Marlix eyed the shopkeeper finalizing a transaction with a customer. “Terran.” He spat to expel a sour taste from his mouth. “Female.” He speared his beta, Urazi, with a sharp glance. “Are you certain this is the right place? That she
has what I need?”
Urazi nodded and pointed to the sign. TEXTILES BY TARA.
Marlix scrutinized the vendoress. She was clothed in a garish mottled green-and-brown uniform. “She walks like a male with an overabundance of confidence,” he said, denouncing her as he continued his appraisal. Terrans did not attain the height of Parseons—although this one’s legs stretched surprisingly long for a creature as small as she.
“That she does,” Urazi agreed. “But her…plumage…is quite…” He paused, struggling to extract a word. “Fowl-like.”
.” Marlix nodded. Even the bright feathers of the indigenous bird could not compare with the hues of the female’s shock of pink hair or her bare right arm, which appeared to be…purple
. Marlix exhaled. “We tarry,” he said. “Let us complete our transaction and depart.” He shuddered. “I do not know how Commander Dak tolerates these people
.” Interacting with a Terran violated everything he believed. If he could, he would banish every single alien back to his—or her—planet. Yet circumstances forced him to engage in commerce with one. He hated that the female owned something he wanted.
Let us get this unpleasant business over with
. Marlix threw back his shoulders and entered the pink-haired female’s stall.
“Thank you for the business.” The vendoress bestowed a wide smile on her beta customer, and the male’s mouth curved in response until he noticed Marlix. His congeniality vanished, and the color bled from his face. The beta snapped a hasty salute, clutched his purchase under his arm, and scurried from the store. Two other customers who had been browsing quickly exited as well.
The vendoress planted her boot-shod feet wide apart, anchored her hands on her hips, and glared at him. “Well, you do know how to clear a room.” Her tone and countenance glowered with enough disrespect to warrant punishment by themselves but on no account should a female address an Alpha without prior acknowledgement. Had she been Parseon, Marlix would have disciplined her. But the treaty with Terra awarded her diplomatic immunity. Pity.
He motioned for Urazi to deal with her and walked away. She muttered something in her language that sounded like “jackass,” but Marlix didn’t speak enough Terran to understand the meaning. He pretended to examine a bolt of fabric as green as new spring growth. Its weave appeared finer than most Parseon textiles, but it was far too bright. Who would wear such an inappropriate color? He tightened his lips with disgust. The Terran female probably would. Her hair was pink!
“How may I help you?” she purred to Urazi in a syrupy voice.
“You have a fabric that is impenetrable to projectiles,” Marlix’s beta stated.
A length of pale cloth caught Marlix’s eye. Despite his irritation with the female, he strode across the room to inspect it. He rubbed his hand across its surface and found it to be smoother than anything he’d encountered. “What is this?” He glanced over his shoulder and found the vendoress eying him with distrust.
“Silk,” she snapped. The ire tinting her face drew his attention to its unblemished perfection, her cheeks appearing even smoother than the fabric that snagged on his rough hands.
“We wish to purchase some.” Ever efficient, Urazi remained focused on their purpose.
“Silk?” She arched her eyebrows, one ringed by a metal loop.
Marlix gave an imperceptible shake of his head in disapproval. The only body part suitable for piercing was the right nipple, and then only to attach one’s identification insignia.
Urazi snorted in exasperation. “No. The fabric that cannot be penetrated by projectiles.”
“What do you want it for?”
Marlix had tolerated far too much of her obstreperous behavior. “That is not your concern.” He confronted her. “Do you have it, or do you not?” This close to her, he could see that what had appeared as solid purple from afar was actually a vine of distinct red-and-blue flowers winding from shoulder to wrist. Surely she could not have been born that way? Warriors sometimes painted their faces, but her design appeared permanent.
She thrust out her small chin in an insolent way. The top of her pink head failed to even meet his collarbone, but what struck him most was the unnatural color of her eyes, like a meadow after a soaking rain. The Parseon people had golden eyes, sometimes blue, and, in a rare genetic anomaly, purple, but never green. Her bold manner and unusual eyes reminded him of a feleen
cub, pouncing and attacking with foolish brazenness, unaware it had not matured from prey to predator. Full of hiss and spit, but harmless. Yes, she was just like that. Annoyance melted into amusement. He folded his arms and stared down at her, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.
