Chapter 1

Arden observed a drip of perspiration fall between the nearest collared human's cleavage, the enslaved female holding out a tray topped with a cool, extravagant beverage. One sip from the silver cup, and the tartness faintly reminded him of old earth lemons. The smell reminded him of something a bit more carnal. Looking pointedly over the cup's rim, he smiled at his hostess, the Tessan lounging on her couch, and the emissary sipped again. Wry expression confirmed their mutual understanding. The Mistress of Pax was aware there had been no scan of the goblet for poison. The offering of good faith made the inky eyes of the smirking ruler narrow in approval.

"He has quite offered you up, hasn't he?" Drinta teased, taking a sip of her own frosty cup.

A deep breath of humid air, a pleased, practiced smile, and the guest genuflected. "Quite."

A low extended hum vibrated from the Tessan, her green scaled skin expanding and contracting to maintain the rattle. "Sovereign thinks to persuade me with gifts… and a silver tongued emissary."

Golden head bowed subtly, he replied, "I have yet to offer gifts."

"But you will." Her brow ridges, with their small shapely spikes, rose in a very human gesture.

Arden pulled another breath of air that was too moist, too warm to be comfortable, running a quick appraisal over the grand view his seat allowed.

Two words: backspace shithole.

From the sly curve of scaled lips it was clear the Mistress of Pax agreed. Pressing back into the plush couch, facing the man seated across from her, the tip of her tail swished and all pretense ended. "There are things I want."

"Sovereign will provide them," the envoy of the human Irdesian Empire assured her, "In exchange for absolute access to your byway."

"I don't deal in-" Drinta cocked her head, quick-moving lids shuttering around the black of her eyes, "absolutes."

Crossing an ankle over his knee, Arden played his role to perfection. "This is where you tell me, Mistress Drinta, how you wish to be treated in this interaction. Do I grovel? Is aggression more interesting to you? Threats? Negotiation could be amusing... for us both."

Drinta sat tranquil, mirroring a predator's stillness. "The Tessan Authority finds your empire's growth in power unsettling. Offering access to a warmongering species might complicate my comfort..."

"Your sisters have labeled you as an intergalactic felon, pretty Drinta. Your former piracy gave you an intriguing reputation. But decimating and systematically destroying the Uresa quadrant..." Arden smiled, a beautiful thing on a face created to attract." Now, the Tessan Authority wants your head in a box."

"Perhaps I was a bit overzealous in my younger days." Green shoulders shrugged, scales catching a trace of distant flashing light.

"And now you keep court here," Arden agreed, fully aware of her blood-soaked history and the purposelessness of her previous violence. She had killed for the pleasure, simply because she could—taunting intergalactic governments to rise up and stop her. But it had turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. With age came wisdom. Stealing Pax Station from the previous overseers had been her last great conquest. She would never give it up—not like the planets she'd brought to their knees and let slip away once she became bored. Here she was a god, controlling one of the most valuable resources in the galaxy—the byway—and its access that could slice across space in a matter of minutes.

Tolls made her rich, but the money she did not reinvest into her dilapidated space station. Arden could see she liked her mire just as it was. For Drinta, it had never been a question of wealth; it was a desire for power. Pax was her trading floor—import, export, slaves, intelligence, contraband—everything was allowed so long as one paid the proper monetary homage.

"How many planets does he have now?" The hiss in her voice, how it stretched the words, it was musical.


She smiled back, sharp teeth on display. "And your ships?"

"Are legion."

"Legion," the word rolled off Drinta's tongue. "Pretty expression."

Standing from his overly cushioned seat, Arden moved toward the energy barrier separating the Mistress's plush balcony from the dingy venue. Club Swelter, the perfect example of the ancient human idea of sin, functioned as the nucleus of Pax. Far more than an entertainment spot, the hollowed out hive was infested with dregs fondling the dancers as they made their trade: Smugglers, stocking up on whatever illicit item could be found, amused themselves as they negotiated. Unsavory mercenaries for hire drank, and fought, and pissed in the corners. Junkers who came for the coin of carrying away hauls of garbage or dragging back the second-hand parts required to maintain the station's life-support bartered and barked for what they were owed. But the most powerful in the station's den of iniquity were the slavers. They were always there, they were always abundant, delivering or purchasing new stock and raking in the profits.

Pax slaves, though illegal in many cultures, were coveted, considered to be broken perfectly—the best.

How fantastic the livestock was, considering the venue. Drinta neglected the upkeep of the station; decks clung by a tether. On a regular basis, pieces of Pax fell off, floating away to orbit like a disturbing asteroid belt. Everything was dim and dank… yet the slaves were lovely. Every species, every gender, anything one might want in the form of living pleasure made available for the right price—always tempting, always on display.

Throughout Swelter exotic creatures danced, writhing on their platforms, some available for patrons to touch and handle as they pleased, shadowed just enough to make fucking appear somewhat mysterious, enticing.

Drinta's well-guarded balcony sat where she could easily enjoy the show—where her subjects could see her and never forget who was in charge. From the vantage, Arden took in the levels, surveying the debauchery. But it was not the nearest pleasure slaves, posing once they saw a guest of the Mistress look their way which caught his attention. Golden eyes were drawn to one twisting her body in a distant swath of red silk hanging loose from the ceiling.

Painted limbs twirled, lean muscle manipulating her net in complicated figures.

The performer climbed dangerously high on that crimson drape, the slave suspended over her audience where one slip up would culminate in a messy fall to her death. Yet, she projected serenity, power, the daring acrobat spinning so fast the world from her eyes must have been only a blur.

And down she went, a river of flesh rippling over blood red silk, spinning, falling, torsion mangling her showcase. It was beautiful, her figures promising fulfillment or ruination in that frantic decent. A breath from the floor she froze, toes pointed, limbs free, holding on to the fabric with nothing but one coiled leg.

