you think the sitrep is, you goddamn monkey?”  The lagomorph shot back over comms.  “The whole damn palace guard, police, and military are trying to find you without alerting the entire country to the fact that their princess has gone missing, to say nothing of Torando who got left hanging at the altar.  Did the prick who ordered this job realize there was a non-zero chance of re-igniting a fucking war?  One that would deep six every mnyama that’s finally grown a pair and stuck its nose out of the shadows?”
  109. The mercenary paused for a moment and regarded Keiko as they rested on a landing in between floors.  She watched as carefully as she could without letting her fear turn to bile or tears.  There was something so off about this man, so strange, she could barely believe something like him existed.  She didn’t even know what he was.  Keiko’s eyes widened with surprise.  <Is he...laughing?!>
  111. “You must be quite the woman, lady Keiko.  The face that launched a thousand rockets…”
  113. “What’s going on?  What’s happening back at the palace?!”
  115. “Maybe we’ll talk.  Top floor.  Move.”
  117. With frustration mounting and crowding next to the despair within, Keiko climbed the remaining stairs to the fourth floor, waiting as the mercenary passed her and repeated the same process in front of yet another unremarkable door.  She tried to ignore the smell of rot and peeling paint.  His modified voice brought her back to reality.
  119. “Inside, now,” he ordered, almost pushing her over the threshold before squeezing in behind her and shutting the door.  As he turned and engaged at least three separate physical and digital locking mechanisms, Keiko surveyed the room, her jaw dropping as she did so.  Wherever they were it was clear they’d not arrived by accident.  The walls were clean, pristine even, covered with red wooden lattice and some sort of translucent material, behind which soft LEDs lit the space.  The light wasn’t a typical artificial blue, but a light that mirrored the setting sun over the dusty red plains of her country’s arid regions.  She found herself wondering if the morning would be equally pleasing to the eye.  Silhouettes of baobabs, gum acacias, and candelabra trees added to the strange motif of a small shrine situated in the middle of the grasslands, the birthplace of her species.  Hanging from the wooden beams of the ceiling were paper lanterns that lent the space even more light.  The floors were made of tatami, split into rectangles by a deep brown wooden frame that lent the entire space a pattern.  Against the far wall a futon could be found, perfectly made up with a comforter depicting a sakura tree in bloom.  
  121. “So, what do you think?”  Keiko shrieked and almost jumped out of her fur, having gotten so caught up in the small sanctuary she’d just walked into that she’d completely forgotten how she’d arrived there.  The synthetic material of the mercenary’s armor gripped her shoulder softly.  He’d divested himself of his cloak.  “My apologies, lady Keiko.  I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
  123. “F-frighten me?”  She squeaked, feeling a sudden spark of anger roar into all encompassing flame as she proceeded to yell at the top of her lungs at him.  “Frighten me?! You’ve done much more than that, whoever you are.  You abducted me, stole me away from my life and my duty.  You led me through the streets of my own capital like some alley spawn and worst of all you have the nerve to treat me like you're some sort of gentleman when the only possible reason you have for taking me is to sell me off to the highest bidding mnyama boss so I can be raped and broken.  And don’t act so surprised behind that oni mask of yours.  What are you, some sort of human culture fetishist?  I know girls, women.  I’ve taken them into my service once your world chewed them up and spat them out with unwanted children or broken bodies.”  She lunged for his knife, precipitating a squabble that had her quickly disarmed and pinned to the floor, her arm behind her back and his knee pressing painfully against her kidney.  The tears finally came.  “Just kill me, please.  Let me be free,” she cried, feeling her eyes cloud with the salted heat of tears.
  125. The mercenary said nothing as he knelt above her, though he did lessen the pressure against her arm and back as she heaved and sobbed after hours of trying to maintain the strong demeanor of a noble princess.  Slowly he returned his knife to its sheath on his belt and stood, offering her his hand and adjusting something on his mask with the other.
  127. “I will not kill you, but I will not allow anyone else to kill you...or your spirit.”  The voice modulation was gone, though the mask remained.  But Keiko had something now, something to go with the conflicted brown eyes that lay behind the synthetic onyx material of the mercenary’s faceplate.  His voice was low and clear; it reminded her of the snow-capped Mount Antares, rising proudly above the grassy plains and sandy deserts of her nation.  Her golden pools searched his eyes, hoping to discern something, anything, about this man.  “For now though I require your aid, lady Keiko.”
  129. “I...excuse me?”  She whispered, accepting his offered hand and getting a good long look at his plantigrade legs as she rose to her feet.  They looked slim and strong, powerful without hindering the movement of their master.  His abdomen and chest followed the pattern, easily discernible under the suit that fit him like a second skin.  This was no brawler.  This man was one of agility and subterfuge.  <What is he?>  She wondered anew, taking advantage of the proximity to inhale deeply, to attempt to place any sort of organic scent lurking behind the smell of the streets, military grade protective alloys, oil, and magicka residue.  There was something there, something faint...sweat.
  131. “I need your help, lady Keiko.  While I very much intended to abscond with you today, I did not intend to start any sort of broad armed conflict.  That would be very much <against> my interests...and yours, I would assume?”  He explained.
  133. “Torando believes my father is behind this?”  She guessed.  He nodded, crossing an arm across his body and examining the fingers of his other hand.  
  135. “Or some other palace elements.  However I believe this presents an...opportunity, if you will.  Tell me, lady Keiko, what do you know of the mnyama?”
  137. “Why should I tell you about your own employers?”  She shot back, taking a step away from the shimmering armor that reminded her far too much of blood.  
  139. “A fair question, but one we do not have time for.  So let me tell you what I’m going to do.  I’m going to bind your hands and lead you back out into that hallway.  A perfect, nondescript, untraceable background, don’t you think?  After all, these slums go on forever.”
  141. “They do not!”  She bit back, somehow offended at the evaluation of the state of her nation.
  143. “Perhaps,” the mercenary admitted, “but they do seem to multiply with each passing year, do they not?”
  145. “Something I’m more than willing to place squarely at the feet of you and your precious mnyamas!”  Keiko shouted.  He waved it off, clearly unconcerned about the soundproofing of the room.
  147. “Do not presume too much, my lady.  Now as I was saying, I intend to distribute a picture of you bound and captive across all of Alhamkara’s networks...along with a handful of additions of my own choosing.  Sybela, you have those Trang’aul assets on hand?”  He asked, leaving Keiko yet again with more questions at the mention of one of the smaller, new mnyamas to have risen to national prominence, not to mention whoever this Sybela was.
  149. “Is that who hired you?  Those barbarians?”  She demanded, earning a nod from her captor.
  151. “Barbarians indeed.  No sense of tact or class.  They love their spiked bats and shotguns when one bullet or a well placed knife will suffice.  But what do you expect from a bunch of hyenas?”  The mercenary tisked, looking up and away from her as something played across his ocular implants.  “Rest easy my lady, they did not hire me.  But I intend to make it so they wish they had.”  With a glance of his eyes he activated a projection function in his mask, showing Keiko how she would be revealed to the waiting world.  She saw herself flanked by two massive hyena anthros, one holding a brutal looking magicka shotgun and the other holding a chain sword, a truly abhorrent weapon that the gang had used to gain prominence and reputation in lieu of numbers or connections.  She was too close to the camera of course, so it looked ridiculous in the moment, but she knew that out in that dark hallway her kidnapper would have a perfect fake.
  153. “Why?”
  155. “Will you cooperate or not?”  He demanded, completely unyielding to her request.  Keiko felt her tail bristle with indignation as she extended her hands, her wrists crossed one over the other.  “My my, you surprise me, lady Keiko.”
  157. She hated that too, how he so casually used her name as though he’d known her for years.  Her fur stood on end as he touched her, fitting a simple pair of zip ties across her wrists and escorting her back outside once he’d undone the locks.  It was all over in seconds.  She’d been forced to her knees, glaring at the camera, and the next second he was kneeling before her and cutting her bonds, his eyes moving rapidly behind the mask as the image was doctored and sent to whomever his network professional was on the other side.  He did not speak again until they were safely inside.
  159. “Mmm, already?  Keep me posted, Sybela.  Well my lady, it may be presumptuous of me to say this, but the nation of Alhamkara thanks you for your service.”
  161. Keiko remained silent, looking at his hand.  Perhaps she was looking through his hand, he couldn’t be sure.  Gears were turning behind her brilliant yellow eyes.  She had no answer for him.  The mercenary cocked his head but allowed sleeping dogs to lie, sitting in a slim, unremarkable bamboo chair and activating a wall panel that folded out into a network access terminal.  Three separate images eventually resolved themselves, but they were scattered and useless static when Keiko looked at them.  There was clearly something happening within the mask that allowed him to translate the images.  His voice was modified and garbled again.
  163. “Argos, Talon, we’re done here.  Inform him that the mission was a success.  He’s dumb enough to be taken in by that Trang’aul mock up and I’d rather not be disturbed this week.  It’s been too long since I was allowed to make use of this safehouse.  Sybela, the blood dragon works like a charm, even deflected the princess’ magicka straight from the source.  The credits are on their way.  Don’t blow it all on jaguar dick this time, alright?”
  165. Keiko hadn’t heard much, but she definitely heard the unintelligible screaming that had her captor recoiling and reaching to remove his mask, only realizing at the last moment that he had no option but to remain concealed, lest he reveal his identity to the princess of Alhamkara.  She gave him a sly smile as he suffered on the receiving end of some tirade or another, though the smile faded well before he’d returned the terminal to the wall and stood before her.  It was just the two of them in that silent, beautiful room.  
  167. “You must be hungry, my lady.”
  169. “I’m not your lady.”
  171. “I am a citizen of Alhamkara.  You are my princess, my lady.”
  173. Keiko had nothing left, nothing to say.  This was it.  This room was her life until this strange man told her otherwise.  Would it be a day, a week, a year?  She had no idea.  She was done with this ridiculous man and his smooth talk and mysterious mask.  He followed her as she slumped to the floor.
  175. “You must be hungry,” he tried again.  She didn’t bother denying it.  He reached behind him and withdrew a metallic band from his belt, a custom set of bindings.  
  177. “So you’re going to tie me up now?”
  179. “Your arms, my lady.  It’s part of the job, I’m afraid.  I can’t have you sneaking out on me.  Wouldn’t be worth much as a mercenary if I let my marks run all about the district, now would I?”  She sighed but complied, exposing the mottled black, brown, and white fur of her forearms as he gently allowed the band to expand over her hands before collapsing snugly around her wrists.  He looked her in the eye.
  181. “If you approach the door, this will hurt you.  If you do not, you will not come to any harm.  None of the devices in here can be accessed by you and none of your own electronics will be able to reach the national or local networks.  
  183. “Do you really need to do this?”  She pleaded.
  185. “I do.”
  187. “Why are you doing this?”
  189. “You already asked me, my lady.”
  191. “Will you answer me this time?”
  193. “To get paid.  Would that satisfy you?”
  195. “You’re unsure.”
  197. “About a great many things.  But I do know I intend to use you for my own reasons.  Not sure if that makes you feel any better.”
  199. Keiko felt like she’d been hit with a ton of bricks.  What in the name of humanity had she gotten mixed up in.  Within the last six hours her assailant had captured her and sewed the seeds of Trang’aul’s destruction.  She was more and more willing to consider that money had nothing to do with this, nor even her body.  Her brain was working again.  She was hungry; she needed fuel for it.  Her heart beat quicker as she steeled herself to try to play his game.
  201. “Instead of worrying about the shady mnyama boss who hired you, I have you.  At least you I can see and touch and…smell.”  She could detect his sweat again, clearer now.  There was more mixed in with that scent.  She made her decision, to ask the question that had been gnawing at her for at least the last hour.  It couldn’t be, they were all supposed to be gone, but somehow it was the most logical explanation.  “When were you going to tell me you’re a human?”
  203. Seth sat back on his haunches, unable to avoid what he knew was a look of shock and awe in his eyes.  Even behind the mask it suddenly seemed like her auric gaze would bore right through him.  The wild dog sensed his trepidation and snarled back.  “Just how stupid do you believe women are?  You have plantigrade legs yet you aren’t built like a bear or a wolverine.  Your gloves contain no space for claws and every species I know of with retractable claws is digitigrade, like me.  Your mask and helmet have no room for large ears.  You sweat...and you’re immune to mackiga based weapons.”
  205. “My lady is sure it’s not simply the latest Kinagusa armor model?”  Keiko barked furiously at his question, snapping her teeth at him.
  207. “You really do think I’m stupid.”
  209. “Excuse me?  I meant no offense, my lady.”
  211. “The underground is a constant battle for supremacy, survival of the fittest.  Every armor is eventually countered by a new firearm or ammunition type and so on.  No one mnyama or manufacturer ever holds the high ground for long.  And yet the rumors always persist.  My little birds would oft sing to me of a mercenary whose armor can always take a lethal hit, a lone wolf in constant demand, killing for the highest bidder.  I think it’s more than clear what you are, to say nothing of your scent.  I’ve never smelled anything like it, smoke and water.  I don’t know how it could be but here you are right before my eyes, talking down to me and tying me up before dinner...human.”
  213. The mercenary looked at her for a long while, his eyes roving from her own up to her white-tipped ears, down along the slope of her neck, along her golden shoulders, and up her patchwork arms.  Eventually he spoke.  “You know much about the world, my lady.  Parts of the world you shouldn’t know.”
  215. “Which is precisely why a future queen must know of them,” she declared boldly, challenging him to tell her that she would die before that day came.  He stood instead, his armor creaking against itself as synthetic materials were wont to do.
  217. “What would my lady like for dinner?  The neighborhood we find ourselves in is known for its oriental flavors.”
  219. She narrowed her eyes and bared her fangs, taking some small liberty in the knowledge he seemed intent on not killing her just yet.  “Meat.”
  222.                                                         ~ Chapter 2 ~
  224. Chapter 2 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/Bvrr0Jn
  226. Keiko checked her lens as the locks on the door to her prison released one by one and her masked captor re-entered the space, a simple paper and plastic bag combo in his hand.  Even as shuttles ferried pedestrians above the crowded streets and weapons fired concentrated pockets of magicka, takeout hadn’t changed much over the years.  She couldn’t help the faintest of smiles at the image the human struck before her, clad in his armor, mask, and cloak while toting their dinner home to his little lair.
  228. “Is something amusing, lady Keiko?”  He asked casually, having disabled the modulation of his voice again.  Her smile faded at his annoying familiarity and she glared defiantly at him.
  230. “Not anymore.”
  232. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  I am still the enemy, am I not?”
  234. “That just about sums it up, mercenary,” she spat, crossing her arms over her body as his eyes took in her form, her toned midriff and sloped shoulders on full display thanks to her state of dress.  Keiko watched as his gaze lingered on her navel, his attention captured by the magicite teardrop piercing lined by a golden border. She thought he might even question her about it, but his next words returned to the subject of their meal.
  236. “Be that as it may, would you care to join me for dinner?”  He asked, touching the wall next to where his terminal rested and gently catching a small table that folded down into the space.  A couple of cushions that sat within the small alcove the table occupied when not in use were collected and placed one to each side. He seated himself cross-legged at the knee-high table and reached into the bag to withdraw all manner of food cartons.  Keiko winced as her stomach growled in discomfort.  The sound was clearly audible to the mercenary as he paused his setting of the table to gaze at her with sympathetic eyes.  “I’m sorry I was gone so long.  Please.”  He motioned to a handful of open containers that were now wafting steam and delicious scents into the room.  She could feel her mouth watering.
  238. “You’re not fooling anyone,” Keiko growled, nevertheless pushing herself off of the floor and walking over to him, a task made more difficult thanks to her bindings.  He nodded, promptly removing them and stashing them away before gesturing to the other cushion.  Keiko sat conservatively, folding her legs under her body and surveying the table.  True to her request he’d acquired a fine selection of barbequed meats.  
  240. Chicken, pork, beef, and lamb were arrayed before her along with a tray of various dipping sauces, chopped scallions, hot peppers, and various pickled vegetables.  Better yet they all looked like natural cuts, marbled with fat or sinew.  It was nothing compared to the sumptuous feasts of the palace, but it was not cheap either.  That and it smelled positively delightful.  She took a set of disposable chopsticks from where they laid next to the bag, watching tentatively as he snapped his apart with practiced ease.  Keiko looked down at hers for a moment, pulling slowly on the ends until her hands jumped apart with a sudden snap.  She’d not managed to separate them fully and now she had one short stick and one with an extra weight at the end.  Her ears flattened with embarrassment as she looked down at her lap, only to see a fresh, cleanly severed pair extend into her field of vision.  She swapped with him.
  242. “I imagine this is your first time,” he said understandingly.  "It's best if you apply the force a bit higher, tends to break cleaner."  Keiko gasped as she raised her head to look at him, holding onto his pair of utensils as he dug in using hers.  “What?”  He asked, a piece of beef halfway to his mouth.  “You already deduced what it is I am, lady Keiko.  I must say it’s a tad refreshing to eat without the mask in the presence of company.”
  244. <Do you kidnap all your so called company?>  She wanted to snark back, but found herself shocked into silence instead.  Here she was after twenty five years of life, raised on tales and fables of the gentle, uplifting grace of humanity, their golden age, and their eventual disappearance.  Now she was sitting across the table from a live human, a real flesh and blood creature that needed to eat and drink.  He possessed a thick crop of short, raven black hair, now visible as he lifted the rest of his helmet from his head and chewed his first piece of meat.  Well manicured stubble reached from his hairline down and along the edge of his prominent, angled jawbone, lending his lower cheeks and chin a permanent shadow.  His neck and lips were cleanly shaven and she couldn’t see a scar anywhere on his visage, though she spent much more time looking at his eyes now that she had an unobstructed view.  Those hazel orbs watched her intently as he chewed with purpose, an animated and piercing reminder that the statues and monuments were just that, relics.  The real thing was a delight to behold.  If only he wasn’t who he was.  The thought wounded her deeply.  Another growl of her stomach brought her back.
  246. “I might stare as well, lady Keiko, but your food is getting cold,” he encouraged, navigating expertly around the spices, garnishes, and sauces in spite of his slightly mangled chopsticks.  She took hers daintily between the pads of her fingers.  
  248. “Thank you for the chopsticks...and not making fun of me,” she whispered before taking a piece of chicken and dipping it into a brown sauce that she soon discovered was flavored with mustard.  After her long day of being walked through the streets the taste was heaven.  She wolfed it down and went for another piece, finding the human’s armored hand extending the plate of chopped scallions to her.  She easily picked up their fragrant smell and added a handful to the sauce, unable to stop the sound of contentment that slipped past her lips on her second bite.  The mercenary said nothing, calmly continuing his meal with a contented look on his face.  The surreal reality of the situation was too much for Keiko.
  250. “Real meat isn't cheap.  How did you pay?”  She asked, breaking the silence.
  252. “Disposable credit chit, single use.  Cheap to make and store.  Wonderful for avoiding less than scrupulous intermediaries as well if you can find encrypted ones,” he replied easily, clearly unfazed at sharing some of the tricks of the trade with her.
  254. “And no one asked why a single person was buying food for two?”
  256. “Other than the fact that that’s hardly uncommon, no one asks much when this mask asks for the barbeque dinner special.  So long as my credits are good, which they always are, everyone goes on their merry way.  Besides, real meat commands a bit of a premium these days now that synthetics are everywhere and passable in taste.  They take less time, less resources, and less skill to prepare. I daresay the chef was positively thrilled when a masked man with a fat pocket showed up asking for dinner for two, hold the synth meat.”
  258. “And just like that a mercenary finds himself dinner.” Keiko teased.  He shrugged.
  260. “We eat just like everyone else, my lady.  I have no servants to prepare me my meals, and I am only human.”
  262. Keiko’s ears twitched at that statement, faintly jingling the thin gold chains that hung suspended between four golden studs on the outer shell of each ear.  “Yes...you are.  And while I appreciate the spread before us I did not choose to be born to my station, mercenary,” she replied fiercely, pride easily getting the better of her child-like amazement.  She’d had an hour alone to process that little revelation, after all.
  264. “Nor I mine, and yet here we are sharing the same meal.  I notice that for all your interest in my methods you didn’t make any attempt to discern if the meat was poisoned.”
  266. “All that trouble just to poison me at dinner?  That’s the least intelligent thing you’ve said all day,” she said, her filling stomach bolstering her courage and settling some of her nerves.  He laughed loudly and withdrew a bottle of water from the bag, taking a deep swig before handing her a second.
  268. “Other than that little bit with my net jockey and the jaguar cock I think you might be right.  Thought the ringing would never stop in that ear.  Ah, my apologies princess," he paused at the shocked look on her face.  "Cock is street slang for-”
  270. “I KNOW WHAT IT MEANS!”  She yelped, feeling the blood rush to her cheeks and ears.  “So you do have yourself a crude streak behind that supposed class of yours.”
  272. “I believe so.  Hard not to in my line of work.  I meant no offense, my lady.  Just a bit of levity is all.  I will try to watch my words.”
  274. “You’ll do that for me but letting me go is too much,” she lamented to herself, taking another frustrated bite.  The lamb was delectably juicy, coating her tongue with liquid fat and the flavor of a tangy barbeque sauce.  
  276. “Yes, lady Keiko.  Letting you go would be too much,” he affirmed, apparently taking her comment seriously.  “Oh, the restroom is behind the baobab silhouette.  Light pressure should do.”
  278. The princess looked at him curiously, wondering how in the world he could have known.  Dabbing her muzzle with a disposable napkin, she stood and padded over to the tree he’d indicated.  A gentle press of her hand caused the panel to shift back and to the side, revealing a small but quite clean bathroom complete with a standing shower encased in glass.  As the door shut behind her she noted that the LEDs within the walls had dimmed to the purple of dusk, allowing the warm light of the lantern above to dominate the space.  A few minutes later she returned and the two of them finished their meal in silence, with the mercenary clearing things away when she was finished.  Keiko looked his way after taking a final moment to lick the last remnants of animal fat and sauce off the short fur of her muzzle.  “What happens now?”
  280. He turned to face her after tying off the plastic outer bag of the takeout and brought his fingers to his chin in thought.  “I suppose you’re not in the mood for conversation, my lady?”
  282. “Of course I am!  A living, breathing human is standing feet from me, talking to me.  I want to ask you about everything!  But of course there’s the tiny little problem that you abducted me at gunpoint and are holding me hostage for unknown ends and an unknown length of time.”
  284. “Perhaps that’s for the better,” he said quietly, glancing over to the futon.  “I doubt my answers would satisfy any of your questions.  Myths and tales have no place in reality.”
  286. Keiko felt her heart sink at his words, wondering why she placed any hope of anything in him in the first place.  <It’s just because he’s the first human I’ve ever…> she reasoned, looking back to her small satchel where it rested against the wall.  “Where can I put my things?”
  288. “I apologize, my lady, but I don’t typically host anyone here for extended stays.  For now you may use whatever space you like near the futon.  Should circumstances permit it, I will do my best to supply you with other necessities tomorrow.  Within reason, of course.”
  290. “Yes yes, because all of this is so very reasonable,” she fumed, turning away from him and collecting her bag.  She cradled it to her chest as she walked to the far corner of the room and knelt down to go through its contents, feeling his eyes on her every second of the way.  
  292. Her personal datapad was functional but effectively in offline mode until further notice thanks to the security measures he'd built into the safehouse.  It would be a timely distraction, but nothing else.  She had clothing and undergarments, but not many and certainly not much variety.  The only other item she’d managed to grab was a small holographic projection device, one she used to model and re-arrange the plants and decorations of her solar before executing the final vision.  She brushed a white-furred finger gently along its edges and activated it against her better judgment.  The tears came almost immediately.  She did her best to remain quiet and not show him her weakness.  Keiko knew he saw right through her.
  294. “I-”
  296. “Shut up!”  She screamed.  “Unless the next words out of your mouth are about how this has all been a colossal misunderstanding and I’m free to go just...shut up.  You are a miserable excuse for a human,” she wept, deactivating the hologram and stashing it safely in her satchel.  He allowed her free reign as she pressed against the wall and retreated to the bathroom, collapsing against the white tiled floor as the door closed behind her and sealed the two of them apart.  Unseen by the anthro princess her human captor did just the same, head in his hands as he heaved a defeated sigh.
  298. "She wasn't supposed to be that beautiful."
  300. \-----
  302. Keiko cried until her tears ran dry, lamenting nothing more or less than the death of any remaining freedom she had in life.  She wasn't sure how long it took. She hadn't bothered looking at her lenses.  With a shaking breath she pushed herself to her feet and walked to the sink, her claws clicking softly on the tiles.  
  304. "By the wise ones, I look a mess," she declared, seeing how the makeup in her fur had streaked due to her tears.  The jagged white pattern below each eye was faintly visible now, like a burst of magicka or a fan of daggers. Her handmaidens had insisted on covering them with black to match the fur that surrounded the rest of her orbits, to give her a subtle and feminine appeal for her new lord.  There was no need to play cute for a mercenary.  With a shrug she activated the tap, pleased to find warm running water pouring over her paws.  A few minutes of scrubbing later and she was clean and unblemished, her bloodshot eyes returning to white as she calmed herself and gazed at her reflection.
  306. "I suppose that is the one silver lining," she admitted.  "That gift is still mine to give away...for now."  Keiko undid the wrap of her pedestrian garb, allowing it to fall to the floor before rummaging through her satchel for one of her nightgowns.  It was a beautiful thing, a curtain of fine silk interwoven not with synthetic lights, as much intimate garb was in Alhamkara, but with an organic network of bioluminescent fibers that shimmered as soon as her body heat reached them, shrouding her in a dark and swirling veil that was designed to mimic the infinite depths of a magicite crystal.  "Time to face him again."
  308. Seth raised his head from his datapad as the door to the bathroom slowly slid open after almost two hours of silence.  He was about to say something, anything, but the princess managed to steal his breath away yet again.  She was clad in a shimmering silk gown that hung delicately from her shoulders and breasts, and her face had changed.  In that moment he realized he was finally seeing Keiko, without alteration or embellishment.  The white fur beneath her eyes made those golden orbs as the sun rising above the seas, practically radiating light.  He knew he was staring; he couldn't help it.
  310. Keiko felt her ears moving as she tried to hold the mercenary's gaze, twisting her leg back and forth on the pads of her foot.  Males in the palace would glance discretely or not at all.  He was making no mask of his intentions.  His muscular frame now sported a pair of loose fitting and unremarkable combat trousers, as well as a form fitting undershirt that left nothing to the imagination.  When his stare became too much she looked to his right, seeing his armor resting on a stand within a small alcove.  The helm, breastplate, and arms were held by a half mannequin with the leg armor and boots settled neatly below.  His weapons hung from the wall on either side. She noted the curved blade she'd tried to steal as well as a heavily modified magitech pistol and a longer blade that he'd not used when he'd come for her.  She was brought back to the present by his voice, even deeper than she remembered.
  312. "I was wrong about you, lady Keiko. I had assumed the videos and images were doctored to cover up flaws or to perfect the imperfect for the sake of the crown. It turns out it was quite the opposite.  Tell me, why do they hide such wild beauty from the world?"
  314. Keiko's heart lodged in her throat and she clasped her hands behind her back. The human had remained seated with his personal datapad, not moving or threatening with any action. It was just words, the words of a vile kidnapper no less, someone who had surely killed many a person in his time.  And yet they cut to her core, made her chest thrum.
  316. "You are referring to my eyes?" She eventually replied. He nodded.
  318. "Your Lord Torando does not appreciate the pattern?"
  320. "My handmaidens thought it best to present myself modestly."
  322. "Then the fault is with your future husband," he concluded, resting an elbow on his crossed knee and taking her in.  She managed a glare for him.
  324. "I don't know why I'm even talking to you," she spat.  Maddeningly, of course, he took that as an invitation to continue.
  326. "Because staring daggers at one another would be dreadfully dull.  As things stand I don't trust you enough to not betray me the moment I reveal my own agenda to you.  You're out of your element to be sure but you're no fool, princess.  I see you looking, watching everything.  You're wondering why you're here, unbound perhaps?  Why I'm not just collecting my pay and dumping you with some mnyama boss who would, as you say, delight in breaking that body of yours."
  328. Keiko shuddered, his words evoking that primal fear every woman was capable of feeling, that a stronger, brutish man would take her in his own way.  "The fates are whimsical and cruel, mercenary.  I escape the surrender of myself to Lord Torando...and yet my first night with a man will be you instead," she lamented, looking down at the futon between them.  "You know much about me, it seems. You've even seen my true face, as you pointed out. Will you at least tell me your name?"  She requested softly, unashamed at using her feminine appeal to persuade him.  He gazed at her in contemplation before bending at the waist to grab the pillow from the left side of the futon.
  330. "My lady should take the bed this evening," he insisted, laying down on the tatami floor and continuing his reading with his head against the pillow.  Keiko felt her mouth drop open as she pulled back the comforter to what she supposed was now her futon for the night.
  332. "You would go that far just to hide your name?" She asked, feeling her weary body accept his bed all too willingly.
  334. "Seth.  My name is Seth."
  336. "Just Seth?" She whispered, turning on her side to look at him and getting a fine glimpse of his toned arms and chest.
  338. "Just Seth, my lady."
  340. "I see."
  342. "Shall I dim the lights, my lady?"
  344. "Why did you take me, Seth?"
  346. The mercenary fell silent a moment, wondering at how deftly his name, in her silken voice, twisted between his ribs like a sharp blade.  For the briefest of instants he wanted to spill everything to her, his parents and his vendettas.  He blinked twice and brought himself under control.  "I told you, my lady, for my own selfish reasons."
  348. "You betrayed your employer," she observed. It wasn't a question.  With a wave of his hand Seth dimmed the lanterns, the only remaining light being pinpricks on the walls that emulated the stars above the savannah, far from the light pollution of Alhamkara's capital.
  350. "Goodnight, my lady."  He wished her well from the cover of darkness.
  352. In spite of herself, the downy futon and soft blanket quickly carried Keiko away from the waking world.
  354. \-----
  356. “Captain, we’re in place.  All squads prepped for breach and clear.  No hostile contacts.  Preparing the charges now.”  Idris Octavia acknowledged the message and refocused on the barricaded metal doors across the alley from him.  They were covered in graffiti and what he knew to be blood.  Vines and overgrowth in and on the building completed the scene of a hostile operating zone in a literal concrete jungle, a place the Sekhama were not meant to tread.
