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Vlarian Oath

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The bottom of the ravine seemed very far away, viewed from this angle. From what Jenny could see, when the wind wasn’t whipping her hair into her eyes and providing a blessed curtain between them and her impending death, the drop was about thirty meters. Enough to at least seriously injure if not kill an average human – especially if dropped head first and tied up, as she currently found herself dangling from a narrow footbridge.

Jenny wasn’t sure if the Krigorens knew enough about humans for the high potential of fatality to be a deliberate choice, but she could guess that this particular gang of smugglers wouldn’t be losing sleep over it. Hibernation. Whatever.

The leader shouted something, the guttural sounds echoing from the ravine falls for a few seconds before Jenny’s translator implant kicked in with a slight delay and provided her with the meaning.

“We lost fifty thousand core credits on that job!” The rest of the gang rumbled menacingly in shared displeasure. “You and the rest of the trooper scum will pay for this!” The others cheered.

Jenny rolled her eyes and then regretted it immediately when the blood gathering in her skull pounded even harder. For a moment the world went grey around the edges.

And to think, her shore leave had started so well.


***


Sun Rose was a galaxy class vessel, housing a crew close to two hundred and capable of carrying another hundred as passengers, though they rarely had more than twenty people on board just for that. They mostly hauled cargo, mostly the kind that required a contingent of hundred plus armed troopers to protect the items, mostly for customers who could afford to pay for such service without having to sell any internal organs. Well, at least not their own.

Questions about body parts tended to go unasked in general. After the H’lorian War, a moral high ground was a luxury not many could afford. Not even the crew of a ship like Sun Rose, not even her captain.

Captain Zadra Maceer – formerly of a higher rank in the H’lorian Navy, though no one seemed to know exactly by how much – was a fair but a distant commander. Jenny had heard some of the older H’lorian crew members refer to her as Mace, though only when sufficiently drunk and maudlin. During the last decade of the war, there had been more than a dozen factions involved, not counting the non-H’lorians who had also stuck their spoon into the intergalactic stew, some out of self-defence, some out of genuine conviction, but most out of greed. Sun Rose had people from all of them, including humans.

No prizes for guessing why Earth had sent in a fleet of starships and troopers green enough to barely know which end of a blaster to hold.

Jenny had been one of them. One of the lucky ones too, as it turned out.

After all, she was still alive when the Bell of Peace was struck. Alive and with no reason to return to Earth or any of her colonies. When the dregs of the United Earth Nations fleet boarded the repatriation ships, Jenny had chosen to stay behind. There had been a handful of others. Most had scattered across H’lorian space, but a few served on Sun Rose with Jenny. There was a couple, Tim and Ahmed, who worked in the mess, which was great because it meant she was guaranteed some Earth delicacies at least once a month. Chenric Lei who was one of the navigators. Iyawa in engineering.

But Jenny was the only human trooper, the only one who went out to meet clients, the only one who carried a weapon.

Not that it had done her much good today.


***


Phelsei 3 was a trading port, still buzzing and profitable unlike Phelsei 1 and 2, but without the modern polish of Phelsei 4 which had been established after the war. Sun Rose was here on business but also for necessary downtime. Jenny’s unit had been up first, quickly dispersing among the bars, brothels and entertainment houses on offer.

Jenny had gone drinking with X’lir and Lux, unit mates she was close enough to call friends, but after a few hours they had wanted to go gambling while Jenny had opted for a quieter evening. She headed for the nearest holoplex that promised the latest 4D adventure and intergalactic buffet.

Too bad, it had also attracted the Krigorens. Worse still, they had spotted Jenny over the dessert table, recognising the sunburst insignia on her jacket.

Well, Jenny thought as she hung upside down, now stripped down to her undershirt, that taught her the value of changing into civvies before starting her shore leave.

“We have called your ship,” the leader told her. Boasted really, the poor fool. “You better hope they pay what we’ve asked. Else you want to spend the rest of eternity at the end of this drop.” They tossed a pebble over the bridge railing and together the two of them watched it bounce off the ravine walls.

Jenny grimaced. Three years. Three whole years (almost four in Earth years) she’d managed to keep her head down, a somewhat exotic but ultimately unremarkable trooper who most folk left alone or formed benign but not terribly deep friendships with. And now she was forever going to be ‘That Idiot Who Got Caught By Smugglers’ or maybe ‘The Fool Who Had To Be Rescued on Shore Leave’.

Well, she’d had a good run.

The only bright side of the situation – apart from how if she did die, at least she didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment – was that it was probably going to be her own unit that would be dispatched to get her. They’d be pissed for having their leave time cut short and they would never let her hear the end of it, but they were her unit and… Well, better the devil you knew, right? And maybe this little incident wouldn’t go too high up the ship’s food chain, and maybe, just maybe, Jenny could…

A loud noise interrupted her wishful thinking. Jenny recognised the familiar sound of a Dragon Hammer descending with all the subtlety of its name. The smugglers, however, clearly didn’t have a clue, turning this way and that until someone thought to look up.

After that, all hell broke loose. Someone fired their gun, likely in blind panic, and several more followed suit. A collection of projectiles and energy blasts ricocheted off the vessel, harmlessly of course, but that didn’t seem to deter the Krigorens. Jenny couldn’t see all the detail as the rope she was hanging from kept swaying and she was facing in another direction part of the time, catching only glimpses of the battle – a generous term – from the corner of her eye.

The only real moment of vulnerability came when the ship touched the ground, its bay doors opening immediately to reveal a unit of troopers in full battle gear. If this group of bandits had been any more organised, the five seconds during which the doors were open enough to see and thus target the newcomers, but not open enough for them to rush out or effectively shoot back could have given them an advantage.

Blessed be stupid criminals.

Except… Jenny should have remembered: never count your blessings. Because they will turn to curses in a blink of an eye.

The leader of the ragtag group, upon seeing the troopers cut through the gang like a well sharpened scythe, did a very smart thing. Well, smart within the parameters of this particular situation and if seen strictly from their point of view.

They yanked the rope holding Jenny toward them and started sawing.

“Hey!” Jenny shouted. Her earlier estimation of ‘probably not dying today except maybe of humiliation’ lost some credibility. “If you just put your weapons down, no one’s going to hurt you.” That was a lie. Jenny was absolutely going to kick them in the face as soon as she had her legs free.

The Krigoren leader clearly knew this too because they only snarled and hacked at the rope with their, thankfully dull, blade even harder. Apparently, killing her was the second-best outcome here, even better than making it out alive.

Jenny could hear the fighting still going on, although mostly it was shouts of troopers chasing the smugglers who were trying to get away. None of them sounded close enough to help but she sure as hell wasn’t going to plummet to her death quietly.

“Oy!” she yelled. “Some help here? Anyone?”

The rope jerked and Jenny swallowed a scream. She could see several threads hanging loose and knew it wouldn’t take long at all until the rest gave out. At this point, the only question was whether it would be the knife or her own weight that got to them first.

The Krigoren’s face split into a grin, their bright blue gums like a wound in their otherwise white face. It was not what Jenny had hoped the last thing she ever saw would be.

She could feel the rope giving in, little jerks downwards as one by one the remaining threads snapped. When the last one went, Jenny closed her eyes, feeling gravity grab her like a hungry beast.

She fell.

She fell for two whole seconds.

And then, just as suddenly, the terrifying weightlessness was replaced by crushing pressure as something, someone, grabbed her by the middle. They were still descending, but it was no longer an uncontrolled plunge but something much slower, and far less deadly.

“Gah!” Jenny said, and then “Oh, thank fuck!” when she was deposited onto the bottom of the ravine a few seconds later.

She tilted her head up, trying to see her rescuer but her hair was still on her face and she only caught a glimpse of the uniform, and the spread of skiel, locked in a wing formation still. A H’lorian then, and not one whose skiel pattern Jenny recognised, although that didn’t exactly narrow it down.

A cross between wings and tentacles, except more versatile than either alone, a skiel was collection of appendages – skie when referred to separately from the whole – growing out the H’lorian spine, maybe even an extension of it. It was both a tool like hands and intensely personal, carrying unique markings that showcased lineage and changed colour depending on autonomous nervous system responses. Normally, all H’lorians kept their skiel wrapped tightly around their torso, often covered by clothing, unless they needed to intimidate, impress, prove their clan or fight. There was no denying that a skiel made for a versatile weapon, each skie able to act independently or lock together to increase strength and grip, or form wing like shapes. H’lorians couldn’t fly, not like birds on Earth could, but they were able to glide with grace and decent precision.

All of that meant Jenny knew the patterns of the H’lorians in her unit, but almost no one else’s. She caught a glimpse of swirls, in silver and green, both dark from the adrenaline of the fight and probably from having to snatch her from mid-air too, before the skiel disappeared from view, presumably folding back under the uniform, through the cleverly hidden slits all H’lorian clothing contained.

“Thank you,” Jenny said, with more sincerity than she’d maybe said anything in her life up to that moment. “Ugh, could you maybe…?” Clumsily, she rolled to her back, sticking her still tied hands up.

There was a slash of metal, the rope around her wrists and ankles fell apart and Jenny was finally able to sit up, groaning with relief. Her head was still pounding, and world swam in really interesting ways as the blood rushed back in the right direction again.

“Are you able to stand, trooper?”

Jenny blinked, waited for the ground to stop swaying, and nodded. “Yeah,” she said, distracted. Something was familiar about the voice. “Yes, I…” She rolled to her hands and knees, breathed through a truly spectacular case of pins and needles, and finally pushed to her feet.

She was able to stand up without much difficulty. It was just that remaining that way proved challenging. “Aww no,” she said as her knees buckled as soon as her weight settled on them.

Jenny would’ve ended back on the ground if not for her rescuer grabbing her by the middle for the second time in as many minutes to stop her from falling.

“Sorry,” Jenny said, frustrated at herself. “I’m sorry about this.” She pushed hair out of her eyes, still wrapped in the solid embrace of her rescuer, eyes conveniently at the level of the insignia in their jacket.