Drinta eased beside the high-ranking human, eager to see what might pique the interest of the imperial emissary. She too found the swath of red silk and the frozen spider tangled in it.

Ahh, yes... a human female. How ordinary.

Each passing flash of light and the observers took what they needed from the scene: the sheen of sweat when the performer shifted, slipping out of her drape to display nudity save a few scraps of black and her collar. Tranquility radiated from her, the slave smoothing plum colored hair from her face.

Without warning, the slave stopped preening and leapt from her platform to race through the leering crowd. Her target, a mountain of muscular Axirlan, stood stolid awaiting her approach, arms crossed over his bare chest.

Like others of his species, the huge male did not emote. He did not return her exuberance or expression. Humanoid, skin silvery white, larger than all around him, he exuded innate strength—his peoples' defining feature, something they broadcasted with little more than a ripple of movement.

The slave seemed undisturbed by the Axirlan's mass, his cold expression, or the fact he could break her in half with little more than a flick of his wrist. She looked only to adore, falling to her knees at his feet, eager, glowing, and ready to please.

"How sweet. The female is offering affection to her keeper." A small, amused curl came to sculpted angular lips, Drinta's eyes shining at the display. "Just watch and see how well our slaves are trained."

Without any prompting, the human's nimble fingers undid the fastenings of the male's lower covering, pulling out a studded member already thickening and growing hard in her hands.

Decorated with a series of metal rods pierced horizontally, her keeper's cock shown under the flashing lights until it disappeared into the human woman's mouth. It was obvious by the Axirlan's expression that her tongue toyed with the adornment to his pleasure.

She smiled up into his eyes as she took his girth down her throat, serene as she carried out the sex act—as if only the two of them stood in the arena. All the while her hands lovingly caressed hips, muscled buttocks, and even from a distance Arden could see she swallowed to accommodate her keeper with every thrust the male pressed between her willing lips.

The way the giant stroked that mane of dark purple hair and watched her perform was so unlike an Axirlan. He was fond of his pet, to the extent an emotionless race could be. Arden imagined he heard the groan as the beast threw his head back and climaxed, the burst of noise harmonizing with the blaring music. Watching the slave take that cock all the way into the recess of her mouth, the female gulping down silver ejaculate as it burst against the back of her throat, seeing her struggle to not spill a drop, excited the emissary.

When it was done and the Axirlan's massive, pierced organ popped from her lips, her keeper swiped his thumb over them, brushing away the single drip that had escaped, praising her performance silently with his attention.

The woman sat back on her heels, panting and clearly contented, the shine of saliva smeared over her mouth and chin.

Arden studied her profile in the dark, the flawless symmetry of her features.

Though his face was impassive, he could not look away—not when she sought an embrace from her master and was gifted with more. The Axirlan cradled her to his chest and carried his pet to his table. After he sat, draped in pale human, her keeper conversed with others of his own kind. And again, affection from the male: the brute toyed with her hair as she relaxed, was gentle with her.

Arden looked away, unsettled by what he sensed in the outlying corner. The woman was falling asleep in a very dangerous space, feeling safe in the arms of an oversized Axirlan she did not belong to.

No slave collar changed facts. If that was who he thought it was, she belonged to him.

After the endless chase—all the years—his Sovereign had never been able to corner her. And there she was, sucking off some alien for the entire crowd in that sleazy club on Pax to see, and napping like a spoiled cat.

Mistress Drinta, turned her head just enough to let the light play across her fetching Tessan features—showy, like a lovely bird. "If you like what you see, another with similar qualities could be arranged for you... as my gift."

The golden quality of Arden's expression matched the dulcet tenor of his question. "What of that one?"

A hand went out, flicking toward one of her guards so the underling might produce a data screen. Navigating livestock information, Drinta hummed. "I am afraid she is listed as private. I can't fault her keeper for that—not when she seems so very skilled and attentive."

Fingers snapped and Drinta commanded her guard. "Bring my guest a human pleasure slave. A pretty one with dark hair."

A beauty appeared so quickly it was obvious several were kept nearby, available should Drinta offer. The Tessan's black lateral pupils darted back to the human delegate sent by Sovereign himself as she ordered the slave to, "Suck his cock."

There was no hesitation in the submissive young woman to get on her knees and perform. Arden's hand rested on the back of the girl's head, setting a pace as he envisioned the distant sleeping female, imagining another's lips and tongue working him well. He came quickly, sighing when he released into a stranger's mouth.

"Now that we've taken the edge off, let us continue negotiation." Drinta's voice was once again laced with her brand of enticement, the most dangerous criminal in the quadrant smiling broadly. "Your Sovereign and the Empire he rules, what can he do for me?"

Drinta's choice of words was not lost on the emissary. What could Sovereign do for her? No, it was quite the other way around. Yet the man smiled richly, expressing his purpose on Pax. "The Irdesian Empire can offer you anything you desire." Leering, turning to face the female with her flicking tail, Arden neared. "Is there something you would like to have conquered? Old enemies you wish to see tormented?"

Her gaze drew deadly. "Yes. And he will deliver what I wish or access to the byway will never be granted to his fleet for whatever little war you are waging now."

"I was ordered your wish is my command." And though his golden eyes glowed, his thoughts were gravely amused that the criminal queen actually believed she might deny his empire anything.

"I demand the entirety of the Ran 7 colony to be exterminated. Not converted, not enslaved; slaughtered."

"Consider it done."

She looked at him, a pleased mischievous dragon as she cooed, "There's more."

When dealing with that quality of life form, there was always more. Arden, Herald of the Irdesian Empire, smiled beautifully, promising the treacherous Mistress of Pax her heart's every desire.

Her heart was quite black.