Thanks to Tami Veldura for stopping by today on her Learning to Want Blog Tour! Today she’s given us an exclusive excerpt of her latest release from NineStar Press. Read below for the first chapter of Learning to Want. Don’t forget to enter the giveaway at the bottom, too!
Khoram crossed his arms as a line of pale, small Ohiri were guided, floating, from one ship to another. They were shackled, but only barely, and seemed to bob along cheerfully despite their slavery. Smiles and bright-blue eyes were set into their cherub faces, their small, pointed ears aquiver. They didn’t seem to realize the fate that awaited them. Khoram pressed his lips together and watched. It wasn’t his place to make a scene about sentient rights, especially with Madam Zoya overseeing this transfer personally. He was her best enforcer. That title had come only by stretching the definitions of his morality. Still, someone should probably explain that Dulia wasn’t the heaven they seemed to believe.
Nik grumbled to his left, “You’d think we’ve never taken a slave shipment before. What are we, junior enlisted?”
Khoram huffed his agreement. He’d been working for Zoya going on fifteen years. He could count on one hand the number of mercenaries in her web who had survived double digits. “She just likes everyone to know she’s watching.” Khoram had grown accustomed to the skin-crawling sensation of Zoya’s attention, the way her heavy will pressed in on his eyes like a bad headache.
The Ohiri line came to an end. A total of thirty or so white-skinned individuals lacking body hair and possessions beyond the simple cotton clothes on their backs. The transfer heralded excitement in the group, and Khoram caught partial phrases that made his brow furrow. It’s such an honor… I hope to serve a Frea… Is Dulia rainy? I don’t like rain… I’ve been training my whole life…
Khoram shifted his weight, bringing his shoulders a bit closer to Nik. “Have you ever transferred Ohiri before?” He knew their language only functionally and next to nothing about their way of life. But perhaps the Frea preferred to enslave these passive beings because they were also simple.
“No, I’m usually shuttling Slone-dogs to their next target. This’ll be a nice change of pace. The dogs can get riled up when they’re confined in a ship.” Nik scratched his chin. “You’ve worked with them, right? When Madam QueenBitch first wanted to expand in their system.”
Khoram nodded. “I met a few at the start. Zoya went for a diplomatic approach—”
“Weird for her.”
Khoram hummed agreement. “She insisted I learn the language to be her ambassador, but I can’t say it helped much.” He jerked his chin at the slaves as if to say here we are.
“Well,” Nik said as he engaged the pneumatic doorway with a lever, “at least we’re still employed.” Khoram had to admit that was usually a concern with Zoya. One common enough that he only grunted his agreement.
The ship’s docking flange released from the Luthe with a hiss of decompression. It automatically disengaged. “Ugh,” Nik said. “That place always gives me a headache. I don’t know how you stand it.”
He’d noticed that, too, but chocked it up to odd air pressure. Khoram pushed away from the door and addressed his cargo in their native tongue. “Everyone keep moving down the hall. You’ll be confined for the duration of our trip—”
“How long do we travel in the void?” an Ohiri near him asked, following the line. The question turned several heads.
“A few days,” Khoram said. “Keep moving.” Zoya had mentioned the Ohiri were passive, even apathetic. He hadn’t been assigned any additional hands to manage them. Nik was only cleared to come along because he had additional business where they were going. Without any extra muscle, Khoram had armed himself from head to toe and now he rested his palm on an electric prod. If they were going to act up, he and Nik were the only defense.
They didn’t act up. The Ohiri filed obediently, almost eagerly, into their assigned room and sorted themselves into a snaking series of rows without prompting. It was disconcerting how willing they were to participate in their own enslavement. The warning flag waved in his mind, but everything appeared to be going according to plan and he didn’t have proof of anything wrong. Yet. Khoram eyed the group. The twist in his gut told him if he waited long enough, one of the Ohiri would pop up and rally the others to fight. It was just a matter of time.
“Are they like you?” Khoram twitched away from the curious hand of a slave. They reached for him anyway, comparing the size of his hand with theirs, the color. “Are the Dulians dark like you? And strong?”
“They’re lizards,” Khoram said. He snapped the door shut and engaged the piston lock with his palm. He heard the beep confirm at the helm.
Nik called down the hall to him. “Any trouble?”
“No.” Khoram rubbed his hand where the Ohiri had grasped it, their palm small and dry. There was a creepy lack of trouble that Khoram didn’t trust for a second.