It was bright crimson, with a golden circle around it. Jenny’s knees threatened to buckle again, this time from the sheer surprise. Her hands fisted in the uniform front for just a moment on instinct, until her brain kicked into gear and she stumbled backwards, almost yanking herself out of the supporting arms in her panic.

Two steps back and she was finally able to look up to her rescuer’s face, and with that confirmation any remaining hope about being concussed and mistaken died.

“Shit!” Jenny said, and then literally slapped a hand over her mouth, wishing she could’ve done the same to her brain. “I… I’m sorry,” she said again, this time bringing her still protesting and shock-numb body to something akin to attention. “Thank you again. For saving my life.” She cringed inwardly but managed to stop herself from actually saluting.

“Trooper.” Captain Maceer regarded her impassively. “I’m glad you are well. Now…” She tilted her head to the side in that way H’lorians had that was somehow both intimidating and delicate, at least to human eyes. “Care to explain what happened?”


***


The thing was, you didn’t spend almost four years on a H’lorian ship, and two before that in H’lorian space, without picking up on H’lorian culture. Unless you were a total bumbling idiot that shouldn’t have been let out of the atmosphere of whatever unfortunate planet you’d happened to be born on, of course.

And, recent events notwithstanding, Jenny wasn’t an idiot. She knew about H’lorian customs. Even about the ones that had fallen out of widespread practice due to circumstances or just general malaise toward the ‘old ways’.

“The Captain is not going to ask for that!” X’lir’s eyes were huge and round with indignation, either at Jenny’s question or on behalf of their Captain.

“Look,” Jenny said, leaning heavily on the mess table. “Did she or did she not save my life?”

“Well yes…”

“And is she or is she not above me in social hierarchy?”

“Yes, okay, but this is military hierarchy and we suspended…”

“Sun Rose is not a military vessel,” Jenny interrupted her friend.

An irritated tremor ran through X’lir’s skiel, visible even through his tunic. “Maybe not, but we have ranks, we carry weapons, we fight. We, all of us,” He waved a hand around to encompass the whole room, “end up saving each other’s lives on a regular basis. This is precisely why the practice of Vlarian Oath was suspended during war time.”

“We’re no longer at war,” Ahmed injected from the other side of the table where he was following the discussion with interest.

“Yeah but…” X’lir shuddered with frustration. “You’re not a H’lorian,” he finally said. “The Captain will not demand a Vlarian Oath from a non-H’lorian.”

“You’re right,” Jenny conceded.

Ahmed raised his eyebrows in surprise at this turn of the debate and spooned more stew into his mouth.

“But this isn’t about what the Captain is going to demand,” she continued, crossing her arms defiantly. “It’s what I’m going to offer.”

X’lir spat out the mouthful of tea he’d taken in a pre-emptive sip of victory.


***


For all his protestations and obvious reluctance, X’lir was good enough a friend to ensure that if Jenny was going to embarrass herself in front of the Captain the second time, she was at least going to do it in a way that didn’t accidentally disrespect any cultural traditions.

There was only so much database entries could teach her, and it’s not like there were any instructional videos about making Vlarian Oaths. It was a practice kept private, the nuance passed on from older to the younger generation. The wording was easy enough to memorise, the litany easily accessible in every entry Jenny had read, even if almost nothing else was.

“Not bad,” X’lir grudgingly said, after several hours of correcting Jenny’s pronunciation. Human vocal chords weren’t physically capable of making all the sounds H’lorian language used but she hoped the effort would at least matter some here.

“Show me the positions again,” she asked.

X’lir sighed. “You owe me a drink,” he said. “Several. When the Captain turns you down, and she will, Lux and I will even allow you to drown your humiliation with us.”

“Such caring and considerate comrades I have,” Jenny said, and it was sarcastic but also true.

X’lir rolled his eyes, an expression Jenny was sure he’d picked up from the humans on board, but started the complex series of movements again. Jenny tried her best to follow, although again human bodies were not meant to bend in all the ways H’lorians’ did. By the end of the oath, X’lir folded gracefully to the floor, his skiel flowing up and out, locking to display the pattern fully and then shivering apart, each skie coming to rest around him, spread out and open.

Vulnerable. Jenny shivered. She understood that part, the total surrender of self.

They remained on the floor for long, silent seconds, until X’lir pulled himself up, his skiel wrapping around his torso once more.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, extending a hand down to Jenny and helping her up too. “You are not H’lorian. This is not expected. Hell, it wouldn’t be expected of a H’lorian either, not in the circumstances.”

“I’m sure,” Jenny said. “I just… I have to do this.”


***


So far, none of her friends had asked her why she felt compelled to go through with an alien custom that was, if not exactly archaic, certainly not in common use any more, when there certainly was no externally compelling reason to do so.

No one expected a human to offer a Vlarian Oath. No one had even hinted that it would be thing to do and she suspected most would have the same reaction Lux and X’lir had: disbelief, tinged with disapproval.

And yet… Everything Jenny knew about H’lorians, everything she knew about Captain Maceer in particular, told her that this was the right thing to do. Vlarian Oaths were used to keep balance between those who were so far apart in social standing that any other compensation was out of the question and would have left the less powerful one either in impossible debt if they were the one owing, or in a socially and culturally awkward position if they were the one owed. Vlarian Oath was personal, between individuals, and kept their status out of the equation except for making it necessary in the first place.

There was no way for Jenny to express the depth of both her gratitude for being rescued and her regret for needing it in the first place in any other way. The Captain had listened to her story, asked a few clarifying questions, and then left her in the hands of the ship’s medics and to the stern talking to from her immediate superior. She had blithely ignored, interrupted, or outright refused every thank you and apology Jenny had peppered throughout the short conversation.

Which probably meant that X’lir would prove to be right and her offer of the Oath would be turned down too. But Jenny hadn’t gotten this far by giving up at first try, or even the tenth.

Besides, there were the drunken stories about Zadra ‘Mace’ Maceer the crew exchanged in hushed tones, the ones that used words like ‘fleet commander’ and ‘old lineage’ and ‘I heard her mother was one of the original Red Nine, and that she was practically bred for…’

Talk like that suggested two things. One, that whilst Captain Maceer wasn’t expecting a Vlarian Oath, she would not ridicule Jenny for offering it. Two, that Jenny’s decision was very definitely the right one, because if even a fraction of the rumours were true, the social distance between Zadra Maceer of H’lorian Republic and Jenny Blackerby of Earth United Nations was akin to the actual physical distance between their respective galaxies.


***


Preparation took some time. Firstly, because learning the Oath in H’lorian and the accompanying movements wasn’t something that was done overnight, and secondly because of the ceremonial gift. It needed to be something hand-made but without much material value. In the end, Jenny settled on food.

She enlisted Tim and Ahmed’s help, who in turn asked the rest of the mess staff, until Jenny had a list of dishes Captain Maceer had been observed to enjoy more than others. Not that anyone had seen her in raptures over a cake or anything, but Tim and the other chefs knew what dishes prompted a second helping and a quiet word of appreciation.

“H’lorian dishes aren’t any more complicated than Earth ones,” Tim told her.

“This does not, in fact, fill me with confidence,” Jenny said. She’d never had to learn to cook or bake. Starting with a H’lorian dish that was both sweet and savoury at the same time, a pie of sorts made of several flavours, did not seem like the ideal place.

Thankfully, Tim was a patient teacher. Well, no he wasn’t, but Ahmed was and whilst Tim provided the factual instructions (“No, not that much ghisa! Are you trying to poison her?!”) his husband supplied the encouragement (“This one is loads better than the last one, honestly!”). Lux and X’lir did the taste testing and by the sixth attempt even they were smiling with approval.

So, about two weeks after the incident with the smugglers and being rescued by her captain, Jenny was ready to offer a repayment worthy of her.


***


Getting to see Captain Maceer was not, in fact, difficult. She made time to see everyone who wanted an audience about once a month, all one had to do was book a slot through the ship’s system. Jenny had chosen the last appointment of the day, reasoning that whichever way her offer was going to go, not having a queue of crewmembers outside the Captain’s door at the end of it was probably for the best.

There was no way to hide the large pie dish she was carrying through the corridors leading to the Captain’s quarters but apart for some curious glances, no one commented. She had chosen to wear civilian clothing on account of the Oath being personal in nature and, if accepted, something between Zadra and Jenny, not anything between a Captain and a trooper. A large hooded travel cloak hid a simple tunic and trousers. After careful deliberation she had brushed out her long hair, leaving it down. She didn’t have a skiel to display, but she hoped that the effect would be close enough to be acceptable. Lux had once confided that H’lorians found humans’ hair and its infinite variations fascinating. H’lorians had hair on their heads but it was short and followed the bone ridges on the skull in neat stripes.

The light outside the Captain’s door indicated that she was still busy with the previous appointment and Jenny forced herself to stand at parade rest and wait, breathing slow and even. She wasn’t as nervous as she thought she might be, a sense of calm descending over her now that she was here, fully committed. No backing out now.

After a few minutes, the doors slid open and a H’lorian Sergeant exited. She wasn’t anyone Jenny had worked with and knew her only by sight. She nodded at Jenny in passing and then it was just her and an open door.

“Enter,” the Captain’s voice called. There was no inflection that Jenny could decipher, nothing that would tell her what kind of mood Zadra Maceer was in tonight.

Nothing for it but to see for herself, then.

Jenny stepped in, the door whooshing shut behind her automatically.

These were the Captain’s personal quarters. She had an office of course, of sorts, one just off the bridge, which she presumably used for most work-related things. It certainly was where one had the meetings one was summoned to. Which probably was why she had chosen to offer these ‘open to all’ appointments here instead.

The cabin was bigger than Jenny’s own, but that wasn’t surprising. What was unexpected, however, was how… Comfortable it was. Homely, even. Somehow, at the back of her mind, Jenny had expected severe minimalism and spartan furnishings, but the reality was the opposite of that. H’lorian furniture wasn’t too different from the human sort, largely because their basic body structure was similar enough that the support required for it was too.