  358. “This smells worse than the incinerators in the middle of a heatwave,” he muttered to his first lieutenant.  The leopard looked up at his captain, an imposing behemoth of a lion, well scarred from his years of service to the royal family and clad in heavy urban combat armor.
  360. “You think we’ll get to her in time, sir?”
  362. “She isn’t here,” he growled with certitude.
  364. “Then why are we-”
  366. “The kidnapper puts out a deep fake of her highness in the hands of the Trang’aul.  The only people dumb enough to believe something like that are the conspiracy nutcases on the web and the Trang’aul themselves.  Could have kept their heads but no, they decided to push their luck and extort the crown for money.  And so here we are.  Did it strike you as odd how an entire platoon of Sekhama managed to travel through miles of slums without encountering any mnyama resistance at all?  I’ve been fighting those bastards for years, killed more than my share.  Any other day I’d have been in a half dozen firefights by now.  Today?  Nothing.  Every boss with a pair of brain cells to rub together is laying low and letting the Trang’aul dig their own graves, graves I’m happy to fill.  At this point our net specs are more likely to find her highness than we are.  It’s been too long and there’s too many places to hide in this city.  But we can at least do this.  We can grieve for lady Keiko later, remain focused on the task at hand.”  
  368. Four green lights had appeared on the captain’s visor.  He grabbed the heavy ballistic shield from his back and drew his sidearm.  Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Cobra’, that particular magicka revolver relied on a custom armor piercing modification that fired a dual stage burst for each trigger pull.  The first impact would be a gravity warping slug that weakened and degraded all but the best designed ballistic materials.  The follow up would then shatter whatever armor lay between it and its victim, killing via shrapnel, blunt trauma, or penetration.  Most gangs enjoyed the flashier weapons, ones that ignited, froze, or shocked their targets.  They were spectacular and easily countered.  The captain cared only for a weapon that would kill whenever he pulled the trigger.  The magicite heat sinks were incredibly expensive, but the crown’s pockets were deep and his effectiveness in the field had ensured acceptable returns on the investment.  
  370. “Alpha, final check,” Octavia ordered.
  372. “Rooftop charge placed and primed.”
  374. “Beta, final check.”
  376. “Second floor charge placed and primed.”
  378. “Gamma, final check.”
  380. “Basement infiltrated, ready to move.”
  382. “Main charge placed and primed,” the captain finished, manipulating his HUD to ensure a coordinated detonation.  “Delta ready to take point.  You boys finish this without a reload and drinks are on me tonight.  Now let’s clear us a hyena den.”
  385.                                                         ~Chapter 3~
  387. Chapter 3 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/n9g89CF
  389. The warm glow of the morning sun roused Keiko from her slumber, her ears twisting attentively as the sound of birdsong reached them.  "Mmm," she moaned softly, stretching her legs and feeling the comfort of her silk gown and the futon against her fur.  For a moment she even believed herself to be back in her solar, perhaps having fallen asleep on a cushion amongst her plants. She rubbed her eyes clear of sleep only to catch her breath and stop her heart as she remembered exactly where she was.  The princess of Alhamkara shot upright in bed, finding her captor seated quietly in the corner and regarding her with interest.
  391. "All is well, my lady.  There is no need for panic," he reassured her.
  393. "You really do think I'm stupid," she hissed, feeling a leaden weight fill her stomach as the events of the prior day returned to her.  
  395. "I meant no offense. You seemed distraught," he replied sympathetically.
  397. "I can't imagine why," Keiko shot back.
  399. "Perhaps breakfast?"
  401. "Humanity curse you, it's not because I'm hungry!"  Keiko snapped, adjusting the strap of her nightgown which has slipped down her arm overnight.  Seth nodded, outwardly unperturbed.
  403. "I would be interested in what sort of curse that might be," he mused.  "I am not here often, so the best I can do for now would be soup.  I hope you'll forgive me."
  405. Keiko turned away in disgust and retreated to the bathroom, leaving Seth to exhale heavily, stand upright, and walk to the wall opposite the outer door.  It slid away to reveal a single burner, a small sink, a kettle, two tiny cabinets, and a several cubic foot refrigerator that made up what passed for a kitchen in a mercenary’s hideaway.  He busied himself with sealed packs of soup base and tried not to think of the royal lady that currently graced his humble bathroom.  “It’s just a job.  Just a job like any other...yeah, nice try Seth.  You’re a terrible liar, especially for a mnyama dog.”  Regardless of the inconvenient feelings the unexpectedly compelling princess spawned in his gut, the mission was the same as it has always been: take her, keep her alive, use her, kill them all.  “And then go down with the ship,” he muttered, knowing nothing would remain for him at the end.  It was fine.  His kind was already long gone, consigned to godhood and worship.  There was no way he could ever live up to the example of his ancestors.
  407. “The water’s boiling,” a soft voice informed him, his body kept still only by years of conditioning on the streets of the capital.  He felt the nerves and adrenal pulse, that twinge of fear whenever something went wrong on a job.  She’d snuck up on him.
  409. “So it is,” he answered calmly.  “You should have killed me.”
  411. “I...probably wouldn’t make it out of here alive,” she replied, astonished at how casually he suggested his life be thrown away, his sacred life.  “Dead man switches?  Permanent locks?”
  413. “Don’t think I can tell you that just yet,” he said, pouring water over the miso blocks and stirring before handing her a bowl and spoon.  “Give it time to cool.”
  415. “Uh, thank you,” Keiko said, taking her bowl back to her corner instead of moving to the table where Seth had seated himself.  She looked down at the bowl, studying the white cubes of synthetic nutrients, strips of seaweed, and a handful of dehydrated scallions that were slowly expanding as the steam rose to tickle the fur of her muzzle.  “You really enjoy Japanese culture, don’t you?”  
  417. The mercenary looked over from across the room, raising his eyebrows at her.  “You know much of humanity, my lady.  Most would simply call this ‘human culture’ but you know better.  Why is that?”
  419. “It’s my passion, when I have time for personal pursuits that is.”
  421. “Is that so?”  Seth asked with genuine curiosity.  “What happened to the other human cultures then? The ones that only have a fleeting presence here in Alhamkara.”
  423. Keiko drank a spoonful of soup before answering.  It was uninspiring at best, but warmed her belly nicely.  “I can only guess, but perhaps they uplifted other civilizations on other planets.  I’m sure we were just one of many star systems that were graced by their light.”
  425. The human’s countenance darkened at her altruistic assertion, but the two of them kept to their meals.  The tension of the night before was somehow magnified by the banality of their conversation.  Seth changed subjects abruptly, done with the discussion of his species.
  427. “I’m leaving soon.  Please tell me what you need to make yourself comfortable here, my lady.”
  429. “Within reason?”  She quipped sarcastically.
  431. “Yes.”  His curt reply had her ears wilting, the golden chains hanging just a bit lower.  She wondered why a criminal and her captor would be so expressive in front of her, so ready to speak and exchange ideas at all.  <Perhaps that mask is a more constant companion for him than I realized,> she thought, setting her bowl aside and grabbing her personal tablet.  Within a few minutes she’d specified a handful of toiletries and basic articles of clothing that she knew would be necessary for any length of stay with this mysterious human.  
  433. “Can I...send it to you?”  She requested.  He took a moment to fiddle around with his own tablet and to make a change or two at his network terminal.
  435. “You should be able to see my device now.  One way file transfer only.”
  437. Keiko sent the small list and waited as Seth watched his screen carefully.
  439. “Are you aware that there are at least three separate countermeasures attached to this file?”  He demanded, casting her a suspicious glance.  Keiko didn’t respond, closing her eyes in disappointment.  He’d found them all in an instant.  The mercenary was communicating with someone via his terminal.  “Yeah Sybela, you’ve got them now?  It can clear the quarantine?  Alright, thanks.”
  441. “If you call me at seven in the morning after an op again it better be because you fucked the princess in at least two of her holes, not for a goddamn shopping list.”  An aggravated female voice assaulted both of them before the external link was cut.  Seth had the decency to meet Keiko’s eyes with a blush on his face.
  443. “I...would not do such a thing, lady Keiko,” he promised, Sybela’s tired tirade having obliterated the high ground he’d momentarily occupied over the tracking programs Keiko had attempted to force onto his device.  “And I suppose I’ll give you credit where it’s due for trying to fight back.  Don’t do it again if you value the ability to use your hands.”
  445. Keiko’s shoulders dropped but she’d expected this outcome.  Seth, if nothing else, was a professional, the sort of person a mnyama hired when goons and extortion just wouldn’t cut it.  He would always be watching for royal countermeasures.  She decided a new approach was called for.  “I suppose your, what did you call her, net jockey didn’t get her jaguar cock?  Or perhaps she got a bit too much last night,” she teased.  Seth’s mouth dropped open.
  447. “My lady has a mouth of her own it would seem.”  He stood and stored the table away, placing his bowl in the sink before approaching her.  He’d procured the restraints again.
  449. “I guess I earned this,” she lamented, managing to meet his eyes this time with what was left of her defiance.  He nodded.
  451. “I told you I don’t blame you.  But play this game we must...until things change,” he declared, securing her wrists and collecting her empty bowl.  “I will return, my lady.  I ask that you remain patient.”  He donned his armor, grabbed his cloak, and left without another word.
  453. \-----
  455. Keiko was afraid to look at her lens, to remind herself of how long she’d been there alone in the silence.  Her wrists ached dully and her mind was slowly fraying.  The ‘sun’ of the walls had already passed its zenith and still the mercenary had not returned.  The princess shut her eyes tightly and tried to ward off the heavy fears that pieced deeper and deeper into her conscious thought.  What if something happened to him when he was gone?  Who would find her in that room if not him?  Would she starve first or take her own life?  Perhaps bash her head on the sink until she woke no more?  Maybe she’d find a way to suffocate or drown herself.  Or maybe she’d let the fear of death keep her alive until her final hungry breath, fading away slowly as her kingdom searched for her in vain and eventually gave up.  Faster and faster the spectre of death and isolation clawed its way into her mind and consumed her.  She was breathing quickly, short panicked breaths.  Whining sounds escaped her throat and her eyes darted around the room looking for something, anything to give her the means to escape.  There was nothing.  Her chest felt like it would collapse with panic.  Her entire existence was reliant on Seth and he had abandoned her.  With a cry of terror Keiko ran for the door, only to recoil in pain as an electric charge lanced up her arms and made every bit of fur on her body stand on end.  The princess collapsed to the ground, curled into a ball, and cried out in dread.  She called for her mother, for her father.  She called for Idris, for her handmaidens.  Before the hyperventilation and uncontrollable shivers kicked in she even cried for Seth.  That was how he found her on his return.
  457. \-----
  459. <This…cannot go on.  This isn't a job anymore,> Seth's conscious screamed at him as he stared at Keiko.  The keening sobs that reached his ears the moment he cracked the door open had his adrenaline up, only for him to be dropped down into the depths of the hell he was surely destined for when he saw her.  Alhamkara's regal princess reduced to a quivering young girl, scared for her life.  He expected, even hoped for anger in those golden eyes when they saw him.  Instead he saw relief and surrender in the brief moment before she buried her head in her arms and tried to become as small as possible, as if to vanish from existence itself.  She was relieved that he'd returned to her.  He felt sick, vile.  He felt like he was precisely the monster the mnyamas hired him to be.
  461. "My lady," he whispered, only then remembering to secure the locks.  <That's twice in one day.  Damn this woman.>
  463. "Seth," she gasped, still breathing as if she'd sprinted a mile.  "Seth…"
  465. "Don't, please."  He dropped the pack he'd acquired to the floor and knelt at her side, undoing her restraints and chucking them away without a care.  "Did you eat?  Did you drink?"  When she didn't respond he moved quickly to the sink and filled a mug with cold water.  "I'm still getting used to the fact that the water is clean and drinkable again.  A testament to your influence.  Here, my lady."
  467. Seth handed her the mug only to feel the knives of guilt twist further as her shaking hands spilled half of the liquid on the floor and her fur.  The demon in his mind told him he could have spared her, were here a good human like in the stories. He could have shot Markhan in the back of the head and finally earned something of a noble death at the hands of the rest of that bastard's gang.  But no, he was selfish. He wanted far more than just one head, one trophy.  And now Keiko was suffering for it.  Most of the water was wasted by the time the clay dinnerware reached her lips.  "Lady Keiko."
  469. She yelped and recoiled from him as he reached for her hands in an attempt to help replenish her body's moisture.  Looking closer he saw patches of singed fur and red, inflamed skin barely visible beneath.  "Why would you...I told you it would hurt you!"
  471. "I was afraid, you bastard!"  She yelled in a sudden burst of righteous anger, the real Keiko, that quickly faded back into the shaken wild dog before him.  Seth removed his helmet and mask and collected the cup from Keiko's paws.  He silently refilled it and knelt before her again, his usually keen eyes glazed over with self consuming thoughts.
  473. "Please, my lady.  Allow me to assist you," he requested with little inflection, bringing the cup to her lips without touching her body.  Slowly Keiko leaned forward, her parched throat and cracked lips overwhelming her disdain in the moment.  She drank slowly, soothing the dry pain of her hours long panic attack.  When she was finished he returned with another cup.  She drank that one too.  "I have lunch, but we should take a look at your wrists first," he said.  She didn't bother replying.  
  475. Seth inhaled sharply and rose from their kneeling position, replacing the mug and divesting himself of his armor.  Keiko's gaze wasn't focused on him, but she could smell him.  It must have been another dry and hot day.  She could only imagine what it was like in that suit, and was in no state whatsoever to feel embarrassed at or appreciate the form of his body, momentarily clad in compression shorts and an undershirt before he changed and withdrew a medical kit from the pedestal on which his armor rested when not in use.  No space was wasted in his sanctum.
  477. "May I touch you, lady Keiko?"  He asked hesitantly as he knelt before her again.  "Just your wrists, just to treat the burn.  You have my word."  The look in her eyes was inscrutable, hiding the turmoil within from his gaze.  Eventually she held up her wrists for him and he took her left hand lightly.  Keiko felt her ears flush with blood as this skin came into contact with her pads for the first time. She looked intently at the walls as he rubbed disinfectant over the red ring of affected skin.  Keiko winced and whined in spite of her desire to remain stoic before him.  "I'm sorry," he whispered, wrapping her wrist with a sterile white bandage before repeating the process with her right arm.  That done, he immediately removed himself from her personal space, stashing the kit and busying himself with the large, nondescript backpack he'd acquired on his journey.  
  479. "Is there...anything to eat?" Keiko asked quietly, finally calm enough to feel the demand of her stomach again.  He nodded.  
  481. "I didn't think the protein blocks would be to your highness' liking.  Curry?  There's a nearby family that sells it out of their lower floor," he said, withdrawing another bag from the pack, a well secured plastic thing that contained a handful of containers and paper wraps.  The moment they were opened the smell alone compelled Keiko to join him, finding puffed bread, ground seasoned meat, and a yellowish-brown curry sauce that smelled divine.
  483. "I thought everyone ate synthetic now," she murmured, ripping a small piece of bread from the whole and dipping it.  Seth seemed hesitant to speak of mundane matters with her but eventually answered.
  485. "When times are hard or when they sell out I'm sure they do.  It's cheaper, more nutritious, balanced.  But the consumption of meat goes back before your kind could even walk on two legs, before my kind oversaw this planet and began the uplift of the faunum...if you believe the stories."
  487. "I do," Keiko affirmed.  "But it makes me happy to hear that families have that choice."
  489. "Options are valuable, my lady, from a family's dinner table to my own profession."  His throat felt tight as he tried to swallow a bite of his own meal.  They couldn't paper it over for more than a few minutes.
  491. "Seth, I can't take this.  Please just give me back to the palace, or to whoever hired you if you must.  I can't...I just can't," she pleaded, feeling a tear slide down the fur of her muzzle to drip onto the table.
  493. "I'd be signing my own death warrant, or yours," the mercenary replied.
  495. "At least I'd know the time and manner of my death!  You took me from my golden cage just to stash me away in your dark sanctum.  It's like I don't exist anymore.  Whatever you hoped to gain from me, I'm not strong enough to survive it.  Take your money, mercenary."
  497. Seth could feel the tendons of his jaw ache as the pressure between his teeth built with each passing moment.  His stomach had tied itself in knots, indicating lunch was more than over.  His breathing was shallow and rushed.  He could practically feel the judgment of his ancestors crushing his shoulders.  "Fuck this."
  499. The human stood quickly and turned to open the panel to his network uplink.  After establishing a secure connection he contacted his crew.  "Talon, Argos, what's the story with Markhan?"
  501. "Where the hell have you been, Seth?  We've been trying to get in touch with you since last night!   Did you see the vids?  What the hell were you thinking with that Trang'aul shit? The Sekhama slaughtered them like pigs!"
  503. "By the wise ones, Talon, give the guy a chance to talk, you crazy bird." Argos' low, rumbling voice finally silenced the excitable cassowary.  "Seth, Markhan wasn't happy when we told him you intended to lay low instead of immediately delivering her, but after the Sekhama op last night he's content to wait for now.  You were right, man.  He actually thought they blindsided us."
  505. "Figures.  Argos, Talon, split the advance payment between the two of you.  Sybela already got hers and I still have work to do."
  507. "What?"  Talon squawked.  "Seth, what's with you, man?  I thought we were going to booze it up!  We kidnapped the bloody princess!  You feeling alright?"
  509. Keiko watched, spellbound, as Seth's face showed bloody murder.  "Shut your beak or lose it, Talon," he growled.
  511. "Woah, what the hell, man?"
  513. "Talon, just give it a rest," Argos advised cautiously.  "We got paid and that's what matters.  Besides, you weren't on the ground.  You didn't have to take her.  Poor girl, wonder what the hell Markhan wants with her anyway. He's paying us enough we could take a couple years off, grab a little place somewhere at the base of Antares, rub shoulders with the elite.  Seth, just ping us when you're ready. You know the channel."  Argos killed his and Talon's link, leaving only Sybela's channel, humming faintly with static.  
  515. "You're having second thoughts, aren't you?"  The jackrabbit finally asked.
  517. "Not about the end goal."
  519. "Seth, get a hold of yourself.  You're going to get yourself killed.  I know what's going on and I've seen it before.  Don't be a fuck up."
  521. The human rubbed his temples.  "We'll be more successful if she joins us willingly," he replied.  Her furious response came in an instant.
  523. "That shit about fucking her was a joke, you hairless ape!  I did not sign up for this!  You want to get eaten alive by the Sekhama that's your fucking problem but I'm done, Seth.  This is not what we agreed to!"  Silence carried over the line for a full minute before Sybela spoke.  "I was almost getting used to running with a crew again.  If you live long enough to reclaim your sanity then call me, you stupid monkey."
  525. Seth rammed his head against the wall as his terminal went dark.  He slowly pushed it back into the wall and allowed the LED panel to cover it again.  When he finally turned to his left he found Keiko looking at him with her hands clasped in front of her.  
  527. "I don't deserve that innocent look of yours," he asserted.  
  529. "I'm not so sure you deserve a look of hatred either," she whispered.  "You're planning to betray Markhan.  He's the one who hired you?"
  531. "I'm surprised you know him," Seth admitted, still leaning against the wall.  He felt pathetic.
  533. "Of course I know him.  The Wildfire has become impossible to ignore.  Every week they seem to bring another block or building under their control. Another bribe changes hands, another backchannel is opened at an arms manufacturer, another citizen of my country dies from tainted azure, another Sekhama is killed in the line of duty...and Markhan is at the center of it all.  How many have you killed for him?"  Keiko demanded, swinging back into anger as Seth refused to stand up to her tirade.  He shook his head.
  535. "Between him and his intermediaries?  More than I can count."
  537. "You bastard!"  Keiko yelled, leaping over the table and tackling him out of the chair, thinking of the funerals she'd attend for those who'd given their lives in the crown's service.  "Tell me how many Sekhama you've killed!"  She punched him square across the jaw.  Her knuckles screamed in pain but it felt good.  He'd made no move to stop her.
  539. "Just one, my lady," he said, working his lower jaw as the dull throbbing of her assault faded.  The furious orbs of gold demanded his complete answer.  "You're far more beautiful when you're angry."
  541. "FUCK YOU!"  Keiko roared, striking him again.  Seth couldn't help a smile as she winced in pain.  His face stung, but he bore it without complaint.  Seeing her full of life was far preferable to the sobbing girl he'd found on his return.
  543. "So even my lady can swear when pressed?  For what it's worth, I'm sorry.  He was the only one skilled enough to corner me, to cut off every last one of my escape options.  We fought.  He won.  The only reason I'm alive today is what you witnessed back in your solar.  His firearm proved ineffective, gave me enough time to draw my own.  It was instant, lady Keiko.  He felt no pain."
  545. "His family felt more than enough!"  The wild dog yelped, scratching him deep across his right cheek with the claws of her left hand.  The smell of blood met her nose immediately as his crimson essence dripped from her hand and his face, splattering onto the floor.  The maiming stunned them both into momentary silence before Keiko gathered her wits and jumped off of him, leaving the mercenary to press a hand to his face and admire the sheen of blood as he lay there.  
  547. "I…probably deserve that," he admitted softly.  
  549. "Why didn't you stop me?" Keiko cried. "I wasn't holding down your arms or anything!  Your face!"
  551. "Has gone far too long without blemish for my line of work.  They are a few of us who bear scars from the Sekhama.  Most just die when they face them. A wound from the heir of Alhamkara is something else entirely. You honor me, my lady."
  553. Seth felt himself deflate hopelessly as Keiko gave him a look of pure loathing and confusion, retreating to the bathroom without another word.  He was left to clean and bandage himself without her.  He sighed. "I'm going to need that mirror though."
  555. Keiko had but a moment to try to sort out which of the many emotions within her should reign primary.  She was furious at Seth for all he’d done, for taking her, for killing Yeltar, for leaving her alone.  But she was curious too, curious at his humanity, curious about his vendettas and past, curious as to why he was keeping his own crew in the dark about his intentions, curious as to why he was treating her so well for a captive, curious as to why he tried to avoid killing Sekhama.  Beneath it all she felt guilty for having given into her baser instincts, for being like him and the people he worked for, for hitting him and for clawing him.  “What an infuriating, unforgivable hu-” she was cut off as the door she’d been leaning against suddenly moved to the side and left her without support.  Even so she was prevented from falling backward by Seth’s tactically placed shin, propping her up as gently as he could manage with his leg on short notice.  “Can’t you just take a hint and leave me alone!”
  557. Her answer came in a drop of blood that fell from his wound to land in the fur of her head.  She tilted her head back and met his gaze.  <Were all humans this expressive with their eyes?>  Keiko couldn’t help but wonder.
  559. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, my lady.  Your message was clear enough but I must make use of this room.  The rest of the safehouse is yours, if you wish.”
  561. “This can’t go on, Seth,” she told him as another drop landed on her muzzle, filling the front of her skull with his scent.  He helped her to her feet as she steadied herself in body and mind.  “I am unwilling to play the role of victim and you seem unwilling to play the role of captor.  Why did you take me?”
  563. The mercenary seemed willing to entertain her request now that he was dirtying not the fine floors of the rest of the small space, but the easily cleaned ceramic tile.  After a long moment he nodded to her.  She gasped.  “I am in agreement, lady Keiko.  I will never understand why they paint you as such a fragile flower for the public.”
  565. “You saw why,” she whispered as he stepped past her and activated the tap, splashing cold water on his face and hissing as his wounds protested.  When he looked up he could see the dark red pinpricks of severed capillaries within each claw wound.  
  567. “That...is going to leave a mark,” he muttered to himself, glancing just past his reflection as Keiko approached him.
  569. “You should go to a hospital,” she tried.  He shook his head.  
  571. “Anyone treating me would either have to be bribed into silence or someone who already knows I am a human.  That list is incredibly short and contains no trustworthy medics.  Mnyamas are not worth my time or money...and I will not leave you here alone again,” he vowed.
  573. “It’s my fault.  If there’s somewhere you can go, you should go,” Keiko insisted, standing just behind him but not knowing what else to do.  
  575. “No.” Seth’s final decision left them both listening to the sound of water hitting the ceramic basin, occasionally tinted red as his blood continued to spill from the jagged wounds her claws had left.  Keiko filed her claws, to be sure, but they were nowhere near as sharp or fine as those of feline faunum.  They were more than sufficient to tear into unsuspecting flesh, however, and they’d left rugged and bloody paths across the right side of his face.  He saw her eyeing them in the mirror.  “It’s fine, lady Keiko.  They will form scars, surely, but a wound like this will clot and close quickly thanks to the rough tearing of the flesh beneath.  It’s much preferable to being cut with a blade, or by that commander of the Sekhama.  So long as I prevent infection this is an acceptable injury.”
  577. Keiko could only shake her head at how he talked about his body, like it was a tool.  “You should be protected,” she murmured.
  579. “You say that because of what I am, not who I am.”
  581. “I’m not so sure I know who you are anymore either, mercenary.”
  583. “Then might I ask you to open the dark brown bottle inside?”  He handed her the medkit he was carrying as he splashed more water on his face.  She easily found the bottle of disinfectant and read the label.  Her eyes narrowed at the sheer number of antiseptic compounds within, especially the last line.
  585. “This has azure in it!”  She yelped, though he remained unfazed.
  587. “Of course it does, my lady.  The pure product is an extraordinary compound despite its questionable legal status.  Its ability to catalyze tissue regeneration and other biological processes is quite handy in a pinch. The amount used is minute, far below the necessary threshold to gain any sort of high.”
  589. “Will it work on you?”  She asked curiously, remembering how her shots had done nothing but deflect harmlessly off his chestplate.
  591. “I’ve never needed to use it before now.  Shall we have a bit of an experiment?”  He suggested, reaching for the bottle.  She swatted his hand away, feeling some amount of responsibility for the now slowly oozing gashes on his cheek.
  593. “Let me,” she insisted, walking to his other side as he turned his head with a shrug, ensuring the wounds faced skyward.  Keiko shook the bottle and gently poured the viscous liquid over him, noting how his eyes contracted painfully and his hands gripped the edge of the sink until his knuckles turned white. “By the wise ones, I have no idea why I’m doing this,” she admitted, righting the bottle as his wounds began to bubble, a result of the hydrogen peroxide.
  595. “Because unlike me, my lady, you possess a shred of humanity and its grace within you,” he declared through clenched teeth.  She tisked him and hung her head as he invoked the paragons of virtue in their society, humans.  
  597. “I don’t have the will to argue with you anymore,” she replied.  “What next?”  Seth motioned to the first aid kit again, though with his head turned sideways he looked a mite ridiculous.
  599. “I need a sterile bandage.  Also there should be a package of topical sutures.  They’ll do,” he said.  Keiko located the items with ease and replaced the bottle she was holding.  Soon Seth had wiped himself clean of excess disinfectant and washed his hands, opening the first suture and applying the clear plastic to his face.  Microscopic barbs on the underside of the suture found purchase in his skin, and as his body heat warmed the device it tightened to hold the end of one of his wounds shut.  Keiko watched silently and patiently as he closed the gashes as tightly as he could before applying a sterile pad of gauze and some tape over the whole area.  He turned to face her when he was finished.  “Thank you for your assistance, lady Keiko.”
  601. “Answer my question, now,” she demanded, fixing him with her sunburst eyes.  
  603. “The question is not why I took you, lady Keiko.”
  605. “Don’t play smart with me, mercenary.  If you’ve nothing to say then be gone and let me regret showing you any sort of compassion.”
  607. Seth carried on, wincing as he tried to grin with the right side of his face.  The princess always seemed to have just a bit more fire stashed away somewhere.  “The job was to take you, lady Keiko, of course.  And you have the right of it.  I intend to betray Markhan.”
  609. “Why?”  Keiko asked, feeling her heart beat swiftly as their eyes held each other.
  611. “Because Markhan, the Wildfire, and every other mnyama in Alhamkara needs to be put down like the animals they are.”
  614.                                                             ~Chapter 4~
  615. Chapter 4 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/EwjKuUH
  617. Keiko’s blood thundered through her ears as she processed the mercenary’s declaration.  It was tempting, far too good to be true.  He was human and intended to go after the mnyama, a holy light cleansing the scourge of her people from the capital.  She yearned so deeply to trust him, wanted so fervently to believe him.  “The perfect trap,” she muttered.
  619. “My lady?” Seth cocked his head in confusion.
  621. “I’ll admit you’ve done your homework well, mercenary.  I don’t know why you’re playing at it, why you suddenly decided this was how you’d lure me in, but I commend you for trying to turn my great fascination and my solemn purpose against me.”
  623. Seth’s face fell into a blank mask of questions.  “I don’t follow, my lady.”
  625. “It was a noble speech, human, about wanting to destroy the very hands that feed you.  How romantic an idea, the last of your kind and the princess of the nation banding together to destroy the mnyama, reclaiming and uplifting the fallen neighborhoods of the capital as you teach me of your ancestors and lost culture,” she proclaimed grandly with more than a hint of sarcasm.  Her ears stood straight with indignation as she continued to stare him down.  “I’m trying to make peace with the fact that you’re skilled enough to have condemned me to death.  Don’t make this harder on me than you already have.”
  627. Seth remained motionless for a long while, watching every small move of Keiko’s ears and lips, steeling himself to take the largest and most insane risk of his entire career.  He knew Sybela would still be yelling at him if she could. He closed his eyes and nodded. “My lady is right. I’ve so far risked nothing in this little exchange of ours. You were taken against your will, fell asleep in my presence...and you’ve allowed me to see your passions.” He ran a hand over his bandaged cheek. “At best one could say I’ve allowed you to know my identity, something of little use to you unless you were ever allowed to leave this room.”
  629. “So of course it’s utterly useless-”
  631. “Would you like to explore the neighborhood with me, lady Keiko?”
  633. “I...excuse me?” Keiko stammered, wondering if she’d misheard. Seth moved his hands behind his back, holding them casually together just below his waist in an attempt to present a non-threatening proposal.
  635. “Against the better judgment of my jaguar obsessed net jockey...I intend to attempt to establish a working relationship with you, lady Keiko. One that will hopefully convince you that, for the time being, your place is not in the palace of Alhamkara but in my world, the underground.”
