They landed in the dark.
From the heat of Na’o, the cold when the ramp opened went straight to Char’s bones. Venn and Jezeen shuttled them straight into the base.
Two other Na’odani took Char to her private room, leaving the others to go to the holding room they’d occupied before.
Char sat down on her bench bed. Her spine felt post-rigid. Her chest muscles felt like solid plastic.
Erwell will never give back that stone.
She just wanted to get them home. She wanted bring home the faithful soldiers that had followed her through worlds. She wanted to bring Seth home.
Actually, she wanted to take Seth home to Taylor Bay, to make stealthy love in his parents’ spare bedroom, to hike with him along the bay in the cool morning, to hold his hand and listen to the waves crash on the rocky shore.
That couldn’t happen, she knew that. Still, the thought of leaving Seth in Kaa indefinitely made her feet nauseous and empty.
She could almost hear her mother say it, with that throaty smoker’s voice.
Mom, lying in the hospital bed, lung cancer draining the life out of her. “Divorced, eh? Figures. What the hell were you thinking, marrying that Indian?”
“Shut up!” Char spat. “It wasn’t my fault.”
“Yeah?” Mom lifted her head weakly. “Charlane, did nothing about mine and your father’s marriage teach you anything? Did none of that get through your head? God!”
Mom flopped back against the pillow. “Well, look on the bright side. Without that dead weight, maybe you’ll finally do something with your life.”
That stung. She’d just been promoted to captain.
“Yeah, whatever.” Char hunched her shoulders and turned away. “I’ve got to go.”
The whoosh of the door opening snapped Char to present.
Leader Taig stood in the opening.
“Leader Char.” Taig bowed her head in greeting. “We will discuss our plans for tomorrow’s bridge. Please come with me.”
Taig escorted her to the holding room where her people were. It was a smaller version of the bunk room where they’d stayed in Eskalon.
Her soldiers stood when she came in.
Char caught Seth’s eye. His mouth quirked, a slight smile.
“Leader Char will discuss with you who will stay and who will go,” Taig said. “Leader Hya has already declared that Healer Seth will stay. Four of you must come. This I shall leave to you.”
Char cleared her throat. She found Seth’s eyes again. “There is no easy person to leave behind,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s come to this.”
“It’s not your fault,” Seth said. “We all know that.”
Marlene, seated on her bunk in the corner, spoke up. “Well, you’ve got to send the scientists back with the samples, right?” Her face was haggard.
“Yeah, at least one of you,” Leander said.
“No, you should send both of us.” Marlene shuffled her feet on the black floor. “We’re civilians. You’ve got to protect us, right?”
Jesse snorted. “We’re all civilians.”
“Not really.” Leander spun to face him. “I mean, I’ve done time in a Russo-Chinese prison. You think I’m not better prepared to stay in Kaa than Marlene the squint is?”
Marlene muttered something unintelligible.
Jesse jabbed one finger at Leander. “You have no one to go back to. I have a mom who will be on her own if I don’t come back.”
“Guys,” Char raised both hands. “Let’s roll this back. Is there anyone here who will volunteer to stay?”
“Yeah, me,” Leander growled.
Char swept her gaze around the circle. Jeff, the slight scientist, was frowning so deeply his eyebrows were disappearing behind the rims of his glasses.
“Yeah, I will,” he said. He lifted his gaze to Leader Taig. “I want to study with your healer. Seth does, too.”
Taig’s impassive face relaxed slightly. “Perhaps that can be arranged.”
Char shifted her eyes back to the soldiers. “Anyone else? I need two more.”
Jesse crossed his arms. His face was tight, eyes troubled. “Boss, my mom…”
“Others of us have families too, Jesse,” Char said softly.
Anna uncrossed her arms, revealing her missing hand, and straightened. “I’ll stay, Boss. I’ve done worse.”
“Thanks, Anna.” Char said.
The room was silent for a long time.
“I’ll stay,” Callum said from behind the rest of them. “I’ve done time, too. I’m not scared.”
“Thanks.” Char turned to Leader Taig. “Are you satisfied?”
Jesse swung around and pushed through the rest of them to the bunks. He disappeared into his little cubicle.
Taig cleared her throat. Her eyes had lightened to translucent silver. “Eskalon has sent me ten soldiers. They will travel with us. I will escort you. Venn will come. Jezeen will not.”
“You’ve seen our weapons,” she added softly. “You know our capacity. Venn has told me of your weapons. Any conflict between us would mean great loss of life.”
“Without a treaty in place,” Taig said, “there will be no tolerance if your people enter Kaa. They will be killed without hesitation. I have no desire to see this happen. Can you trust me in this?”
“Yes,” Char said.
Taig bowed her head. “We will leave at first light.” She turned to go, reaching to propel Char out before her.
“Leader Taig.” Char said quietly. “Allow me to keep my vowed one with me for the night.”
To her left, Leander raised her eyebrows and suppressed a smile.
Taig nodded. “As you will. Come, Healer Seth.”
A few minutes later, the door of Char’s room slid shut behind Taig. Char and Seth were alone.
Seth turned to her, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He was back in his American clothes.
“It will be okay,” he said.
“Yeah,” she replied.
Seth ducked his head to make eye contact with her. “They could form a treaty and everything will work out.”
“Maybe.” Char took a step toward him. “My gut says it won’t. I don’t trust Erwell. She seemed downright in denial that the Na’odani were even part of this mission, and now they’re going to come out of a portal to talk to her.”
Seth rolled his eyes but said nothing.
Char closed the gap between them. She shoved her face into him and slapped both palms against his chest. Her brain couldn’t form a coherent thing to say.
His hands rested on her wrists for a moment and then moved to her back. He wrapped her in his arms and rested his chin on her shoulder.
“Once again, we may never see each other again,” Seth said in her ear. “I need to be truthful about something else.”
She nodded against his chest.
“If we both make it through this,” he said slowly, “I want to get back together. I want to work things out.”
Char took a deep breath and avoided looking him in the eyes.
“You don’t have to give me an answer.” Seth rubbed her back with one hand. “I just wanted you to know.”
“If we meet again,” she said, “then I’ll give you one.” Char lifted her head and met his gentle eyes.
He half-smiled and bent down to press his lips to hers.