The floors were covered with rugs and pelts, the walls with rounded shelving for scrolls of which there were dozens and dozens. Jenny had never seen so many of them outside a museum. Toward the back, she could see an entertainment area and a work station, and two closed doors leading to sleep chamber and bathing facilities. The Captain herself was seated by a low table, in one of the two stuffed chairs.

She too was out of uniform, which was another thing Jenny should have perhaps expected but that still took her by surprise. The Captain… Zadra, Jenny corrected in her mind. Perhaps Maceer. If this thing was going to work, they would be beyond titles, at least in private, for the duration of the oath bond. Zadra was wearing an asansei, a traditional H’lorian dress made of light fabric of two colours and two textures, overlaid and criss-crossing each other to provide both cover and natural openings for one’s skiel. The green and grey of Zadra’s asansei mirrored her patterning, something Jenny wouldn’t have known two weeks ago but did now. She wondered if this was a personal choice or whether it was something all asanseis were meant to do. She’d never paid enough attention to make the connection before.

“Trooper Blackerby.” The Captain nodded in greeting, the pronunciation of her name almost perfect. “Please, have a seat.” She gestured at the empty chair. “I’m glad to see you have recovered well from your ordeal at the hands of the Krigoren gang.”

As openings went, it was pretty much perfect. Jenny drew a deep breath, ignored the offered seat and instead placed the pie dish on the table, unwrapping the cover to let the steam escape.

She could see the way the Captain’s nostril’s flared at the scent, her mouth opening just a little to better smell the food. Jenny smiled inwardly. So far, so good.

“Zadra Maceer, of Zenia’s Line, of Red Shore Clan, of Eria 1, of H’lorian Republic,” she started, making the signs along with the list of affiliations, pointing at her heart for name, hips for lineage, feet for clan. Planet was a slow circle, H’lorian Republic a flare of the skiel except she didn’t have that so instead Jenny pushed back her hood and pulled out her hair until it fluttered over her shoulders. “I, Jenny Blackerby, of Mary’s Line, of Celtic Clan, of Mars Colony 5, of United Earth Nations,” again, the gestures, “owe you a life debt. Will you hear my Oath like Zeves heard the Oath of Vlarian after they had saved his Clan?” The sign for Zeves was a side step and out-stretched hand, X’lir had explained that it was to do with the way Zeves of the legend had done the saving, something about a ship and oceans. The sign for Vlarian was much more universally interpretable. Jenny bent down in a low bow, her hair falling around her face like a curtain, the colour somewhere between deep brown and burnished copper.

She waited. This was the first stage. If the other person refused to even hear the oath, the ceremony would go no further. Of course, hearing the oath was still no guarantee of accepting it, just like asking for one was no guarantee of receiving it. Vlarian Oath went both ways and was only in place if and when both parties agreed so.

The room was quiet enough that she could hear Maceer’s breathing. Or, to be precise, the lack of it. Seemed as though X’lir had been right and Jenny’s gesture had been surprising enough to knock the breath right out of their esteemed commander.

The seconds stretched. Jenny knew she could keep this position for several minutes without any discomfort, but she was getting a bit worried that about the Captain. H’lorians were pretty good at holding their breath but surely by now she must be getting lightheaded. And Jenny hadn’t actually meant to shock her into losing consciousness; that would be… Counterproductive, to say the least.

Finally, an exhale. Jenny chanced a glance through her hair and observed that Zadra Maceer was no longer lounging comfortably in the chair but had sat forward, spine straight, hands neatly placed over her knees, palms up. This was a very good sign.

“I will hear your Oath,” the Captain finally answered. “May the spirits of Zeves and Vlarian guide us.” She too made the gestures, though without getting up, her bow a brief bend of her spine, hands sweeping over the floor until they returned to her knees and she sat up once more.

Jenny too straightened. The first hurdle was done. Time for the rest.

With careful, economic movements she removed her cloak and her shoes, laying both neatly on the floor by the door. She noticed that the lights on it indicated that the privacy lock had been engaged, something the Captain must have done during the breathless moments before announcing her decision.

Three steps took her back in front of the chairs and the table. With another low bow, she began.

“In the Age of Grey Moon, lived a man of great power. His name was Vlarian.” The story was simple and yet told in language of hidden nuances, brought to life by the combination of words and body shapes. Jenny twisted and stretched, flaring her hair out when the traditional steps called for use of the person’s skiel. Gradually, the tale of how Zeves, a poor fisher, saved Vlarian and his whole Clan from certain destruction spooled out into the air between the two of them. Captain Maceer was following the tale avidly, eyes wide and dark like the space outside the cabin windows, even though she would’ve surely grown up hearing it.

“And the stars came down,” Jenny said, her fingers fluttering in a downward patter, “to light the path.” A long sweep of arm and leg.

The whole thing must have taken all of ten minutes but something about it, about voicing the ancient, alien words that stuck to Jenny’s throat like burrs or fell out too easily, formless like water, made time stretch.

The last part was the actual oath. Standing still for this, Jenny outlined the reasons for offering it. Zadra Maceer had saved Jenny from the consequences of her own carelessness. This debt was not one between equals and thus could not be repaid in any other way. Jenny would either remain indebted or clear the balance with the oath.

“My honour for your honour,” she intoned the final litany. “My strength for your strength. My mind for your mind. My body…” And now she knelt, bending down until her forehead was touching the floor, arms out to her sides, long hair fanned out like a cloak, “…for your body.”

The quiet fell for a moment. Then the Captain’s voice broke it. “For how long do you offer your oath?”

The question was part of the ritual, but the answer had required careful research. Too short a period would belittle the debt, too long and the other person would feel compelled to reject it as unfair.

“One year,” Jenny said. “And one day, and one night still. Until the dawn breaks.”

Silence. Jenny was tempted to hold her breath but a H’lorian would win that competition with a human easily, so instead she forced herself to breathe deep and even, to wait without anticipation or second guessing. What was done, was done. What would be, would be.

“Trooper Blackerby… Jenny,” the Captain corrected herself, in acknowledgement of the situation. “You do not need to do this. I would not have asked this of you.” Apparently, however, Zadra Maceer wasn’t quite as willing to take the events at face value.

“No, you would not have,” Jenny agreed. She didn’t lift her head though, keeping the position. “But if our roles had been reversed, and it was me who had saved your life… Can you tell me that you would not have offered the oath yourself?”

Silence. Then a sigh, one that sounded suspiciously like a huff of laughter. “Well,” Zadra said, “You got me there.”

Then, in a tone far more formal, she continued. “I accept your Oath, Jenny Blackerby. Yourself for myself for one year and one day and one night still. Until the dawn breaks.”

Jenny could feel her whole body slump in relief. Accepted. Her oath was accepted.

She rose back to her knees, shuffled forward, close enough to press her face into Zadra’s hands, palms up and open, waiting for the kiss that would seal the pact.

“May Zeves and Vlarian watch over us,” she whispered, Zadra’s voice joining her on the last blessing, her scales smooth and cool under Jenny’s lips.


***


Her friends took the news… Surprisingly well, considering none of them had really expected this outcome.

“Wow,” Lux said, sitting down with a thump. She reached for the bottle of liquor she’d left out, presumably in anticipation of helping Jenny through the inevitable rejection and took a long sip before passing it on to X’lir. “I mean… Wow.”

“So, you’re her… servant now? Slave?” Tim asked, forgoing the alcohol in favour of biscuits.

“No!” X’lir and Jenny said in unison.

“Well alright, so does it mean you’re moving into her cabin now?”

“I don’t know,” Jenny said. “If she wants me to.”

“Are you going to be cooking for her?” Ahmed asked. “Because if so, we all have a very long year ahead of us?”

“I don’t know. If she wants me to.”

“Maybe a personal bodyguard?” Lux suggested. “You’re a good trooper,” high praise from her, “recent events notwithstanding.”

“Thanks.” Jenny rolled her eyes. “But no, I don’t know. Maybe if she…”

“If she wants you to,” Lux, Ahmed and Tim chorused.

X’lir said nothing, only regarded Jenny with an expression that was two parts knowing and one part worried.


***


The thing was, figuring out what it was that Zadra Maceer wanted was far from straightforward. It’s not like she made things easy by just telling Jenny.

The first night, after the oath, was understandable. When Jenny had stood up, the Captain had stood up with her. A brief ‘thank you’ and ‘good night’ were pretty clear signs of dismissal, but given that the oath offer had been unexpected, Jenny could see why she would want some space. Plus, she had been absolutely wrung out herself, weeks of preparation and stress releasing and leaving her feeling dead on her feet. So, she had said a polite good night in return, gone straight to her own cabin and fallen into dreamless sleep.

The next day was… Still easily explained. Jenny had made a point of waiting outside the Captain’s quarters at the end of their shifts, aligned for now by sheer coincidence although Jenny made a mental note to ensure that became design. Captain Maceer had clearly not been expecting that, her stride faltering for just a second as she rounded the corner and saw Jenny waiting, dressed in her tunic and travel cloak once more. She recovered quickly and the slip probably would have been unnoticeable to anyone who wasn’t watching with quite the level of intensity Jenny was.

The Captain nodded in greeting, pressed her palm to the bio lock and gestured Jenny to enter ahead of her.

Once inside, she went straight to the work station and dropped several info chips to the scan pod, which flared blue in response.

Only then, did she turn to regard Jenny.

“What is it?” she asked.

Jenny blinked. “I… I am here to serve. Oath Holder,” she added. A subtle reminder of their positions, as if either of them really could have forgotten.

Zadra frowned, ridges of her face sharpening momentarily. “I did not send for you.”

“No, but…” And now Jenny was frowning too. “Do you want me to go?”

Zadra’s gaze fell on the gently pulsing scan pod, the change in colour indicating that the chips had been loaded. “I have work to do,” she said, which… wasn’t an answer, not really.

