Kingsburgh, California, The Briggs Family Estates
The woman swung her crown and waves of hair whipped through the air, but when she stopped, her long locks returned more or less to the same position they were in before. She smiled, and I bit my lip, my heart fluttered as she imitated my facial expression. I turned away from the mirror, forcing away tears. Maleena’s efforts had produced astounding results, and, no matter how much a part of me wanted to, I didn’t dislike it.
Slap some war paint on the ol’ mug and I went from pretty damn hot to drop dead gorgeous. The strangest part is, it didn’t unsettle me in the least. Yeah, butterflies kept fluttering about inside my stomach, but I suspected it was because of my pending meeting with the Conclave Council. Worse yet, the butterflies kicked into overdrive each time I thought about it, but when I looked in the mirror, my face stretched into grin. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but considering recent revelations, it seemed likely my sexuality wasn’t the only thing I was fooling myself about.
I turned back to my reflection and met the gaze of the woman who gaped at me. A lot of humans found the eyes of joined host unsettling, but, hell, half my relative were card-carrying Conclave members. There was nothing in those eyes I hadn’t seen before. I don’t know how long I stared at my countenance, my mind racing, but it could have lasted a hell of a lot longer if not for Tanner.
“Kayde, I do–” A voice spoke out, and I spun around to face the newcomer with pursed lips, my heart pounding even harder inside my chest.
Tanner glanced at me, furrowed her eyebrows, and turned to leave.
“Oh, I’m sorry I was looking for K–”
She stopped mid-sentence, eyes growing wide as her lips formed a silent ‘o’.
“Kayde, is that you?”
I nodded, my cheeks aflame as she sized me up. My inner bitch, who’d been so offended by my business partner’s presence, rose with all the fire from before. How dare she look at me with those judgmental eyes? I scowled, ready to let out a vitriol-filled rant that might put her in her place, but by some small mercy Tanner spoke before I made an ass of myself again.
“Kayde, please, before you tear into me, listen to what I have to say and I’ll get out of your hair.”
I reined in my fiery temper and clenched my teeth, forcing back an angry retort. Tanner, to her credit, kept her composure, despite the burning, fiery rage which must have shown on my face, and batted a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I’m leaving.”
“What?” I blinked, my anger fading away. “Tanner, you can’t.”
“Something has got you all in a twist, and you and I both know that we can’t keep on like this. I barely said two words when I entered and you were ready to jump down my throat.”
I opened my mouth, ready to refute her claims, but she held a hand up, stopping me. “Don’t, please.”
I nodded and licked my lips. “Where will you go?”
“Miquesis, it’s a tiny planet on the fringes of Ghrev-held space that suffering some major seismic upheavals. Though the inhabitants are technologically advanced, they’ve extended a lot of resources trying to keep their world from ripping itself apart. It looks like they lost the battle and they have mere weeks before the upheavals become too great. The Ghrev fleet was almost decimated after that little spat with the Credknotts ten years ago and they’re asking for ships to help with the evacuation efforts.
If I hadn’t known better, I would have figured that Tanner was hoping for an excuse to get away from me, but she always had a soft spot for humanitarian causes. The planet in question was already receiving help from the Gieff Confederacy and the United Earth Alliance, but the part of me that still cared about Tanner’s feelings didn’t want to burst her bubble.
And maybe she could still provide some help. Evacuating a couple hundred thousand beings was no small task, even with the massive transports the Qharr and human governments pledged to the cause. Our ship was tiny in comparison, but even if she could save one life, Tanner would see it as well worth the effort.
I nodded in understanding. Tanner hadn’t come to tell me of her plans. The Hawk belonged to both of us. No, she was seeking my permission.
“Go.” It was the only response I could manage. I had enough presence of mind to bite my tongue and prevent myself from voicing some of the less than amiable thoughts that came so close to slipping out of my lips.
Tanner nodded and eyed me for a moment before slipping across the room and kissing me on the cheek. “Goodbye Kayde, I hope you come to terms with whatever’s been eating at you.”
She moved away, but stopped, putting a palm on the frame as the door slid open. “I doubt this is what you want to hear, but that outfit really works for you.”
All that pent up anger exploded out of me and I said about the stupidest thing possible. “Why the hell do you care?”
“Goodbye Kayde,” she said between gritted teeth, and started for the exit.
“That’s right, leave! See if I care.”
She craned her neck back toward me, but didn’t utter a single syllable. Instead, she frowned, shook her head, and slipped out the door. It was all I could do to keep myself from running after her. I’d never wanted Tanner so much in all my life, but I needed to get my head on straight and figure out what the fuck was causing all the hostile feelings.
I glanced back toward the attractive girl in the mirror, and forced a smile onto my lips. It was almost time.