  637. Keiko felt the room spin around her, trying hard to keep her balance. She’d definitely heard him correctly this time. “This was your plan all along,” she whispered. He nodded.
  639. “And like all plans, my lady, they did not survive contact with ‘the enemy’. I believed in the image of lady Keiko that we loyal citizens receive daily, a delicate savannah flower, humble and kind, ready to bear Lord Torando’s children for the sake of our future.” His words had Keiko turning away from him with burning ears, shaking her head to clear it of those thoughts. His hand touched her shoulder gently, just to the side of her wrap. Skin on fur.  She growled and spun back to him.
  641. “I don’t recall giving you permission to...stop that damned smirking, Seth!”
  643. “Ah but you see, my lady? That was the fatal flaw in my plan! That Keiko doesn’t exist, does she? Instead she is a fierce individual, willing to bare herself to a wouldbe captor, attack and fight him, and even beg for death instead of being held captive like a rat. Sybela doesn’t understand what I’ve seen. She’ll come to understand this is necessary,” he asserted. Keiko looked away from him, recalling the terror of her panic attack.
  645. “I don’t know why you’re saying these things to me, mercenary. You saw the real me curled in a ball on your floor,” she insisted, rubbing her burned wrists.  
  647. “I never said you weren’t human, my lady.  You’ll notice that not half an hour later you gave me my first scars.”
  649. “Seth, that’s sacrilege. We cannot hold a candle to the wise ones.” Keiko’s comments earned a tilt of the mercenary’s head.
  651. “You are a very devout woman, it would seem.  Then take it from a human, lady Keiko, you have much more of their grace in you than I do. Now, enough of this forced flirting in my bathroom. There should be some street clothes behind the panel next to my armor.  The monsoons are on their way, keep that in mind.”
  653. “I’d rather you choose,” Keiko told him.  “I’ll clean your blood.”
  655. Seth smiled at her with pleasant surprise. “As I said, my lady, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. As you wish. Any of the spare towels will do. I can bleach them later.”
  657. “What about the floor outside?” She asked, simultaneously wondering how in the name of humanity the two of them were talking about cleaning his safehouse a mere day after her abduction. He sighed.
  659. “The damage there has been done, my lady. Perhaps one day I’ll have time to replace that area. For now...it’s best as a reminder.” Seth left her, allowing her to collect one of the hand towels that rested on a small, indented shelf to the left of the mirror. His blood had dried in the time they’d spoken with one another, but a bit of water saw it come loose and the tiles restored to their white sheen. She managed to rinse most of the crimson from the towel, leaving it to dry before looking at herself in the mirror. She was about to ask herself what she thought she was doing for the umpteenth time when she caught sight of two small areas of matted fur, each caked with a drop of his blood. Before washing herself clean she closed her eyes and uttered a silent prayer. <Please forgive me for drawing the blood of a human, but thank you for this chance!>
  661. “That fascination is going to get you killed,” she told her reflection, gazing at her piercings and wiggling her ears to make them jingle about. “But I can’t deny this is much more exciting, and terrifying, than waiting for Torando’s seed to set in my belly. To be captive...but also to be free...”
  663. \-----
  665. When Keiko emerged from the bathroom she found Seth in his armor once again and a pile of nicely folded clothing atop the side of the futon she’d slept in the night before. She bent over and collected them, finding a simple sleeveless top and shorts, as well as a cloak made of synthetic hide that was designed to handle the occasionally torrential rains of Alhamkara’s monsoons. Seth glanced at her from where he was seated at his terminal. “I hope you don’t mind a bit of water, my lady.”
  667. “You should be happy. The streets will be empty,” she asserted, turning her back to him and stripping bare. A glance over her shoulder confirmed the reaction she’d been hoping for.
  669. “Lady Keiko!”  
  671. “You say that, but your eyes are honest, mercenary,” she teased, feeling a flush of pride as he drank in her bejeweled spine and backside. “You still might kill me at any moment. I’m not below using my body in an attempt to stay your hand. Besides, I’ve never had a man gaze at me the way you do. It’s not allowed in polite society. It feels good, experiencing this at least once in my life.” Keiko bent over to pull the shorts on, making sure her tail kept her center concealed from his gaze. Any part of Seth that compelled him to look away was vastly overruled by the rest of him, a tightening in his loins making it very clear that Keiko was not afraid to play games with him, to attempt to shift the dynamics of power. This game in particular was one that he would never win. <Oh, if Sybela could see me now,> Seth thought, knowing she’d probably give him a swift kick to the stones. He was pulled out of his thoughts as Keiko turned back to him, now modest enough for them to depart.  He stood and advanced on her, footfalls mostly silent on the natural flooring.
  673. “Allow me,” he insisted, taking the mantle into his hands. She glared suspiciously at him.
  675. “I know how to fasten a cloak, mercenary.”
  677. “I wanted to touch you,” he replied simply, pleased that his own blunt honesty seemed to catch her off-guard. Seth was subtle in his movement, however, only allowing the occasional brush of his fingers against the fur of her neck as he did the clasp. It was more the proximity that he indulged in, that and Keiko’s cute intake of breath when he remained before her longer than he needed to.
  679. “You couldn’t let me have this one victory?” She whispered sadly. He placed his mask over his face.
  681. “Who says you lost, lady Keiko?” With that Seth collected his own cloak, walked to the door and undid the locks before stepping aside and gesturing to the dingy hallway. “I daresay I’d prefer not to chase after you in a misguided escape attempt but…” Keiko’s chest thrummed as she understood the depth of his actions. “You’re free to go.”
  683. \-----
  685. Keiko could hear the downpour before they even reached the rear door of the building, a thunderous monotone of rain upon the roofs and streets of the city just outside. She hoped they would last. “You’re sure it’s alright?”  
  687. “It’s just a bit of water, my lady,” Seth insisted as he opened the door and looked out into the alley. Even that thin span was obscured by silver sheets of rain from clouds above, dark as midnight.  
  689. “A bit, Seth?” She challenged, hand on hip.
  691. “Perhaps more than a bit,” he admitted, scratching at his head.
  693. “Do you know where we’re going? While I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to escort me around, if we’ve no destination I’d prefer to wait until the rains abate.”
  695. “I don’t think that curry was enough for either of us, my lady. How does a hearty bowl of ramen sound to you? Did I say something odd?” Seth inquired, looking at how Keiko almost seemed to smile in embarrassment.
  697. “It’s been a long time since they let me eat something so pedestrian. I’d like that a lot actually.”
  699. Seth was curious as to her meaning, but knew they’d have time to talk over their meal. “In that case, please follow me,” he requested, taking her gently by the upper arm and leading her out into the street. The change was immediate. With the rain surrounding her so fully, thundering in her ears, splashing at her naked feet, pounding on her head, she was happy for Seth’s gentle hand on her. Without it she honestly felt she might lose him. The mercenary seemed unperturbed, leading her through sodden streets and alleys, occasionally steering her under an awning or through a covered space to give them a respite. Within minutes she was utterly lost within the shimmering downpour, but it was thrilling in a way. She, heir to the Alhamkaran throne, was wandering the streets with a shroud of rain to hide her from the world. She thanked the skies, pleased that the main aquifers and plentiful rooftop reservoirs of the city would be full to the brim for days to come. Soon she was comfortable enough to look up and around her, marveling at how the holographic and neon displays of shops and restaurants cut through the ethereal curtains in a brilliant display of urban simplicity.
  701. “It’s beautiful,” Keiko said aloud, knowing her voice would be lost in the storm. Seth seemed to pick up on it, however.
  703. “There’s a reason I chose this neighborhood for my ‘home’, if you will, my lady. It’s a bit close to your own home for most mercenaries to feel comfortable, but what you’re feeling right now more than outweighs those concerns in my opinion. It is vibrant, and full of life.”
  705. Her reply was an inquisitive look from under her hood, watching how the diffuse light reflected off the wet surface of his mask. She remarked at how he’d modeled the bottom of the mask after a human skull, complete with teeth and the typical indented profile of the bones of the lower face. A frown fell across her muzzle as she recalled what he’d told her, that he’d killed one of the palace’s finest warriors. She couldn’t help but wonder how many other opportunities he’d had. Dark thoughts of murder were interrupted as Seth’s grip bade her to halt. The two of them had arrived before a small set of stairs that led down from the street along with a veritable waterfall heading for the nearest drain. At the bottom of the stairs was a small, cement walled area almost completely covered by a red awning. Lanterns similar to those in Seth’s safehouse hung above a clean and simple wooden bar with six well padded, backless stools. The place was empty of course, but warm and inviting light came from the kitchen, which they could see in its entirety as they took the middle two seats. Keiko glanced about at sauces that were arranged neatly at intervals along the bar while Seth rapped the wooden surface twice with his gauntlet.
  707. “Ramen in this weather?! The two of you must have a hankering something awful. What’ll it be?” The proprietor, a middle-aged crocodile faunum, asked. Or perhaps he was an alligator. Seth could never tell the difference between the two. It was never relevant in combat.
  709. “Two of the house special,” he ordered.
  711. “You want synth or the real stuff?”
  713. “Real, double helping,” Seth said, removing a tiny chit from his belt and inserting it into his mask. In a moment whatever he’d done was complete and he extended the payment to the proprietor. After a brief stop at his register the chef nodded and smiled.
  715. “I’ll not be looking a gift horse in the mask, eh?  Two house specials coming right up,” he said with a wink. Keiko watched with fascination as the croc busied himself in his kitchen, setting two bundles of noodles to cook while layering thin slabs of pork onto a hot stovetop. In between he procured two massive bowls and loaded them with bamboo shoots, cabbage, sprouts, and a dab of chili paste.  Next came heaping ladles of bone broth, simmered overnight. The chef hummed a tune to himself as he worked, shaking the noodles free of water and wreathing the area in steam before adding them to the bowls. He sprinkled scallions over top and placed a boiled egg, halved, in each. Finally the pork, just browned, was removed from the stove to top the dish.  Keiko could barely control herself by the time the meal was placed in front of her, having already grabbed chopsticks and a spoon.  
  717. “It smells delightful!” She exclaimed.
  719. “Well I thank you kindly, miss. You two enjoy now.” Seeming to understand that masked and armored men tended to not enjoy people staring at them while they ate, the chef took his leave. It was just the two of them, surrounded by rain but warmed by delicious food. The princess couldn’t help but start with a slice of pork, popping the whole thing into her mouth before taking a polite sip of soup from her spoon. When she looked over she saw that Seth had removed the lower plate of his mask, revealing the bare minimum of his face necessary for him to eat. Suddenly she understood why he’d been so eager to take it off in her presence.
  721. “Seth,” she gasped after slurping down a few noodles. “This is so good!”
  723. “I find some of the simplest dishes can provide the most joy. Perhaps your royal chefs could learn a thing or two?” He suggested softly, lowering his voice so only the two of them could hear. Her ears wilted as she recalled the palace.
  725. “What happens after this?” She asked. He nodded, and she could see his eyes moving rapidly behind his mask.  
  727. “I believe it would be better to show you. Sybela sent this to me this morning, pieced together footage from a couple of security cameras and Trang’aul networks. If you would look this way, please?” Seth requested. Keiko had gone after one half of her egg while he fiddled with his HUD. When she looked back at him she saw a file transfer request appear on her lenses. She acknowledged it and opened the video.  
  729. “Idris!”
  731. Seth’s finger found itself against her lips, willing her to remain silent as she watched the commander of the Sekhama charge through a recently opened hole in the Trang’aul’s main base of operations, providing cover for two of his soldiers as they fired from behind his bulwark. The room was lit with furious lines of light as the two sides traded fire. The hyenas of the Trang’aul were no match for the coordination of Idris’ team and were soon cut down by crossfire from other squads. Keiko’s heart was pounding as she prayed silently for those who served her family. The footage switched briefly to the helmet camera of one of the Sekhama, though the footage had no sound and was full of static, a testament to the security of their tech. Even so, Sybela had managed to decode enough to show them the quick demise of the Trang’aul’s leader, the burly hyena’s cobbled together scrap armor no match for Idris’ revolver. Keiko gasped as the commander put one more through the boss’ head just to be sure, before moving towards a thin and frightened female wild dog who’d been chained to the wall of the room. Just before the footage cut out Keiko was able to confirm the girl was alive, if not traumatized. She met Seth’s eyes and found them full of sober intent.
  733. “I do not believe I’ll be so lucky again. Those dogs made it too easy,” he said.
  735. "That girl was taken because of me," Keiko whispered. Seth nodded.
  737. "And now the Trang'aul will never harm another soul. Even if she had died the sacrifice would have been acceptable."
  739. "You don't get to decide that!" Keiko said viciously, snapping her jaws at him. Seth remained calm, making a small gesture with his chopsticks.
  741. "How many more young girls would they have raped or kidnapped or sold to unregulated brothels?"
  743. "I understand the point, Seth. I'm just angry at you for looking at life as a transaction," she clarified. He fell silent for a moment, at a loss.
  745. "I...do not have anything I can say to that, my lady. It's simply who I am."
  747. "Fine, let's just drop it for now," Keiko suggested, slurping up another spoonful of noodles and broth. She could taste the pork bone. "I just don't understand."
  749. "What, exactly?"
  751. "Why couldn't you have just offered your services to Commander Idris?"
  753. "My lady, if the goal was to be one man in a great war I would have simply shot Markhan and hoped for the best. Even if I had though, someone would have risen to take his place.  These weeds must be purged root and stem."
  755. "But what you showed me, Idris and his men did just that!"
  757. Seth reached out towards her but hesitated, slowly retracting his fingers as he realized what he was doing. He could see the uncertainty on Keiko's face, but she reached out and took them, unwilling to let him escape without a full explanation. He cleared his throat, set down his chopsticks, and turned on his stool to face her directly. "That operation was only possible because I abducted you, my lady."
  759. "What do you mean, Seth?" Keiko demanded softly as a brief gust sprinkled them with water.  Neither seemed to notice much.
  761. "You saw it yourself, how easily your Sekhama destroyed that nest of vermin. How long has the Trang'aul been a thorn in the side of your city, my lady?"
  763. "Months, at least."
  765. "And why wasn't something done before now? It's clear the problem wasn't an issue of manpower. That Captain of yours leads a splendidly coordinated operation," Seth said, making no secret of his admiration for the crown's best.
  767. "I don't...I don't know," Keiko admitted, recalling Idris' profuse apologies each time he informed her that the situation on the ground 'wasn't so clear cut'.
  769. "The mnyama dislike the Sekhama more than they dislike the Trang'aul. Those hyenas they could deal with for the most part. They speak the same language of violence and extortion. The Sekhama cannot be bargained with. They are justice...the crown's justice at least. On any normal day the Sekhama wouldn't be able to penetrate deep enough into gang territory to do what they just did. They would be harassed and harried the whole way, maybe even killed. An errant shot, a random grenade, even a brick can find a mark in those alleys. Guerrilla tactics are as old as time, and just as effective. Yesterday they were not because yesterday wasn't a normal day, my lady."
  771. Keiko's eyes widened as what Seth was saying fell into place. "That picture wasn't just to stop Torando from starting a conflict. Killing them was your original intention, wasn't it?"
  773. "For a moment I was rather annoyed if I must say, lady Keiko. The plan was only ever to take down at least one mnyama on the first night, to see if your entry into my world would present an opportunity. I honestly did not anticipate rumors of a war. 'What kind of man is this Lord Torando,' I wondered. Who would threaten such conflict over one woman, a conflict that would only strengthen the hand of the mnyamas that survived, no less? Now that I have a better understanding of what I took from him," the human ran his thumb over the short fur of the back of her paw. "I find myself unable to blame him."
  775. <By the wise ones, he's flirting with me. He's actually flirting with me. This bastard mercenary is flirting with me...a man is flirting with me!> Keiko shrieked internally, the wild woman within her momentarily winning out over her conscience, which was desperately trying to remind her of that fact that Seth had stolen her, bound her, hurt her, and seemed to have no intention of letting her go. <Well yes, but he's also fed me and treated my wounds and talked with me. And now he's flirting with me!> She countered, taking back her hand with a coy smile. "You have far less right to me than he does, mercenary."
  777. "The fact that any man has a right to you seems a crime, and I know a bit about crime."
  779. "Ok, I wasn't going crazy. You are flirting with me! You have the gall to flirt with me after what you've done?"
  781. "Let it not be said I'm neither brave nor foolish. You are a compelling woman, lady Keiko. That I cannot deny. And for now, I believe I've created the conditions that led to the destruction of one of the city's most feared mnyamas, if not the most powerful, in addition to paying for a couple of our meals."
  783. Keiko could only raise her brows at Seth's utterly unapologetic nature. "You are just-"
  785. "I understand, my lady, but consider my offer. From within the palace you are nothing more than a figurehead. You may be powerful, but only as a part of the system, a system the mnyamas are ruthlessly exploiting despite the crown's best efforts. Remove you from the palace and you still have power, but the situation on the ground changes, becomes fluid. In that sort of world your captain found himself an opportunity to enact a plan that was clearly already well thought out. Your disappearance gave them the chance they needed."
  787. "So that's it then? Join you and we destroy the mnyamas together?" Keiko asked with sudden suspicion. Seth nodded deeply.
  789. "That's it, my lady."
  791. "And the catch?"
  793. "Other than kidnapping you?" Seth asked with a faint smile. She returned it.
  795. "Other than that, yes," Keiko growled teasingly.
  797. "I may not want to let you go when this is over," Seth whispered, unwilling to face her anymore and returning to his ramen.  
  799. Keiko sat and listened to the rains, her two selves waging war within. She desperately wanted to know more about humans and humanity. She'd read every book in the royal archives but still yearned for more. A human sat before her, offering to work with her to achieve a goal she intensely desired, though via admittedly unorthodox methods. She hated what the mnyamas had done to her beautiful city and now she was being given the opportunity to actively participate in nothing less than a war against them. On the other hand, of course, there was Seth and the manner in which he'd gone about proposing his little plot, to say nothing of the fact that he'd acted against the Sekhama in the past. She decided to try to buy a bit of time.
  801. "Do you have any idea how desperate you sound?"
  803. "Yes," Seth deadpanned, taking a particularly large bite of pork.
  805. <So much for that plan,> Keiko thought. She sighed, looking up and to the left as the rain splattered onto the streets above. <Am I really considering this?> She wasn't particularly shocked to find she was. If nothing else, Seth needed her alive. She believed that much with surety. He'd already had ample opportunity to end her life. She'd even slept in his presence. Every day she was alive and with him was a day she was outside of her golden cage, one more day away from her marriage. <Wise ones, forgive me my selfishness.>
  807. "So long as you continue to convince me that the best interests of my people and my nation are served by being at your side, I will help you. That and...this ramen is really good."
  809. A genuine smile lit Seth's face as she took a leap of faith that had her palace upbringing screaming at her. "Best three hundred credits I ever spent then."
  811. "I'm not so cheap, mercenary. I'm simply enjoying my meal."
  813. "And I do not have pockets as deep as Lord Torando. Your agreement to a professional relationship is more than enough, my lady."
  815. "So what happens now?" Keiko asked, suddenly very nervous. He watched the golden chains of her ears as they moved subtly, enjoying the display.
  817. "I think we should finish our meal, my lady. Contrary to what you might believe there won't be much to discuss tonight."
  819. "Not even our next target?"
  821. "Oh my, lady Keiko. How viciously eager you are," Seth smiled.
  823. "Answer my question or can it, merc."
  825. "Ha! You and Sybela may become fast friends yet. All I meant to say is that our next target will depend upon a few things that as of yet are unknown."
  827. "Such as?"
  829. "Such as how will the Wildfire and other mnyamas react to the decapitation of the Trang'aul? How will the palace change its behavior when days pass and you're not found? Oh, always keep your cloak on when outside, my lady. Every camera is an eye for the Sekhama, a corporation, or a sufficiently skilled criminal."
  831. Seth found the look of panic on Keiko's face adorable as she grabbed for her cloak's hood. He stopped her calmly and gestured to the upper arm of his armor. "Localized jamming field. Enjoy your meal in peace, my lady."
  833. "I...sure.  Thank you."
  835. "For what, lady Keiko?"
  837. She pondered her invisibility for a moment, how so long as he was nearby she was erased from the world. "For the meal...and my freedom."
  840.                                                                 ~Chapter 5~
  841. Chapter 5 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/ypaUfyY
  843. “Aaaah!” Keiko leaned back with a satisfied sigh and rested a hand on her belly. She’d devoured her bowl down to the last drop of broth. It earned her a smile from the shop owner, who emerged just as they were standing to leave.
  845. “Don’t know who you work for Mr. Mask, but thank you for your patronage.”
  847. Seth smiled behind his mask and tossed the man another credit chit. He accepted it with a knowing nod. “Thanks for not asking,” the mercenary replied.
  849. “And thank you for the amazing ramen!” Keiko added.
  851. “It’s my pleasure, young lady. You take care out in that storm now." The owner grabbed their bowls as they threw up their hoods and stepped into the rain. "A princess wannabe and a man in a mask...not even the weirdest group this week," he mused.
  853. Back on the street, Seth checked something on his HUD before looking at Keiko. "Here, perhaps this will serve as a gesture of good faith."
  855. Keiko blinked rapidly as her lens received a forced update, one that had the buildings and streets outlined in orange grids before fading back away into the rain. "You don't think I trust you?  What does it do?"
  857. "No, my lady. I think both of us understand you'd be a fool to trust me at this point. However, I believe I made my case well enough that you see the potential of cooperation to achieve your own goals."
  859. "How hard is it to work with people you don't trust?"
  861. "Over the long term, outside of an employment at will relationship? Impossible. The program I loaded onto your lens will allow me to find you anywhere you're connected to a national network...or a local network with an uplink to the national grid. For now it is the only upload traffic I've allowed you."
  863. "This doesn't sound much like a gift, Seth," Keiko told him sternly, bringing a hand to her hip. She could swear he was smirking behind the mask.  
  865. "That program will lead you to any one of my team's safehouses, including my personal ones. It will show you optimal travel routes to avoid patrols and mnyama based on an algorithm Sybela cooked up. In real time it will coordinate data from any other team members with the same program and help you to safety as covertly as possible. Unless I'm expressly telling you otherwise, you can trust in that program."
  867. With a curious glance Keiko activated the icon, a simple waypoint, and gasped softly as the city around her was rendered in that same orange glow, complete with arrows signifying the shortest and an alternate route back to Seth's safehouse. The location was listed as 'shrine', and having been inside she could understand why.  
  869. "I take it you've given it a bit of a test?" He deduced.
  871. "This is quite the little piece of code. What's the blank space on the left for?"
  873. "Status of teammates during an op," Seth informed her, his voice strained and serious. She remembered the call he'd had with them, how he was keeping them in the dark. "Well then, my lady, we should be off. No one's getting any drier."
  875. Seth turned for home but stopped as a gentle tug on his cloak demanded his attention. Keiko was looking at him from under her hood, her hesitant eyes still shining even in the foul weather. "Yes, my lady?"
  877. "Your jammer thing. It will work as long as I'm close to you?"
  879. "Yes, of course," Seth confirmed with a tilt of his head. Keiko brought her fingers together in front of her.
  881. "In that case, do you think we could stay out just a bit?" She asked shyly.  
  883. Seth inhaled deeply and nodded with understanding. "The beautiful bird wishes to fly now that she's been freed from her cage?"
  885. "Seth…" Keiko whispered, knowing only her fur was saving her from revealing a blush. It was maddening how such a man was still able to stir her emotions. She blamed the palace.
  887. "We'll not get much drier, but at this point I'm not sure we could get much more wet either. Did my lady have a destination in mind?"
  889. "I wouldn't know, Seth. I've really only ever been around the palace and market districts, or crown lands outside the city. I'd hoped to see a bit more of how my people live."
  891. "Then follow me, my lady," he offered, turning away from the arrows in her lens as Keiko deactivated the program. With a private thrill she followed behind him, wondering what sorts of everyday wonders her city might have been hiding from her.
  893. For minutes that turned to hours, Keiko tailed Seth through streets and alleys. They traveled to public and private urban parks that ranged from a solitary tree and well maintained wooden bench to long covered avenues with trees, gardens, tables, and even various fountains. Some of them were modern marvels of intricate piping and design that played with water and light as a medium. Others were classical monuments, often depicting the likeness of humanity. Keiko noticed Seth's gaze lingering on them, but he said nothing as they strolled at their own pace. The rain shadowed their sense of time as they passed through covered street markets and by towering retail buildings. One in particular had Keiko staring with wide eyed fascination.
  895. "Seth, that's amazing!" She cried, having turned down a short avenue and come face to face with a grand holographic display. The capital of Alhamkara was situated in arid grasslands, but a nearby mountain range was all that separated its people from the blue salt sea. Fish were plentiful in the city, both as food and pets. They stood before one such pet store, it's bright facade projecting fish of all shapes and sizes into the air above them. On a normal day it would be a quaint scene. Seeing them swim through the rains was another thing entirely. Seth had passed the store more than a handful of times in his life and found it cute at best. Seeing the open wonder on Keiko's face had him reconsidering as he looked back at her.  
  897. "I must admit I've never seen it quite like this."
  899. "Maybe you can come back when you're ready to install a koi pond back at your 'shrine'," Keiko teased. He shrugged.
  901. "I doubt it would hold a candle to the ones in the palace, though I was unable to see them myself on my way to...collect you."
  903. The air around them seemed to chill slightly as a shiver ran up Keiko's spine. She forced it down and looked back at the hologram, unwilling to let reality intrude on her moment of happiness. As a swarm of tiny, silver specimens passed overhead she motioned to Seth. "What's done is done. Just enjoy the fish."
  905. "You continue to surprise me, lady Keiko."
  907. "Fish!"
  909. "Of course."
  911. \-----
  913. By the time Keiko and Seth returned to his building her heart was heavily weighted by conflicting emotions. She and the mercenary had wandered a bit more before having a light dinner. Even wild dogs occasionally craved leafy greens. Foot traffic had been minimal throughout and their meal subject to no disruption. When the rains finally slowed and the citizens of the capital returned to the streets, the two of them were already in the dark alley that led to the 'shrine'. He allowed her to open both the outer door and the inner, to get her familiar with the program in her lens.  
  915. "Is something wrong, my lady?" Seth asked as Keiko refused to step inside his 'lair'.  
  917. "I'm filthy," she replied, looking down at her mud-slicked legs and feet. Seth's boots were no better, but those he had the luxury of removing.
  919. "After the blood it's no problem, lady Keiko. Go ahead."
  921. "I...if I'm going to be staying here I'd rather not. Can you bring me a towel?"
  923. "I can. I could also carry you to the bathroom."
  925. Keiko's heart thrummed against her ribs. Such a thing was simply not done. He was a most unsavory individual. "How do you exploit my rebellious side so easily?"
  927. "I'm a mercenary, my lady. I'm simply behaving as is my nature. That says much more about you than about me. Are you ready?" He asked, bending over to remove his boots.
  929. "I...sure. Thank you!" Keiko's voice jumped with the last word as he effortlessly lifted her in a bridal carry and walked purposefully to the bathroom. Keiko's ears stood straight as she made a concerted effort to look away from him, reaching out for the wall when it came into range. After setting her gently down, Seth departed immediately to do up the locks on the door. The princess was left to quell her rioting heart alone. "This is bad," she moaned, lamenting how compelling the entirety of the situation was. "This is really bad!"
  931. Outside the door, Seth ran a hand through his damp hair. Keiko was heavier than he expected, but the contours of her body, even through the cloak, had been nothing but pleasing. He could faintly hear the sound of the shower. An image came unbidden to his mind, those vibrant jewels glistening under the flow of the water, accentuating the gentle slope of her spine and leading his gaze directly to her haunches. He shook his head violently and retreated to his terminal. "This is not good."
  933. \-----
  935. When Keiko emerged from the bathroom she felt rejuvenated. The cold that had seeped into her bones out in the monsoon was gone, replaced by a pleasant warmth. "I appreciate a man who doesn't skimp on water pressure," she called, drawing Seth's attention from where he was watching a public news broadcast. Satisfaction bloomed in her chest as his eyes drank in the slope of her neck and shoulders, rendering him speechless. She placed the neatly folded pile of clothing on the floor and adjusted the towel that she'd wrapped around her torso.  "Sorry…my fur is going to take a while but I wanted to leave you with a towel."
  937. "I daresay you need not apologize, lady Keiko.  The pleasure is mine indeed. Those sayings about forbidden fruit come to mind."
  939. "It's not forbidden if it's not real," Keiko asserted as he passed her by. Her nose flared as she caught his scent.
  941. "Your eyes are captivating beyond words, lady Keiko. I prefer the princess undoctored, it would seem." He knew he'd gotten the right of it as some of the shyness left her face in favor of a playful smile.
  943. "Then you should not be ashamed to look, mercenary. But do so after you shower. That armor does nothing for your scent."
  945. Seth's eyes widened subtly at her admission and he lowered his head in a shallow bow. "As you command, my lady. And thank you for leaving me a towel."
  947. With that he allowed the door to shut behind him and separate the two of them once again. Fortunately for Keiko and the thoughts chasing themselves through her mind he didn't take long, cleaning his body efficiently and rejoining her as soon as he was dried and clothed. Seth found her seated comfortably on the futon, manipulating a hologram with her slim fingers.
  949. "You designed it?" Seth asked, looking down at a representation of the very room he'd taken her from.
  951. "I maintain it too," she said sadly. "I hope someone will take care of them."
  953. "I can say with confidence that it was the most beautiful room in which I've ever conducted a job. I'm sorry we couldn't have had a strong coffee and a chat instead. The breeze was rather pleasant."
  955. "I would have enjoyed seeing you arrested very much," Keiko informed him, though he took the comment in stride and sat across from her, removing some of the temptation to gaze at her cleavage that was just visible under the towel.
  957. "And then you would have been married," he said seriously.
  959. "And then I would have been married," Keiko agreed, keeping her eyes on the hologram. "Instead of a night alone on this futon I would have been on my back underneath a pleasant enough man to whom I've said but a handful of words in my life, wondering how long it would take his seed to settle in me and whether I would ever love him as I would my children."