“I could help?” Jenny offered, although in truth she wasn’t all that sure that she could. Negotiating contracts or talking to the movers and shakers of the galaxy or even making the kind of large-scale logistics decisions about resources, fuel, payments and outgoings, and all the risks therein that was routine for the Captain of Sun Rose, was somewhat out of Jenny’s skillset. She’d been bred a soldier, not by some sinister eugenics programme but simply by being a child of two troopers and growing up around hundreds more. She wasn’t selling herself short either. Jenny was perfectly aware of her strengths. She was good at shooting, running, planning raids, executing raids, talking herself out of trouble (usually), getting along with people, keeping her head down and now, making a pretty decent H’lorian pie – the remains of which she was gratified to see on the side table. At least her Oath Gift had been met with approval even if her first day as the Oath Keeper wasn’t going quite according to plan.

“Or I could…” Jenny cast around the cabin for something to do. “Tidy around a bit?” There really wasn’t any mess to speak of but…

“No. That’s… I’m fine.” The Captain had turned away again, her back radiating tension. If you looked closely, and Jenny did, you could see her skiel shifting minutely under the uniform jacket.

“You may go.”

Jenny went.

The third night, Jenny waited to be summoned rather than barge in.

She was still waiting a week later. It had become painfully obvious that whilst Captain Maceer had accepted Jenny’s Oath, she didn’t actually plan on doing anything with it. Or with Jenny.

Most people might have been relieved to learn that. Jenny was pissed off. And when she was pissed off, she tended to get creative. She’d tried offering her service, she’d tried waiting to be called, perhaps it was time to try a different approach.


***


The following day Jenny changed shifts with Lux to give herself extra time and spent some of that in the kitchens haranguing Tim and Ahmed until they felt duty bound to correct her attempts at making risai stew. Then she collected most of the favours she’d amassed during her time on Sun Rose from various crew members and, armed with several access codes that individually were relatively harmless, she put together a skeleton key of sorts and hacked the door to the Captain’s quarters.

It was a one-time gambit. One-time code too, because those changed often enough to discourage exactly the type of behaviour Jenny had exhibited.

The cabins contained no kitchens per se, but there was a heater for keeping food warm – thankfully left out in the open on one of the counters, which meant Jenny didn’t have to go rummaging through the Captain’s cupboards in addition to breaking into her rooms. She set the stew inside and laid out plate, cutlery and pitcher of wine – all liberated from the mess. Then she made good on her offer from the first night and tidied, although there still wasn’t much to do – a few scrolls to slot back into their place on the shelves, pillows and covers to straighten, a light layer of dust on surfaces to wipe away.

The bathing facilities all got a wipe too, the modest collection of jars and grooming tools arranged just a tad more neatly. The door to the bed chamber was closed and after a moment’s hesitation Jenny left it unopened. If going through cupboards would have been crossing one line too many – she was well aware that her little stunt already skipped over several – then entering a sleeping area without an invitation, even if just to tuck in sheets, would’ve probably been the equivalent of using a Dragon Hammer to herd chickens.  

Once everything was as perfect as Jenny could make it, she knelt in the middle of the floor, facing the door and adopting the most serene expression possible.

She’d timed it well, only having to wait for ten minutes or so until the soft chime of the bio lock indicated that the owner of the rooms was returning.

Captain Maceer was definitely surprised to find someone waiting for her. She also reacted like a true sailor would, with a litany of curse words and extreme prejudice.

And okay, in retrospect, this maybe hadn’t been one of her best ideas, Jenny thought as she stared down the business end of the Captain’s blaster gun.

“Good evening, Oath Holder,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “I have prepared you a meal.” Rising smoothly, she indicated at the table where the heater was waiting, going as far as to draw out the chair, all with the barrel still following her every movement.

For a moment Jenny was sure she was going to marched at gun point straight to the brig, if not the airlock, but then Maceer holstered her blaster, said “Erian’s bleeding eggs, I almost shot you!” and took the seat.

“But you did not,” Jenny said, letting some of the relief colour her voice. “For which I am grateful.” Then, without asking for permission, she served out the stew and the wine, and folded herself back to her knees by the table.

She kept her gaze on the mid distance but could still see the way the Captain’s eyes went from her to the bowl of stew and back again, her second eyelids flicking over for an instant. Her skiel, which had come out instinctively when faced with an intruder, faded from dark, almost black green to its usual colour and was neatly folded away. Zadra sighed and again it sounded like half laughter, all frustration.

“Thank you,” she said, picking up the spoon with one hand, while the other dropped down, fingers curled up. “Oath Keeper.”

“Vlarian bless, Oath Holder,” Jenny murmured, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Instead, she lowered her face to the cradle of Zadra’s palm for long seconds. “Just, eat already.”


***


They slipped into a routine of sorts, after that. Jenny would come by in the evenings, except when explicitly told not to and prepare dinner, which often simply meant reheating and presenting whatever the mess had on offer that night. She would stay for a few hours, sometimes tidying, sometimes helping with paperwork, or at least giving her opinion on the profiles of potential clients and jobs the Captain passed over for her to look at. Jenny was never sure if her remarks were taken into consideration in the decision-making but Zadra seemed genuinely interested in hearing them. Amused too, judging by the way she scrunched her face, mouth pursing in the H’lorian equivalent of a smile.

The best part was that Jenny no longer needed to hack the bio lock in order to gain access.

Zadra had given her a long, hard stare after finishing her stew and then taken her by the hand to the work station in order to add her palm print to the cabin’s security protocols. It had all been done without a comment, but the message was pretty clear.

It also made something hot and oddly possessive curl in Jenny’s stomach. To her knowledge, no one else had this kind of access to the Captain. Oh, the senior officers and medical staff had authority to override security in case of an emergency but that was nothing special, that applied to everyone.

This? This only applied to Jenny. Because of the bond she had forged between them with the Oath, because of what it made them.

In retrospect then, it wasn’t surprising that their new private dynamic became public knowledge sooner rather than later. What was surprising, however, was that it was the Captain who let the proverbial cat out of the bag.

Not that there was any real reason not to. Not like Jenny was ashamed of the cat or anything. It was a great cat, she was proud. Just… not sure whether the rest of the ship would share her view.


***


It happened during a client meeting of all things.

Sun Rose docked at Goh-San about a month after Jenny had made her oath. They were due to pick up some pricey cargo from Shinden Holdings, a trading company owned by the White River Clan, perfectly respectable on the surface but rumoured to trade in things that weren’t strictly speaking legal in most of the Galaxy. They had also allied themselves with one of the factions that ultimately lost the H’lorian War and were less than graceful about it.

It was unlikely that they would have commissioned Sun Rose – the Captain of which was well known for her past career in the H’lorian Navy, which in turn had been central in the defeat of White River Clan among others – if they’d had any other choice. As it was, Sun Rose was one of very few vessels capable of guaranteeing a speedy delivery of what purported to be a crate of ancient artefacts to their new owner, and a contingency of no less than three trooper units to guard it at all times.

“It is very important that this crate is not left unattended,” Director Narag said, for about the seventh time.

“We can guarantee a constant guard in three shifts throughout the journey, with added security during planet side transfer,” the Captain explained, again for the seventh time. “The protocols and associated costs are outlined in the paperwork we submitted in advance of the meeting.” The last was added with a certain amount of bite, though Jenny doubted anyone else noticed it.

Her unit was one of the five accompanying the Captain and a score of other senior officers for the final negotiations and – if those ended favourably – providing security for the crate during its move to the Sun Rose’s cargo bay.

Despite Director Narag’s posturing, it seemed fairly certain that this would be the outcome. After all, the meeting was taking place in a building at the edge of Goh-San’s warehouse district, the crate in question already packed and sitting neatly on a pallet, surrounded by armed guards. Private security of Shinden Holdings, Jenny assumed. Well trained, but no match for troopers.

She exchanged a glance with Lux who was standing next to her. They were both bored and eager to move things along. Jenny let herself drift a little, zoning on the way the Captain’s high protocol uniform jacket displayed not just the breadth of her shoulders but also the upper part of her skiel, revealed for the introductions with an important client and left out on account of the fact that Director Narag had made no move to conceal his.

This of course bordered on rudeness and Jenny could almost feel the displeasure of the H’lorians who had fought with the Captain in the past. Still, it did afford Jenny an opportunity to ever so discreetly ogle at her Oath Holder, who really was quite a looker.

She had known that before, of course, but in a more abstract sense. Now, after a month of seeing Zadra in her quarters, relaxed after a meal, focused over her work, even playful on occasion as Jenny managed to draw her into providing an uncensored assessment of some of their clients, she had a whole new level of appreciation.

The downside of being alone with the object of her appreciation, however, was lack of any real opportunity to look her fill. At least not without being caught out. And – an occasional fantasy notwithstanding – Jenny didn’t think she was quite ready to be caught out just yet. Maybe ever.

She wasn’t being naïve. She knew each potential interpretation of the ‘my body for your body’ portion of the Oath, had known even before X’lir had been at pains to point it out in a conversation that had been extremely awkward for both.

Sexual service was well within remit of the Vlarian Oath. It didn’t have to be, of course, but it wasn’t exactly uncommon either. The legend of Zeves and Vlarian certainly strongly hinted at it, with several thinly veiled references to their ‘shining union’ that was ‘brighter than the stars’ and how their skiels intertwined like ‘vines grown from the same seed’. Didn’t exactly take a degree in anthropology to decipher that.

Still, Jenny hadn’t given it much thought before making her offer. Perhaps because at that point Zadra had still been Captain Maceer, the remote and reserved commander of the ship, to whom Jenny owed a debt she had no hope paying through any conventional means.

It was fair to say that Jenny was giving it some thought now. So far, this mostly centred on thinking of Zadra’s cool, smooth hands – so familiar now from the ritual acquiescence – touching her somewhere else besides her face, and trying to figure out how to offer to assistance with the nightly sand baths Zadra, like most H’lorians enjoyed. Right now though, standing in an anonymous warehouse in Goh-San and surrounded by troopers on all sides and half-listening to a tedious back-and-forth of business negotiations, Jenny found herself considering Zadra’s skiel.

Maybe it was because it was partly on display; a gorgeous curl of skie with their green and silver patterning spread over Zadra’s upper back like a shawl of sorts, except thick and powerful and very much alive. Maybe it was because the story of Zeves and Vlarian had reminded her that in addition to tool use and battle, a H’lorian’s skiel also played a part in other, more pleasurable pastimes.