I tugged on the collar of my blazer and stepped toward the door, taking short, careful steps like Maleena taught me. It was annoying as hell, but my knee-length skirt wasn’t designed with long strides in mind. I had no idea which was worse, that I was wearing the damn thing or that it forced me to change the way I walked. I had only myself to blame. Of all the outfits Maleena showed me, I couldn’t figure out why I’d picked the one I now wore.
I found myself in the main living room, or I should say the one my grandmother used, and found my uncle sitting in the corner in what had been Kaya Briggs’ favorite armchair reading an ancient leather-bound book. Few publishers printed paper books, other than a few novelty printers. I was willing to bet that whatever book Zed was reading was ancient, or at least very expensive. He stopped and looked up at me, marking his place with his index finger, and closed the book.
His eyebrows shot way up, and I almost smirked when I realized I caught him by surprise. Zed Briggs wasn’t an easy person to startle.
“You look different.”
Okay, strike that I hadn’t just come up on him and startled him. My rather drastic change in appearance seemed to have at least contributed to his surprise. I tugged at the sides of my skirt, but stopped when my uncle stood up and placed his book down on the side table behind him.
“I assume this…” He waved his hand at me and massaged his bearded jaw. “New look has something to do with the council meeting tonight.”
My jaw-dropped, but in retrospect I should have realized Zed would keep tabs. My uncle was well connected, but always stayed clear of Conclave business. I avoided telling him of the meeting for good reason, so either he’d been monitoring me or the Conclave. I sucked air in through my teeth. Either way, I found it worrying.
“Jek.” He paused, clenched his eyes shut, and released his breath. “Sorry Kayde.I’ve been distant, and I blame myself. When you left Earth, I was angry. I was resentful that you didn’t give me warning, but I understand now why you blocked me out. I like to think I know you pretty well, hell I helped raise you. What I want to say is, that if there’s anything you need to discuss, anything, I’m here to listen and help you through it.”
My eyes were wide as I stared back at Zed. My uncle had never been one for emotional displays, but when he made his feelings known, it was short and to the point. He and I were different in that regard. I was impulsive and was never shy about telling people what was on my mind. Had it been me, I would have gone on a tear-filled rant, permeated by sobs and more than a little crying. I nodded, fighting back tears, more than a little aware that if I cried my mascara would run.
“Thanks, I will. I mean, if I ever need to talk.” I swallowed and met Zed’s gaze. “It’s almost time for me to leave.”
“About that.” he pursed his lips and put a hand on my shoulder. “If I’d found out about your meeting a little sooner, I would have warned you, but I only just learned of it this morning. There is a growing sentiment within the Conclave that the Briggs and Farris families have been holding the reins for too long. Whatever you are hoping to accomplish, I think you may find that this attitude may hinder your plans.”
With those simple words, I had my own sneaking suspicions confirmed. Yes, I had been approached by the council, but they had contacted me through a very junior member of the Conclave. Whatever they were up to. If Zed was right, something told me I’d have a much harder time bringing them around to my way of thinking. Of course, that didn’t mean I would give up. I was too damned stubborn for that. Hell, I’d gotten a makeover just because I believed it would help sway their minds.
“I have to try,” I said, with barely more than a whisper.
My uncle nodded, but didn’t say a word. I turned away and slipped out of the room. Moments later, when I stepped out into the night air, my stomach twisted into knots, but I didn’t let it keep me from hopping into my grandmother’s car and setting course for Conclave headquarters. My path was already set.
As I pulled the car onto Shirka Way, I cursed under my breath, and slammed my foot on the break. Protestors lined the streets and the walkways leading up to Conclave headquarters, and the news crews positioned before the building’s front entrance made it all but impossible for me to get any closer with my vehicle. The Conclave had seen more than its share of protestors over the years, but they usually only turned up on more notable occasions. I had heard nothing on the news about the meeting tonight, and I knew next to nothing about the reason for the gathering.
I could think of two reasons all those people might have gathered. Either word had gotten out that the Conclave was going to make some sort of announcement, or there was a VIP from the government meeting with them. With a slow shake of head, I cursed myself for not considering the possibility. I backed my car up, turning around the first corner, and settled for parking on the street. Before exiting the vehicle, I bowed my head and released a long plaintive sigh. I moved with quick footsteps, maintaining a faint, and maybe naïve, hope that I could pass the protestors and the local media crew without drawing attention to myself, but when a voice proclaimed my name I knew I was in for a shitfest.
“Fuck,” I exclaimed, releasing a dozen more choice curses as a tide of bodies surrounded me.
Protestors waved signs above head with slogans like ‘The K’teth will enslave us all’ and ‘Joining with a K’teth is a crime against nature’, but there was one in particular which drew my attention. It featured an image of my grandmother and read ‘The bitch is dead. Take the Conclave down with her.” The message itself was bad enough, but when I saw the asshole who was holding it, my blood boiled.