There was nothing he could do about it right now, though, and he tried to focus on the task at hand. He pushed himself down the hall and joined Nik at the console. His partner had already strapped in and was issuing several checks on their supplies and destination. The Luthe forwarded a finalized set of coordinates, and together, Nik and Khoram directed their little transfer ship to warp.
It took several hours for the first jump to resolve, during which Khoram exercised and slept. His alarm beeped quietly just a few minutes before the ship dropped out of warp, allowing him to prepare for the sickening sensation of vertigo. He forced a cough as it happened and took a deep breath to settle his stomach.
Outside his small room, he heard a door slide open and Nik grumble, “Aw, shit.”
Khoram threw on a shirt and caught him in the hallway. He grabbed Nik’s arm, as beefy as his own. “You okay?”
“Forgot an alarm.” Nik pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead and breathed through an open mouth.
Khoram laughed with empathy—he’d learned this lesson the hard way too. “You’re going to be fucked up for hours. Go sit at the helm. I’ll feed the cargo.”
Nik grunted affirmative and pulled himself down the hall.
The Ohiri were where Khoram had left them, floating patiently in their snaking rows. He doled out stacks of protein cakes to the people closest to him. “Take one and pass the others. This is your only meal for the rest of the day.” He followed the food with water bulbs.
They ate and drank. Khoram waited long enough to collect their trash, which they passed back up politely. He shook his head and locked the door behind him.
Khoram had never been particularly fond of slave trading. He’d done his share under Madam Zoya, but as her top enforcer, he was more often called in as her bodyguard or to provide some intimidation in a dispute. One didn’t say no to a request from Zoya and expect to remain employed, though. She tended to fatally eliminate anyone who questioned her. Personally, Khoram thought it was holding her back. The mercenary guild was functioning, but it wasn’t flourishing.
Slave trading was barely profitable on some long-distance runs, and Khoram thought Zoya was depending on it a little too much. That was aside from the question of trading sentient beings like property, the morals of which Zoya never seemed concerned about.
Khoram strapped himself into the second chair at the helm and wrinkled his nose at his own thoughts. He had known what Zoya was into before he signed on; he couldn’t pretend this was a surprise. But there were better deals to make when one didn’t have a reputation for slaughtering the other side.
He nudged Nik in the adjoining chair with his foot and got a grunt in reply. “How many dog packs does Zoya manage?”
“Uh…” Nik smacked his lips. “Around twenty maybe? A few more? Why?”
Khoram leaned in his chair. “Just wondering if expanding that would be better than these slave runs. There’s no money here.”
Nik clicked his tongue. “You going to suggest it to her?”
“No, I prefer my head on my shoulders.”
“Thought so.” Nik smiled at him, wincing a little through the pain in his head.
Khoram chuckled. “But think about it. You’re running a midsized guild. The Slone-dogs are a lot more profitable. Why keep the slave market going?”
“Well, the money’s more reliable, even if it’s a smaller volume.”
“How do you figure?”
“You ever hang out with a pack? I mean for a while, weeks or months?”
Khoram shook his head. “No, I was only ever a point-of-contact guy.”
“They’re violent. And they’re really fluid, the packs are. Members are constantly testing each other, seeing if they can move up in the pack, you know? So you’re a midlevel guy in a pack and the dude below you challenges you, if you win you get his respect. And if you keep winning you get more respect. So the leader, it’s usually a female dog, she’s constantly being challenged and having to put her pack in its place in order to maintain her position and be respected.”
“Ah,” Khoram said. “And Zoya tends to kill anyone who tests her. She’s killing off any respect she’s gained.”
Nik shrugged. “She can’t hold onto a pack for more than a few months. I doubt expanding her reach would go over well.”
“You could do it, I think.”
“Yeah?” Nik smirked. “Lording over all the packs in the quadrant?” He shrugged. “I feel like that’d put a big target on my back. How many assassination attempts have you stopped?”
Khoram grunted. “This year? Four.”
Khoram looked at Nik. He’d thought about it. Hell, everyone had probably thought about it. But no one brought it up in case they were reported. Khoram narrowed his eyes. Nik had always been free with his words, but he was still here, employed, notably not-dead, so he wasn’t stupid with them. Did he not think Khoram would pass his doubts on to Zoya?