Maybe it was because this was her Oath Holder, the one to whom Jenny had sworn her service, the one to whom she now yearned to give more still.

Jenny’s musings were interrupted by Lux’s elbow, colliding with her side forcefully, though without any pain thanks to her armour.

“Snap out of it!” Lux hissed. “We’re wanted.”

She was right. Their Sergeant was beckoning them forward, and beyond him, Director Narag, Captain Maceer and gaggle of senior officers and Shinden Holdings staff were waiting expectantly.

Jenny, Lux and rest of their unit trooped forward.

“Gamma Unit will be taking the lead on the transfer,” Captain Maceer was explaining. “They are…” She gave the group of troopers an appraising look. “Accomplished.”

It was maybe Jenny’s imagination, but she thought the Captain’s eyes had lingered on her just a fraction longer than on the others.

“Is that so?” Director Narag’s voice held more than an ounce of contempt. “Seems to me little more than a ragtag group of veterans and mercenaries, all a bit worn or…” His gaze fell on Jenny, so far hidden behind the H’lorians in her unit. “A human?” His face alighted with malicious glee. “You have a human among your ‘accomplished’ group of troopers? How… exotic.”

Jenny kept her expression impassive, her eyes carefully trained on the back wall. This wasn’t the first time someone had called attention to her mere existence. It was unlikely to be the last either.

So focused was she on not reacting that she almost missed one of Narag’s underlings taking liberties. A H’lorian with the long robes with White River Clan markings reached out, hands and a few of her skie extended with clear intention of touching. “This one might sweeten the deal,” she suggested, while Narag chuckled.

Jenny was a trained professional but nowhere in her job description did it say she ought to let strangers fondle her for the benefit of the trade agreement, so she ducked neatly out of the way of both hands and skie, twisting to the side and resisting the urge to pull her blaster.

The underling, however, never came close to actually making contact.

“Control your staff, Director,” Captain Maceer said. Her voice was cold as mid-winter and her hand was wrapped around the underling’s throat. “Or I will control them for you.”

All at once, the tension in the room ratcheted up several degrees. The Shinden private security guards shifted restlessly around the crate, eyes on the Director, waiting to see if their orders changed. The Sun Rose troopers all came to attention with an audible whisper of hands dropping to blaster holsters.

Jenny could not stop staring at Zadra. Under her iron hard grip, the grab-happy H’lorian wheezed.

Captain Maceer paid her no mind. Instead, her head turned toward Jenny. “Are you injured, Oath Keeper?” she asked.

Jenny shook her head, and then crossed her hands, one on top of the other in an x-shape just under her chin – the H’lorian equivalent. “No,” she said. “I am well.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed the exchange. You certainly could hear the sound that Narag’s underling made, collapsing to the ground once Zadra let go.

Her gaze flickered from Jenny to the others, and it was only then she seemed to realise what she’d said. For a moment, Jenny thought she might just ignore the revelation and its ramifications, but then she straightened up, her skiel gathering high, interlocking into three thick cords. A full intimidation display, the silver near gleaming.

Jenny swallowed.

“Then come to your Oath Holder,” Zadra said, hand extend toward her. “Come and take your place.”

In a haze that was two parts disbelief and one part pure lust, Jenny stepped closer until she was pulled closer still, pressed right against Zadra’s side, both her arm and the lower group of skie coming to rest around her waist.

A ripple of gasps and outright exclamations travelled through the Sun Rose contingent and the Shinden Holdings delegation both. Only Lux and X’lir were unsurprised by the revelation, though they too seemed taken back by the manner in which it had been made.

Director Narag, however, looked like he’d swallowed his own tongue and didn’t much care for it.


***


It took about five seconds until the whole ship knew. Okay, so maybe like a whole hour, but certainly by the time they – along with the crate of artefacts that Director Narag had finally relinquished after coughing his way through an apology – got back to Sun Rose, everyone seemed to know.

Jenny had stayed close to Zadra, figuring that if she wanted her to fall back in line with her unit, she’d tell her. But, if anything, the Captain had kept a proprietary hand or skie on her at all times. It made Jenny want to preen almost as much as it made her blush. The eyes of everyone they passed on the way to the bridge seemed to follow them, expressions on faces ranging from shock to kind of smug approval. X’lir later explained to her that a significant portion of the crew, especially those who had served with Captain Maceer before, had thought her too isolated, perhaps even lonely. A Vlarian Oath Keeper, even a human one, was apparently just the ticket and laid to rest some worries.

Once on the bridge, Zadra led her straight through and into her private office to the side of it. The First Officer assumed command smoothly, ordering the crew to start preparations for leaving Gon-Sah.

The door closed behind them with a quiet hiss of pressurised air.

Zadra finally let go of her, only to pace back and forth like a restless beast and then come right back into Jenny’s personal space, almost crowding her. She would’ve taken that as a cue to fold to her knees, but Zadra’s hands were back on her, gripping her tightly by the shoulders.

“Are you well, Jenny?” she asked, shaking her just a little. “Did she touch you?”

Jenny bit back a smile. The worry was completely out of proportion but instead annoying, it was kind of… appealing. Endearing even. “No,” she answered. “She did not get a chance.”

And then, because this really called for something formal, and because she wanted to, she pulled herself out of the Captain’s grip gently and kneeled at her feet. “Thank you, Oath Holder.”

Above her Zadra hummed, a low, deep sound that resonated inside Jenny’s chest and made every hair on her body stand on end. Zadra’s hand, palm cupped and waiting was a familiar sight, and Jenny nuzzled into it with more boldness than she had dared to show before, lips dragging over the smooth scales. She was gratified to hear the hitch in the humming, until it dropped another octave or two, a group of skie curling over the back of Jenny’s bent neck.


***


Things took on a new level of intensity after their status became common knowledge.

For one, Jenny was released from all other duties.

Sergeant Hosei was outraged that Jenny hadn’t thought to mention the whole business with the Oath before this.

“But… isn’t it supposed to be a private agreement, one that transcends roles?” she asked, squirming on the seat while Hosei lectured her about concealing critical information.

“Yes, obviously,” he said. “But it shifts your priorities. Your Oath Holder now comes first. There is no room for distractions like jobs, not unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

It did kind of make sense. All the material on the Vlarian Oath did urge people to make arrangements for family and other obligations, it’s just that Jenny hadn’t made the connection between that and her duties as a trooper. She was corrected on that now.

The outcome of the meeting with Hosei was that, barring a ship wide emergency that required all hands on deck, Jenny was relieved for the duration of her Oath.

“Neither of you thought to tell me about this before?” she pointedly asked Lux and X’lir later that afternoon when they were having dinner in the mess.

“Honestly… Didn’t think of it,” Lux said while X’lir shrugged apologetically. They both had the decency to look slightly shamefaced about it.

Jenny rolled her eyes but didn’t make a big deal out of it. It’s not like she had objections. She could hang out with her unit mates when they were off-duty and last night Zadra had mentioned something about maybe having some suggestions for other things Jenny could do, if she didn’t mind…

Considering this was the first time the Captain had actually asked for something rather than just accept Jenny’s acts of service that were half guesswork and not nearly as personal as she’d expected… No, Jenny did not mind.


***


Turned out that the requests still weren’t terribly personal. Filing a few years’ worth of correspondence and client contracts, updating a contacts list and re-organising a crew rota kept Jenny busy for some weeks. She didn’t mind, largely because she could see the approval and contentment on Zadra’s expression each time she discovered one of the necessary but ultimately low on the priority list tasks already done.

With approval also came praise. A short ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’ at first, almost as if Zadra wasn’t sure whether the boundaries of the Oath accommodated such things – after all, this was service that she could and should expect. But she must have noticed the way Jenny soaked in every word and gesture, spine straightening, a helpless smile stretching over face. Zeves help her, she wanted to make Zadra proud, make her happy and pleased so that she would look at Jenny like she was something unexpected and wonderful.

Someone whose presence had gone from necessity to a choice.

Now that Jenny was essentially free and at Zadra’s disposal around the clock – and didn’t that thought sent a delicious shiver of potential down her spine – the Captain decided to keep her Oath Keeper by her side as much as possible. Jenny became a silent participant in senior officer meetings, client negotiations and on the bridge. There she sat or knelt by the Captain’s chair, occasionally getting an absentminded but fond caress from a hand or a skie that seemed to slip out to wrap around Jenny’s wrist or tangle in her hair almost of its own volition.

In private, those touches seemed far more deliberate.

Jenny knew that hers certainly were. She would linger at each gesture of submission, kissing at Zadra’s palms, wrists, tips of her fingers. She would press herself against Zadra’s legs when sitting or kneeling beside her. She would offer to massage tired muscles, to help with bathing and rub fine, golden sand over her limbs and torso, marvelling at the way it made Zadra’s scales shine, the more delicate skin of her skiel almost glowing after Jenny’s careful ministrations. And perhaps she was just projecting, but Zadra’s reaction didn’t seem like mere tolerance of her Oath Keeper, like she was putting up with Jenny’s increasingly bold advances.

For one thing, Captain Maceer wasn’t the kind of person to do things she didn’t want to do or let them be done to her, not when it was a mere matter of saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’ or even ‘I would prefer it if…’ Even a hint of hesitation, or a move away at a critical point would have given Jenny the message, but no such signs were there, and she kept checking, even half-expecting them, each time.

For another, there was no doubt that her Oath Holder knew the intention behind Jenny’s behaviour, that it wasn’t just the Oath, or even desire to serve and pay her debt.

It was desire. Plain and simple. One Zadra could smell.

H’lorians had excellent olfactory sense. And whilst Zadra might not fully understand what she was smelling, Jenny was certain that the scent of her near constant arousal when in the Captain’s presence, particularly in private, was more than noticeable. The fact that it grew stronger when they were touching in any way had to be obvious too. It happened when Zadra’s skie wrapped around Jenny’s arms like vines during bathing and Jenny could feel herself get wetter at the thought of feeling them elsewhere on her body.