“How much do you need?” She spoke as if she were gritting her teeth.
“Enough for forty uniforms. Half in light gray, half in brown.” That would be enough to outfit his alpha subcommanders, members of his personal guard, and his beta support staff. “And enough dark gray for a uniform for myself. I will purchase more later—if
the fabric does what you claim.” He’d been present during Commander Tarbek’s attempted assassination of his brother, Dak, who’d been wearing a shirt sewn from the fabric. He’d witnessed the cloth deflect the dagger. Marlix did not question its properties. He baited the vendoress for sport.
His taunt hit its mark. The female’s eyes flashed, and she jutted her chin higher. “That will be twenty-five gilia
Urazi gasped at the outrageous price, but Marlix shrugged. “Fine.” He would not quibble over cost. As a wealthy Alpha, money did not concern him, and the lifesaving properties of the fabric made it worth every gilia anyway.
“Shall I have it couriered, or will you carry it with you?”
“We will take it,” Urazi said.
“Very well.” She clomped across the wooden floor to grab an entire bolt of light gray off a shelf, then shoved it into Urazi’s arms. “I must retrieve the rest from the stockroom.”
With a frown, Marlix’s beta hefted the gray material in his arms. “It weighs almost nothing. Are you sure this is the correct fabric?” Suspicion etched his voice.
“Do you doubt me?” She responded to Urazi’s question but scowled at Marlix. She so much resembled a hissing feleen cub, Marlix would have laughed, except for the warming in his loins. In contrast to this Terran, Parseon breeders were meek creatures. He’d never taken a female who’d demonstrated as much fire as this one. What would it be like, he wondered? Would she claw at him, or would she submit?
Had she been a breeder, he would have been within his rights to shove her to the floor and find out. But the treaty prevented him from using Terran females in that manner, and Parseon faced enough problems without causing a diplomatic incident. But he did take full liberty to study again the softness of her skin, the length of her legs, and the points of her nipples tenting her uniform. She dressed like the people of her race, covering her entire torso. She did not bare the right side of her chest the way Parseon people did to reveal their insignia.
As unbelievable as it seemed, Terrans did not recognize status. They considered all people to be equal
, one of many issues shaking an already uneasy alliance. Who could trust a race that lacked discernment?
He inspected the vendoress’s chest again. Given the breast-baring construction of the beige shifts breeders wore, female mammary glands held few secrets. But the fact that this vendoress had hidden hers aroused his curiosity. Did she have round breasts or conical ones? Long, thick nipples or small ones?
“Hey, buddy. My eyes are up here!” She snapped her fingers in front of her face.
Marlix frowned in confusion. “I am aware of the location of your eyes. Besides your pink hair, I noticed them right away. Tell me, are all females on your planet similarly hued?”
“You don’t get out much, do you?” She planted her hands on her hips. The motion drew his attention to her mammary glands again.
“I am out now,” Marlix answered in all honesty but got the impression he’d annoyed her again when she tsked.
“I’ll get the rest of your order.” She stomped away, muttering something about a pig
. She disappeared behind a curtained entrance.
“What is a pig?” Marlix consulted with Urazi.
“Let me research it on the translator.” His beta tucked the bolt under his arm, unclipped his Personal Communication Device, and tapped into it. He raised his head. “A domesticated porcine mammal indigenous to the planet Terra.”
“What about a jackass?”
Urazi tapped and peered at his PCD. “A domesticated member of the equine family. Male.” He looked up. “I am not sure, Commander—” His beta exhaled. “But I suspect pig and jackass are derogatory terms.”
“That was my impression.” Marlix threw back his head and laughed.
Urazi stared in amazement. “You are not offended?”
He shook his head. “She is harmless. And she is as colorful in her speech as she is in her appearance.” He had expected to be disgusted by his interaction with a Terran, and a female no less, but found he’d enjoyed himself. He could not remember the last time anyone had amused him so.
The curtain was flung aside, and Tara marched out. She threw the roll of brown fabric at Urazi along with a length of dark gray. “Twenty-five gilia,” she demanded.