Nik’s eyes were closed as he fought the warp-drive headache, and he didn’t notice Khoram’s surprise. Nik gestured vaguely. “I mean, you’re right there, you’re her right-hand, you know? Oops, QueenBitch is dead, long live Master Khoram.” Nik slid one eye open and glanced at Khoram up and down. “You’ve got the influence. Obviously you have ideas on running the place. I bet the other enforcers would follow you.” Nik closed his eye and rolled his head back up. “This guild might actually have some clout for once.”
“We’re not a small force in this quadrant.”
“Yeah, but we’re not growing. Not getting any better, either. There isn’t exactly a career path in Slone-dog mercenary management, you know?”
Khoram hummed his agreement.
Nik huffed. “What does the Karin guild do? They own like half the damn galaxy.”
“They manage and trade ice-drilling rights.”
“Ugh.” Nik cringed. “Paperwork. That’s awful.”
Khoram chuckled. “The people of the universe need their water.”
Nik just shuddered.
* * * * *
At the end of their final warp, Nik returned to the helm, shaking his head. Khoram sat up in his chair. “What’s wrong?”
“The Ohiri, they’re all…”
Khoram nodded at Nik’s furrowed brow. “Excited,” he finished. “You noticed that too.”
“Yeah. It’s weird.”
Then it wasn’t just him. “I had a funky feeling when I got on this boat. Zoya wanted me to run this alone.” The ship’s sensors picked up a large vessel, right where it was supposed to be. It loomed in their cameras.
Nik nodded. “I heard that. It’s why I asked to join you. I told her I was closing a deal with… What’s our contact’s name?”
“Yeah, I’ve never even heard of the guy.”
Their console pinged. “Their ship is clearing us to dock. Something’s fishy about this.” Khoram hesitated to initiate the procedure. “How do you want to play it?”
Nik bit his lip, fingering the electric prod on his belt. “Let’s do it. Keep pretending everything is normal. If it’s a trap for you, you shouldn’t leave this ship, so I’ll bring the Ohiri over. They’re not expecting me, right?”
Khoram agreed. He started the docking maneuver, his heart thumping in his ears as the flange made contact and sealed. Air hissed as the pressure equalized. Nik put his hand on Khoram’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go get the cargo? I’ll do the meet and greet. Just in case they want to shoot first.”
Khoram gripped Nik’s arm. “Be careful.” He pushed himself out of the front room before their connection to Elliot’s ship completed itself. He pressed his palm to the lock on the Ohiri’s door. As a mass, they looked up at him, eyes bright and shining. It was wrong. Turning them over was wrong. They had some fundamental misunderstanding of slavery that made this worse somehow. Khoram pressed his lips together and stepped to the side of the door. “Everyone out.” He couldn’t save everyone. He still had to save himself. But maybe this was his last slave trade for Zoya. He needed to change something.
The Ohiri chain moved down the hall like a giant inchworm, each one tethered to the next. Khoram floated beside them, and by the time he made it back to the doorway, he found the Ohiri marching happily across the seal to their doom. Nik remained on their side; Elliot remained on his. No one seemed hostile. That was good, right?
The end of the Ohiri line approached, and Nik moved off the wall with his palm on his electric prod. Khoram shook his head. “They’ll go wherever you send them. That’s not necessary.”
Nik frowned at him and drew the rod, activating it with a squeeze of his fist. “It’s not for them.” He punched the claw-end into Khoram’s gut. Electricity and surprise jolted, like a tornado of fire from his chest to his fingers. His body spasmed wide open and locked. Everything numbed. Khoram cursed colorfully in his head as he floated in zero-g without control.
Nik grabbed his leg and oriented him upright. His former partner took Khoram’s electric rod, his gun, and all of his knives and jolted him a second time with a dose of electricity. Khoram’s body went slack and stayed that way. He railed inside his head, furious. It hadn’t been Elliot ready to trap him; it had been Nik all along, and probably on Zoya’s orders. What had he done to get her attention? He was her best enforcer.
Nik cuffed his wrists and ankles and then attached his chains to the end of the line of Ohiri as it passed by. Khoram was tugged gently across the seal into Elliot’s slave ship.
“What am I supposed to do with him?” the slaver asked.
“Don’t care!” Nik said cheerfully. “Have fun!”
Khoram heard the lever click and pneumatic doors slide shut. Elliot closed his side of the gap with a hissing metal scrape. Nik’s ship disengaged, and Khoram was left betrayed.
Meet the Author
Tami can host blog tours and interviews for any artist, writer, or publishing professional. She is also available for hire as a freelance editor of complete fiction stories of any length. She loves editing fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and paranormal stories for Adults or Young Adults.