Everywhere on her body.

Each night Jenny returned to her own small cabin, body strumming with tension, barely getting through the door before pushing a hand into her trousers, shaking as she ground against the heel of her own hand, fingers dipping in though never deep enough.

Sometimes she would wait, string it out, make herself tidy what needed tidying, eat and drink, before undressing and neatly folding her clothes, laying out clean ones for the next day. She would imagine Zadra’s voice, telling her to be patient, to be good and do her chores. She would shower – with water, the units provided for her and the other humans of Sun Rose, an accommodation bordering on luxurious – and wash herself thoroughly and clinically, not lingering on the hard peaks of her nipples or the curve of her hips, biting down on the moans that threatened to escape when she ran the washcloth between her legs, each wipe only adding to the mess rather than cleaning it.

Afterwards, she would dry herself and rub lightly scented oil over any rough patches of skin. Sometimes, Jenny would dip her fingers into the jar and then roll her nipples between them, watching the now glistening skin grow redder, the feeling straddling the thin line between pleasure and pain. Sometimes, she got so caught up in the fantasy of Zadra watching her, Zadra telling her to do this, that she carried on until she could no longer stop the pained, mewling sounds that fell from her mouth without conscious thought.

Then she would kneel, the folded, still damp towel under her as she rested her upper body against her mattress and spread her legs. And she would wait, imagining she was here because her Oath Holder had asked it, demanded it, how she might say ‘down’ and ‘open’ and just look her fill, maybe touch her if Jenny begged good enough.

And she did beg, a quiet ‘please, please, please’ whispered into the damp space between her mouth and the sheets, while her legs trembled at holding the position.

When she could not stand it anymore, when her thighs were slick and her sex so swollen even the gentle draft of the air conditioning was torture, Jenny would finally slip a hand between her legs. It never took much, just a few quick circles of her fingers, until she was coming, her sobs muffled by her own fist, stuffed half-way into her mouth to keep quiet.


***


It went on for weeks, this curious holding pattern of shivering desire which Jenny didn’t know how to move from wanting to having. Outright asking was out of the question. The Vlarian Oath was very clear on whose body yielded for use, whose pleasure was subjugated. It was not her place to ask. She could only offer.

And wait.

It came to an end one evening. Sun Rose was docked at Phelsei 3 again, and Captain Maceer had been out all day, overseeing the delivery of the Shinden Holdings’ crate, finally at its destination. Uncharacteristically, she had told Jenny to stay on board, rather than accompany her as usual. There had been no explanation, just a somewhat terse ‘stay here’ when Jenny was done with helping the Captain into her formal uniform that morning.

Jenny had stayed, of course she had, but she hadn’t been happy about it. The day stretched, long and lonely, and thanks to her regular cleaning and administrative duties, there wasn’t a lot to keep her busy in the Captain’s quarters. She had gone out to eat at meal times, even stopping to chat with Tim and Ahmed and a few casual acquaintances – Lux and X’lir were out with the rest of the Gamma Unit. None of that seemed to fill more than a fraction of the day and none of it did much to help with her restlessness.

It was late by the time she could feel the ship’s engines starting again, a sure sign that they were leaving – no shore leaves this time around, maybe not ever again at this particular port – and that the Captain was back on board. However, it still took another hour until the bio lock to the cabin chimed and she walked through the door.

Zadra looked exhausted. Her skin had the kind of dull pallor that spoke of not enough food or liquid for too long, and the sleeve of her uniform was in tatters. Dried blood, the colour of red wine, stained the bandage under it. H’lorians had the same colour blood as humans, perhaps a bit darker. Absurdly, Jenny remembered how the discovery of that had smoothed the first contact between their two species more than a century ago.

“Oath Holder?” She’d risen to her feet and taken a few steps forward already, as if in a haze.

“I’m fine, Jenny,” Zadra said, and then immediately made a liar of herself by tripping over her own feet on the way toward a chair.

She would’ve fallen too if not for Jenny’s quick reflexes.

“Sure you are,” Jenny said, carefully lowering Zadra to the seat. Her skie which had instinctively shot out to grab for support when she lost her balance took a long while to untangle themselves from around Jenny’s arms and waist.

Jenny breathed through the grips that briefly tightened before letting her go.

“Have you been to the medical?” she asked.

Zadra nodded. “It’s nothing, just a scratch. Seemed Director Narag didn’t exaggerate about the level of protection his package required, after all.”

Jenny raised her eyebrows, carefully peeling back the Captain’s jacket. It was probably beyond repair. “Raid?”

“Raid,” Zadra confirmed. Then, likely seeing the worry fleeting over Jenny’s features, “No casualties, not for us. Everyone is safely back on board, your unit included.”

“That’s good. Now let me look at your arm.”

“The doctor’s already looked at it. Stop fussing, Oath Keeper!” The snap in her voice was so uncharacteristic that Jenny physically flinched, sitting back on her heels.

The flash of regret in Zadra’s eyes was almost instantaneous. “Jenny…” Her hand dropped down, palm cupped, a clear offer of reconciliation.

Gratefully, Jenny rubbed her cheek against it, pressing a kiss in the centre of Zadra’s palm. Her skin smelled of blood and disinfectant.

“I could use a bath though,” the Captain murmured after a minute. “Come help me, Oath Keeper.”

An order. Unequivocally so.

“Yes.” Jenny could feel the tremor in her own voice, despite the circumstances.

Zadra made it to the bathing chamber under her own steam, Jenny hovering a step behind, very obviously ready to catch her Oath Holder should the need arise. Once in the bathing chamber, Zadra took the proffered arm, leaning on it as she sat at the edge of the sandpit – a large shallow oval-shaped dip that was on a raised platform to make it easier to get in and out.

She regarded Jenny silently for a few seconds. When she spoke, her voice was a soft hiss, slurred with tiredness but plenty clear in its meaning “Undress me.”

Jenny swallowed, her stomach tightening. Still, the worry over the injury provided a useful distraction. However, once all the clothing was out of the way Zadra’s assessment of it seemed to be true after all. Most of the blood was dried, the medics clearly hadn’t bothered to clean up beyond the immediate area surrounding the wound.

Then there was nothing else to pay attention to except Zadra’s naked body, slowly laying herself down onto the waiting sands. Her skiel spread out like vines around her, her long limbs at rest, the bone ridges running down her chest and ribs, curving at hips and straight again at thighs.

With shaking hands, Jenny scooped up some of the sand, so fine it felt like silk, and started rubbing Zadra’s legs. She’d done this before of course, or at least parts of it, but never quite like this, with her Oath Holder fully undressed and laid down like an offering, or a goddess. Jenny certainly felt a reverence of sorts, a kind of trembling awe, spiked with more than a little arousal.

“You are good at this,” Zadra was saying, her dark eyes following Jenny as she moved around her, scrubbing away dirt and sweat with gentle hands. “I did not expect that.”

Jenny glanced up and not knowing what to say, she only nodded her thanks and continued. She lifted Zadra’s arms, first one, then the other, careful, careful around the injury, murmuring apologies when her Oath Holder hissed with discomfort.

“I did not expect you to enjoy this either,” she said. “But you are, aren’t you?”

Jenny, who had been in the process of smoothing the cleansing sand over the gentle swell of Zadra’s ribs and stomach, froze. With a sound like desert wind, the sand in her hands slipped out, running in rivulets over Zadra’s middle.

“That is what I have been smelling, is it not?”
 
She’d known this was coming of course, she wasn’t stupid and Vlarian knew the Captain wasn’t, but she just hadn’t expected it now.

“Oath Keeper.” The tone of Zadra’s voice had changed, an edge of sharpness creeping in that tugged at something hot and primal inside Jenny. “Look at me.”

And then Jenny had no choice. One of Zadra’s skie pushed under her jaw, tilting Jenny’s head up firmly.

“I have been smelling your arousal, have I not, Oath Keeper?”

Jenny knew she must be able to smell her right now, could feel herself getting wet, from touching Zadra. From the way she was held in place, unable to refuse an answer.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m…” Not sorry, she wasn’t sorry, but… “I wasn’t…”

“But you have, I think,” Zadra said. She was sitting up now, shaking her skiel to remove the sand still clinging to it, and then bringing every single one of her skie around to curl around Jenny’s arms, wrists, hair, shoulders, neck, until she was wrapped tight, held immobile.

“You have been taking your pleasure,” she said. “On your own.”

Jenny jerked in surprised but of course there was nowhere to go. “You… Oath Holder, I…”

“Did you forget your Oath so easily, hmm?” She pulled Jenny closer. “Your body for my body, remember?”

She did. She just hadn’t thought…

But apparently Zadra had.

“You know there is another translation for those words?” she asked, trailing a finger over Jenny’s cheek almost contemplatively. “Some texts on the Vlarian Oath use ‘pleasure’ instead ‘body’.”

Jenny shivered. Under her shirt her nipples had hardened into pebbles, goose bumps erupting all over as she struggled not to squirm. It’s not that she wanted to get away anyway and if she squirmed Zadra’s skiel would only tighten more and then Jenny would not be able to stop herself from begging.

Your pleasure,” Zadra said, all of a sudden releasing her and pulling away. “For my pleasure.

Jenny stared, reeling. Her Oath Holder was reclining in the sandpit, leaning on her elbows and some of her skie, others moving restlessly over her own body. Slowly, deliberately, she spread her legs.

Jenny’s gaze dropped, openly looking at what she’d avoided before out of a vain attempt to preserve her dignity. H’lorian physiology wasn’t drastically different from that of other humanoids. Sure, there were additional limbs, different colouring, texture, bone structure etc compared with humans, but the basics were similar enough to be compatible.

Jenny even knew that from personal experience.

There was no question what Zadra wanted. She did, however, seem to be waiting to see Jenny’s reaction rather than ordering.

“Please,” Jenny said. “Yes, this, I want… Please.”

It was the right thing to say. Zadra’s face creased into a pleased smile and she widened her legs further, giving Jenny room to crawl in between them.