“You like the sign, Briggs? I made it just for you.” Jax Aukes grinned down at me with a malicious gleam in his eyes. Jax wasn’t one to start anything with so many people standing witness, but the hatred directed at me gave me cold chills. If I dignified him with a response, it’d only make matters worse. So, I stuck out my jaw and breeze past him, never once making eye contact.
“I always knew you were a sissy freak,” he called after me. I stopped dead, closed my eyes, released a deep breath, and continued onward.
“Miss Briggs, Miss Briggs!” The foremost of the cadre of reporters called out to me as I approached the building. She was tall, dark and damned easy on the eyes and if she hadn’t been so intent on beaming my image all over the local holo network, I would have welcomed the attention. “Can you tell us anything about tonight’s meeting? Rumor is that the council will name a new chairperson.”
“Oh, please. You really think they’d tell me?”
“Could they perhaps be discussing the Endeavour? Our sources tell us that the UEAF is still investigating the reasons behind its disappearance.”
“I can’t comment on any of that.”
I breezed past her, but stopped once again when yet another reporter, this one male, but no less of a looker, stepped in front of me. “Miss Briggs. General Arnoff of the United Earth Alliance Fleet has been spotted on the premises. Could you perhaps comm–”
“I’m the very newest Conclave initiate. I don’t have the foggiest idea why Arnoff might be here. Ask him the next time you see him.” I gave the second reporter the slip and finally made it to the door. The guard on the other side nodded after reading my now accurate IDEC with a security wand and let me slip inside.
“Shit.” I glanced at him. “What was that all about?”
The guard shrugged and peered out the transparanium entrance. “Fuck if I know, I just watch the doors lady.”
I slipped past him, my cheeks alight as I realized his eyes had been lingering on my breasts and even more so when I sensed them on my ass. I tried not to let it show on my face or in the way I moved, but it made my skin crawl considering that the guy was old enough to be my father at least twice over.
Never had I been so aware of how much my body had changed, nor had I ever been so uncomfortable in my own skin. Understanding dawned on me in a way it never had before. He was undressing me with his eyes, and I shuddered. I’d heard women complain about dudes staring at them and to my credit I tried to avoid looking too much, but sometimes my eyes had lingered just a little too long. I gritted my teeth, and I resolved myself to keep my eyes where they belonged.
When I turned the corner, I paused, issued a brief sigh, still imagining his scrutinous eyes on me, and leaned against the wall. I took a moment to compose myself, glancing at the large steel-framed mirror. A plaque just beneath it, claimed it was salvaged from the remains of the Qharr-destroyed Safe Haven, Lillian Tidwell Brigg’s home during the early years of her life. My hands came up, collecting a few stray hairs and tucking them behind my ears. My eyes studied my reflection once again, and I lingered a little longer than I should have, once again transfixed by the mug that peered at me.
“Damn, at this pace, I’m going to end up spending more time looking in the mirror than interacting with other people.” I let a smile touch the corner of my mouth, but jerked sideways when heavy footsteps clomped against the hard phelocine floors nearby.
“I thought you already did.” A voice echoed through the hallway as a tall figure stepped into view.
I turned to Grey and bit the inside of my cheek, thoughts of our liaison giving me just the slightest pause before I began moving toward him. I shook my head, forcing those naughty little tidbits out of my mind, and smirked. “You’re one to talk.”
“Hey, I came by this mug, honestly. You got prettied up because of your symbiote. There’s a world of difference.” He smiled, putting both hands on his hips. His words might have been facetious, but there was a great deal more warmth in his tone than I expected from him.
“You look amazing.” He whispered, one hand reaching up to stroke my cheek.
I swallowed hard and pulled away, realizing why he seemed so different. “Please, don’t.”
“Hey,” he said, gripping my forearm. “I don’t blame you for being nervous, but after what happened the other night–”
“NO!” I yelled, but glanced back over my shoulder and pursed my lips. “What happened, was great. In fact, it felt… amazing, but please don’t make anything out of it. I’m too confused right now to make up from down. I don’t need to complicate things with a relationship.”
He grunted and took a step back, looking so much like I’d slapped him in the face that I expected him to massage his jaw. He turned his back to me and I put my hand on his shoulder, which was pretty awkward considering our height difference. “You’ve changed.”
He craned his neck around. “The world didn’t stand motionless just because you left Kayde.”
“I-I know.” I smiled up at him. “Never figured you for the relationship type, that’s all.”
He shrugged and turned so that his chest was facing mine. “Neither did I.”
I touched his face, then slipped away. “The council’s waiting.”
“Whoever he is, he’s a lucky man.”
I lurched to a stop and turned back to him with a single arched eyebrow. “Who?”
“Tanner, you called his name out during sex.”
“Actually, Tanner’s a woman and I already burned that bridge.” I lingered just long enough to watch his eyebrows shoot up, and then I disappeared down the corridor.