  961. Seth found himself rendered mute by Keiko's unabashed evaluation of her situation as she finally glanced up to meet his eyes. "I'm afraid of you, Seth. I'm afraid of this life you dragged me into...but I was also afraid of what seemed destined to be my fate," she admitted, opening a small portion of herself before him. The contours of his face indicated he understood the gravity of her words.
  963. "I...in that case there is one thing we should probably do tonight, my lady."
  965. "And that is?"
  967. "I could use my net jockey back," Seth said with a self effacing smile.
  969. Both of them shared a chuckle as Keiko recalled the tongue lashings that Seth had received from the crass woman known as Sybela. She found herself wondering what she looked like, what species she was. "Is she a jaguar too?"
  971. "Jackrabbit actually," Seth replied, a conspiratorial smile on his face as Keiko understood certain implications.  
  973. "And she favors...big cats?" Keiko eventually squeaked.
  975. "She deals with her past in her own way, my lady. All I ask tonight is that you assure her, for now, that we have your cooperation and that her working with us against the mnyama is not a death sentence via the Sekhama."
  977. "I suppose we'll have to let Idris know I'm alive at some point," Keiko agreed.
  979. "Perhaps in a day or two when everyone starts asking if not the Trang'aul, then who?" Seth agreed. "You would certainly be the resident expert on defusing palace politics."
  981. "And what of the others? You had two male partners, right?"
  983. "Little escapes you, princess. Yes, I do. They are still under the impression that the nature of this job is to deliver you to Markhan."
  985. "You're lying to your own team?" Keiko asked in surprise, deactivating her hologram and giving him her undivided attention. "They were willing to go after me but not the mnyama?"
  987. Seth made an uncertain face and shrugged animatedly, raising his hands into the air. "When you put it that way, my lady, I do seem a bit the fool for not being up front with them as well."
  989. "You had your reasons, I assume?"
  991. "They may not be good reasons to you, my lady, but yes. I do."
  993. "The things you are uncertain of?" She asked softly. He furrowed his brow.
  995. "You really are a sharp woman, my lady. Let's just say that my plan to enact vigilante justice upon my own employers is younger than both my squad and the plot to kidnap you."
  997. "Ok Seth, I won't ask...yet. Shall we talk to Sybela? Assure her that despite my intact virginity I've still agreed to cooperate for the time being?" Keiko couldn't help a girlish giggle as Seth flushed pink.
  999. "You are incorrigible, my lady. I apologize for Sybela and her guttural language."
  1001. "You said she has her own things to deal with and I believe that. That doesn't mean we can't have a little fun with her, right?"
  1003. Seth looked like an impala in the headlights as Keiko stood and motioned for him to do the same. After seating him on the small chair he used at his terminal, Keiko rested herself politely on his legs, crossing her own as she might at an official palace function. "Since you disabled everything on mine, give me your tablet, Seth." The mercenary complied as Keiko activated the device's camera and lined it up before snapping a couple of photos of her provocative position. She spent some time thoughtfully choosing one over the other before cropping out their heads and returning it to Seth. "I assume sending our faces even over a secure network would be risky?"
  1005. "I...yes, lady Keiko. You are quite the astute young woman." Seth swallowed heavily as Keiko shifted her weight slightly and looked at the tablet. She was so close. He could smell her even with his relatively low olfactory capabilities. <The grass of the savannah after the rains.>
  1007. "Hey, Seth! Stop spacing out and send it to her already. You can caption it however you like, just let me see the reply. If I'm going to risk my neck and my honor running around with you, I'm damn well going to enjoy myself!" Keiko insisted with a snap of her fingers.
  1009. Seth closed his eyes and shook his head violently, trying to clear his senses enough to establish a secure link to Sybela's 'work' device, type sanity reclaimed, and send the image. He looked up to find Keiko smirking at him.
  1011. "Not bad, but I'd say we're both being a little insane, mercenary. What you're doing right now would be punishable by death if my father found out," she taunted.
  1013. "I think that goes without saying, my lady.  I know I didn't exactly give you a choice in coming with me."
  1015. "I meant the fact that you're grinding your cock against the ass of the princess of Alhamkara, Seth." Keiko laughed as the blood drained from his face. She felt she was finally getting a taste of why some of her handmaidens spoke highly of their visits to the harem. To have a man, a powerful man dance in her palm… <oh my, this is intoxicating.>
  1017. "I seem to recall you instigating this particular situation, lady Keiko!" Seth spluttered. She glanced innocently at him.
  1019. "You said we should attempt to convince Sybela that I intend to willingly cooperate with you so long as our goals intersect."
  1021. "A simple voice call would suffice!"
  1023. "Unless you plan on making me sound like a machine, it's easier to pick out my voice than my legs if someone is watching. Besides-"
  1025. Keiko was cut off as an alert chimed on Seth's tablet. He held it up so Keiko could see what Sybela had replied with. The picture was mainly a furry middle finger, but the look of absolute shock on the face behind it made it worthwhile. Keiko made out long ears with plenty of piercings and adornment as well as a heavily augmented eye and a short mohawk of fur between them, all in the snow white coloration of an albino. The image was captioned. <The usual place in fifteen. Let's see if the pup can handle the real deal.>
  1027. "Should I be offended?" Keiko asked. Seth had regained most of his faculties thanks to Sybela's reply. He shook his head.
  1029. "I'd say mission accomplished with flying colors, my lady. The usual place is an unlicensed brothel she frequents. My understanding is that she has some sort of network security arrangement with the ownership. Given her enjoyment of their services, I daresay it defrays much of the cost."
  1031. "Seth…" Keiko replied hesitantly.
  1033. "My lady, I believe your concern is unwarranted. This is not one of those illicit establishments that cater to the depraved. You will not see any girls being sold to the highest bidder, azure overdoses, or some of the more extreme fetishes that characterize the underground. This is the other type of illicit brothel."
  1035. "That being?" Keiko demanded as she stood up, finally allowing Seth some relief.  
  1037. "The type that caters to individuals who wish to remain hidden. Some are capable of paying for pure azure. Others, like Sybela and myself, have something to hide from anyone licensed by the crown, no matter the service. We may even see a boss or two tonight, but they tend to pay for the brothels to come to them," Seth explained, reaching for her ear and stopping just short. "I believe it would be prudent if you were to remove one of these, my lady. It will be much easier to chalk it up to imitation of our beautiful princess if you only have one gilded ear."
  1039. "I understand," Keiko replied, raising her hands and carefully removing the studs from her right ear. "My parents named me Keiko in honor of the princess, who was born in my year. I didn't get her smooth eyes though," Keiko mocked, touching the white fur just below her lids. Seth grinned and gave her an approving nod.
  1041. "I don't anticipate anyone asking, but you're smart to have something prepared. The crown's...propaganda, let's call it, will work to your advantage in this instance. Are you dry enough?"
  1043. "Yes."
  1045. "Then I'll grab my armor and we'll go."
  1047. Five minutes later the two of them were dressed and ready, with Keiko back in her own street garb.
  1049. "You'll fit right in, my lady," Seth reassured her, nodding at her notable naval piercing, glinting gold and magicite.
  1051. "Not sure I take that as a compliment, Seth."
  1053. "It is in this case. If anyone touches you I'll be sure to impress upon them that you're not part of the staff."
  1055. "My knight in bloody armor. Off to the brothel then?" Keiko said sarcastically with a roll of her eyes. She gave him a small smile though. He chuckled and offered his arm to her.
  1057. "My lady, may I escort you to The Oasis?"
  1060.                                                               ~Chapter 6~
  1062. Chapter 6 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/FtTo3xJ
  1064. A ten minute walk through rapidly darkening streets had them outside of The Oasis.  Seth smiled as he watched Keiko out of the corner of his eye.  She wisely kept her hood up, but he could still see the tip of her muzzle.  It bore a contemplative frown.
  1066. "Not what you expected, my lady?"
  1068. "A karaoke parlor?" She asked incredulously.
  1070. "You would prefer 'unlicensed brothel' in bold neon letters?" He jested, prompting her to huff in reply.
  1072. "Fair point. What happens now?"
  1074. "We go in." Seth took her by the hand and led her through the cheerfully lit entrance. It advertised drinks and public contests on the second floor as well as private rooms on the floors above.  Seth and Keiko squeezed into the small elevator and waited for the door to close.  When it did, Seth hit the buttons for 3, 5, and door open all at once.  They waited.
  1076. "Hey, it's mask boy!  You gonna actually spend some credits this time you cheap ass merc?  Ah fuck.  You brought your own?  Seriously?  Who's the chick? I don't recognize her." The voice was male and reptilian, lingering on each 's'.
  1078. "That's because I don't want you to, Vyren.  I vouch for her, credits and otherwise."
  1080. "Fine, just don't start shit.  Tonight's slow enough as is.  Damn mercs and their countermeasures."
  1082. Despite Vyren's protests the elevator shuddered and began moving down.  Keiko noted that there were no buttons lower than the ground floor.
  1084. "Seth," Keiko said nervously.  He took her hand again.
  1086. "Whatever bravery compelled you to display your body to me in the palace, summon it now.  The weak become prey.  The strong claim whatever and whoever they choose."
  1088. Keiko took a deep breath and fixed a mask of indifference on her face.  Whatever she wanted sounded good, decadent even. Seth nodded quickly as the car came to a halt and the doors opened.  Heavy bass thrummed through her body from the dimly lit area beyond.  "Now this is more what I expected," she said confidently, even feeling a bit like she meant it as the two of them strode out into the small atrium of the establishment.  They were met by a python naga with a dusky scale coloration.
  1090. "Didn't know you were into wild dogs, merc.  As I recall you never touch the live entertainment, and we've got plenty of dogs."
  1092. "I'm here on business, not to fuck," Keiko replied sharply.  Vyren coiled backward as Seth laughed, finding great enjoyment in the princess' fire.
  1094. "You going to pat us down, Vyren?'
  1096. "Our security isn't chicken shit, Seth.  I know you aren't packing heat."
  1098. "I need a better cloak then."
  1100. "You know what happens to idiots who bring guns in here," Vyren warned, flexing the muscles of his long, coiled tail.  The implications were clear to Keiko.  "The rabbit's here already, back left."  With that Vyren flicked his tongue at them and retreated to the small security booth, complete with a prominently displayed selection of magitech handguns and plenty of camera feeds.  The naga turned his attention back to screens, effectively ending the conversation. Seth looked over at Keiko.
  1102. "You did well, my lady."
  1104. "If you refer to me as anything other than Keiko while we're in here you'll never see my body again...cheap ass merc." She turned and smirked at him, seeing his eyes smiling behind the mask.
  1106. "If it pleases you...Keiko.  I suppose I can treat you as a commoner tonight." It soon became clear that Seth meant that in more than just words, looping an arm around Keiko's waist and steering her into the brothel.  Provocative holograms danced on the walls and even across the floor, shimmering as patrons passed through them.  Men and the occasional woman smoked hookah around platforms made for pole dancing, and one or two could be seen intaking bright blue mist via inhaler.  All manner of scantily clad male and female forms were visible, though Keiko's gaze was held by one of the real dancers.  The cheetah girl up on the platform was turning gracefully around a pole, showing off her artificially endowed chest and dyed fur.  The luminescent bikini she sported shimmered and drew attention to her ass.  Keiko couldn't help but stare with open mouth.
  1108. "Hey cutie, fancy something a bit more <human> tonight? I'm off in ten," the dancer offered, widening her stance and giving Keiko and Seth an unobstructed view of her tail-less posterior.  Keiko tried to collect herself, managing to look the girl in the eye again.  Those had been modified too, eschewing natural feline pupils for rounded human ones.  It shouldn't have surprised her that the staff at an illicit establishment wouldn't care much for national laws prohibiting extensive body modification outside of injury recovery, but seeing a human fetishist in the flesh was still something she hadn't been ready for.  Her fingers took hold of credit chit that Seth discreetly passed to her, as if to say 'your call'.
  1110. <Well, I guess it's time to jump in with both paws,> Keiko decided, cocking a finger at the girl and approaching the platform, hoping her engagement would help her blend in.  The cheetah spread her legs wide and rode the pole down low as she could.  "Oh my, look at you!  I hope you're not here to audition.  Plenty of boys in here would pay good money to spend a night with the princess.  You look just like her."
  1112. Keiko couldn't help but smile at the confirmation that she was cutting an at least passable 'disguise'.  Seeing the chit in Keiko's fingers, the cheetah moved forward on hands and knees, blowing her a kiss as the princess reached out and slipped it into the fold of her skimpy top.  Her heart was ready to leap right out of her chest, wondering what her family would do if they could see her.  She spoke as softly to the dancer as the music would allow. "Unless you're hiding something between those legs of yours I'll pass, but I know beauty when I see it."
  1114. "Business then?" The cheetah guessed, rolling onto her back and crossing her legs in the air.  "I appreciate it, princess.  Can I call you that?  Name's Savannah.  You need anything you just call, princess.  Have fun with that mask." With a wink Savannah returned to her pole, tempting the couple of other patrons who had taken seats around her platform.  Keiko backed away and turned to Seth who was looking down at her with what she thought was approval, arms crossed over his chest.
  1116. "You have decent street sense, my...Keiko.  Vyren will be happy as well."
  1118. "How much was on that chit?" She asked curiously.
  1120. "Ten thousand," he replied simply.
  1122. "By humanity, Seth!"
  1124. "Let's just say I remember when she looked like a normal cheetah," the human continued, a hint of sadness in his voice.
  1126. Keiko fell silent as they walked on towards the dark corner of the space, passing by waiters with drinks and holograms that called out to them.  The proper, pious half of her wanted to recoil from what Savannah had done to herself, how she'd sought to become more like humanity for the sake of pleasure.  The rest of her understood that she'd only have done it if clients would pay for it.  Her thoughts were arrested as they approached the back of a leather couch, looking down at the upper half of a well muscled, practically naked jaguar and an albino jackrabbit grinding on his lap.  The male noticed them first with a casual glance over his shoulder. He nodded politely, showing absolutely no shame at any aspect of the situation as he discreetly got Sybela's attention with a buck of his hips.
  1128. "Good evening, mask."
  1130. "Keeping her company, Alex?" Seth asked, his voice still modified by his mask.
  1132. "And it was just getting good, too," Sybela complained, getting off his lap and regarding Keiko critically.  The net jockey had mismatched eyes, one in the natural red of an albino and the other featuring so many components that Sybela had clearly given up trying to make it look natural.  Circuits for veins and a camera for an iris, Sybela certainly took her work seriously.  She gave the princess a challenging look, cupping Alex by the stones as he stood.  "Go to the usual room and wait for me, Alex.  I want it in my ass tonight," Sybela ordered without a hint of embarrassment, giving the big cat a slap on the ass.  The jaguar bowed to them again and retreated to the hallway in the back of the establishment, leaving Seth and Keiko to sit across from Sybela on a separate couch.
  1134. "Rough day?" Seth asked, finally using his real voice.
  1136. "None of your business, Seth.  How much does she know?" Sybela demanded, getting down to business immediately.
  1138. "Well it's a pleasure to meet you too, Sybela," Keiko cut in, crossing her legs at the knee as the rabbit looked at her.
  1140. "Can't say the feeling's mutual, princess.  So when do the Sekhama get here, Seth?"
  1142. "I don't appreciate that assertion, Sybela," Seth said seriously.  "Please forgive her, Keiko.  She's always a bit spiky when meeting new people."
  1144. "Explains the taste in men...and dick," Keiko agreed, smirking as Sybela looked at them both in disbelief, adjusting her miniskirt and a tight leather top that only covered her breasts.
  1146. "So the princess matches her piercings then?  Seth, this is madness and you know it," the rabbit said harshly.
  1148. "It is not madness, Sybela," he insisted just as seriously.
  1150. "And what's to stop her from selling us out whenever she-"
  1152. "The fact that I'm filthy rich and your money means nothing to me. Nothing you own means anything to me, not even that tight body you're showing off," Keiko snapped quietly, not fully trusting the heavy music to keep their discussion private.
  1154. "Still doesn't give you a reason to work with us," Sybela countered, not bothering to respond to Keiko's provocation despite her bristling fur.
  1156. "Seth can be convincing when he puts his mind to it." Keiko took pleasure in how her intentionally vague statement had Sybela looking ready to stand up and sock Seth across the face.
  1158. "So you did fuck her? You idiot monkey.  They'll have your head for that."
  1160. "I'm happy to inform you that Keiko's flower remains intact and my head will remain on my shoulders for the foreseeable future.  And since when is it us, Sybela? I thought you were out."
  1162. "That was until she came here," Sybela begrudgingly admitted.  "Bit of a risk, wouldn't you say?"
  1164. "She managed to get in the good graces of the staff the moment she entered.  I daresay your handmaidens told you more than your fair share of tales, no?" Seth asked knowingly.  Keiko shrugged as a glowing purple bikini caught her eye.
  1166. "A lady doesn't reveal her secrets.  Seth, who's that with Savannah?" At Keiko's question, Seth casually looked over Sybela's shoulder before motioning with his hand for Sybela to do the same.  The rabbit's cybernetic eye snapped to the burly figure, a panther who was leading the cheetah to the back rooms with a firm grip on her upper arm.
  1168. "Shit, poor girl. She's going to be walking funny for a week," Sybela muttered. "That's one of the Oro's lieutenants.  The boss runs a mnyama by the same name, but that hunk of meat is the one with the rap sheet.  They're small time but up and coming, modding and a bit of hacking.  Who knows, maybe Savannah's still paying them off for the eyes and the tits?"
  1170. "Seth?" Keiko called out to him with a hint of desperation in his voice.  His eyes were moving rapidly behind the mask.
  1172. "Kidnap, rape, torture, extortion.  It's all in the public police records. Always let off on technicalities, inadmissible evidence, plausible deniability."  He looked down at Keiko, finding a rigid jaw and pleading eyes. She wanted to move. He made to stand.
  1174. "Sit the fuck down, monkey," Sybela hissed. "We're not some goddamn vigilantes."
  1176. "What would you do, Sybela? Hack the mnyamas to death?" Seth asked cooly.  
  1178. "Don't you fucking dare start something in here, you idiot!  All you have is your knife and I happen to like this place!"
  1180. Keiko growled and closed her eyes, focusing on the tiny magicite conduit in her palm.  A black void formed there and resolved itself into a small pistol, mostly hidden beneath her cloak.  Sybela didn't bother holding back her surprise, jumping to her feet.
  1182. "By humanity, she's a psyonic?!"
  1184. "I need you to understand something, Keiko," Seth said seriously as they both stood, overruling Sybela two to one.  "If you commit to this you cannot hesitate, you cannot falter.  Do so and you will die instead.  This will be one of the easy ones.  Even so he might have a wife, he might have children. And for the record, my approach would be to kill him after he's exhausted himself screwing that cheetah into the mattress, preferably somewhere far from here." The pounding music covered their deadly dialog as the three stared one another down. Keiko made a decision.
  1186. "I'm sure Savannah has a family too," she whispered bravely, feeling her guts tightening into knots at what she was about to attempt, something Seth apparently wouldn't even consider on a normal day.  "Am I insane?"
  1188. "Yes. And I'm willing to take a risk on your insanity if we're going to win this war.  A mercenary would never do what you're suggesting, Keiko. But if mercenaries were enough then the Sekhama would have just hired us away from the mnyama.  Sybela, go enjoy Alex.  Pay him double and make sure it gets back to Vyren." The rabbit glared at them both.
  1190. "This girl is going to get you killed, Seth."
  1192. "I never planned to survive this, Sybela."
  1194. "Fuck you...damn hairless monkey," Sybela cursed but made no move to stop them, intentionally disturbing a couple of holograms as she walked to the back rooms to rejoin Alex.
  1196. "Will the Oasis suffer if we do this?" Keiko asked.
  1198. "That depends on a great many things.  Take hold of me, Keiko."
  1200. "What?!"
  1202. "Act as though you can't keep your hands off me and are oh so eager to head to the back," he insisted, leaning into her.  Keiko ran her hands up his armor and around his neck before resting her head in the crook of his neck.
  1204. "Don't you have that jamming thing?" Keiko whispered.
  1206. "It can only distort. It won't erase our bodies."
  1208. "The rooms all have cameras though, don't they?" She asked worriedly as they stumbled back towards the hallway with a large XXX holo above it.  A catcall and whistle or two followed them as they went.  
  1210. "I'm detecting another jamming source...I hope you've steeled your belly, my lady."
  1212. \-----
  1214. "Shit, poor Savannah.  I guess her bill finally came due," Vyren muttered, watching as the feed from room number three fizzled and cut out.  Providing a neutral ground for the mnyama and seedy corporate elements was lucrative, but the patrons tended to take full advantage of the fact that the proprietors couldn't exactly go to the police or Sekhama.  His eyes were drawn to another feed as a couple of blurry bodies made their way down the hallway before stopping at door three. It opened.  "How interesting," he hissed. "A young couple appears to have gotten lost."
  1216. \-----
  1218. "Get on the bed and strip. Face down, ass up," the mnyama commanded, activating a small disc and throwing it on the floor.
  1220. "Ooh, someone's eager-" Savannah recoiled as the behemoth of a panther struck her across the face. She knew better than to cry out.
  1222. "Shut the fuck up and get on the bed.  We own you, bitch.  Hope looking like some fucked up hybrid is worth it to you."
  1224. Savannah shut her eyes and thought about the reason she'd ended up in the Oasis, the two little ones at home. She always wondered what would happen when they got old enough to ask where she went every night.  As his zipper was undone and his pants fell to the floor her thoughts returned to the proximate.  She didn't dare reach for any lubricant.  Her face still ached.  She wondered what he'd choose first, if he'd take both.  She just hoped he'd opt for her ass second.  Her eyes flew open as the door, which should have already been closed, clicked shut.  That was followed immediately by the sound of a knife cutting through the skin and tendons of a leg, a mostly bloodless crippling.  The mnyama screamed in pain and dropped to his knees.
  1226. "Gah, what the fuck?! No wait, please!" He yelled, turning to find the barrel of a gun materialize before him along with a pair of terrified golden eyes.  The girl closed them and pulled the trigger. The panther crumpled the rest of the way to the floor.
  1228. <Someone taught her well,> Seth thought as he knelt and wiped his knife clean on the fresh corpse.  When he stood he sighed deeply and brought a hand to his mask, finding that he had two panicked females to deal with.
  1230. "Princess!"  Savannah gasped, curling her legs under her and covering her breasts with her arms.  "What is...how did you do that!"
  1232. Keiko didn't respond, having turned from her grizzly handiwork.  Seth could tell she was shaking, even under the cloak.  The cheetah girl was equally panicked, now processing the implications of what she'd just witnessed.
  1234. "Humanity preserve me, they're going to kill me! They're not going to let this slide. What am I going to tell them when-"
  1236. "Savannah, I need you to be quiet and calm, for a moment," Seth instructed.  "I'm going to take her to the next room. Make a little show of waving to us and then follow a few minutes later.  Don't disturb the body whatever you do.  Did you touch him yet?"
  1238. "N-no."
  1240. "Then don't start.  Keiko, come with me now," the mercenary beckoned with a level tone, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and making sure his jammers were still active.  <Of all the places to make your first kill, what a mess.> Savannah walked with them to the door and made a scene of shaking her body and blowing them a kiss before closing it.  Seth was silent until the door to number four closed behind them. He activated every jammer in his suit the moment they crossed the threshold.  "Don't close your eyes next time."
  1242. Keiko barely heard him, wrapping her arms around herself as she sank to her hands and knees.  She'd never seen that look in a man's eyes, in anyone's eyes.  The fact that he'd likely laughed in the face of the weak and helpless countless times didn't matter in that moment.  She couldn't get his pleading gaze out of her head.  Her stomach clenched and churned as she started dry heaving.  Seth knelt beside her.  
  1244. "Easy now, easy Keiko.  Breathe, force it down.  Good, now out.  Breathe Keiko.  Breathe!" His hand moved up her back with each exhalation and then back down as she took in shuddering breaths.  He could feel the metallic plates beneath her cloak.  "There you go, you're alright.  Control it.  You did it, Keiko.  You spared that woman from a great deal of pain."
  1246. "I killed," she gasped. "I killed!"
  1248. "You did.  You killed one of the men tearing your city apart," he responded cooly, trying to plan their next move while consoling a momentarily crippled princess.
  1250. "He...he begged."
  1252. "Shhh, now.  Focus on me.  You're fine, Keiko," Seth assured her, looking around the bare bones room.  There was a mirror on the wall opposite the bed.  The only other furniture consisted of a bedside table that Seth knew contained plenty of lube, toys, and prophylactics, as well as the necessary gear for virtual sessions.  He'd never touched them out of concern for his own health.  "Come now, Keiko.  Let's sit," he insisted, helping her stand on shaking legs and steering her to sit on the side of the bed, making sure they faced the door and not the mirror.  Keiko buried her head in her hands as soon as they settled down, with Seth doing his best to provide gentle contact and keep her focused on the present.  He snapped his head to the doorway as it clicked open.
  1254. "Hey cuties," Savannah called before closing the door and immediately dropping the act.  She was afraid, very afraid, but she was also grateful.  "How is she?"
  1256. "Reacting about as well as one could ask for a first kill," Seth replied tersely.  "Lock it."
  1258. "That was...the business she was talking about?" Savannah asked with wide eyes, her artificial human pupils adjusting to the low light of the room.
  1260. "No." Seth snapped, uninterested in the concerns of a pole dancer.
  1262. "Don't treat her that way, Seth!" Keiko gasped, finally looking up and over at the two of them. "It's not her fault." That did it.
  1264. "No, it's your fault.  We could have waited until he'd had his way with her, taken him down in some alley. No onlookers, no mess, same message. Now we're in a seedy fuck room and we have a witness."
  1266. "How can you say that after how much you put on that chit!"
  1268. "That was then, this is now. You executed well but the job's only half over and you're falling apart before the loose ends are tied off. That's the reality of the situation."
  1270. "Then shut up and go fuck Sybela!  I hear her pussy is still open," Keiko fumed.  Seth stood silently and walked to the door, leaning against it. The murder had his blood up and he was in no mood to entertain her.
  1272. "I'll just wait here then, my lady," he shot back venomously, forced to recall a most unpleasant memory.
  1274. "Don't listen to him," Keiko told Savannah, becoming more animated as she focused on a new issue at hand. The damned human was right. She had to keep moving.
  1276. "Princess, I don't mean to sound ungrateful but he would have let me live, at least.  Now this is going to come back.  They're going to kill me!  Why did you kill him?  And how?!"
  1278. Keiko turned to face the naked cheetah, lowering her hood as she did so.  "You really do look just like her," Savannah murmured.  Keiko smiled and brought her black furred palms up to cover the sunbursts under her eyes.
  1280. "I am her."
  1282. Seth watched with silent curiosity as he checked the power on his own longer range jamming suite, making sure Vyren wouldn't be able to observe the goings on.  Savannah's mouth dropped open as she stammered incoherently before prostrating herself before Keiko.  "My lady, I'm so sorry!  I didn't mean to-"
  1284. “If it’s all the same to you, Savannah, I’d rather just be Keiko tonight.  I don’t particularly feel like a princess.”
  1286. “I...alright,” the dancer agreed hesitantly, seating herself back on the bed and suddenly looking very self conscious about her nudity.
  1288. “Can I ask you why you chose to change yourself like that?”  Keiko said softly, looking at the woman’s tail-less posterior.  Savannah looked away shamefully.
  1290. “I know it’s sacrilegious but...I’ve heard men will pay a lot for something more human.”
  1292. “And the breasts?”
  1294. “I know they’ll pay a lot more for that, princess.  The ones that don’t mind a firmer texture, anyway.  Oh by the wise ones, how did I end up talking with the princess about my tits?!”
  1296. “Savannah I need you to deliver a message for me tonight.  Do you have a family?”
  1298. “Two young ones at home.”
  1300. A small swell of pride lit in Keiko’s chest.  <Damn Seth and his merc logic.  This was the right thing to do...I just need to get out of it!>  “I understand.  Are they able to work?  I don’t mean strenuous labor.  Small things, like watering plants?”
  1302. “I...yes, I believe they could.”
  1304. “Then listen to me closely, Savannah.  Commit this to memory.  You have a lens?”  The cheetah nodded.  “Good.  You can write it down too.  Go to the front gates and tell the on duty Sekhama that you have information regarding the condition of Lady Keiko and that you need to speak with Idris Octavia.  He’s the commander of the Sekhama.  Now they probably won't believe you at first, so here’s what you’ll say, the golden light still dawns over Alhamkara.  Repeat that to me.”
  1306. Savannah did as bade, repeating the phrase and working to commit it to memory.  Keiko nodded when she was satisfied.  “I want you to tell Idris that you’ve seen me alive and that I’m well.  Tell him that he needs to be ready to enact every contingency plan he has to take out every mnyama in the capital.  Tell him if he doesn’t have a plan for any gang then his lady commands him to formulate one.  Tell him I leave it to his discretion when to act and when not to act...and tell him I’m sorry for not returning just yet.  Do this for me, Savannah, and I will make sure you and your family are safe and well cared for.  That same phrase, repeated to any of my handmaidens, will ensure you employment within the palace.”
  1308. “I, but...my lady I have no skills.  All I have is my body,” Savannah whispered.  Keiko smiled and reached out to her.
  1310. “It’s a beautiful body, Savannah.  Find a reputable clinic, ensure your own health, and have them reverse this.”  She gently caressed the swell of one of the cheetah’s fake breasts.  “You would be in high demand at the harem within the palace, should you choose.  If not, you’re still young.  You still have time to learn a task or trade.  As for your young ones...the plants of my solar find themselves without any caregivers at the moment.  Go now, please.”
  1312. “Yes, of course.  Thank you, your majesty.  Thank you so much I...the grace of humanity always be with you, lady Keiko,” the cheetah spoke quickly and humbly.  Keiko nodded to accept her wishes and stood from the bed.
  1314. “Savannah, if you betray me, Seth or I will find you.”