She tasted… Hot was the first thing that came to mind, like the heat of the earth packed tight under midsummer sun, the contrast to her otherwise cool skin making it all the more noticeable. Underneath that was a darker taste still, like bitter wine or green leaves, and Jenny let it soak into her mouth, over her lips and chin as she licked, dipping deeper in slow, flat sweeps of her tongue. One of Zadra’s hands, and several of her skie had come down to tangle in Jenny’s hair. The heel of her foot rested against the small of her back, further pinning her in place as Zadra rubbed herself against Jenny’s mouth, hips snapping up sharply, low ululation of sound an audible proof of her approval.

She came in waves, little ones at first but quickly crashing one over another, her release staining the sand underneath, grains sticking to the damp scales on her inner thighs, into Jenny’s hands. After, when Zadra’s tremors had subsided to an occasional shiver, Jenny rubbed the sand off gently, resuming the bathing.

Eventually, Zadra wrapped a hand around her wrist, stopping her. “Good,” she said, sitting up, looking more relaxed than before though still clearly exhausted from the day. Her second eyelids flickered in, a sure sign of tiredness. “You did good, Oath Keeper.”

The praise made Jenny preen, to want to prove just how much better she still could do, if given a chance. “Thank you.” She pressed her face to Zadra’s palm, kissed each of her fingers in turn. “Thank you.”

Zadra hummed, and then very obviously sniffed the air. “You did not peak.”

It wasn’t a question but Jenny answered it anyway. “No,” she said. “Not yet.” She was more turned on than she ever remembered being, aching with the need to be touched, knew she’d soaked through her undergarments and struggling to not just rub herself against Zadra’s leg like some kind of animal in heat.

“Good,” Zadra said, humming with obvious pleasure at the thought. “Don’t. Not yet. Not until I say so.”

Jenny could feel her whole body shudder, muscles clenching desperately in protest… And then slowly relax. “My body for your body,” she repeated the Oath, feeling it settle over her with a new sense of calmness. “My pleasure for your pleasure.


***


She did not return to her cabin that night. But neither did she come.

Zadra’s bed chamber was dim, almost cave like, with a large sleeping nest curving into the very wall, with only a minimal amount of actual floor space. Despite her insistence of the injury not being anything serious, she was clearly relieved to lie down amidst the pillows and covers.

“Stay?” This one was a question, not an order, and the skie wrapped around Jenny’s arm was loose and pliant, easy to shake off if she wanted.

Wordlessly, Jenny climbed up and let herself be pulled close. Sleep claimed them both quickly.


***


In the morning, Jenny woke up to Zadra straddling one of her thighs, slowly rocking back and forth, eyes trained on Jenny’s face. She must have kicked out of her clothes at some point during the night or perhaps her Oath Holder had simply undressed her whilst she slept – the thought of just being prepared like that sent a delicious shiver through her – because she was naked barring underwear.

Against her thigh Zadra was already wet and getting wetter, each smooth thrust pushing her knee between Jenny’s own legs. She blinked, her conscious mind still fuzzy but catching up fast, and body waking up with a jolt.

Desire slammed into her like a fist and just like that she went from sleepily aroused to desperate, in a spate of a few heartbeats.

“Oh, oh god, please, I want to…” She reached up, hoping she was allowed to touch and almost sobbing in gratitude when Zadra leaned down into her hands. Her skiel flared and all at once each skie alighted on Jenny’s body, lifting her thigh up just so, helping her arch her back, a couple curiously sliding over her breasts and then returning to do it again and again to wrench broken cries with every swipe and tap and pinch of her nipples.

The bone ridges of Zadra’s thigh and knee where almost painful against her but even that felt good and Jenny ground herself into every push shamelessly, chasing her pleasure.

But it was not to be. “No!” Zadra’s voice was guttural. “Do not.”

Jenny cried, desperate. “Please? I’m… Please, anything?”

“How many?” Zadra asked.

“Wh… What?” It was torture, trying to pull herself back from the edge enough to understand what her Oath Holder wanted.

“How many times did you take your pleasure without me, without my permission?”

Jenny’s eyes widened. “I don’t, I…”

“Think! How many?”

Oh god, she had… She had brought herself off almost every night over the last few weeks. “A… a score maybe?” Surely it was better to err on the side of too many than too little?

Zadra made a series of clicking noises and Jenny realised she was laughing, not meanly but like Jenny had just given her something joyous. “Oh, Oath Keeper,” she said, breathlessly and quickened her pace, guiding one of Jenny’s hands to the space between her legs. “Make me come,” she ordered. “Seems I have some catching up to do.”


***


Turned out Zadra was serious about her promise of evening the score – pun intended. For each time Jenny had taken her pleasure after bathing, touching, serving, daydreaming of her Oath Holder, she would take hers now. With Jenny’s mouth, fingers, body. Without letting her come.

Jenny begged a lot, during the week that followed. Not for her own release but for Zadra’s. In turn, it was incoherent mewling when Zadra rode her face, a low whine when Zadra unceremoniously grabbed her hand and used her like a toy for her own pleasure, or an enthusiastic “Yes, please, please” when she turned her around just to run smooth hands and not-so-blunt nails over her back and ass, smacking it repeatedly when she discovered just what noises Jenny would make at that, how much she would beg for more, harder, pushing into the touch.

She no longer wore clothes when in her Oath Holder’s rooms.

“I want to see you,” Zadra said, her skie already slipping under Jenny’s tunic, tugging at the waistband of her trousers. “I can smell your arousal. All the time, Oath Keeper. Now show it to me.”

Beyond words, Jenny stripped, folding her clothes neatly like she’d done on her own – something Zadra seemed to find both amusing and endearing.

“Over there.” She indicated one of the chairs, taking a seat opposite, close enough to see but too far to touch. “Open your legs, let me see.”

Jenny did, hooking her knees over chair arms, flushing hot with mixture of squirming, delicious embarrassment and arousal. She was wet and swollen and unable to help a moan when Zadra told her to spread herself open further still, parting herself with her fingers, her clit exposed to the cool air of the room and aching.

Zadra leaned forward, nostrils flaring as she took in Jenny’s scent. “Touch yourself,” she said and low, breathless growl in her voice told Jenny that she wasn’t the only one affected here. “I want to see.”

There was only so much Jenny could do without making herself tip over the perilous edge she’d been teetering on for days now, but she did it all; scratching her arms and legs, pinching her nipples into hard peaks, leaving red, angry marks into the sensitive skin of her inner thighs. Slowly, lightly running fingertip over her folds, circling her clit in stops and starts, afraid of pushing herself over by accident.

Over on the other chair, Zadra was touching herself too. “Do you… Do you like something inside you?” she asked, eyes trained on Jenny’s opening.

Her reply was to dip two of her fingers in, her walls slick and hot and clenching desperately. “Yeeesss.” The word was punched out of her, slurred and greedy and her gaze flitted between Zadra’s hands, busy between her own legs, and her skiel, reaching out.

She brought herself off like that, watching Jenny keep herself on the edge, fucking herself slow and precise, mouth open around a rhythmic, hitching moan she could not rein in.


***


It quickly became a routine. Upon entering the captain’s quarters, Jenny would undress. If Zadra was in the mood for something beyond watching, she would do that too. And all the while, Jenny was not allowed to come.

This too felt good, doing what was asked, ordered. For so long it had seemed as if Zadra merely tolerated the services offered by her Oath Holder, acting within the letter of the Vlarian Oath but not the spirit of it. There was a debt to be paid and Zadra had not been getting the full price.

Well, she was now. And for Jenny… A new kind of pleasure arose, one found in obedience. It didn’t mean she stopped making decisions or taking initiative, or even ever so gently nudging Zadra into behaviours she often neglected, things like having meals, taking breaks, making time for rest and play. The latter was easier now that Jenny could distract her with a well-placed caress, or even an outright request. “Oath Holder,” she would say, already on her knees, already visibly aroused. “Will you let me touch you? Please? I need it.” And she did, craving Zadra’s pleasure while her own remained out of reach.

Zadra must have been keeping score, but Jenny lost count of how many times she had made her Oath Holder come. It meant that when she finally judged Jenny’s denial to be over, it came as a complete surprise to her.


***


They were in the bed chamber. Zadra had already come once, writhing against Jenny’s mouth but it was clear they weren’t done yet.

Looking dazed and dishevelled and happy, she sat up, pulling Jenny’s shaking body to her, nuzzling their cheeks together. “Good, good,” she praised. “So good for me.” Her hands ran over Jenny’s body, making her shiver and then cry out when Zadra’s fingers trailed over her dripping sex. “So desperate for release, aren’t you?”

Jenny could only nod, fighting not to push against the delicate touch.

“Come on,” Zadra said, turning her around and pushing her to her hands and knees. “Show me how much you want me.”

They had done this before, Jenny knew what was expected and she spread her knees, pillowed her head on her arms, arched her back and pushed her ass up. The position alone, being on display, so open for anything Zadra chose to do, caused another wave of arousal, and she could feel wetness sliding down her legs, sobbing when Zadra’s tongue flicked out to taste it.

“Do not come yet,” she commanded, which was the only warning Jenny got before the intense but all too brief intrusion as Zadra pushed her tongue right into her, then back out again, leaving Jenny gasping.

“You taste good, Oath Keeper,” she said. “Like honour and obedience. Like surrender.” The sound of her hand hitting the tender skin just under Jenny’s ass was loud. The sound of Jenny’s cries when the smack was followed by another, and another, and another still, was even louder. Each hit jolted her forward, made her muscles contract around nothing.

“What if I…” And then Zadra’s skie were there, spreading her even wider apart and her hand came down right over Jenny’s exposed sex, a quick one-two-three of slaps that made her jerk and thrash and almost pushed her over.

Zadra hummed, obviously pleased with the results. Then, before Jenny had a chance to recover, she pulled her up and down again, into the open vee of her legs until they were sitting against the wall of the nest, Jenny’s back to Zadra’s front.

Jenny’s legs fell open automatically, her hands clamping on Zadra’s thighs. The embrace felt good.

