The comm panel blinked green to show that he was being contacted on a trusted frequency. He punched the button to dial the link in.
“Royal Serpent, why the fuck are you waking me up? It’s 0200 here. I thought I told you that visiting hours are 1100 to 1105 on alternate Tuesdays.”
Hend smiled. “Sorry, Alder,” he said. “Remember when you said you owe me a favor?”
“Never said that, Hend.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I believe I said, ‘Look me up some time.’”
Hend laughed. “Same thing.”
“Well, I won’t ask if you’re in trouble, because there’s no way you’d be here otherwise, and… holy shit, Hend, what did you do? My panel’s lit up with alerts like the galactic center. Oh, my… Yeg? That’s a mistake, right? You didn’t rob YSS, because only an idiot with his head up his ass would rob YSS.”
Hend felt his smile changed to a grimace. “I can explain?”
“I can’t wait. Permission to land. Lighting the beacon now.” Alder’s voice had been jocular, even welcoming. Now it was somewhere between furious and murderous.
“Leka, we’re going to land now,” he called back to her, after punching the channel closed.
“Okay,” she called back. “Um, should I call you ‘sir’?”
Hend shook his head incredulously at the emotions the words raised. The last woman to call him ‘sir’ was the one down there on the surface of this planet, which he had named Alder in her honor. “No, that’s alright. Just call me Hend.” Why was he reluctant to say that? Alright, yes, he wanted Leka to call him ‘sir’—really, ‘my lord’ would have been his true preference. That didn’t mean anything, though, he told himself; just that Hend was a dominant and would be happy if every pretty girl in the galaxy called him ‘sir.’
Alder’s beacon led him to a nondescript outcropping of rock on the northern of the two landmasses of the uninhabited—except for Alder and any guest she might allow to land—planet. Hend hovered the Royal Serpent and the rock slid back, revealing Alder’s tiny spaceport, where two nearly identical ships—to one another and to the Serpent—were parked. Seeing the Rat Bastard (named after Hend) and the Pirate Queen (named after Alder) made him a little wistful, but the wistfulness vanished when Alder stormed aboard the instant the hatch opened and the gangway descended.
“You’re working for him?” she demanded as soon as he had his chair turned around. Alder’s thick brown hair was gathered into an unkempt, working ponytail. Her piercing blue eyes were full of disbelieving fury, and her cheeks were pink. The imposing impression was marred a bit by the pink pajamas, covered in the Earth-leather bomber jacket in which she had arrived from the Bridge Cluster, and which she had worn—when Hend allowed her to wear it, rather than lace, or nothing, back in the days when Alder belonged to him—ever since he had known her. The style might, on balance, be the most classic thing in the galaxy, Hend found himself thinking.
Thinking about Alder’s jacket, though, just represented an attempt not to think about her question.
“Alder Johansson, meet Leka,” he said, mustering as much calm as he could.
Alder turned and saw Leka in the berth. Then she whirled to face Hend again. “You’re kidding. She’s, like, a hologram, right? This is just the most elaborate practical joke you’ve ever played, right? Just please tell me you didn’t steal a Yeg girl.”
Hend felt his dominant anger rising. “Alder, do you remember the last time I spanked you?”
Alder’s face went even redder. “Of course I do, jackass.”
Hend turned to Leka, who was looking from one to the other of them with wide eyes.
“Do you really want another one like that?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Hend. We broke up five years ago, and if you think you’re going to spank me now, when you’re the one who should be getting the spanking…”
Hend unbuckled his seat harness. “Come here, Alder,” he said calmly, but letting a little of his anger show through.
“Fuck you,” Alder replied. But she still stood there, looking at him.
“Alder Johansson, whether you’re my girl or not, right now, you’re going to get your disrespectful backside over my knee this instant, or I’m going to take you inside and go through your closet until I find the tawse I left here and use that on you.”
“I got rid of it.”
“No, you didn’t,” Hend said. “Never forget how well we know each other, young lady.”
“Dammit.” There were tears in Alder’s eyes now. “Dammit, Hend. How can you do this to me? Put me in so much danger, this way, and then tell me I have to be respectful?”
“You’re not in any danger, Alder. You know that.”
“Alright, then, massive fucking inconvenience.”
“Alder,” Hend said warningly, “keep a civil tongue in your head, please. And get over here for your spanking right now.”
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