  1316. With a furious nod the cheetah bolted from the room as quickly as her legs could carry her.  Seth stepped silently out of the way, an act that symbolized at least tacit approval of Keiko’s handling of the situation.  The wild dog was left gazing at the door, wondering if she’d done the right thing.  She eventually turned her gaze to the mercenary, finding him looking silently at her.  “Well, now’s the time to tell me I didn’t do things the mercenary way, since you seem uninterested in rabbit this evening,” she snapped angrily.  He walked slowly over to her, threw his hood up and removed his mask.
  1318. “Not two days later you’re already bridging the gaps between light and dark, the palace and the underworld.  I’ve contacted Talon.  He will...escort her from the shadows.  If anyone comes for her I’ve told him weapons are free.  I know not how our actions here tonight will evolve, Keiko, but we should be ready to reap the whirlwind.”
  1320. Keiko closed her eyes tightly as the terrified face flashed before her eyes again, the weight of a taken life settling on her shoulders.  “Take me away from here, Seth.  Now...please.”
  1322. “As you wish, my lady."
  1325.                                                                 ~Chapter 7~
  1326. Chapter 7 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/ZgyylBp
  1329. "Man, midnight shift again.  Ready for another boring night of front gate duty?" The young Sekhama greeted his partner at the watch house outside the main palace gate.
  1331. "What are you complaining about?  We get to sit here where there aren't any bullets flying, maybe see a nice car or two, go home in one piece."
  1333. "Seriously man?  Everyone who took out the Trang'aul yesterday is probably still in the harem! You're telling me you don't want in on that?"
  1335. "And they're lucky they came back at all, kid. You got a problem, take it up with the commander. I don't get paid to listen to green wild dogs whine. Besides, looks like the harem is coming to you tonight." The gruff hyena gestured to the palace approach where three figures were walking towards the gate.
  1337. "What the fuck man, she's got two kids with her."
  1339. "Since when did virgins get choosy? Go deal with it."
  1341. "Why do you think she's here?"
  1343. "Same reason they all are. Tell her this ain't a fucking charity and if she gets uppity, flash your gun.  Man I ain't got time for this shit after all that with Torando."
  1345. The wild dog left his grouchy partner in the gatehouse, stepping out onto the road as the automated spotlights fixed on the woman and the two children with her.  Her cloak couldn't hide what she was.  It looked like she and the children were carrying everything to their name with them. It wasn't much. "I hate this part of the job," the young Sekhama muttered before raising his voice.  "Miss I'm sorry, this is a restricted area. I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
  1347. Fear lanced through Savannah's heart as she tried to calm herself.  After washing and leaving the Oasis she'd sprinted home and woken her children, constantly repeating the words Keiko had spoken to her.  She'd contemplated going to the palace without them first, but the Oro knew where she lived.  They knew everything about her.  She couldn't risk leaving her children.  The whole way to the palace grounds, the shining beacon in the heart of the capitol, she'd been terrified. She constantly checked over her shoulder, convinced something or someone was following her.  No one had cut her down in a hail of magicka, but now she had a massive metal gate and two armed men to get past.
  1349. "I…I need to see the captain. Idris?" She stumbled, afraid to look too long at the young dog before her.  She faintly recalled a couple mnyama boys his age she'd broken in together.  It had paid for her next meal at least. His face was still innocent.
  1351. "Mama?" Her young son called out.
  1353. "Shhh now baby, it's going to be alright," she assured him.  "Please sir, I have to see the captain.  I have a message from the princess."
  1355. The wild dog sighed, looking long at her human-like eyes.  They were unsettling with that spotlight on them as they pleaded with him.  "Look lady, if I had a credit for every time some urchin claimed to know something about the royal family-"
  1357. "The golden light still dawns over Alhamkara!" Savannah gasped.  "Please, my babies!"
  1359. "What the hell's taking so long, Spot?  Just tell her to fuck off!" Bruce's voice came from behind him, the hyena stalking up to survey the situation.
  1361. "I tried, Bruce, but she insists it's something about her majesty, started saying some weird line."
  1363. "So what is it, girl?  You've come to turn yourself in for illegal body modification?"  Bruce asked Savannah directly, glaring down at her.  "You better start talking. Do I look like a hyena with time for bullshit?"
  1365. "The golden light still dawns over Alhamkara," Savannah cried, eyes full of fear as the Sekhama rested his hand on his pistol.
  1367. "You see, Bruce? What the hell is she-" The young wild dog stopped short as he looked at his partner's grizzled face.
  1369. "Spot, you turn around and don't stop sprinting until you find the Commander.  You bring him here now.  You understand me?"
  1371. "Are you serious?" Spot asked, looking between the woman and his partner.
  1373. "Now, private!" Bruce barked, causing Savannah's son to begin crying as Spot tore off for the palace. "Man, fuck this shit," Bruce muttered.
  1375. "Jace, you have to be brave for mommy," Savannah's older child insisted, hugging her brother.  The hyena looked ready to call it quits then and there.
  1377. "I have no idea where you heard that phrase, lady, but you best be hoping you've got something real juicy to tell Octavia.  Otherwise you're going somewhere worse than wherever it is you came from," Bruce promised. "Inside the guardhouse, now."
  1379. \-----
  1381. Idris Octavia had had better nights.  The princess was still missing. He'd not seen hide nor hair, not even a rumour after he and his men destroyed the Trang'aul.  The king was breathing down his neck, the queen was distraught, Torando was being a right prick now that he wasn't threatening war, and worst of all he didn't even have mnyama scum to kill that particular evening. <At least it's something to do other than reading stale intel> he thought, following calmly after Spot as the aptly nicknamed wild dog led him from the Sekhama annex of the palace to the front guardhouse, claiming that some street girl had shown up with knowledge of one of the royal family's code phrases.  
  1383. Stepping inside the small station, he found Bruce in his usual grumpy mood along with a cheetah...he supposed calling her a lady of the night was as generous as he could get, and her two children.  The lion stood tall and addressed them.
  1385. "You're the one who claims to have information regarding the princess?" He demanded in a level tone.
  1387. "Y-yes.  My name is Savannah," she replied quietly.
  1389. "Tell me what you told them."
  1391. "The golden light still dawns over Alhamkara," Savannah complied with shaking voice, kneeling on the floor and holding her children to her.  Idris nodded.
  1393. "You scanned them, Bruce?"
  1395. "Yeah boss, they're clean.  Confiscated this credit chit.  Girl couldn't have had it legally. Way too much on here," Bruce reported, extending it hesitantly as Idris held out a giant paw. The lion's eyes sent a shudder through him.
  1397. "Why do all three of them look traumatized, Bruce?  I don't have to remind you that Princess Keiko is missing, do I? I need good intel, not whatever some street girl thinks is going to help keep her children alive!" The captain growled, his mane lending him a far more imposing presence than Bruce could hope to match, to say nothing of the rank differential.  The hyena brought his heels together in a salute.
  1399. "No excuses, sir."
  1401. "Then you stay right here and enjoy the rest of your night, Bruce," Idris ordered quietly.  "Spot?"
  1403. "Yes sir!"
  1405. "Can I ask you to assist me with a bit of...babysitting?" The captain requested, throwing the private a small smile.
  1407. The wild dog looked at Savannah's children.  They looked back at him. He smiled. They eventually smiled back at him. "Yeah, I think I can do that, sir."
  1409. "Good. Savannah, I'd like you to come with me, please.  Did he take anything else belonging to you?"
  1411. "N-no, sir," Savannah confirmed, standing slowly and not meeting his eyes.  "Jace, Keiko, come now," she said quietly, giving the little ones a push as Idris turned and led the way out the back of the guardhouse and into the palace grounds.  Savannah looked to the moon and sky as the towering sandstone buildings of the compound came into full view.  She'd made it to the other side of the wall.  Her bosom swelled with hope. <Thank you, lady Keiko!>
  1413. "Hey now, I said you have to hold my hand!" Spot said, snatching Jace by the back of his shirt as the little one tried to run off into the palace grounds.  The Sekhama didn't blame him.  Other than the vehicle path and a few walkways, the entirety of the open space within the walls was filled with fascinations.  Fountains carved of rough hewn rock fed ponds of koi and other fish.  Trees of all shapes and sizes, tropical and savannah, sheltered colorful birds and chirping tamarins.  Parapets, walls, and walkways lined the area, all lit with a combination of bright flood lights, lanterns, and torches.
  1415. "Jace, you have to behave or they'll send us away," the little Keiko scolded her brother.  Spot's face fell. He wanted to reassure them but their fate was out of his hands.  Their mother was a criminal and he was neither judge nor jury, just an executioner.  The woman in question walked in front of him, next to the captain. The young Sekhama, from his vantage point, now realized that Savannah's modifications didn't end at her eyes and chest.  Without her tail he could see every contour of the woman's rear, even under her cloak. He coughed roughly and refocused on the children attached to his hands.
  1417. "So your name is Keiko?" He asked the young cheetah girl. She smiled at him.  
  1419. "Yep! Just like the princess!  Does my mommy really know lady Keiko? She wouldn't say."
  1421. Idris smiled sadly and glanced behind him as Spot tried to respond to the innocent curiosity of a child.  There was the law to consider, not to mention the woman's blasphemous attempt at imitating the human form, but there was also Keiko.  The princess was alive, and had apparently chosen an underground whore to send a message. He was honor bound to listen, and in the event the woman was truthful, to treat her as one of Keiko's own. <What in the name of humanity are you up to, my lady?>
  1423. Savannah looked up as she was escorted into the barracks of the Sekhama, their sigil carved into the stone above the door frame.  The interior, contrary to the classical exterior of the palace, was eminently modern in steel and artificial light.  Every angle was covered by a camera, and she saw directions to the sleeping quarters, armory, and mess hall on the walls around her.  A door on their right slid open. She could see a well kept office full of weapons, armor, security feeds, terminals, files, and an ebony desk in the center of the organized chaos.  The large lion looked down at her. "Will your children be alright alone for an hour or so?"
  1425. Savannah nodded and dropped to her knees to address the young ones. "Jace, Keiko, I need to speak with this man alone, alright?"
  1427. "Is he going to pay you? The scary landlady came by yesterday." Jace's innocent question rendered Savannah speechless as Spot looked anywhere but at her.  Keiko was looking at her mother with sad eyes.  Idris didn't seem surprised, however.  He took a knee and addressed the young boy.
  1429. "Your mother has something very important to tell me, young man.  We're just going to talk."
  1431. "But...if mommy doesn't get paid then-" Jace began, fear clouding his eyes as his young mind barely scraped the surface of the underbelly of Alhamkara.
  1433. "Do you know what I do for a living, young man?" The lion asked kindly.
  1435. "No."
  1437. "I kill bad people.  And sometimes I get to protect innocent people.  Spot does too.  Tonight he's going to protect you.  I will speak to you again. Do you understand?"
  1439. "Mommy is a good person," Jace pleaded, looking at the commander's holstered sidearm.
  1441. "I know.  Will you be a good boy for Spot?  He's new and working nights."
  1443. "Yes, I can be good," the boy promised.
  1445. "Good," the lion smiled, resting a paw gently on the cheetah's shoulder.  "Spot, take them to the mess.  Get them something to eat and drink. We'll come find you."
  1447. "Yes, Captain.  Come on you two. Wanna see where I eat?"
  1449. Idris watched as Spot led the two children down the hall and around the corner.  "Now then, I believe it's time we had a little talk," he said seriously, turning to find the cheetah on the verge of tears. He extended the credit chit to her. "You can't hide the truth from him forever."
  1451. "What kind of son wants a whore for a mother?" She whispered, obediently following the captain of the Sekhama into his office and taking a seat in an unremarkable chair.  The Captain sat and looked her over critically.
  1453. "Take the cloak off," he ordered, watching as Savannah stood and revealed herself, her body clad in a well worn dress too small for her augmented breasts. "I'm sorry, but you can never be too careful in my line of work.  Scanners always miss something.  You can't fight what you can't see."
  1455. "I assure you I'm only here to deliver lady Keiko's words," she replied, keeping her eyes on his desk.
  1457. "Convince me of that and your son won't have to grow up with a street whore for a mother. We take care of those who serve the crown faithfully.  Start at the beginning. What's your name?"
  1459. "Savannah."
  1461. "Your real name," he demanded, unimpressed.
  1463. "...Eina, sir."
  1465. "I prefer that," Idris said, at least as kindly as his battle worn voice would allow. "Now then, Eina, why did you amputate your tail and replace your eyes?"
  1467. "To earn more money when I…when I sell my body."
  1469. "You're aware that this sort of modification for any reason other than a medical need is illegal, correct?"
  1471. "Yes."
  1473. "And you did it anyway."
  1475. "I have two growing children to feed. Even synth meat costs credits," Savannah said more confidently than she felt.  The lion across the desk looked like he could literally snap her in two.
  1477. "Repeat that phrase for me, please."
  1479. "The golden light still dawns over Alhamkara."
  1481. "And yet she's nowhere to be seen," he mused, glancing away from her. "Very well, Eina.  You have my attention.  Where did you encounter the princess?"
  1483. "The Oasis, my former place of work. It's an unregistered brothel and nightclub."
  1485. "Former?" Idris asked with interest.
  1487. "I can't go back there now."
  1489. "Why?"
  1491. "The Oro will kill me."
  1493. "Why?  You stiff them for the surgery costs?"
  1495. "No. They take my body when they want. She killed one of them in front of me."
  1497. The silence that pervaded the office was absolute as Idris narrowed his eyes at her and purred the most threatening purr that Eina had ever heard in her life. A fire burned in his eyes that she'd never seen the like of. "You're saying that lady Keiko, princess of Alhamkara who disappeared minutes before her wedding, walked into some sex and drug den and killed an Oro on her own?"
  1499. "Sir, she wasn't alone. She had help, a masked male, probably a mercenary. And it wasn't just an Oro, sir."
  1501. "It gets better?" Idris asked, cocking his head as Eina shuddered.
  1503. "It was the man who cut my tail. He was there to recoup some of the cost for-"
  1505. "Who was he, Eina?" Idris demanded. "I'm the Commander of the Sekhama, not a doctor or a bookie."
  1507. "Tennath. Oro's right hand."
  1509. "You swear on your life this information is true?" He growled.
  1511. "I swear it," Eina affirmed in a panicked voice.  "She's a wild dog about my height. She had golden chains on an ear, a navel piercing in the shape of a teardrop with magicite in it, and she had these white sunbursts just below her eyes.  She could form magitech weapons from nothing and killed him with a single shot. It fired some sort of round that didn't come out the other side.  And it didn't do anything flashy like fire or ice. I've never seen anything like it. The man crippled him first, using a blade. He knew exactly where to cut." Eina gaped at the captain as he suddenly threw his head back and laughed boldly, a loud and rumbling noise that almost turned into a triumphant roar.
  1513. "That girl! She runs off and starts nailing mobsters and befriending strippers?  I guess she wasn't ready to settle down with our esteemed Lord Torando, eh?  There's more, I assume? What happened after the kill?"
  1515. Eina collected herself, flabbergasted that the chief of the palace's armed forces didn't seem surprised at all to hear about Keiko in such a manner. "Yes sir. She gave me a message. I used my lens to commit it all to memory."
  1517. "Then let's hear it."
  1519. "She's...not coming back yet, sir.  But she's alive and well from what I've seen.  She was unrestrained and had no wounds other than what looked like bandages on her wrists."
  1521. "So she was forcefully taken...but you said she was operating freely?" Idris pressed.
  1523. "It seemed that way, sir."
  1525. "And she used the all clear phrase, too.  Damnit Lady Keiko, you could have left us a note. Sending this woman instead?" Idris complained to the ether.
  1527. "Shall I read it for you now?" Eina asked, a twinge of hurt in her voice. Idris nodded, privately acknowledging that using a faunum was much more secure than anything digital. "She said she is alive and well. She says that you should prepare to enact any of your anti-mnyama operations at a moment's notice. She says that if you don't have plans made for any particular gang that you should do so. She says she leaves it to your discretion when to act. And she says she's sorry she can't return yet," Eina finished sadly, remembering the princess' smile as she'd tipped her.
  1529. "Anything else?"
  1531. "Just orders for me, sir." Eina blushed and looked at her lap.
  1533. "I'll hear them."
  1535. "She told me to...repeat that phrase to one of the serving women of the palace, that I should get myself to a clinic of repute and that…"
  1537. Idris leaned back in his chair and cocked a brow as the cheetah fell silent. "And?"
  1539. "She said that I should undo my breast enhancement and that upon doing so if I'm in good health I should join the harem if I don't wish to take up a different job.  She said her plants needed some water too. I'd hoped the little ones could maybe…" Eina trailed off as Idris began to laugh again, this one a low and subtle chuckle.
  1541. "Eina, that was definitely lady Keiko.  Not that I'd have entertained your story without it, but that little tale was more convincing than any passcode. She's right, by the way."
  1543. "I'm sorry?"
  1545. "Cheetahs look better with smaller tits," he asserted.
  1547. "Maybe in your world they do," Eina murmured.
  1549. "By my lady's command it's now your world, too. You've done her and me a great service tonight." Idris was ready for Eina's reaction, circling his desk calmly and wrapping an arm around the woman's shoulders as she collapsed to the floor in tears.  Keiko had always been a believer in small victories. He was more than willing to credit her this one. "Alright Eina, that's it. It's over now. Let's get this all out before we grab your little ones, hmm?" Eventually her tears ran dry and he helped her to her feet.  "Come with me, please. My lady seems to have given me a bit of homework, so to speak. I must turn you over to more capable hands than mine."
  1551. "Yours seem quite capable, sir," Eina murmured.
  1553. "Perhaps, but they are not tender hands and I sincerely doubt either of us are interested in the sort of evening where I enjoy your body without buying you dinner first. Eina, do you know why I pressed his lordship to permit my men to partake in some of the indulgences offered in the palace harem?  Beyond espionage and the usual selfish reasons, of course."
  1555. "I don't, sir," she replied, wondering what the harem had to do with anything. He nodded to her.
  1557. "Because fighting for your country, or your crown, or even your princess isn't the same thing as fighting to get back to a warm pair of lips and a warmer pair of legs, if you catch my meaning."
  1559. "I believe I do, sir." The two of them had come to a stop just before the double doors that led to the galley. Idris pointed through the window to where Spot was trying to coax Jace down from a table and Keiko was politely sipping on a cup of juice.
  1561. "He's nineteen. Kid has been itching for a deployment since he earned his first urban combat simulation citation. We live somewhere between the police and the military, Eina.  We cannot bring to bear the firepower of our nation's greatest weapons, especially in the densely populated slums, and we do not have the luxury of fighting on the open field. We fight in the worst of both worlds. When various wealthy businessmen, landowners, and celebrities complained about sharing their decadent paradise with my men and the occasional woman, the Queen invited them all to an open casket funeral for one of my soldiers. He leapt on a magicite detonator in the middle of a raid, saved his entire squad. To this day I'm convinced that stunt was actually lady Keiko's idea. She's always had an inappropriate fascination with the harem."
  1563. "They couldn't refuse the Queen's offer, could they?" Eina guessed. Octavia bared his teeth in a vicious smile.
  1565. "No, they could not. They all got a taste of just how fragile their beautiful lives are, what my men sacrifice to maintain peace and order. Now one regularly sees Sekhama in that place, as well as some of the ladies of the palace they might choose to accompany them, charming little doves the lot of them. I will not tell you who to lay with, Eina, or what to do with the freedom my lady has given you, but that boy couldn't keep his eyes off of you. If Lady Keiko is planning a war, he will find his way to the front."
  1567. Eina watched as the wild dog tentatively tried to grab her son around the waist, only to have the little feline slip from his grasp.  Soon he was on the table as well with a smile on his face as little Keiko looked at them with smug disinterest. The young mother regarded the captain. "If I can, I will give him something real to return to. He has no one else? Surely..." She trailed off as Idris heaved a deep sigh.
  1569. "I would not ask you if he did. You will have my thanks, in that case. For now though I believe we should reign in our boys, yes?" Idris waved his hands and the doors to the mess hall slid open.
  1571. Spot froze, caught red handed in the act of behaving like a kid by his Commander. He looked down to see Jace pointing at him. "You little traitor, you started it."
  1573. "Mom, the Sekhama gave Jace coffee," Keiko said immediately, though all three of them fell silent as Eina tearful approached her children.
  1575. "Oh my babies," she whispered, taking them both into a hug.
  1577. "Do we have to go back now? I wanted to keep playing with Mr. Spot," Jace asked. Eina choked back her tears long enough to assure her son.
  1579. "The princess and the captain said we can stay, Jace. That means you and Keiko need to be on your best behavior and help with whatever is needed in the palace. Do you understand?"
  1581. Spot moved to stand beside Idris, feeling most uncomfortable at intruding on a family moment. He spoke quietly. "Orders, sir?"
  1583. "Take them all to the doc, run the caffeine out of that kid's system, you idiot, and then bring them to Lyria. When that's done, make sure your armor is in peak condition and your blades are thirsty."
  1585. "Sir?"
  1587. "Our Lady has set certain events in motion, Spot. We may be able to land another fish."
  1589. The young private was about to reply when a ball of yellow, spotted fluff impacted his leg. "Mr. Spot, mommy says I can stay! Can we go play with the monkeys?"
  1591. "Good luck, Spot. You brought this on yourself you know." Idris chuckled as he departed, his head already churning with feints and counters, ways to turn the smallest slip of a single gangster into the domino that would topple his entire organization. "Coffee to a cheetah. What the hell were you thinking?"
  1593. "It was the only way to stop him from crying," Spot muttered, reaching down to pick up the excitable boy. He turned to Savannah who was holding her daughter by the hand. "Miss, I have orders to escort you to the infirmary. Would you follow me, please?"
  1595. Eina looked up at his young, tender face, hoping when she next saw it he would still look like a boy. She smiled as his gaze held steady on her eyes, not roaming where so many other men were wont to travel. "Please, call me Eina."
  1598.                                                                ~Chapter 8~
  1599. Chapter 8 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/Z1G6uVp
  1601. "Hey Oz! Oz, you in here?" Spot called out as he entered the infirmary, Eina and her children in tow. A well dressed ostrich strutted out of an office laboratory and ruffled his feathers, joining them in an immaculately clean room with a row of beds against each wall, complete with diagnostic, monitoring, and emergency surgical tech.
  1603. "That is Doctor Oswald to you, young man. Oh my, what have we here? You are not my usual clients, far too cute I daresay."
  1605. "Hehe, you're a funny man!"
  1607. "Jace!" Eina cried. "I'm so sorry, sir. Please forgive my son."
  1609. The ostrich used his lengthy neck to bring his beak right down to Jace's face. "And from where I'm standing all of you furry little creatures are funny looking. But you, madam, you are more than a bit unique."
  1611. "Yo, Oz, she doesn't need that shit!" Spot protested hotly. "She risked her life and her kids to get us information about the princess."
  1613. "Lady Keiko is alive?" The older man gasped, adjusting his multi focus monocle.
  1615. "Alive and well, sir. I'm here at her request," Eina said politely.
  1617. "Have your children need of my services, madam?" The doctor offered without reservation.
  1619. "Just a check up, Doc. Captain's orders," Spot clarified. "Jace, we're gonna check and make sure you're alright, ok? Then we can play."
  1621. "Ok! Those are cool robots!" The young one said, pointing at the robotic arms hanging above the nearest bed. Oswald motioned them to be seated on the cot while Spot placed Jace on the next one over in full view of his mother.
  1623. "Now Jace, I want you to be still and listen to what the doctor says. This will be your first check-up, ok? Mommy wants to be sure you're as healthy as can be," she told her son as Spot tried to hide the pity he felt for them all.
  1625. "Mmm, ok!" Jace replied easily. With the patient's 'permission' given, Oswald activated the diagnostic tools on the bed and withdrew his stethoscope from his breast pocket. Spot couldn't help a chuckle.
  1627. "Don't give me that look, private," the doctor scoffed. "Some of the oldest technology is still the most reliable. Now Jace, I'd like you to breathe in for me please…"
  1629. \-----
  1631. A half hour later Jace left the infirmary with Spot. He and his sister had needed a shower with special shampoo and other treatments to rid themselves of lice, but they were otherwise in good health. Spot had been given a preventative treatment and sent on his way to show Jace some of the palace grounds. Keiko insisted she would stay with her mother, who was now alone with doctor Oswald in his office, which had its own examination table in addition to the technology necessary for genetic sequencing and blood work.
  1633. "Miss Eina, I will need to ask you some questions about your medical history and your...augmentations," Oswald said as tactfully as possible. It had been a long time since he'd treated someone like her.
  1635. "I understand. Thank you for seeing my children, doctor."
  1637. "It is no problem at all, miss. They were delightful patients. Now however, we must focus on you. I understand you come from a very difficult set of circumstances. How many sexual partners have you-"
  1639. "I lost the will to keep track after a hundred," she said. Oswald sat back in his chair and nodded quietly.
  1641. "Let us...begin there then." Over the next hour and a half the doctor took all manner of skin, fur, blood, and other fluid samples. He examined Eina's body thoroughly, taking extensive notes on the locations that had been altered by the Oro. He was careful with his hands and did his best to explain to her what he was doing with each step, making note whenever she flinched away. Over time it became easier, with Eina eventually convinced that Oswald was not like the men she was familiar with. That the Hippocratic oath of humanity indeed meant something to him.
  1643. "Well Eina, the good news is that the diseases you picked up in your former line of work can easily be purged via intravenous antibiotics and antivirals. That's what this particular contraption is all about," he said, pointing to the robotic appendage that had pierced her arm and started an IV. "What concerns me however is...oh good the results are here, let's see...oh. Oh my. Is that...that can't be right. Could it?" The ostrich further adjusted his monocle to ensure he'd read correctly.
  1645. "What is it?! Eina asked fearfully, wondering why the doctor had become so worried all of a sudden.
  1647. "Eina, did the mnyama that did this to you ever tell you why they chose you?" He asked quietly, looking at her with piercing eyes.
  1649. "No. They just told me I was compatible," she whispered, trying to control herself as the room seemed to grow cold. Oz nodded softly, adjusting himself in his chair.
  1651. "Indeed. As I'm sure you're aware we all have some small amount of human genetic material within us. For most of the population of Alhamkara that number is somewhere around one to two percent.  Much of it dictates brain function and bipedalism, two of the defining traits of our wise guardians. You are special, my dear. You have more."
  1653. "What? How much?!" Eina exclaimed as Oswald looked ready to pick up a gun himself.
  1655. "Not enough to stop your body from rejecting your implants. Those madmen, culturing and implanting human tissue? Barbaric, sacreligious!"
  1657. "Doctor, what's going to happen to me?" Eina demanded, suddenly feeling as though the light green walls and machines were closing in on her. He took her hand and held it gently.
  1659. "If I'm successful, nothing untoward," he assured her, hitting a button on the wrist-mounted datapad he wore to keep his hands free. "Commander Octavia, it's Oswald."
  1661. "Go ahead doc. Is it one of mine?"
  1663. "The woman, sir. I will prepare a full report soon but I need you to authorize two full doses of azure immediately." Silence pervaded as Idris contemplated the request.
  1665. "What the hell did they do to her, doc?"
  1667. "I do not have time for this, Octavia. Every second wasted is precious. If she doesn't receive a massive boost to her system she will reject her entire visual and reproductive systems at a minimum."
  1669. "Did you say reproductive?!" Idris demanded as Eina clapped her hands to her muzzle, feeling icy talons curling around her.
  1671. "Commander, now!" The doctor insisted.
  1673. "Fine, do it! Full report, my desk tomorrow morning!  Fuck those Oro sons of-" Oswald cut off the rest of Octavia's completely justified tirade, moving to a small safe against the wall and presenting his eyes for verification. The cryosafe hissed open and he immediately grabbed two inhalers that contained vibrant, pulsing blue mist.
  1675. "Medical grade azure, my lady. Now please, breathe deeply and hold it in." Oswald administered the drug and activated every monitoring device in his possession, tracking everything from her blood pressure and heart rate to her white blood cell count and hormonal activity. "Eina, if the princess had not found you when she did you would have been dead within the week. I will do everything to ensure you live to see your children grow up, so please stay with me. Good, now the second dose. If you feel yourself slipping away just lean back. I've got you. That's it, thank you my dear. Now rest, please."
  1677. The ostrich brought up a second control panel for his instruments, quickly hooking himself up to a nutrient and caffeine IV as Eina's eyes fluttered and she fell back onto the examination table. He quickly adjusted it so she was reclining as comfortably as possible before returning to his readouts. Every minute he observed her eyes and the optical nerves within, relieved to see a clearing of internal bleeding as the azure catalysed a fusion of her tissues. "Good, progress. You're a resilient one, my dear. Now let's see if we can get any information on your ovaries," he muttered, directing a powerful imaging device at the woman's abdomen. "By humanity...what did they do to you?"
  1679. \-----
  1681. "You fought well, Jace, but I'd be a piss poor Sekhama if I lost to you," Spot chuckled as he carried the sleeping boy back to the infirmary. A few trees climbed and ponds accidentally dunked in had worn the tyke out at last. It was long after midnight when he returned, finding an unexpected individual waiting for him just outside in the hallway of steel and cold artificial light, the hallmarks of the home of the palace's elite anti-terrorism force.
  1683. "I see he finally burned off that coffee," Octavia smiled ruefully.
  1685. "Sir, what's going on?"
  1687. "I'd like to know that myself. Here."
  1689. "What is this? A preliminary report from Oz?" Spot shifted his cheetah shaped baggage to one arm and took the datapad in the other. "Handful of venereal diseases, antibiotics and antivirals, decent vitals otherwise and...wait...that can't be right." Spot's eyes grew wide with shock and hatred as he continued to read. She'd been made an experiment, a living tissue incubator.
  1691. "I believe they intended to harvest her if the grafts took. Oz gave her two hits of azure. If she wakes up again she'll live, or so he thinks. She might not. That's a lot of juice," Idris explained coldly with all the detachment of a seasoned warrior. Spot had enough fire in his eyes for both of them.
  1693. "When are we going after them?"
  1695. "As soon as I hold the press conference that will hopefully convince the other mnyamas to sit this one out. Hell, I doubt most of them even know Oro have gone this far. On the other hand...this screams corporate. It may be worth the risk to go in hot, secure assets, arrest some stuffed shirts who think they own the world by virtue of their bank accounts. One way or another I'm making the call within twenty four hours."