Urazi counted out the coin and handed it to her.
“Thank you for your purchase. Come again. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass,” she said, sounding not at all sincere in her gratitude, invitation, or expression of concern.
OF ALL THE nerve! Tara Diehl’s pulse thundered with anger, remnants of fear, and something else she refused to identify as the two males left. As they exited the shop, her assistant, Ramon Ortiz, swept in. He did a double take. Tara could see Ramon practically drool with appreciation.
“There goes a hunk of man flesh,” her clerk gushed after her unpleasant customers had disappeared into the crowd. “If I didn’t already have plans tonight, I’d call dibs on the sexy one.”
“The one in dark gray?” she asked. He might be Ramon’s type, but there was nothing about the Alpha’s tall, muscled body or chiseled facial features she found sexy.
Ramon shook his head. “No. The one in brown. With chin-length hair. The beta. The alpha scared the crap out of me.”
“That’s because he was Alpha,” Tara explained, adding the special inflection on the first letter to indicate he was one of the five ruling Commanders of the planet and not just an ordinary alpha male of status.
“No shit?” Ramon whispered.
“No shit,” she said. The Commander had worn the standard Parseon uniform in dark Alpha gray. The shirt cut diagonally across his beefy chest to bare the right side and display his nipple insignia. But even without the identifiers, there could be no doubt. Without their uniforms, one might have some trouble differentiating between alphas and betas, but an Alpha stood a head above them all. She’d recognized him for what he was the moment she’d spied him glowering outside her fabric store.
Don’t come in here. Don’t come in here
. She’d attempted to ward him off with a telepathic mantra. Spotting him in the aisle had been akin to discovering the bogeyman under the bed existed for real. She’d heard about the Alphas of Parseon, of course, but in the two years she’d been on the planet, while she’d met plenty of alphas, she’d never come face-to-face with any of the ruling Commanders. She’d never met a fiercer warrior in all her life, in all her travels, and at the age of twenty-nine, she’d hadn’t been born yesterday.
The Alpha’s shoulders had stretched a kilometer across. Power and strength bulged in his arms and tree-trunk-like thighs. She’d had to crane her neck to meet his golden gaze. He’d commented on her coloring, but she’d never seen his shade of amber anywhere else. The eyes of a predator, she’d thought.
The males in this part of the universe held some backward beliefs about women, and she’d accepted her responsibility to educate them by word and deed. So she had to set an example to demonstrate what women were made of.
Rendered animal byproducts.
Her legs still trembled from the effects of his presence. It had taken every milliliter of courage she possessed not to cower in his presence, to face him as an equal. The arrogance with which he’d looked down his haughty but perfect nose had helped her ignore how intimidated she’d felt. In retrospect, she realized she’d acted a tad rudely—would never have treated another customer in such a discourteous manner. But he’d set her teeth on edge when he’d chased off her customers and addressed her as if speaking to her was beneath him. He acted like he ruled the entire planet and not just one province!
“Which Alpha do you think he was?” Ramon asked.
“I know he wasn’t Commander Dak. Omra has shown me images of him.” Tara had become friends with Omra, Dak’s breeder, who was a frequent customer. The Market and its Terran Bazaar was located in Dak’s province, but due to its success, it drew people from the other provinces. But she’d never expected an Alpha
From the stockroom, she’d heard the rich, insulting rumble of his mirth. Parseons rarely smiled. Yet his handsome face had borne a smirk the entire time he’d been in her shop. And laughter? About as rare as a trey moon. Yet she
had served as the object of his humor. The butt of some Alpha joke. Oh, a chance existed the Commander had been chuckling at something else, but she’d place the odds at 99 percent he’d been making fun of her.
Anger had shimmered, and she’d allowed him to leave without informing him the material could only be sewn with special alloy needles. Impenetrable to bullets, daggers, and projectiles, the composite cloth could not be pierced by ordinary sewing implements. The males would not be able to use the fabric they had bought.
In effect, she’d sold a ruling Alpha bum goods. And, still acting out of ire, she’d overcharged him.
But the arrogant, sexist ass had deserved it. From her briefings and personal research, Tara knew Protocol embodied laws, customs, and traditions—but not manners or chivalry. Those did not exist on the planet. She couldn’t believe the blatant way the Commander had checked her out. The man was an oaf. Her retaliation had been justified!