It got impossibly better when each of Zadra’s skie curled around, securing around Jenny’s arms, torso, legs, until she was fully spread open and pinned down tight. Her whole body arched with the pleasure of it, muscles straining as she pushed against her Oath Holder’s grip, not to get away but to feel it even better.

“Oh Vlarian, please, please, Zadra…” She turned her head, lips landing on the underside of Zadra’s jaw, and this close she could feel the vibration of her laughter.

“Let’s see how long you can hold out,” Zadra said, “Until you come.”

The certainty of that, the promise, almost passed her by, so focused was Jenny on the delicious constriction of Zadra’s skie. Almost.

“Oh.” It came out like a sob. “You will let me…?”

“Eventually,” Zadra said. “Eventually.” And then she was touching Jenny everywhere, all at once. Hands and skie trailed over her face, tracing the curve of lips, dipping briefly inside. They curled around her ribcage, grabbing at her breasts roughly and then with teasing, torturous precision until Jenny could no longer tell which approach she preferred. Her skin turned pink, slick with sweat that sprang up as she writhed and moaned, straining to open her legs even wider.

“Something you want, Oath Keeper?” Zadra asked, her fingers pressing into Jenny’s hips, the yielding flesh of her thighs, surely leaving bruises behind. “This perhaps?” Then – praise Zeves – they came to rest on top of Jenny’s mound, idly scratching through the damp hair.

“Please, please, inside, I want…”

One of Zadra’s skie slid down, moulding itself tightly over her sex, the tip of it tantalizingly close to her opening.

“Work for it,” Zadra said. “Make me believe you want it.” The grip on Jenny’s legs and torso eased, enough to allow movement.

It was all the permission she needed. Jenny’s hips snapped up, her swollen sex sliding against the smooth, scaled curve of the skie. Each lift pushed the tip of it further inside her until Jenny fucking herself on it, her orgasm swelling just out of reach, because Zadra hadn’t said she could yet.

Distantly, she could hear herself; an incoherent mess of pleads in at least two languages, interspersed with wordless wailing, her muscles screaming at her from the strain.

“Beautiful. Now stay still.” The restraint was back, skie tightening around Jenny again until she could no longer move. “My turn.”

Jenny expected Zadra to demand her pleasure now, but that’s not what she meant. Her hand reached down, fingers rubbing over Jenny’s clit and spreading her open, making room for not one, but two skie to push deep inside her, no hesitation.

Jenny keened. She could do nothing but lie there and take it, the relentless onslaught of pleasure pulling her under, every nerve-ending lighting up as she was taken apart, stuffed full and greedy for more.

“Give it up, Oath Keeper,” Zadra whispered. “Let me have it, Jenny. It is mine, after all. Just like you.”

In the end, there was no choice about it. Denied for over a week, her body in a constant state of arousal, overstimulated almost beyond bearing, it was never going to take a lot. This, a dual assault of Zadra’s fingers over her clit, the skie pushing inside her in perfect, alternating rhythm, and – most importantly of all – her Oath Holder’s permission that she could, that she was finally allowed, pushed her over almost as soon as Zadra demanded it.

For a second or two, the sensation was so intense it didn’t even register as pain or pleasure, but something that almost transcended both. Then, like an avalanche, the pleasure crashed into her, shaking her apart and pulling her under.

She didn’t know how long it went on but when she resurfaced, her throat felt raw and her whole body ached, even her hair and fingernails, even her teeth felt sore, like she’d been biting down on something.

Behind her Zadra was crooning, her limbs still wrapped tightly around her, repeating Jenny’s name over and over again, her voice thick with satisfaction.


***


In the months that followed, they settled into a new pattern, one that brought pleasures of mind and body to them both. That the Vlarian Oath between the Captain and her human Oath Keeper had taken on a physical dimension was quickly apparent to all. Largely, because Zadra made no secret of it, touching Jenny as a lover would openly, if still within the limits of public appropriateness. And Jenny, taking her Oath Holder’s lead in this as in other matters, did the same.

No one even pretended to be surprised, not even her friends. It was as if everyone had used up the shock quota over the Captain’s Oath Holder being a human, and there was none left for the fact that they were obviously enjoying every aspect of their bond.

“Thought it was inevitable,” X’lir said.

“I mean, she’s really hot,” Tim said. “Why wouldn’t you hit that, given a chance?”

Everyone else looked at him aghast, except for Ahmed who just rolled his eyes. “My husband, everyone,” he said. “The very nature of discretion.”

Despite the jesting, it was good not to have to either hide or defend the nature of their… relationship? arrangement? and Jenny was glad her friends took it in their stride.

As it was, everyone soon got rather too busy for gossip. Sun Rose scored another job with Shinden Holdings, this one even bigger and more perilous than the last one. Jenny knew that the offer had taken Captain Maceer by surprise but only because she was the only one there when the message reached her communications unit.

“Perhaps Director Narag was impressed by the way you are upholding a noble H’lorian tradition,” Jenny suggested from the floor where she was sitting cross-legged, going through last week’s logbooks. “Even if with an exotic human.”

Zadra huffed in amusement. “I think he’s just capitalising on our success the first time around. And has probably failed at finding anyone else with a big enough trooper crew to do it.”

Good enough trooper crew, I think you mean.”

A hand stroked through her hair fondly. “A good enough trooper crew,” Zadra agreed.


***


The second Shinden Holdings job was followed by a third, and then the government of Hensei came calling and Sun Rose was co-opted as a diplomatic vessel for several months that saw a varying combination of dignitaries traipse through its corridors. With that came something Jenny had never expected would form any part of her Oath.

“What do you mean, a formal dinner?”

Zadra sighed, rubbing the ridges on her forehead tiredly. “I mean, please put on your dress uniform and accompany me to a dinner with the Head Minister of Hensei and her partners. I believe the Transport Advisory is there also and – I don’t know if you’ve noticed this – but since we’re a big damn transport ship regularly using Hensei ports and space, it would benefit us to get on their good side.”

Jenny put on her dress uniform and accompanied her Oath Holder to the dinner. At first, she was somewhat annoyed at being left with the various spouses, partners and dates of the actual guests but pretty soon it became obvious that this is where the real information exchanged hands. The Head Minister’s fifth husband was still young enough not to watch his words and at the end of the evening Jenny had quite a few juicy titbits to report.


***


All in all, life was good. And never boring. When Jenny had made her oath, she had imagined cooking and cleaning and service of a more… personal nature. And while all of that still happened, it turned out that being a V’larian Oath Keeper opened all sorts of door behind which all sorts of opportunities resided.

“Was there anything in the story of Zeves and Vlarian that hinted at some spy hijinks?” Jenny asked one night, curled against Zadra as they scrolled through the contents of an info chip she had liberated from offices of a suspected saboteur whilst left to meekly kneel on the floor.

“No, not really,” Zadra said, two of her skie lazily trailing over Jenny’s bare back. “But then again… There wouldn’t be, would there?”

She reached over to place the display unit to the floor and then rolled Jenny under her. Seemed the espionage portion of the evening was done.


***


Jenny had been keeping track of time, of course she had, at the back of her mind.

Or so she thought.

When she rose that morning and Zadra didn’t immediately follow her out of the nest, she didn’t think anything of it. When Zadra refused a beverage or Jenny’s help at dressing up, it was somewhat more out of character. But it wasn’t until Jenny went to press her face to Zadra’s palms, and she turned the gesture into a slow stroke of her face instead that Jenny finally realised something was very wrong.

“Oath Holder?” She stood up, catching Zadra by the arm just as she was about to walk out of the door. “What is the matter?”

Zadra turned back but didn’t let go of the doorframe, clearly reluctant but still unwilling to outright ignore Jenny’s question. Or her worry. She regarded Jenny silently for a moment and then her expression crumbled, just for a split second.

“Jenny,” she said, gentle, tilting her head to the side. “Oath Keeper. You really do not remember?”

“Remember what?”

“One year has gone by,” Zadra said. “Soon you will no longer be beholden to your oath. Or to me.”

“No!” Jenny reeled back as if slapped. “A year… already? Can’t be.” But she knew that Zadra was right, had known this day was coming but deliberately pushed it out of her mind.

“It is.” Her Oath Holder smiled like she knew exactly what Jenny had done. “And it is what you swore. One year and one day.”

“And one night still,” Jenny whispered. She had pressed close now, inserting herself into Zadra’s embrace like she belonged there. Like it was her right. Because she did. Because it was. “Until the dawn breaks.”

“Until the dawn breaks,” Zadra echoed. Her eyes were sad, but devoid of any regret.

“Then spend them with me,” Jenny pleaded. “Today. Tonight. Don’t… Don’t go. Spend them with me.”

A beat of silence. Then Zadra let go of the door and let it slide closed, shutting out the rest of the world.


***


When Jenny woke up, she was alone. The dawn – or the hour denoting it on some planet where suns set and rose – was long over. She rolled out of the sleeping nest and got dressed. The memories of last night were scattered all over her body, bruises blossoming at her thighs and hips, breasts, arms, the side of her neck. Zadra might already be gone but she had left her mark. The smile on Jenny’s face was shaky, but it was there.

She walked out to the main room and looked around her. Nothing was different, though somehow she’d feared it would be. She didn’t feel any different either.

Good. Good.

She settled in to wait.


***


It was late by the time the bio lock chimed, indicating Zadra’s return.

Jenny had turned the lights low, except for the one illuminating the seats and the table, which was set for two. Slowly, she rose from the chair where she had been waiting, turning to face the Captain’s stunned expression. It was clear she had not expected this.

“Oath Hol…” Jenny swallowed, started again. “Zadra. How was your day?” Nervously, she twisted her hands together.

Zadra looked at her, then at the waiting dinner, and then back again. “Awful,” she said, after a moment, voice hoarse. “But now…” Her features were slowly creasing into a tentative smile.

“Better?” Jenny asked, feeling bolder.

“Much,” Zadra confirmed. She took a step closer, hands coming to frame Jenny’s face. “This for me?” she asked, and it could have referred to the meal, but it didn’t.

“Yes,” Jenny said, pressing a kiss into Zadra’s palm like she had done every day for the last year, a day and one night still. “For you.”