  1697. "This is fucked up, sir. If you go in on them I want to be there," the young one volunteered. Idris fixed him with a stern look.
  1699. "This isn't a game, Spot. You're not a knight."
  1701. "And she's no maiden! I know this is real!" The boy growled. The captain sported a feral grin as he took back his datapad.
  1703. "Then get some sleep tomorrow, kid. I've got the information I need now to justify sending these heathens six feet under without a trial. Net services and discount pharmaceuticals my ass. Not even a decent front, just enough to keep the regulars off their back. Make sure your trigger finger is itchy."
  1705. "Yes sir, I'll be ready."
  1707. "Good." Idris departed for his office as Spot continued into the infirmary, setting Jace down on a bed that his sister had already claimed, unable to remain awake any longer. He covered them both with a blanket before moving to Oswald's office, stopping short of the entry and peering through the small window in the door. Only his hands over his mouth stopped him from screaming. The doctor had Eina hooked up to almost every machine in the room and was slicing open her chest to get at the implants beneath her breasts. Spot thought he might gag as the doctor gently withdrew a blood covered, silicone disc from her body. He looked just as repulsed as Spot felt, setting aside the offending object before injecting the site with various healing and disinfecting agents. When her right chest had been sealed shut with an ultrafine cauterizing laser he moved onto the next one.
  1709. Spot tore himself away from the door and tried to stop his body from doing everything at once. He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to puke. He wanted to kill. In the end, he settled on walking back to the beds and pushed one up against where those two innocent cubs rested. He wanted to be sure they'd wake up to someone they knew. He tried to forget Eina and what was happening in the next room, praying for sleep to take him. <I don't know how you found her, lady Keiko, but damn if it wasn't a moment too soon.>
  1711. \-----
  1713. Keiko fell to the floor the moment she entered the 'shrine', completely and utterly drained. The adrenaline of her first kill had long faded, leaving a cold void that sapped her energy and poisoned her mind. When Seth closed and locked the door behind her the sound of night surrounded them. She could faintly hear insects and frogs, as well as the occasional call of a bird or larger beast. It reminded her a bit of the palace. It was enough to get her standing with Seth's help. He'd removed the mask.
  1715. "What's done is done, my lady."
  1717. "You can say that all you want, but it doesn't feel that way," she lamented. "He begged, Seth. He begged for his life and I still killed him. I'm honestly not sure who or what I am right now."
  1719. "You're the princess of Alhamkara, and a damn well trained psionic from what I can tell." Seth wasn't sure exactly what part Keiko didn't like, but she growled menacingly at him before turning and marching to the bathroom without saying another word. He stared after her as the sound of the shower became audible in the small space. "That was...the wrong answer, it would seem."
  1721. Seth removed his armor and carefully placed it on its pedestal, unused to having completed a kill with no damage whatsoever. With nothing else to do, he brought up the program in his lens and checked Talon's status. The light was still green and he could see that the cassowary had cut a path through a couple of slums before taking a direct route over the rooftops to a position from where he could observe the front gate of the palace. Argos and Sybela's icons remained offline. He had no messages from the rabbit either.
  1723. "Very well...the Oro it is." Seth picked himself up and sat next to the bathroom door, listening to the water and trying not to think about the woman beneath it all. The wall behind him lightened considerably, providing illumination as the rest of the shrine mimicked the dead of night. Articles about partnerships regarding development of generic pharmaceuticals and new frontiers in body enhancement and modification wore thin quickly. Seth and every other experienced player knew it was a front, but fronts existed for a reason. The only thing he bothered to commit to memory was the name of the corporation that partnered with the Oro, Psygenics Ltd. By then Talon had signaled job completed and confirmed the girl had made it into the palace. His marker vanished and the program shut down.
  1725. "And it's back to her," Seth muttered as the night replayed in his head. He recalled the cut. He'd gone for the back of the knee first, then the ankle. The ill fated fool had already dropped his pants. Then came her face, and the shot. "Low noise profile, non-elemental discharge, no exit wound. Someone taught the princess the best round for point blank assassinations…" Seth got lost in his own head chasing the implications, only coming back to the present when he realized Keiko had been in the shower for over an hour. He was about to consider her privacy less important than his need to know she hadn't attempted to drown herself when the hissing flow of the water finally stopped. Seth sighed deeply and rested his head against the wall, content to wait a bit longer now that he knew Keiko was still functioning. When she exited the bathroom, clad in her silk nightgown, she didn't seem surprised to see him.
  1727. "There aren't any dry towels left," she apologized quietly, not meeting his eyes.
  1729. "I'll shower tomorrow morning. Did it wash away?"
  1731. "Not really." Keiko checked her lens, it was already three in the morning. "Are we busy tomorrow?"
  1733. "Is it we already?" Seth asked curiously. Keiko scoffed and walked past him.
  1735. "I don't have the will for your games, Seth. I think I'd just like this night to end."
  1737. "Understood," he acknowledged, standing to avail himself of the bathroom.  When he returned he found Keiko was already underneath the covers, facing away from him. She'd replaced her ear piercings and they shimmered gently in what little light was left. Not wanting to be presumptuous, Seth walked around the futon, grabbed his pillow, and laid down on the floor opposite her. His eyes had been closed for only a moment when he heard Keiko's voice.
  1739. "Seth?" She whispered.
  1741. "Yes, my lady?"
  1743. "Are you clothed?"
  1745. "Yes, my lady," he confirmed softly. A long pause followed as Keiko made up her mind.
  1747. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea but...I don't think I'm strong enough to spend tonight alone."
  1749. Seth replied in a tone she'd never heard from him before. Until then it had always been business, the voice of a man who killed for credits, or his 'lady Keiko' tone, reverential in a way she found absurd given his profession. "Yeah, you won't find me judging you," he said, almost as if she were Sybela, or maybe Talon or Argos.  It had her wondering briefly about the faces behind those names. She waited patiently as Seth replaced the pillow, pulled back the comforter, and settled himself down about a foot from her.
  1751. "What was your first kill like?" She finally asked when he looked over at her. He took in the faint glow of her golden eyes, remembering the bloody past.
  1753. "It is...not worth discussing, my lady."
  1755. "Seth, how can you say that?"
  1757. "Because tonight you chose to kill a man you did not have to. In a second you debated the ethics of your proposed deed and decided, voluntarily, to take a life. My first kill was forced upon me, part of the reality of living on the streets. It was pitiful, a fight over scraps of food between boys who would barely be considered men by polite society. I did nothing so noble as saving a woman from a life of debasement."
  1759. "Seth…" she pleaded, letting out a small breath as the smooth skin of one of his fingers brushed against the fur of her hand.
  1761. "Nobody even paid you," he whispered proudly, looking back at the ceiling and keeping the rest of his body flat and rigid, entirely focused on their minute point of contact, the spark between their fingers. Hearing it from his own mouth just made it ever more clear how different their two worlds were.
  1763. "I don't feel like I did a good thing...Seth!" She exclaimed softly as he boldly took her hand in his. Her breathing immediately went shallow, her mind forced to address the fact that he was very much in deliberate and sensual contact with her. To her great surprise he was smiling, still looking up at the ceiling of his little sanctuary.
  1765. "This is but the opening act, my lady. Savannah is safely inside the palace, along with two children. Talon confirmed it to me when you were attempting to cleanse yourself. Be patient for now. I don't think the full gravity of what you did tonight will be realized for some time."
  1767. Keiko knew his words weren't meant to help, but they didn't hurt either. She'd never have believed consolation from a mercenary anyway. None of that mattered though. What mattered was the heat, the warmth shared between his palm and fingers and the pads of her paw. "Seth...what you're doing right now is probably punishable by death," she whispered.
  1769. "Probably?" He couldn't help the smallest of chuckles. He was holding the princess' hand; that demanded at least a bit of self-reflection.
  1771. "No man has ever been that insane before."
  1773. "Is it helping?" He inquired earnestly.
  1775. Her heart fluttered as she answered with the truth. "Yes."
  1777. "Alright then."
  1779. "I'm not joking, Seth."
  1781. "Then let's hope by the time you return to Commander Octavia my kill sheet is long enough he considers a stay of my execution, services rendered to the crown and all that."
  1783. "And you shouldn't joke about such things either!" Keiko raised her voice and drove the point home with narrowed eyes.  He didn't want to believe it was some form of caring he saw in them. He nodded.
  1785. "Ok, lady Keiko. I'm sorry."
  1787. "Goodnight Seth," she whispered, leaving him to silently process the fact that the future queen of his nation had wished him goodnight.
  1789. "And to you, my lady." She turned away from him to rest on her back, but his hand remained firmly clasped in hers.
  1791. \-----
  1793. "Mr Spot? Mr. Spot?" A tiny hand jostled the young wild dog awake and he opened his eyes to see Eina's two children looking at him, along with lady Keiko's personal handmaiden, a gazelle by the name of Lyria.
  1795. "Hey, you doing alright, Jace?" Spot asked, righting himself on the medbay cot and looking around. The bed behind him was cloaked by mobile drapery and he could hear the steady beeping of a heartrate monitor. Doctor Oswald was sleeping in the bed across the way, still clad in the vestments of his profession.
  1797. "Can I see my mommy?" Jace asked. "The bird doctor said she needs to sleep but I want to make sure she's ok." Spot looked at Lyria and little Keiko. The young cheetah girl remained silent but he could see she was just as eager as her brother.
  1799. "Lyria?" Spot asked. She shook her head.
  1801. "I only arrived after the doctor finished his treatment this morning. I wasn't expecting to find these two dears."
  1803. Spot heaved a sigh but caved to his own curiosity. He looked at Jace. "No matter what you see, Jace, listen to the beeping, alright? Hear how steady it is? That means your mom is doing ok."
  1805. "Uh, alright. Can I see her?" The young cheetah asked again.
  1807. "Yeah, come here kid," Spot acquiesced, picking the cheetah up and taking his sister by the hand. They walked slowly around his bed and stood for a moment before Eina's bed.  Lyria slowly pulled the covers back.
  1809. "Mom!" Keiko shouted. Jace began crying immediately. Spot closed his eyes and shook his head, holding the two children to his body as tightly as he could. He could barely make out Eina's form under the tubes, metal, and bandages. Her chest had been covered with an antiseptic dressing, necessitated by the surgical removal of her implants. Multiple narrow tubes had been inserted into her chest and abdomen, and multiple IVs, including an azure drip, were hooked up to her arms. A mask of some sort covered her face and a breathing tube had been inserted via her mouth as a precaution while Oswald took a much needed nap.
  1811. "Lyria, I think you should take them away now. Jace, Keiko, I want you to listen to me," Spot requested softly. "I've seen men in far worse shape than your mother make full recoveries. Some even got shiny new limbs. Oswald is the best doctor I know."
  1813. "But what if the bad men come for her again?" Jace sobbed, rubbing his eyes. "Is mommy going to be ok?"
  1815. "You remember the big, strong lion from last night?" Spot asked. Jace nodded and wiped his nose on Spot's shoulder. "He and I are going to go do something about them. The two of you are going to stay right here in the palace. They'll never touch you or your mother again. For now go with Lyria, she cares for the princess. The moment your mom wakes up she'll bring you to her," he promised with an imploring look. The gazelle went misty eyed at the mention of Keiko.
  1817. "Is it true, Spot? This woman saw lady Keiko?" The gazelle asked, her voice thick with emotion.
  1819. "Yes, and she confirmed to the captain that she's alive and unharmed, something about a certain code phrase. I guess they can modify it if she's in trouble. I don't know what she's getting mixed up in out there, but she claims to be ok."
  1821. "Oh that girl...always had a rebellious streak, but this?!" Lyria's rant was interrupted by another sniffle from Jace. "Oh look at me. I should be thanking humanity that her majesty is alive."
  1823. "The captain said Lady Keiko wants them to tend to the plants?" Spot said, trying to remember everything though the haze of hatred in his head.
  1825. "Yes, a couple of adorable street children watering the solar? That does sound like Lady Keiko. Very well, Jace and Keiko please come with me."
  1827. "Soon as she's awake. Be brave," Spot promised, petting Jace's head and setting the cheetah cub down. Lyria took the children by the hand and let them out of the infirmary, casting a final glance at the Sekhama as the door slid shut.
  1829. "Now this is one of the most important jobs in all the palace," she assured them. "You'll earn your places here in no time, my dears."
  1831. Spot watched them go, waiting until the doors closed to bring a hand to his eyes. He looked to the ceiling and felt the tears coming, tears and rage. He could hear Oswald walking up behind him as he turned and rested his hands on the railing of Eina's cot, supporting his lean and muscled frame. "You should still be asleep old man. Thank you...thank you."
  1833. "She's not out of the woods yet, pup," the avian lamented, checking his instruments and readouts on the personal computer attached to his wrist.
  1835. "How long would she have lived?" Spot asked.
  1837. "Your tone makes it clear you don't want to know."
  1839. "I don't, Oz. But I need to. I need to know the monster I'm going to fight."
  1841. "You know what she is, don't you, Spot?"
  1843. "I don't care that she's a whore! I'm street trash too! Shut up and tell me, Oz!" Spot yelped, shaking his head violently as he looked at all the plastic and metal surrounding her body.
  1845. "As you wish, Sekhama," Oswald agreed, making clear what he thought of Spot's self-characterization. "The implants in her breasts were full of immunosuppressors. I doubt she had any idea. Without them she'd already be dead. Even with them she wouldn't have survived the month. The azure is brute forcing her native genome as we speak. Hopefully it will render her malleable enough to accept the human tissue they implanted into her. If she recovers…"
  1847. "When she recovers!" Spot insisted. Oz didn't humor him.
  1849. "If she recovers, I'm not sure exactly what she will be...something between faunum and human. I daresay those corporate vultures would pay millions of credits for this kind of specimen. Even here she will need to be defended."
  1851. "Is there anything I can do?" Spot asked defiantly, trying to ignore the images Oz had conjured in his mind. His hands were shaking on the rail of the gurney.
  1853. "Kill them, young man. Kill them all dead and come back alive."
  1856.                                                                    ~Chapter 9~
  1858. Keiko softly rose from her slumber into the waking world thanks to the natural mimicry of the shrine. The sunrise and bird calls were delightful to her resting senses. She was facing the ceiling and both of her hands were free of Seth's hold. The mercenary was found on his side as she turned his way, his back towards her. It was an unprecedented moment of vulnerability on his part.
  1860. "My first night with a man," Keiko whispered with a hint of self reproach, unafraid of the slightly warm feeling developing in her chest as she watched his resting body.
  1862. "And much to my distress you're still fully clothed," came Seth's sleep shrouded voice. She growled at him.
  1864. "Do you ever stop?"
  1866. "On occasion, my lady," he replied, rolling over to face her and removing the comforter from his body. She was surprised to see him looking at her seriously. "Are you well? Were there nightmares?"
  1868. "I...there may have been. I don't recall," she replied after a moment of contemplation. She was looking at his stubble. "I'm fine, Seth."
  1870. "My lady is sure?"
  1872. "I am. You have morning breath," she informed him with a cute smile. Seth breathed out through his nose, pushing himself upright and inclining his head in apology.
  1874. "I apologise for assaulting you with my commoners' breath," he joked, back to his usual self now that he'd confirmed Keiko was past the worst of the immediate aftermath. Her eyes followed him while drinking in his form, clad in a basic pair of boxer briefs and an undershirt.
  1876. "You've already done far worse, mercenary. You held my hand," Keiko accused, narrowing her eyes playfully.
  1878. "I would do so again in a heartbeat, especially if you prove capable of such exquisite murder. Now don't give me that look, my lady. Your visage was much more appealing when you were taking your time with the...male form." Seth threw her a final smirk before retreating to the shower, leaving Keiko gaping after him.
  1880. "That human is just-" her inevitable disparagement was halted as a small indicator appeared on her lens. She had a message...from Seth's program. Opening it, she saw that the missive was intended for Seth, though she'd received a copy thanks to how she'd acquired the application. Unable and unwilling to respect Seth's privacy, she opened it immediately.
  1882. <Seth, Alex was great, as always. That cat really knows how to work a girl's ass. I almost passed out when he came. Speaking of ass, that piece of ass that was sitting in your lap seems to have the golden touch...or the golden gun. Too sensitive to discuss over the net. I'm coming over now. I know it's late but don't eat breakfast. Kisses. -Sybela>
  1884. Upon his return, Seth found Keiko sitting upright in shock, the telltale look of someone staring at their lens on her face. He checked his quickly as a look of exasperation came over him. "Ah, I see. You have my sincerest apologies, lady Keiko. As you can tell Sybela doesn't turn it off...ever," he lamented.
  1886. "Does she always inform you of her escapades?" Keiko asked, sneaking a final glance as Seth threw on his pants. He didn't turn back to her.
  1888. "Ever since I failed to satisfy her. It's something of a game to her at this point, I believe," he replied roughly. Keiko's ears wilted. He turned back and their eyes met. Anger bubbled in his chest. "Spare me your pity, my lady. I'm the last of a proud race, or so you say. Though I should have expected such discussions would only intrigue you. What is it? Snuck into the harem a few times too many?"
  1890. Keiko glared right back. "And saw things you'd never believe, mercenary...but I'm sorry. Whatever happened to Sybela, that's not fair to you."
  1892. "And that is the absolute last thing I need, the princess of Alhamkara inserting herself into team dynamics," he insisted hotly, only to have her snap right back at him.
  1894. "Fine, I get it! Just keep on killing people and wilting like a flower every time that size queen of a rabbit gets reamed! What kind of human are you?! How am I supposed to help you kill those bastards if you shut me down over something as stupid as what I assume is a one night stand? Agh, why do I even care about you and her?!" Keiko shouted, more at herself than him. Seth watched her intently as she left to take her turn in the bathroom, his eyes wide with surprise.
  1896. "It seems Alhamkara's pride and joy, on the other hand, is no wilting flower," he remarked once he was alone. Behind the wall Keiko had her head in her hands, groaning in embarrassment.
  1898. "What am I doing?!" She wondered, not quite willing to admit that even her verbal sparring matches with Seth were getting her heart beating. That didn't change the fact that the rabbit in question was coming for breakfast. "Guess I'd better get ready for that woman."
  1900. Keiko took time to recentered herself, washing her face and ensuring that her fur hadn't matted during the night. When she was satisfied with her appearance she pulled her nightgown over her head, turning her naked body slowly in front of the mirror and slightly adjusting her various piercings. "I wonder if Seth has a camera in here," she murmured, feeling her hips cock and her chest push outward at the thought of intimidating him yet again with her bare body. She delighted in the momentary fantasy of a lady of the harem, the eyes of powerful and famous men enraptured by her form. It was hard to believe that for all his competence Seth might be a disappointment in the bedroom, but after reflecting on the last couple of days Keiko admitted it was a possibility. Everyone had something to hide. "Ugh, look at me. So eager to be away from that stuffy palace that I'm contemplating the love life of that wolf. Pull yourself together, Keiko. This is all about the mnyama."
  1902. After quickly cleaning her teeth Keiko smiled for the mirror, happy to find that Seth had splurged a bit and purchased a model that had low intensity UV tech installed. She knew she was being a tad vain, but even in front of a mercenary like Seth she wanted to ensure her breath was fresh and her teeth were presentable. After all, unlike his they featured quite prominently in her mouth.  That and she absolutely intended to give no ground to that rabbit. Talented as she undoubtedly was, she'd done nothing but doubt Seth and her. The human, on the other hand, had shown her trust and an extraordinary amount of openness given the situation. Despite his anger, he'd stayed with her the night before and helped her execute her impromptu plan to rescue Savannah and get Octavia a message. For that morning, at least, Keiko knew whose side she was on. After dressing herself, taking another calming breath, and standing straight, she turned and headed for the main room. She was surprised to find Seth standing there, waiting for her with a conservative posture.
  1904. "I owe you an apology, my lady," he said, meeting her eyes bravely.
  1906. "Seth?"
  1908. "I allowed a bad personal memory to cloud my judgment. Integrating you into my team is exactly what I desire, and something I hope you will accept. Sybela might be hardest and I wish you could meet Talon or Argos first, but they…"
  1910. "We'll explain together when the time comes. And for what it's worth, Seth, I'm sorry too," Keiko replied, unwilling to remain mad after his sincere apology.
  1912. "My lady? You've done nothing wrong," he insisted. Keiko worried her hands together and adopted a modest tone. Something had been bothering her since the night before, other than murder.
  1914. "I called you a human fetishist when you first took me here. That couldn't be further from the truth. I don't understand your relationship to your own people, or what's left of them, but this shrine is delightful now that I've had the time to appreciate it a bit. And after seeing what Savannah did to herself...I know where the real evil lies when it comes to exploiting the image of the human divine," she finished on a hard note. Seth nodded.
  1916. "I maintain you owe me less than nothing, lady Keiko, but I humbly accept your apology. Shall we have tea while we await breakfast?" He suggested. She smiled.
  1918. "That sounds nice, actually. Would you like some help?" Her question seemed to catch Seth off guard, but he nodded with a slight smirk.
  1920. "I could use some company while watching the water boil; dreadfully boring that is."
  1922. \-----
  1924. When Sybela opened the door to the shrine, bag full of breakfast swaying from her paw, she found the two of them sitting cross legged and blissfully sipping green tea at Seth's small table. They looked like a couple. Her mouth felt dry.
  1926. "Should I come back later?" She asked sarcastically, prompting Seth to turn to face her. The wild dog with the wild eyes was already staring her down. "What the fuck happened to your face, Seth?"
  1928. "I happened to his face, something he very much deserved in the moment. And after last night I think you've done plenty of running away...and 'cumming'. Seth and I could use some breakfast. Sit down already." Keiko fired the first shot, watching as Sybela's large ears twitched indignantly. Eventually the rabbit smiled. The look on the princess' face told her she knew it was forced. "I got your message, Sybela. I'm glad that jaguar didn't turn you inside out. Seemed a nice enough fellow I suppose."
  1930. The albino rabbit's pale ears developed a distinctive flush as she sat down at the head of the table, presenting her peace offering to Seth. "Should have known better than trying to verbally spar with the princess of Alhamkara. And I guess we'll just ignore the fact that she's reading your mail, monkey. You hungry?" She asked, withdrawing all manner of containers from the bag.
  1932. "Oh American! It's been so long!" Keiko exclaimed, laying eyes on scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, bacon, and pancakes with small containers of artificial syrup.
  1934. "Seth, what's she talking about?" Sybela asked in confusion, glancing at the human.
  1936. "You should do your homework, Sybela. It's the country and people that apparently pioneered the concept of the hearty breakfast. While not particularly complex, the cuisine seems to have eventually gained popularity among even the culture of those who developed this planet, if only as a curiosity. Thanks, by the way."
  1938. "Don't mention it," Sybela replied, leaving discussion of the finer points of humanity to the human himself and the seemingly knowledgeable princess. All that mattered to Sybela was the fact that he'd saved her ass that one night. "I uh…should probably apologize."
  1940. "Oh? You, apologize? Do tell," Seth requested eagerly, a glance at Keiko confirming that apologizing was not something the lagomorph did often.
  1942. "Cram it, you furless oddball. Princess, how'd you know that girl was wrapped up with the Oro's genetic experiments?" Sybela asked curiously. Keiko's ears stood on end, a bit of pancake hanging from her fork inches from her mouth.
  1944. "I'm sorry, what?"
  1946. "That woman, the one you 'saved' last night. The cheetah girl. How'd you know?" Sybela tried again.
  1948. "What was I supposed to know?" Keiko queried earnestly with a tilt of the head, causing the jackrabbit to throw her head back in exasperation.
  1950. "Seriously?! Seth, she's luckier than my foot, maybe both feet!" Sybela exclaimed.
  1952. The mercenary finally spoke, having dug right into the meal. He'd already devoured a sausage and a couple of eggs. He pointed his fork at her. "Stop with your roundabout nonsense and tell us, Sybela. You know you're here to synthesize all the crazy shit out there on the net, not make riddles about it."
  1954. "Ooh, grown some balls now that the princess has shared your bed?" Sybela teased.
  1956. Seth was about to turn away but Keiko's foot touched his leg under the table, she smiled at him. "He's surprisingly proven to be quite the gentleman, with a gentle touch. I also didn't see you killing any mnyama scum last night, Sybela."
  1958. "Not my job," the rabbit deflected.
  1960. "Then stop beating around the bush and do yours!" Keiko snapped, brandishing another plastic fork full of eggs at her. "I won't presume to know what happened between you and Seth, but right now I care much more about breakfast and whatever is going on with the Oro than I am with your inability to be satisfied by anything other than an oversized, barbed cock knocking your organs about."
  1962. "Don't you have servants or something to tell you not to speak like a commoner?" Sybela barely managed to reply. Keiko pressed on for the kill.
  1964. "I find it liberating. Not to mention the victory of having my counterpart change the subject. Don't presume to know what being a princess of Alhamkara really means, Sybela," she finished, taking a large bite of sausage and throwing the rabbit a wink. Her stomach was positively buzzing with excitement and embarrassment at engaging in such lewd banter. Sybela shook her head in resignation.
  1966. "Fine, I concede. Let's just eat, yeah? I'll fill you all in fully after we're done. Seth...we may need to bring Talon and Argos up to speed. I think Octavia is going to move on this one," Sybela warned, spreading jam on toast and taking a bite.  Seth nodded but said nothing, clearly thinking through scenarios behind his distracted eyes. Keiko's mind wandered as well, worried for the Sekhama if they went hot into hostile territory.
  1968. \-----
  1970. "So based on the logs from Talon, that girl made it to the palace with her kids just around midnight. He spotted Octavia about five minutes later and ended the mission. Now watch this," Sybela instructed, directing their attention to a holographic projector that she'd paired to the various electronic devices embedded in her skin. After a couple of touches against the slim panel in her left wrist, a stylized model of the local Alhamkara network appeared. She pointed to a highlighted cluster surrounded by thick barriers.
  1972. "This here is your home, princess. What I'm showing you now is normal traffic, before that girl made it inside. And yes, the palace is subject to that level of cyber attack on a regular basis. Whatever else you want to say about the Sekhama's net techs, they play damn good defense. See there? Ooh, that was a good one. Anyone on the other side of that hack just got a face full of terminal shrapnel!"
  1974. "Sybela!" Seth cut in, motioning that she return to the subject at hand. Keiko looked uncertain at the rabbit's description of certain palace countermeasures. "I assure you, my lady, anyone attempting that sort of breach deserves a bit of facial reconstruction."
  1976. "What he said," Sybela agreed, much more friendly with Seth now that they were discussing an operation. "I'm going to roll it forward now. Check this out." As Sybela guided the display they watched as a sudden explosion of traffic emanated from the palace. "Let's overlay the capital, shall we?" Sybela sang happily, projecting a three dimensional model of the city atop the network map.
  1978. "Oh, Talon is going to love this one," Seth mused, seeing that the vast majority of outgoing traffic was terminating in a cluster of buildings in a slum adjacent to the corporate district. The rest of the attacks targeted one of the nearby skyscrapers. "Those lines of sight will be juicy."
  1980. "Juicy?!" Keiko demanded as Sybela laughed.
  1982. "Juicy as in if any mnyama are on those rooftops their heads are going to be split open like ripe melons," the rabbit clarified, enjoying the disgusted look on Keiko's face. Nevertheless the princess injected herself into the discussion.
  1984. "How many people can see this, Sybela? Do the Oro know?" She pressed.
  1986. "Doubtful. The net is highly fragmented; every corporation and mnyama has their own little pocket in addition to the public infrastructure. It took me and Seth...how long would you say?" She asked, looking at the human.
  1988. "Six months at least," he supplied.
  1990. "Yeah, six months plus to install spikes at enough physical access terminals to assemble this map. Only the Sekhama, the military, and the Wildfire have the kind of resources to maintain full access like this. We had to do it on the cheap and I doubt our spikes will last more than a year or so," Sybela explained. It set Keiko at ease to know the Oro probably didn't know they were being targeted, but the idea of the Wildfire having capabilities on par with the Sekhama was most disconcerting.
  1992. "Do you know what that traffic is?" Keiko asked. Sybela shook her head.
  1994. "No. If I burrowed in there I'd probably get a face full of slag too. You ever meet one of their net assassins in person? They're probably more machine than faunum and they can fuck you up six ways to Sunday if you've got any tech they feel like exploiting...and they can get into just about everything." Sybela shuddered as Keiko recalled Idris introducing her to a particular meerkat back when she turned sixteen and began learning about the darker side of the palace's efforts to combat the vile underbelly of the capital. The sheer amount of metal and plastic in his body was the stuff of nightmares. The Commander had explained the authorization for the modifications had taken years.
  1996. "But I don't think we really need to get inside to know where Octavia is going to strike," Sybela continued. "There's two targets, this Oro base and the Psygenics Ltd offices. My guess is if the raid comes up with any dirt at all you'll see them frog marching those suits out of their glass tower the next day. Oh, I can't wait to watch the vids, maybe see if Alex wants to play…"
  1998. "If the Oro do end up destroyed I think Seth and I might go out for dinner, maybe a movie?" Keiko replied easily, loving the shocked looks on the faces of the two mercenaries. "What? I've never gotten to go to a normal theater."
  2000. "I just can't win around her," Sybela lamented, seeing the honest smile on Seth's lips. "Anyway, Seth this traffic died before sunrise. The Sekhama got what they need quickly, probably blueprints, access points, and the like. I've been monitoring the news but there's been no press conferences or royal declarations or anything. I think they're going to risk it."
  2002. "Seth!" Keiko implored immediately. He placed a hand comfortingly over hers where it rested on the table.
  2004. "We will do everything in our power to ensure your captain is successful, my lady. We may not see eye to eye on many things, but we share the same goal."
  2006. "The enemy of my enemy," Keiko whispered. Seth nodded.
  2008. "How the hell are you going to break this to Argos and Talon, Seth?" Sybela asked pointedly. "They may not even agree to this."
  2010. "Fear not, Sybela. I can assure you they will."
  2012. \-----
  2014. After breakfast had been consumed and enjoyed, complete with Sybela ribbing Seth about the other tied off takeout bags next to the door, the three of them gathered around Seth's terminal as he pinged both Talon and Argos. The tiger's gruff voice was the first to reply.
  2016. "I don't like being kept in the dark, Seth. What's going on? We finally getting together?"