But what kind of example did you set?
For most Parseon citizens, the vendors were the first and only Terrans they would ever meet. Every shopkeeper served as an unofficial envoy of their planet. And until now, she’d considered herself honest.
“What did you get us for lunch?” She redirected her attention to dodge the arrows her conscience had begun to sling at her.
Ramon presented two elasticene carryout containers. “I don’t have a clue,” he said. “Some kind of alien food. But it smelled good.”
Tara twisted her mouth. “If it’s from the planet we’re on, it’s domestic. We’re the aliens.”
“Right,” he said. “I forget. I do like the food, although, to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish I had a hot dog or a ham sandwich.”
“I understand,” she said. Ramon was still getting used to Parseon. He had been with her for only three months, while she had arrived two years ago as one of the original vendors in the Terran Bazaar portion of the Market. She’d handled operations the first year by herself, but as the popularity of Terran wares had grown, so had her business, and she’d hired an assistant. The first one, a woman, had quit after six months, unable to handle the culture. It had taken several months more until she found Ramon.
Not everyone adjusted to the strange and severe customs the way she had. But unlike her, they had not been driven away from Terra, and most still had close family there. With only distant relatives, she’d been on her own since adolescence and had learned to rely on herself. As a result, she’d become strong, tough, and capable. Look at what she’d accomplished. Of the hundreds of vendors, she was one of only a handful of women who’d come to Parseon alone. The others had arrived with husbands or partners. If going solo sometimes overwhelmed her, well then, she sucked up her fear and carried on. Life was what it was.
Provided her business continued to thrive, she could envision remaining on Parseon indefinitely. Which constituted another reason why she should have treated the Alpha better. Here for the long haul, she needed to forge friendships, not create enemies. He had acted like a jerk, but she’d behaved no better. One did not treat customers that way. Or world leaders. She cringed in remembrance.
“Go ahead and have your lunch,” she urged. “I need to go out. I’ll eat when I get back.” She grabbed several packets of the necessary needles and three sets of alloy scissors and shoved them into a bag.
Ramon looked at her. “What are you doing? You’re not going outside?”
“I need to catch the…uh…Commander. He…uh…forgot some of his stuff.”
“You’d better call for an escort.”
“No time.” She shook her head. “I must catch him quick. If he’s still inside the Bazaar, I won’t need an escort anyway.” It insulted her capabilities and offended her notions of fairness and equality that the treaty required a woman to take a man with her if she left the Bazaar premises. The escort walked her to and from expatriate t housing. To and from the Market. To and from everywhere. Male vendors had no such babysitters. They came and went as they pleased.
Ramon set the food on the counter. “I’ll come with you.”
“No.” She waved him off with a frown. “Eat your lunch. You need to stay in case we have any customers.” Although considering what she’d charged the Commander for the fabric, they’d had a record-setting sales day. “I won’t go outside.” Unless I have to
Ramon’s forehead crinkled with doubt, but before he could voice further protest, Tara dashed from the shop. She zigzagged through the crowded Bazaar. When she walked among Parseons, she never failed to be awed by the size of the people. It seemed as if the entire planet was populated by basketball players. And the Alpha had towered above everyone else.
Tara entered the main corridor and checked left and right but did not see the Commander. She nibbled on a fingernail and considered her next move. Had Alpha left the Bazaar, or was he still inside shopping? If she searched the entire mall-sized tent and he had departed, she’d never catch him in time.
She could have couriered the items if she’d paid attention to his nipple insignia to determine which province he commanded. She knew he did not rule the fifth one where the Bazaar was located, but that left four others. If she guessed, she had a twenty-five percent chance of getting it right.
Without the needles, when he tried to have uniforms tailored, he would assume she had sold a defective product. As a rule, penalties for breaking laws were harsh—but to cheat an Alpha? Tara shuddered to contemplate the consequences. Not to mention news would spread, her reputation would plummet, and business would fail.
A high price to pay for acting out of spite.
She would just step outside the Bazaar into the main Market. She wouldn’t go far. If she spotted him, she would hand him the needles and scissors and dash back in. No escort needed.