  2018. The human gave Keiko an apologetic look. "A couple of complications with the princess, nothing more. We'll hit up the Sakura soon enough, but I have another job. This one I think you'll both be interested in."
  2020. "Another job? Seth, what the hell was last night all about?" Talon squawked as he joined the call. "I know you're money good, man, but seeing some slut and her kids to the palace? The fuck is with you?"
  2022. Sybela had to slap a hand over Keiko's mouth as the wild dog made ready to verbally bite Talon's head off. It was Argos who spoke instead.
  2024. "What happened last night, Seth? This isn't like you," Argos insisted in a worried tone. "We've been working together for months, man. Does Sybela know about this?"
  2026. "I know," Seth countered patiently. "The abduction of the princess has presented me-"
  2028. "He means us, by the way," Sybela cut in sharply. "How you boys doing?"
  2030. "Heya buns! Didn't know you and Seth were back together," Talon called. Keiko thought the mercenary seemed almost put out by the news.
  2032. "We're not back together, you birdbrain! I'm here because Seth is telling the truth. This is a big op, easy job. And the employer...let's just say she's money good too."
  2034. "She?" Argos demanded thoughtfully. "Seth, are we working corporate now?"
  2036. "Something like that," Seth replied.
  2038. "Dude this is bullshit. Give us the details or I'm out!" Talon insisted.
  2040. "We're going to aid the Sekhama in killing the entirety of the Oro," Seth snarled. "How's that for details?"
  2042. "Seth...what the hell did you get yourself mixed up in? And what about the princess? She's still there with you, right?" Argos eventually asked after a long moment of silence on the channel.
  2044. "She's accepted her place, Argos," Seth replied without remorse. "There won't be any issues during the op. As for the job, let's just say our little heist garnered the attention of an idealistic individual with very deep pockets and a...favorable moral compass."
  2046. "So what, we're going to kill the people that pay us?" Talon squawked. "Am I the only one who thinks that's insane? Am I insane, Argos?" The tiger gave a disbelieving chuckle.
  2048. "You are, but that's not the point. We get paid enough we won't have to work for the mnyama anymore."
  2050. "Fuck you man, I thought you were on my side!"
  2052. "And you know how I feel about the Sekhama," Argos growled. "Seth, I'm in but no more games, no more secrets. We pull this off and we meet with this employer to take payment, all four of us. Then we go drinking, all four of us."
  2054. "You got it, big guy," Seth agreed, shooting Keiko a satisfied look. "Talon, you in?"
  2056. "Yeah yeah, I'll be ready. I'm clearly outnumbered here. When do we move?"
  2058. "Before dusk. I'll send you the details. Sybela and I are working them out now, monitoring traffic. Be ready to deploy on a moment's notice," Seth advised. Talon and Argos signaled their affirmation and ended the call, leaving the three of them to plan the next move.
  2060. "I know my place?" Keiko demanded angrily, cuffing Seth on the back of the head. Sybela copied her and gave the princess a wink.
  2062. "Yes I suppose that's only fair," Seth admitted, swatting at Sybela who jumped out of his reach. "I couldn't tell them over comms. They need to see for themselves. At a minimum there will have to be some apologies on my part. I hope you'll be willing to come with us."
  2064. "On the op?" Keiko gasped. Sybela laughed and unceremoniously rested a hand on her shoulder.
  2066. "No, he means to go drinking after, bit of a tradition we developed. Besides, doesn't matter how flashy you are, you don't have armor or combat training. Leave this one to the professionals, princess."
  2068. Keiko was torn between offended anger and begrudging acceptance that she didn't belong on a battlefield. Nevertheless, Seth stepped in to defend her.
  2070. "She was more professional than you are in terms of assassination, Sybela. Still don't understand why you took that job to off some Trang'aul all on your own."
  2072. "Oh would you shut up about that? You got yourself a net jock out of it!" The rabbit protested.
  2074. "He might if you stop bringing up your one night stand," Keiko suggested, watching as the two mercenaries looked away from one another. "My word, I've seen little children more mature than the two of you!"
  2076. "None of your business, <your majesty,>" Sybela shot back. Seth just closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He pushed the conversation forward.
  2078. "Sybela, are you going to remain here or head back to the den?"
  2080. "I'll be there, I've got everything set up already. Just need to tell it to start looking for anything Oro related, as well as the usual Sekhama stuff. Damn hard to pin down Octavia, but I'll let you know. Princess, it's been a pleasure," Sybela said with some amount of sincerity before gathering her things and leaving.
  2082. "She even left us the garbage," Keiko muttered after the door closed. Seth moved to stand beside her.
  2084. "It's a good thing she's one of the best net technicians I've ever seen. Makes tolerating her much easier," he admitted.
  2086. "Still don't want to talk about it?" Keiko asked, glancing his way.
  2088. "Would you want to discuss your sexual failings with a princess, my lady?"
  2090. "At least you've had a sexual anything," Keiko retorted, eliciting a bout of coughing from the human. "But enough about that. You're really going to help Commander Octavia? How?"
  2092. "Finally, a subject of conversation that won't have anyone's undergarments twisted into knots. Shall we? Perhaps this can be a teaching moment." Seth gestured to the table and they seated themselves anew.
  2094. "What do you plan on teaching me?" Keiko asked, allowing her curiosity to show through.
  2096. "A bit about how someone like me thinks about a job, decides where or when to act. And if my lady is feeling generous I hoped you might give me some insight into how the Sekhama-"
  2098. "I'm sorry Seth, I can't do that. I won't do that," Keiko clarified abruptly. Seth seemed unperturbed. He waved it off casually.
  2100. "I had expected as much, my lady. Please, there's no reason to be looking like that."
  2102. "I hate how much I want to trust you, Seth," Keiko lamented, finding a pair of sympathetic brown eyes looking back at her.
  2104. "It would be easier, wouldn't it?" He agreed. "You feel as though you're among people who are on your side and we get deeply privileged intelligence on the Sekhama."
  2106. "You don't need to use that tone, Seth. I understand just how ridiculous that sounds," Keiko replied. They both smiled thinly at one another.
  2108. "And so you chose the hard path, as a just ruler must. It matters not, my lady. I will ensure my team is in place before dark. Perhaps you can tell us a story while we wait?"
  2110. "Talon and Argos?"
  2112. "I suppose they can do without the story...or you can use this," Seth said with a wink, using his own lens to direct her around their team's little program. A handful of options could be found below the icon that allowed to communicate with the whole team. "You would have to be near my terminal, of course, which I will leave open and partially accessible to you, my lady. That icon you see there will garble your voice. We use it whenever we are in an area of significant hostile network traffic or when we have reason to believe someone is listening on the other side. It is entirely up to you, but I'm never above playing a practical joke on my teammates."
  2114. "I'll think about it, Seth," Keiko promised before returning them to the subject at hand. "Will you teach me a bit about what's going to happen tonight?"
  2116. "Yes, of course. Pardon the distraction, lady Keiko." Seth stood and walked over to his armor, rummaging around until he located a holodisc just like Sybela's. He returned and set it on the table before them, taking a moment to drink Keiko in.
  2118. "Seth?" Her voice was more curious than anything else. She sounded so pleasant to him in that moment.
  2120. "Would a bit of nature be to your liking?"
  2122. "I...yes, that sounds nice," she confirmed. At her affirmation Seth fiddled with his lens for a moment and the sounds of the midday savannah surrounded them.
  2124. "I have it set to only activate in the morning and evening. It helps with sleep, I find, but should you ever wish it just let me know," he offered. Keiko found herself able to relax a bit, leaning forward on the table and extending her legs.
  2126. "Shall we talk, Seth?"
  2128. "Let's talk, my lady," Seth agreed, activating his holo and showing her a map of the capital and the surrounding environs. After a few moments of searching he highlighted the palace, a fortified military airfield outside the city limits, the Oro's den, and Psygenics' main office. "That should just about do it. Now then, my lady, given that we know Savannah survived, spoke with Octavia, and delivered your message, what do you believe he's likely to do?"
  2130. "I told him to act at his discretion, which means he'll do whatever he can to make a raid happen…but…" Keiko trailed off.
  2132. "Yes, my lady?"
  2134. "How dangerous is this area?" Keiko asked, pointing to the neighborhood that bordered the corporate district. "Idris won't send them into a death trap."
  2136. "No, history says he won't...unless the opportunity justifies the risk," Seth clarified.
  2138. "What do you mean?"
  2140. "Let's check the news, shall we?" Seth suggested, extending his terminal on a metal arm that allowed it to turn and face the table. After a few adjustments he had three separate news broadcasts up, including the palace's, as well as a quadrant of the screen where he threw in a few search terms. "Oh yes, my lady, I believe your Sekhama think they've got a big one on their hands."
  2142. "How do you know that?" Keiko demanded, not enjoying how this mercenary seemed to know more about the Sekhama than she did.
  2144. "Let's review, shall we? We know thanks to Sybela that the Sekhama infiltrated both Psygenics and the Oro last night. Those taps are not ongoing. We know that, reasonably, your Commander Octavia does not lead stupid raids just to bring back a bunch of mnyama pelts. They're will always be more mnyama than Sekhama."
  2146. "But the Trang'aul was different, right?"
  2148. "Correct, lady Keiko. All of Alhamkara watched that particular drama unfold. No one, not even the Wildfire would have interfered. Can you imagine the outage if they had? Trying to stop the Sekhama from retrieving you from the clutches of those dastardly hyenas? The commoners would have opened their homes to the military itself if it meant the Wildfire's destruction."
  2150. "Perception is everything," she whispered.
  2152. "Precisely, my lady. Today, however, there have been no announcements from the Sekhama. The palace has said nothing other than that the search for you is ongoing. They aren't even announcing that Octavia knows you're alive. For now that appears wise to me, keeps the enemy on edge. After a week or two they will be forced to reveal something as the populace wonders if the Sekhama are impotent."
  2154. "I suppose I can understand that," Keiko agreed. "Honestly, Seth, would people be that upset?"
  2156. The human gave her an appraising look. "You wish an unvarnished evaluation of yourself?"
  2158. "Of course!" She yelped. "My handmaidens only ever say what they think I want to hear, Lyria exempted. As dear as she is to me, she only understands a palace perspective. Now tell me!"
  2160. "Many people in this city would die for you, lady Keiko," Seth told her seriously. "And before you protest, allow me to finish. You've been a public face since you became a woman. You struck out often into your city, if under heavy guard. It's understandable. Many would do you harm and it only takes one to succeed. You advocate tirelessly for the Sekhama, who enjoy a sterling reputation compared to both the police and the military, and you are the reason we can drink the water from our taps again. Every roof, even in the foulest slum, has a durable, easily maintained solar powered purifier thanks to your insistence that funding be diverted from the restoration of various human monuments throughout the nation. For every well to do fanatic you angered, hundreds praise your name for making those blueprints free. Sybela's old corporation even helped install some of them as part of a charity outreach."
  2162. "Wait, Sybela used to be corporate?" Keiko asked, her ears already jingling happily as Seth told her of the success of her first real initiative as heir to the throne.
  2164. "Yes, and on the way to the top. She was undercut and betrayed. More is not for me to say," Seth said, scratching his chin. "She may be an annoyance, but she values loyalty above all else."
  2166. "Alex?" Keiko cocked her brow skeptically. Seth looked remorsefully at the wall.
  2168. "So long as her credits are good Alex will always be there and willing to serve her as she requests. He won't get killed in a gang war, he won't meet a mercenary's end, their relationship isn't subject to the thorny intricacies of the heart. He is exactly what she wants."
  2170. "And what is it that you want?" Keiko whispered, suddenly yearning to know. His facial expression hardened until it resembled his mask.
  2172. "I told you, death and vengeance."
  2174. "What does your heart want?" Keiko pressed, narrowing her sunburst eyes at him. "You'll never survive this if you don't want anything afterwards!"
  2176. "As I said yesterday, survival isn't-" Seth was cut off as Keiko slammed her fist on the table.
  2178. "Shut up! You think Markhan will fall to someone like you?" Keiko yelled. "Why do you think I tried so hard to get the Sekhama access to the harem? I don't care if your answer is something depraved or lacking in sensibility. If I'm going to work with you I need to know that you have the will to not leave me locked up in here and die!" Seth only spoke after a long, stunned silence as the hologram flickered between them.
  2180. "We were just speaking about tonight's-"
  2182. "Well I'm not! I'm going to be queen of Alhamkara, Seth. Unlike you, apparently, I plan to survive this war you want to fight. I have to think of the long game. Everything you can tell me here today is valuable, but it means nothing if you die and I lose my sword."
  2184. "Your sword?" Seth asked, honestly unsure how to reply to the princess's insistence that he was now her instrument. <I suppose this is what they refer to as the tables turning.>
  2186. "Am I wrong, mercenary?" She accused, placing both hands on the table. "An idealistic woman with deep pockets and a flexible moral compass, I believe you said?" He smiled wickedly.
  2188. "Indeed. Woe to your enemies the day you ascend to power, my lady."
  2190. "I already have power according to you, Seth. You are not leaving this room until you tell me something, anything, that will compel you to come back. I don't care what it is; it could even be-" Keiko brought a hand to her mouth as she realized where her rant was about to take her. Seth's eyes were wide as dinner plates as he finished for her in a panicked voice.
  2192. "No my lady, you cannot-"
  2194. "Me!" Keiko finished fiercely the moment he told her she couldn't. "Even if it's me. Even if barbaric, human lust for your princess is what gets you back then that's acceptable if you kill them all. Now continue to instruct me, Seth. We've gone on a bit of a tangent."
  2196. "I appear to be in far, far over my head," Seth admitted, looking over at his terminal screen to shield him from the gaze of the princess that he felt might shatter him. "As you wish, my lady. There doesn't appear to be any attempt by the palace to influence public opinion regarding the Oro or Psygenics. Given what we've already discussed why do you think that might be?"
  2198. Keiko tapped a finger against her lips for a long while before replying. "This isn't really even about the Oro, is it?"
  2200. "I'm inclined to agree, my lady. Even with advanced warning a mnyama can only do so much against an unobstructed Sekhama operation. However…" he led her, hoping she would understand his meaning.
  2202. "If Psygenics is working with them and they knew a raid was coming they could tie off loose ends!" She answered proudly. Seth smiled at his 'pupil'.
  2204. "And then there might be more Sybelas in this world," he concluded. "Yes, my lady, as it stands I believe if the Sekhama move at all they will do so without warning, secure whatever they can, and use it to make arrests of anyone involved from Psygenics. I had thought Savannah simply got some new breasts and removed her tail, maybe got unique lenses. It would appear the truth runs much deeper. Let's hope your medical staff is up to the task. As for us, let us discuss the Sekhama in a way that does not involve you revealing their secrets to me. If we are to aid them, we must anticipate their movements."
  2206. "The airfield? That's only one of many," Keiko asked, looking at the other glowing compound on the map.
  2208. "I doubt they'll risk walking. I admit my knowledge of the Sekhama's access to military assets is limited, my lady."
  2210. "And I have no intention of telling you, Seth, not until you and Octavia speak to one another."
  2212. Yet again Keiko managed to render him speechless for a long while. "The long game indeed, Lady Keiko. All I will say for now is that in all my time I've yet to properly pin down how, when, and where the Sekhama will move."
  2214. "Should we contact Sybela? See if she has any other insights?" Keiko asked, noticing it was already the early afternoon.
  2216. "In a moment. Come here?" Seth requested, indicating that she should sit next to him. Keiko did so warily.
  2218. "Already decided to cave to your basic male desires?" She teased. He shook his head.
  2220. "You are taking every advantage of your freedom, aren't you?"
  2222. "Yes, of course."
  2224. "I just want to see your lens, my lady. It's about time you were added to this program properly. If only so you need not read about Sybela's exploits," he explained. Keiko granted access and watched as he made the appropriate changes to add a fifth member.
  2226. "You really think that bugs me, Seth? I'd say it gets to you far more than me."
  2228. "It is not talk fit for a princess," he insisted, giving her status indicator the designation 'sunburst'. Keiko smiled and nodded to indicate she approved of the codename.
  2230. "Seth, a rabbit taking a jaguar in her ass is nothing. I've seen a woman take seven men at once in the harem. A couple of them were very well endowed species," Keiko informed him with no small air of superiority. "I love that stupid look you get when girls act like they have needs too. The harem is one of the crown's greatest assets. I just decided to educate myself a bit early."
  2232. "I didn't know the palace allowed their staff to be...used in such a way," he replied, trying hard not to think of such a depraved act in too much detail with Keiko being so close.
  2234. "Seth," she said with a devious smile.
  2236. "Yes, my lady?"
  2238. "She was the client."
  2242.                                                                 ~Chapter 10~
  2243. Chapter 10 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/txO3OB7
  2245. Seth and Keiko sat patiently through a tense, late lunch, constantly watching and waiting for Sybela or anyone else to indicate what was going on out in the capital. Keiko was about to request that Seth contact the rabbit when an alert reached them both.
  2247. <The boys are going to be real damn surprised when they update theirs. Welcome to the team I guess, sunburst ;). Anyway, I haven't seen anything all day. Seth, if we're going to move I think we need to move now, make sure we're in position before things get hot.>
  2249. "Well that settles it," Seth declared. He activated his lens and leaned closer to his terminal. "Argos, Talon, we're green. Sybela is sending you what she estimates are the best positions to observe and engage any anti-Sekhama activity. I'll be on-site soon. Seth out." Keiko could see his face was already an impassive mask, likely focusing on the things he'd need to do to ensure he was the animal who killed and lived that night. The human stood and casually threw off the baggier shirt and pants he'd been wearing so he could equip his armor. Keiko whined appreciatively, garnering his attention.
  2251. "If that was intentional, keep doing it, Seth. The sculptors don't really seem to have captured the glory of the human posterior in the flesh."
  2253. He fixed her with an inscrutable look. "I have already received a death sentence for holding your hand so I suppose going further is technically an option. Are you feeling pent up, lady Keiko?"
  2255. The wild dog held a hand dramatically over her heart as Seth strapped his greaves on and did up his boots before moving onto the armor of his torso. "That's not a question you ask a lady of quality, Seth."
  2257. "Forgive me, my lady," he replied, strapping a belt diagonally across his chest and tightening it against his armor. She saw it contained a couple of magicite heat sinks, a grenade, and other tools of his trade. "I was unaware ladies of quality lusted for the bodies of mercenaries."
  2259. "We lust for the bodies of the Sekhama, Seth," Keiko said unabashedly as he checked and holstered his pistol before moving on to his knife and sword. His movements were methodical, practiced, as though he'd been through this routine hundreds of times. "My handmaidens never cease their adoration of Idris and the others. Some have given themselves to Sekhama in the harem; no strings attached, just to indulge. Others have fallen in love," she said adoringly. "Hosting a single man in their chambers or in the harem again and again and again. I like those stories the most. They're always more intimate, more detailed…" Seth had finished arming himself during Keiko's reminiscence. He stood before her, armed and armored to the teeth save his mask.
  2261. "You're nothing like I imagined you, Keiko," he said, almost hungrily. His eyes were alive and danced against his stoic face. "You are so very wild, full of vigor."
  2263. "And you're nothing like I imagined you, Seth," she whispered, not moving an inch as he stepped towards her and then again. He was close, very close, close enough that she couldn't even bring her arms up between them. "Please help my people, help them destroy the cancer that's killing my city. And then come back." She watched as the corner of his lips hooked into the faintest of smiles.
  2265. "Yeah, I can do that," he replied softly but confidently, resting a hand on her shoulder. She cocked her head at him. "I'm already on death row, right?"
  2267. Keiko's heart leapt into her throat and strangled her reply. Who was this compelling man before her? He certainly wasn't the human who had folded over in Sybela's presence, who had spoken so disparagingly of himself as unworthy of his ancestry. No, the human standing before her was something else entirely, a confident killer. <My sword?> For a moment Keiko was willing to believe that she might be able to have one of those stories her handmaidens wove for her with such reverence. "I daresay you are, mercenary."
  2269. "Then it can't get any worse, can it?" He asked coyly, bringing his head lower and closer. She could feel his heat on her nose, could sense the light wind of his breathing.
  2271. "No…" Keiko whispered, wondering if he was really about to do what she thought he was going to do, what she desperately wanted to do.
  2273. "Then it's time to claim my reason," Seth purred, reaching up and cupping her cheek as he pressed his lips against hers. They were chapped and rugged, but the muscle underneath was soft and gentle. Keiko barely had time to gasp and respond with her own before he moved away, leaving her heart pounding and her muzzle tingling. "I think I like that look as well, Keiko."
  2275. "Seth," Keiko whispered, grabbing his armored hand. Their eyes searched one another. "Come back…the job isn't done yet."
  2277. The mercenary slowly lifted his mask to his face, fixing it in place and activating the program in their lenses. His terminal was already tuned to the correct, encrypted channels. She was going to witness their operation from the inside. He left her and opened the door, casting one final glance behind him as he departed. It was something he'd never done before on an op. Seeing Keiko standing gracefully, draped in cloth and gold within his shrine was more than worth it.
  2279. "I will."
  2281. \-----
  2283. "Hey hey, look what the Captain dragged in!" A veteran Sekhama called, pointing to Spot as the young wild dog entered the palace armory.
  2285. "Time to earn that badge, Spot!" Another called supportively, banging on his locker as the rest soon joined in, raising a cacophony of noise typical of a group of young men whose job it was to kill in the name of the crown. Spot replied to the attention with a brief wave, hustling to his locker to throw on his helmet and equip his sidearm. He'd already dressed himself in the rest of his urban combat gear, the ballistic and magicite resistant plating easily doubling his profile. The young Sekhama moved on to the rows of primary weapons and shields of various makes and sizes. He selected a non-elemental shotgun with a bayonet mount, receiving a handful of approving looks.
  2287. "Going big, Spot? Your shoulder's gonna be aching tomorrow!" Spot remained calm under his helmet, accepting of whatever his fellows decided to throw his way. It was all in fun, and if he survived he'd be on the other end the next time a greenhorn got his first sortie. He nodded to acknowledge them all before heading to the armory door.
  2289. "Woah buddy, you psyched yourself out?" An imposing water buffalo asked, reaching out to grab him by the shoulder. "Transports are that way, kid."
  2291. "There's something I need to do in the infirmary," Spot replied. "I won't miss the transport."
  2293. "See to it you don't, Spot, or Octavia's going to have your hide." With that he was allowed to leave, his brothers in arms watching as he went. The locker room banter continued unabated.
  2295. "Hey, isn't that whore in the infirmary, the one Oz is patching up? She's the only one, right?"
  2297. "What do you think? Spot's got a taste for the underbelly? Kinky shit, man. Heard she's got no tail."
  2299. "Didn't think he had it in him, kid might not be a total fish after all."
  2301. "He passed his sims, focus on yourself."
  2303. "Fuck you man, you know the sims ain't shit."
  2305. "Yeah, but if he's got some street pussy waiting for him…"
  2307. "She's full tubes you dipshit, not that that would stop you."
  2309. "Just cause I killed more Trang'aul than you did-"
  2311. "That only counts as one and you know it!"
  2313. "Bullshit!"
  2315. "Dude they shot each other, give it a rest."
  2317. "All of you best get your heads in the game. The Trang'aul were easy mode."
  2319. "Bro, the Oro ain't got shit on us."
  2321. "That assumes we get in there alive."
  2323. "Why the fuck are you such a downer?"
  2325. "Cause cynical assholes like me tend to make it back alive."
  2327. \-----
  2329. "Hey Eina," Spot called softly, lifting his visor as he approached her bed. He could see more of her now. The breathing tube had been removed, as well as the coverings over her face and chest. Most of the tubes remained however, as well as the azure IV. The beeping of her heart monitor was the only other sound in the infirmary. "I just wanted you to know that Jace and Keiko are doing well. The handmaidens can barely keep themselves under control trying to baby them. Keiko acts like she's used to it but Jace is constantly gaping at something... it's cute," Spot trailed off, finding it hard to keep looking at her unmoving form.
  2331. "I'm going tonight, on my first op. I'm going to kill the bastards that did this to you," he promised, reaching tentatively over the railing of the gurney and softly taking a couple of her fingers in his hand. He couldn't feel much through his gloves, they were limp. "I'm going to come back too so...wait for me, please?" Spot blinked rapidly and clenched his jaw, trying to keep himself under control as he laid her hand gently back on the bed. "Goodbye, Eina. Feel better, alright?" The young Sekhama turned away and headed back to the entrance, his boots falling heavily on the floor. He didn't notice as her head shifted slightly, blurry eyes opening just enough to make out a spotted tail as the doors to the infirmary slid shut.
  2333. "I thought I might find you here," Octavia called, the armored lion resting against the wall as Spot entered the hallway. He saluted his superior.
  2335. "I was just heading to the transports now, sir. I'm sorry, sir."
  2337. "No need, but it's time. Let's move," Octavia ordered, walking them both to the armory and grabbing himself a heavy shield before leading the way to the elevator that would take them deep underground, far away from the prying eyes of the networks of Alhamkara. They exited into a well maintained cavern full of mostly transport vehicles, though a few also sported various mounted weapons. Spot and Idris boarded the second of two wheeled transports that would be ferrying the Sekhama through the earthen underground tunnels to one of the military's airbases in the area.
  2339. When Spot was seated Idris rapped heavily on the door separating them from the transport pilots, signaling the all clear to move out. "I hope you boys all remembered to take a piss. It's more than an hour to the airfield and we aren't making any stops. Take your helmets off, get some rest. Tonight's going to be a big one."
  2341. \-----
  2343. "Let's see, so if I do this…" Keiko muttered to herself, playing around with both the program on her lens and Seth's terminal. He'd secured it well before leaving and she hadn't been able to poke around in anything private, but she had full access to much of the public, above ground network. The lights indicating the status of Seth's team remained three yellow and one green. Sybela was already in place wherever her 'den' was, while the men were moving into position around the Oro's main base of operations.
  2345. She eventually decided on network programming to pass the time, not wanting to distract anyone as they worked. It was easier than sitting alone in the silence and wondering if what she was doing was the right thing, if she really belonged there in that shrine instead of back home in the palace, wishing Idris and his men farewell and the blessings of humanity. She navigated first to the palace's public news program, where a well dressed tigress and rhinoceros were reporting on the aftermath of the Sekhama's raid on the Trang'aul. She watched the scrolling headlines at the bottom of the screen, unsurprised to see her own name there. <Lady Keiko's whereabouts remain unknown despite law enforcement's best efforts. Any citizen with information regarding her disappearance is urged to contact the police or the palace authorities via->
  2347. Keiko switched the channel, wondering what Idris would do with his information regarding her once his raid was concluded, assuming it even happened. She stopped on a regional local news network, one from outside the capital. A monsoon festival was being held in a town deep in the desert, a refuge for jerboas, springhares, hyraxes, and other smaller rodent species that tended to find the towering buildings and sprawling neighborhoods of the capital to be too large and stifling. Against a backdrop of dwellings carved into an enormous face of rock, lined with wires and lights, the populace celebrated the return of the rains. It brought a smile to Keiko's face, knowing that elsewhere things were still alright, at least on the surface.
  2349. A few more channels of pointless programming or advertisement landed Keiko on a cooking show, where an animated bat-eared fox was instructing viewers on how to create a stir fry of synth meat, vegetables, and noodles. Keiko sat back in Seth's chair and allowed herself to get absorbed in the program. It wasn't so much that she cared for synth meat, but the fox was entertaining to watch as she flitted around her kitchen, chopping and seasoning and sauteing with practiced ease.
  2351. Keiko learned many things in the palace, history and politics, humanity and the uplift of her planet, language and the arts, literature and science, horticulture and the entertainment of foreign dignitaries. She even learned more than a few things her parents wouldn't have approved of from Idris, the Matriarch, and her handmaidens. Cooking, however, was never something she'd had the time or need to pick up. Watching the host deftly wield her knife and wok was intriguing, and Keiko had every reason to believe the 'old ways', cooking without the aid of automated equipment, were responsible for both the food she'd grown up on in the palace and the simple pleasure that was the ramen she'd enjoyed with Seth the other day. Before she knew it an hour had passed and the walls of the shrine had changed to reflect the subtle orange hues of early evening. Talon's indicator switched to green.
  2353. "All set here. Thanks, buns! Think you can optimize a couple systems for them while you're at it? I'd like to keep my stellar reputation; these server floors always make perfect nests.  Nice and cool, good sight lines, low foot traffic. I suppose sometimes I need to take out a wall but no big deal, right? Woah hey, what's the deal with this? Who's the new guy? Sunburst? What kind of pansy ass code is that? Damnit Seth, I thought you were done with this secret shit," Talon's excitable voice came over the line.
  2355. "Would you shut up, bird brain," Sybela countered. "He and Argos are still moving. You talk too much, by the way."
  2357. "Wait, you're telling me you're not curious as to why the team of four is suddenly five?"
  2359. "No, because I already know. Now do you wanna shut up and let me help you maintain your cover story, Mr. network technician?"
  2361. "What?!" Talon squawked.
  2363. "Yes or no, chicken legs?!" Keiko couldn't help a fit of giggles as Talon groaned in frustration.
  2365. "Alright fine. This is fucking bullshit by the way. I'm in the Murukama industries building, server floor between fifty two and fifty three."
  2367. "Yeah I've got your trace, give me physical access, would you? I'm sure I can clean up a few drives or something," Sybela muttered, her voice changing to one of a rabbit deep in concentration as opposed to bantering.
  2369. "I should hope so. You're the one who knocked them out and got me 'hired' today."
  2371. "And if you would pipe down for two seconds I'd be done with this...there we go. Tell them on the way out you optimized their internal traffic hub. They should see an increase in network efficiency somewhere in the low single digits. Honestly you should learn this yourself, Talon, it's really not that hard," Sybela admonished. To Keiko's surprise the cassowary laughed.
  2373. "And when you learn to nail a target at five hundred meters you can do this yourself."
  2375. "Your gun is bigger than my body, Talon."
  2377. "And I had to reinforce my skeleton with titanium alloy so the recoil wouldn't shatter my shoulder. Also I'll have you know that my so called chicken legs have gutted men a lot tougher than you."
  2379. Keiko chose that moment to activate her own line, ensuring her voice was garbled. "You two should get a room when this is over."
  2381. "Yeah...no," Sybela declined flatly. "Didn't know you were already on, sunburst. How's things?"
  2383. "Now that you and Talon are putting on your little show, a bit more lively. How can there be so many channels and almost nothing to watch?"
  2385. "Problem as old as life itself," Sybela chuckled. "Wait for it…"
  2387. "Yo newbie, what's with the voice? Who the hell are you anyway?"
  2389. "There it is," Sybela chimed happily. Keiko imagined herself talking with some of the rank and file Sekhama.
  2391. "An idealistic individual with deep pockets, I believe your friend described me as. I'm here to observe your performance and ensure my money is well spent." The only sound from the line was the occasional burst of static. Sybela seemed content to let Talon stew in the hole he'd dug for himself.
  2393. "Can't say I've ever seen an employer piggyback on an op like this before," the sniper eventually replied, his voice more level and professional now.
  2395. "Please don't censor yourself on my account," Keiko replied. "The circles I frequent tend to be full of individuals who are cautious with their every word. Your earnest...banter, let's call it, is refreshing. You can say most whatever you'd like if you prove as competent as Seth ensured me you are."
  2397. "You're my kind of woman, sunburst," Sybela declared. "I think you'll be satisfied with his...gun."
  2399. Talon spluttered as the two females shared a chuckle. "Wait you're...he…that wasn't some cover or a joke? You're actually some rich chick with a fetish for dead mnyama?"
  2401. "Never change, Talon. But keep it in your pants. I think Seth's already got it in for her," Sybela encouraged deviously.
  2403. "Yo man, this is seriously bullshit," the sniper sighed.
  2405. "Oh come on, Talon, let him have one. You know all he ever gets is the virtual crap."
  2407. "Easy for you to say, buns, you already had your go," Talon replied dejectedly. "Besides, there ain't that many cute fluffy chicks who dig...well...birds."
  2409. "Suddenly I feel like I shouldn't be here," Keiko admitted, feeling a twinge of sympathy for the two male mercenaries who both found themselves limited in their amorous exploits by the peculiarities of their species.
  2411. "If you are who I think you are, you're in the right place. I enjoy an employer who takes an active role in an operation," came Argos' deep, smooth voice. "I'm in position guys. I've got a nice rooftop a couple blocks away. They have a garden up here with the solar arrays.  It's peaceful. And Talon, I keep telling you man just go for it. You've been to The Oasis and all the rest. Everyone's into something."
  2413. "Easy for you to say," Talon replied. "You're like some fluff magnet."
  2415. "What can I say?" Argos asked with a hint of levity. "I don't have the badge anymore but I've still got a Sekhama body. That training routine gets beaten into you." They all paused as Keiko let out an involuntary gasp.
  2417. "You're ex-Sekhama?" She asked. Knowing that alone meant she probably knew exactly who Argos was. If not her then Idris surely would know. The mercenary hummed.
  2419. "I am. Me and the former captain didn't see eye to eye on certain things. That Octavia is much more my type, fights fire with fire. But what's done is done. I'm surprised at your reaction, if you don't mind my saying. Any chance the Sekhama's finally caved and begun hiring mercs?"
  2421. Keiko's reply was stalled as Seth's light turned green and his voice joined in. "She's here to review us for the moment, Argos. Perhaps in the future the two of you can discuss Sekhama matters. Talon, Sybela, Argos, all green?"
  2423. Affirmative replies came from all lines, drawing a contented sigh from Seth. "Very well. Now all there is to do is wait and hope the esteemed Idris Octavia will grace us with his presence this evening. Sybela, any word on air traffic?"
  2425. "I'm trying, Seth, but you know as well as I do that even if they go aerial I might not know about it. A ton of that activity is still analog, clever bastards."
  2427. "The old ways are sometimes the best ways," Argos echoed sagely. "Though I enjoy a magicite detonator just as much as the next guy."
  2429. "Yes Argos, we all know about your love for explosions. Shame you're such a damn softie otherwise," Sybela teased.
  2431. "My vows are more important to me than having a taste of jackrabbit, Sybela. Besides, I'd be putting Alex out of work." Seth and Talon got in a good chuckle at Sybela's expense as the rabbit grumbled about noble cats. Keiko had remained silent throughout, happy to sit back and understand the dynamics of the team of guns for hire she'd been dropped into. That was until Seth called her out.
  2433. "So, Sunburst, care to keep us entertained while we wait?" The human asked expectantly, still channeling some of the bravado of the man that had kissed her earlier.
  2435. "If you want entertainment you can look up some nude holos on the network, Seth. No one will even know behind that mask of yours," she replied, causing Talon to whistle appreciatively. "But I suppose you and Argos don't have the luxury of climate control at the moment. Any requests, gentlemen? And for the moment I use that term loosely."
  2437. "Well Seth, I can't say I've been particularly bored since joining up with you. Never cease to surprise," Argos said thoughtfully. "Now, much as I'm sure Talon and Sybela would enjoy the idea of nude holos, I find myself more interested in who or what you are, mysterious benefactor."
  2439. "Someone who detests the mnyama," Keiko replied. "Anything more you may get a chance to learn in person, depending on what transpires tonight. I'm sure Talon will enjoy this immensely, but I'd prefer to get to know you instead. I know Seth and Sybela, to an extent, but I'd like to understand the other half of the team I've...joined."
  2441. "Joined? Seth, is this just words or am I missing something?" Argos asked curiously. "What a pleasing woman, 'entertaining' a man by asking him to talk about himself. I daresay I might even feel young again." Keiko found herself smiling genuinely, drawn in by Argos' demeanor and tone.
  2443. "Argos, let's just say that were it not for Sunburst, her influence, and certain risks that she chose to take we would not be where we are at this moment, nor would the Sekhama be plotting against the Oro," Seth clarified.
  2445. "Damn, seriously?" Talon chirped. He sounded impressed.
  2447. "He's telling the truth, I was there when it went down," Sybela added. "Seth, I assume that secondary spike is in place?"
  2449. "It is, but you won't exactly be hidden when you access their networks, not with that kind of brute force. Try to wait until Octavia is banging on the door."
  2451. "I know how to do my job, Seth," Sybela said testily. Keiko could practically envision the confident grin on the rabbit's face as she continued. "Anyway, I think Sunburst makes a fair request. She knows about Seth and me already. Your turn boys."
  2453. “Nothing to know about me.  I shoot and I kill,” Talon replied.  “And then get shot down by women at the bar.”
  2455. “Talon, that sort of self-deprecation is more unattractive than any sort of weird human-avian hybrid junk you might have going on downstairs,” Seth cut in, his tone indicating to Keiko that Talon’s pattern of behavior was well established.
  2457. “Whatever man, that’s all I gotta say.  My dick ain't any of your business. Long as I kill who she tells me to kill what does it matter?” Talon’s perspective had Keiko frowning sadly, finding the excitable sniper much more attractive when he was conversing with other men.  He was right though, and she didn’t press it.  Argos took the silence as his green light.
  2459. “You already know both of my most defining attributes I believe, Sunburst.  I’m ex-Sekhama, a demolitions specialist.  And as I mentioned to our unlucky in love sniper, I’m happily married with family.”
  2461. “That sounds...far too normal for a mercenary if you don’t mind my saying,” Keiko ventured.
  2463. “I would agree were it not for the fact that those two aspects of my life came together in the worst possible way,” Argos said sadly.  Keiko tried to think back, back to when she was young.
  2465. “The Yakami ward hostage situation…” she eventually whispered.  Seth and Sybela both made unbelieving whistling noises.  Argos growled.
  2467. “You are very well informed...or you have a quick mind, Sunburst.  Yes, they found my family and took them.  The captain of the Sekhama at the time refused to act so I went myself.”
  2469. “A lot of people died,” Keiko said quietly, remembering the reports of death tolls from collapsed buildings and shrapnel.  
  2471. “And if I had had the support of my brothers and my captain it would have been us who died, not those innocents!  I did the best I could with what I had, which was a lot of explosives and a handful of bullets.  I will go to hell for what I did.  I’ll never know the gentle light of humanity when I pass on.  But my children have a chance to die old now, and my wife still lives,” he finished, his tone never wavering.  A couple dozen civilians and about a hundred mnyama had died at his hands and somehow he’d saved his family in the midst of all the rubble.  In no world were his actions justified from the perspective of the crown or its enforcers, but Keiko understood just how little such things might mean to a father.
  2473. “I will never condone the murder of innocents, Argos, but the demons of hell will be most impressed by your abilities,” Keiko eventually responded.  He laughed back with a certain finality in his voice.
  2475. “She must have known I’d come in my own way...shielded the little ones with her body when the roof caved in.  It saved them from the shrapnel and magicka but she…wouldn’t you know it, talking with some disembodied voice about your paralyzed wife is a hell of a lot easier than doing so in person. Back when she could walk she had a garden like this one,” he concluded, sounding a bit choked up.
  2477. “And you’re afraid of what girls will think of your penis?!” Keiko suddenly shrieked, catching the entire squad off guard.  Seth and Sybela began laughing hysterically while Argos hummed in thought.
  2479. “She may have you there, Talon.  But take it easy on him, Sunburst.  I’m blessed with family, such as it is. All suffering is relative.”
  2481. “You don’t have to justify anything,” Sybela cut in affectionately. “Argos, you’ve said more than enough, it’s fine.”
  2483. “I know, ears, and it’s not like I’m going to tell our newest friend where they are or what names they use or anything like that,” Argos affirmed.
  2485. “Hey, if I can’t find them, she won’t be able to,” Sybela declared confidently.
  2487. “Thanks again for that.”
  2489. “Anytime, you big fuzzball.”
  2491. It was at that moment when everything clicked inside Keiko’s head.  The name, the deed, the man.  “To think you actually run around using your real name as your callsign.  Well I suppose I can’t say I would expect anything less of Argos Entana, the most infamous name in the history of the Sekhama.  Were it not for the crown’s price on your head and the weight of your sins I might bow to you instead,” the princess said seductively, wondering how she sounded on the other end of the voice modulation.  It wasn’t her intention to show romantic interest, but she couldn’t think of a better way to show her admiration.  Entana was something of a forbidden hero among the Sekhama, and she suspected the sheer size of his mnyama body count, to say nothing of his successful rescue of his family, was the reason Idris Octavia had devoted only token resources to tracking him down once he’d fled underground and the prior commander of the anti-terrorist force had resigned in shame. The loss of innocent life that day had been terrible, but Argos' argument held water with the benefit of hindsight. The tiger faunum seemed to have gathered himself back together, returning Keiko's praise with a low chuckle.
  2493. “I’ll settle for a cold beer once we’re done tonight.  Seth, where’d you find someone so open minded and familiar with the Sekhama who didn’t want to round us all up for prosecution?”
  2495. “Even I have my secrets, Argos, though nothing compared to yours.  Let’s stay focused, the sun’s already set,” Seth advised.  Keiko looked around her, only now noticing that the walls of the shrine had dimmed and begun to glow a dull reddish-orange.  The conversation had indeed passed the time.
  2497. “Let’s just hope Octavia actually shows,” Talon quipped.  “This floor isn’t exactly the most comfortable thing in the world.”
  2499. “I wouldn’t worry too much about him,” Argos replied.  “If I know Octavia at all, and I’d like to think I still do, he’ll be here tonight and we’ll have front row seats to a slaughter.”
  2501. “Alright, I take back what I said about you being a giant fuzzball,” Sybela said with a shudder.  “Could you maybe tone down the bloodlust just a bit?”
  2503. “If there’s anything in this world I love more than my wife and children, Sybela, it’s killing mnyama.  Seth, you sure we can’t join in the fun?”
  2505. “Would you like to meet your maker at the end of Octavia’s sidearm?  If so, be my guest,” the human replied with little concern.  “Don’t be alarmed, Sunburst, he enjoys getting paid and drinking too.”
  2507. “Then ensure the Sekhama arrive safely tonight,” Keiko ordered.  “I can promise you a hell of a lot more than a beer.”
  2510.                                                                 ~Chapter 11~
  2511. Chapter 11 Cover: https://imgur.com/a/A8j9RGa
  2513. Spot leaned forward slightly as the transport ship lifted off and its thrusters pushed him down into his hard, unforgiving seat. Night had fallen in the time it took Idris to brief them all on the operation and the structure they would be targeting, the Oro’s main base of operations which was situated in a slum that bordered one of the main commercial districts of the city. The black ships quickly melted into the sky, achieving a high altitude before turning and heading for the towering, well-lit spires of the capital. The rookie breathed out heavily and received a hand on the shoulder from his mission partner in response. The Sekhama operated on something of a modified buddy system when in combat, and he’d been training with Tark since he’d joined the organization on his sixteenth birthday.
  2515. "You alright, Spot?" The cheetah asked.
  2517. "Just the jitters, Tark," he admitted. Being the tip of the spear in a high altitude deployment craft while the rest of the strike force was travelling in normal, low altitude, all purpose shuttles drove the point home. His guts felt tight even without all the magitech resistance fiber and plating woven into his armor.
  2519. "Yeah I hear you, man. My first op was no different. Look, I'm not saying this will be a cakewalk but they don't know we're coming.  Maybe there will be some small arms fire from the rooftops at worst. We'll handle it. Just stay behind me."
  2521. "Yeah, you got it Tark. I'll get your six."
  2523. "Just remember your training and you'll do fine, no heroics or glory. That comes later. The harem's waiting for us when we get back, and there’s a particular spotted gal among the maids I’ve heard has been wondering what the barbs feel like," the cheetah said with a grin, making a not so subtle gesture towards his crotch. Silence fell in the body of the ship as Idris' form shimmered to life as a hologram just in front of the cockpit door.  Every Sekhama knew what to do, standing and throwing on their parachutes before grabbing guns, shields, and other equipment. Straps were tightened, clamps were locked, and magicite cartridges were loaded.
  2525. "Gentlemen," Idris called out. "I'm sure you all know the drill by this point. Your landing zone should be loaded into your helmets and lenses. Depending on the situation on the ground each team has discretion on where to land in order to secure the LZ for the main force." The commander gestured to his second in command. The leopard saluted. "Karth, you have command until I'm on the ground. Humanity protect you all."
  2527. The lieutenant took control immediately as the city far beneath the shuttle became denser, better lit, and more threatening. "Gear check!" He barked. The two Sekhama in the back of the ship began, tugging on chutes and punching at armor to make sure it was secured for drop.
  2529. "Ten okay!"
  2531. "Nine okay!"
  2533. "Eight okay!"
  2535. Eventually Spot felt the man behind him checking the straps on his chute and gear. "Four okay!"  The wild dog took his turn, ensuring Tark's equipment was secure and ready.
  2537. "Three okay!"
  2539. When Karth confirmed he was ready to drop, the second in command rapped on the door separating them from the cockpit. A yellow light flashed above the outer door before holding stable, and they all moved to the left side of the ship. The first Sekhama in each pair grabbed handles on the ceiling of the craft as the entire side of the ship lifted up and away for their deployment.  Spot had begun breathing deeply in preparation for his drop, attempting a moment of pre-combat meditation, when an alarm rang out and the lights went red.
  2541. "The fuck is going on?" Karth shouted.
  2543. "We've been locked!" The pilot yelled. "Prepare for emergency jump!"
  2545. "At this altitude? Where are we supposed to land? Where the fuck did mnyama dogs get fucking katana launchers?!"
  2547. "Where the hell do you think? Military surplus is fucking everywhere!"
  2549. "We get out of this alive and I'm tearing Torando a new asshole!"
  2551. "Everyone shut the fuck up and get ready to jump!" Karth yelled, waiting for word from the pilot as he looked for the drop target. He swallowed heavily, seeing well lit skyscrapers in the distance below. They'd never make it in the air and the ground could only be considered enemy territory, especially if their insertion was heralded by the flaming wreckage of a military transport.
  2553. \-----
  2555. "These idiots know I can see them, right? They must know, right?" Talon asked nonchalantly, peering through the scope of his rifle. The magicka signature being thrown off by the katana's charge phase was unmistakable, even on that distant rooftop. "What do you think, Argos? Should I try to salvage it? Not sure when we’d ever have to take down an aircraft but it couldn’t hurt."
  2557. "I think you should pull the trigger before my brothers get killed, birdbrain," Argos growled, echoing Keiko's feelings to the letter. The princess was seated near Seth's terminal, giving her lens every bit of attention she possessed as her breathing went shallow and her foot tapped irritably. Sybela and Seth were correct; Octavia had decided to risk a hot insertion and now her soldiers were under grave threat.
  2559. "Don't worry your fluffy little head, I've got this…" Talon murmured in reply, raising his head and looking at the open chamber on the side of his rifle. "Now then, how are you lot going to die today?" He questioned, tisking as he looked over the various high caliber bullets and magicite cores he'd laid out beside him. "Let's see we could go with a magazine of elemental rounds, but that's so overdone. Hey buns, how does a singularity round sound?"
  2561. Keiko could practically hear Sybela rolling her cybernetic eye over the channel. "Talon, I don't care if you turn them all into flowers, it's not going to get me into bed with you. Kill them before Sunburst strangles you through the channel, will you?"
  2563. "Mist them Talon, now," Seth demanded in a hard voice. He'd momentarily deactivated the modulation of his mask, as though to further accentuate his order. Keiko felt her heart skip a beat, wanted to whisper thank you. She could only imagine what the Sekhama in the advance wave were going through in the few seconds it took Talon to select a high area of effect incendiary round, chamber it, take aim, and fire. She wished she could be on the ground for a moment as the resounding crack of Talon's weapon rang out, followed shortly thereafter by a long, impressed whistle from Argos. It was not a lady-like sentiment, to be sure, but she had no love for the mnyama.
  2565. "I may have missed dinner, but that was one hell of a show," he said appreciatively, a hint of bloodlust in his voice. "Did you intentionally hit the core, Talon? Was one fine explosion down here."
  2567. "Heh, I'll leave that for you to decide," the sniper declared confidently. “Enjoy the fireworks, boys.”
  2569. \-----
  2571. Spot tried desperately to steady his body, full of adrenaline and panic long before any opportunity to pull the trigger. Tark was looking over his shoulder at him with a confused and relieved expression while Karth spoke rapidly into his helmet's receiver.
  2573. "You're sure that's what that light was?"
  2575. "Yes, Lieutenant, no further hostile signatures. We're in the green and over the drop zone now," the pilot confirmed. Idris Octavia's right hand furrowed his brow and glanced down at the city far below them. Even at his attitude he'd been able to see the detonation of the katana's core, a riot of deep purple, crimson fire, and stars, or so it seemed.  It hadn't set him at ease one bit.
  2577. "Commander, we aren't alone here. Katanas don't just backfire. And when they do it sure as hell doesn't look like that. Someone else is here, and they’re a crack shot. Requesting orders," Karth requested as the jump light turned green and his men moved to the side of the aircraft to await his order. The leonine commander's low voice took a moment to reply.
  2579. "Continue the mission, Karth. This might be our only chance. We'll be right behind you."
  2581. "Understood, sir. Sekhama, jump now!" The leopard commanded before leaping from the transport.
  2583. Spot barely had time to process Karth's orders before he was following Tark out of the aircraft. The wind roared in his ears and buffeted any exposed fur on his body in the brief moment it took his chute to deploy. With his momentum slowed he grabbed the shotgun he'd secured to his chest, ensuring for the fifth time that night that it was loaded and ready to kill. "What do you make of this, Tark?" He asked, not feeling capable of tolerating a silent drop.
  2585. "No idea, Spot. But if we've got some guardian angel watching over us I'm sure as hell not going to complain. Get your weapon ready and stay focused, got a few heat signatures on the surrounding rooftops." Tark was about to call out the target that he and Spot would neutralize when machine gun fire erupted from a building about three blocks from the Oro's base of operations, accompanied by lines of light that indicated small arms fire and barrel mounted flashlights. "Oh this just keeps getting better!" Tark yelled sarcastically as some irresponsible group of gangsters fired round after round into the air at them, perhaps alerted by the earlier disturbance. Red, blue, and violet streaks lit the sky, the telltale signs of a tri-elemental belt fed weapon.
  2587. "They're still firing blind," Karth shouted, calling for order as the Sekhama in the air began to feel like sitting ducks. "Create space and stay focused on your targets. Don't give away your positions. I'll handle them."
  2589. Spot drew little comfort from the Lieutenant's words, watching at the trail of deadly light came nearer and nearer in a devil may care firing pattern. Ammunition was cheap, after all. He was sure the dogs were laughing at their sport.  He did his best to maneuver his black parachute away from the stray rounds, waiting anxiously until they were close enough to the ground to return fire. The rookie felt the paralyzing fear of the shuttle return in full force as the enemy fire suddenly swayed back his way. For some reason he saw Eina in his mind's eye. It was short lived, broken by Tark's distressed voice on comms.
  2591. "Fuck, I'm hit! Cryo round got my arm and it's spreading! Where's the safest LZ?"
  2593. "Do you see a safe fucking LZ, soldier? Cause I sure as hell don't!"
  2595. \-----
  2597. "Argos, looks like you're up. I don't think knives and blades work too well against a machine gun," Seth said calmly, watching as fire erupted from a few buildings away. It would have made an impressive and entertaining display were it not for the ten Sekhama in the line of fire.
  2599. "You're immune to gunfire, Seth, and I know you can use that pistol you always carry. Just admit you want front row seats to the show," Argos chuckled, already moving from his hiding spot and sprinting towards the MG nest. The tiger faunum cleared the first street easily, tail whipping behind him as the magicite propulsion engines in his combat boots gave him the thrust necessary to leap from building to building. He cleared water towers, purifiers, solar panels, and the occasional trellis with ease as the lights and sounds of combat drew close. The chatter of his teammates on the radio faded. It was only him, his bandolier of detonators, and his target.
  2601. Argos hit the roof of the offending building and tucked into a tight roll, slamming his back against a solar array for cover. He poked his head over and received no fire in return. He took another look, gauging the distance and grabbing two grenades from his belt. "This one's for you, Commander," he muttered, activating the fuses. He closed his eyes and counted to three before standing tall and lobbing them at the corner of the roof. "Burn in hell you bastards!" He yelled, knowing they would only have time to turn their heads before their bodies were consumed and shredded by magicite energy. He'd always enjoyed cryo grenades followed by a standard detonator.
  2603. "I really, really like him," Keiko whispered, standing from her chair as she tried and failed to calmly handle all the terrifying, chaotic excitement of urban warfare.
  2605. "Oh come on, not you too, Sunburst!" Talon complained. "Just because he gets up close and personal-"
  2607. "Talon, covering fire now. Stay focused, damnit!" Seth ordered, watching multiple heat signatures moving to assume firing positions on Argos' position. "I'll take the group nearest to me. You handle the rest. Move, now!"
  2609. "I'm fine right here thanks!" Argos yelled, hunkering down as magicite rounds whizzed over his head. "You think the princess will be upset with me? I may have blown a chunk of mnyama into this building's reservoir!"
  2611. "She'll be fine, just keep yourself alive!" Keiko yelled, feeling something approximating the concern she reserved for Idris and his men.
  2613. "You know the princess?!  Does everyone but me know the bloody princess?" Talon complained between shots, dropping targets as Seth assassinated his fair share, the mnyama being far too distracted by sniper fire and the controlled, blind fire bursts of Talon's rifle to see the silent knife in the dark. Keiko's heart was in her throat, she could feel her ribs with every beat. But it was over in a matter of moments, barely enough time for her to understand what had happened. It was like her own first kill, action and reaction followed by silence. Seth's collected voice restored order.
  2615. "Argos, we need to move now. They're here."
  2617. "Roger that Seth, thanks for the assist."
  2619. "Save it for the bar. Leg it."
  2621. \-----
  2623. "Lieutenant, do you have any idea what the fuck is going on?" One of the Sekhama in Spot's force demanded as they dropped slowly through the dry, summer air above the city to land at long last on the solid terrain of slum rooftops. They had all been a captive audience, watching in fascination as hostile contacts below had been neutralized one after the other. The death toll included all enemies on the roof of the Oro’s main compound, and the landing squad could not help but breathe a sigh of relief as the two unknown figures vacated the scene. Whoever they were, their fight appeared to be with the mnyama, not the Sekhama.
  2625. "Fuck if I know. I just know we're not being shot at anymore," Karth snarled, fingering the grip of his SMG in agitation. He hated 'fluid situations', and the current one was about as fluid as the water in the harem’s central fountain. "Tark, what's your status, brother?"
  2627. "I'm going to lose the arm, sir. The round penetrated. Pain is about halfway to my shoulder at this point, feels like standard hypothermic necrosis," the soldier replied evenly as he could. Spot could hear the suffering through his gritted teeth. Unlike his brothers, making it to solid ground had only kicked his heart rate a notch higher. He knew what was about to come, what he would have to do for his comrade.
  2629. "Understood," Karth acknowledged. "Spot, see to it now. He loses the shoulder joint and the replacement’s coming out of your pay. Rest of you secure the rooftop for the arrival of the main force. I need two on recon, last known position of unknown combatants. Commander, there's been additional intervention by those unidentified armed forces. I have two signatures retreating from the area as well as wherever our friendly neighborhood sniper is holed up. And we're going to need a medic down here. Tark took a cryo round to the arm. Spot’s shattering it now."
  2631. "This is why we get paid what we do," Octavia replied sternly, paying close attention to each feed from the helmets of his men already in the field. It was a nifty little piece of tech and software reserved solely for the headgear of the commanding officer of the Sekhama, allowing him to command his troops on multiple fronts in real time. "We'll be there before you know it. Alright Sekhama, listen up! Commander Idris is going to tell you all a story."
  2633. Feral cries and cheers went up from the teams on the ground and within the two shuttles that had been circling close to the Psygenics building during the initial stages of the operation. Those aircraft suddenly engaged in a steep dive, eager to deliver their lethal cargo to the now secured landing zone and exit the live fire area just as quickly. Idris remained standing, grabbing a handle on the ceiling of his shuttle as a sign of authority and stability. The pre-operation ritual began, Octavia’s storytime.
  2635. "I've got some news for you boys!" The lion faunum boomed. "The Lady Keiko is alive and well. The golden light still dawns over Alhamkara!"
  2637. Silence reigned for a brief moment before roars and cheers rose up along with the sound of rifle butts, shields, and armored fists slamming into the floor and walls of the shuttle. Idris yelled his own approval, ready to give them something to fight for.
  2639. "That's right, you mangey lot! The light still dawns, even as we strike in the dark! Last evening I received the strangest of gifts from the slums of our magnificent, festering city.  Let me tell you a bit about the whore who's currently comatose in our med bay." That line earned the commander a few smirks and a catcall or two.
  2641. "That woman's name is Eina. She has two young children, Jace and Keiko. She loves Her Majesty so dearly she named her firstborn in her honor. Turns out Eina is a bit of a special whore, and if I hear anyone you tell her I said so I’ll be throwing you atop the mass grave we dig tonight for mnyama corpses! Because of her genetic profile, an extraordinarily rare concentration of human influence, the Oro decided she'd make an excellent guinea pig for their fucked up experiments. They stuffed her full of immunosuppressors, chopped her tail off, and grafted human tissue everywhere in her body, surely promising her money and a future for her children.  Without Doc Oz she would have entered a degenerative spiral and died within the month. The way he described it, her body would have eaten itself from the inside out on a cellular level. And we’d have two more kids alone on the streets of our city, their mother slaughtered in the name of corporate sacrilege and the quest to market the human divine to the masses. I don't know if she'll survive the night."
  2643. Idris let those words hang in the air above his men. Spot punched the ground violently, sending a comforting shock up his gloved fist before returning to the process of securing a tourniquet to Tark's arm, just above the spread of the ice.  He still wasn't ready to do what he knew he had to, to demolish another man’s body.  No one made a sound until Idris growled bloody murder. "But that woman, despite her frailty, came to us to deliver a message and a mission. She was sent by none other than Lady Keiko herself! Oh and what a tale she told me, my brothers! You see this campaign tonight, this crusade against the Oro...it began long before we even reached the airfields. It began when our Lady Keiko assassinated the right hand of the Oro and saved that woman from their clutches!"
  2645. Idris saw the surprise in his soldiers' eyes as silence reigned again, their faces obscured by heavy helmets in the dim light of the shuttle's interior. He laughed long and deeply, a broad, toothy smile forming under his helmet. "I can see some of you don't believe me. But I swear to you all on my honor as Commander of the Sekhama, that our princess walked into an illicit brothel last night, stalked this mnyama scum, and executed him with a single shot to the head! Are we going to let her have all the fun, lads?!"
  2647. "NO, SIR!"
  2649. "Mhm, damn right we aren’t! We are here tonight to complete her mission, an order directly from a street whore’s lips speaking the will of our dear Lady! Tonight we serve that comical thread of fate and divine justice. Tonight we are charged with a solemn duty to cleanse our city in the name of the crown! Tonight we ensure that if Eina wakes again that she wakes to a world in which the barbarians who did this to her are six feet under!  And if she doesn't...then we take vengeance tonight for her children and for every other citizen of this country slaughtered by these monsters. We send them to hell."
  2651. Idris drew his revolver and spun the cylinder before returning it to his holster and raising his shield. The shuttles were leveling out and the doors opening. Idris made his final appeal to rouse his soldiers' bloodlust.
  2653. "Tonight we show these bastard animals that there is another predator above them, the top of the food chain! Tonight we show these beasts what it means to feel fear! Tonight we show them how little their numbers mean in the face of our noble justice! Are your blades hungry, Sekhama?!"
  2655. "FOR BLOOD!"
  2657. "Then raise your shields and fix bayonets! Leave none alive! For the crown! For the princess! For Alhamkara!"
  2659. A chorus of war cries rang out from the Sekhama, a rising swell of primal rage that even had Spot and Tark cheering as they listened via their helmets. The adrenaline was sufficient to spur the rookie to his duty, as he was forced to shatter his partner's frozen arm with the butt of his shotgun. The experience was surreal and he felt like fainting, but it stopped the effects of the cryo round from spreading through the limb and into the core of Tark’s body. Seth and Argos watched from a distance as twenty more pairs of boots hit the roof and made ready to breach and clear the building. The human mercenary could practically feel Keiko's nervous tension over the channel.
  2661. "So it begins…"
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