Sahnassa shook her head as she walked from the store with two medium sized bags. “I had no idea there was so much to this.”
“Well, you are delivering an electrical charge into another Thurian’s body, not to mention administering a dose of sedative medication – too much of either, and you haven’t stunned and disabled your attacker, you’ve killed them.”
“But … but this will keep me from doing that, right? The killing part, I mean.”
Vanarra shook her head as she raised her hover’s doors remotely. “It will help prevent it, but the truth is that even a regulation stunner can kill if used improperly, and that, dear kit, is what you just learned. Now, on the other paw – here, let me put those in the back for you – it’s no good using a stunner and not getting the result you need. That’s why the injection points are where they are. Stay clear of the areas he showed you, and you won’t risk the attacker’s life or your own.”
“Well,” Sahni remarked as she strapped herself in, “he certainly believed in practice. I think my arm is going to be sore from jamming that test stunner into so many places in that dummy, and … it felt weird every time.”
“Weird?” Van asked as she keyed the hover’s controls. “Why is that?”
“Jiggly, fleshy … I don’t know.”
“Ballistics jell. I’ve talked to him about that model, before. Beneath the faux fur is something he had to have specially cast so when people did train, they’d have a realistic experience. It’s … not the best, but it is a good introduction. I want to show you some things when we get back to the lair, but maybe go get some groceries, first, if it’s okay.”
“Perfectly okay, Van. I’m enjoying spending the time with you,” she told Van with a sly tone in her voice, “and it means I get to hear more about Sarlankar.”
Vanarra chuckled. “Not giving that one up, are you? Okay, kit. Let me try to remember where I was – oh, yeah, when Buck came and got me. Well, after a good dinner, he followed me back to my little lair and said goodbye to me. He let me keep the dress, like he said – I still have it, actually. The Paw Shoes broke down on me, eventually, but I noted the company and bought some of their better quality ones. Still use them, now. Well, after that, I showered as much of the scent out of my fur as I could – regardless of how pleasant Buck thought it smelled – and then went to bed. The next morning, I went back into work and didn’t tell a soul. We were still in the old office back then, so it was me, Flint, Sheffer, Tresk, and Saiphar. Well, everything goes fairly normal the sol after and for three more until a courier knocks at the front door.
Vanarra made her way to the front of the office that she had inherited from Gorta and opened the door to find a nervous Nephti courier standing there. When he saw it was an Anati that answered, he actually relaxed and smiled. “You … Vanarra Anasto?”
“I am, can I help you?”
“I have an envelope for you, and it came with an instruction for you to, well, read it in private,” he confessed. Seeing her reaction as she took the offering, he shrugged and explained, “The message was provided to us, sealed, with that as a direction for the recipient. It’s just a piece of paper – I saw them wrap it myself, but my boss was really nervous when she did so, and she made damned sure none of us in the office read it.”
“You see the individual who left it? I mean, this has no name on it.”
“His instruction to my boss. He entered through the back door and left through it. We never saw him, and I’ve never seen my boss so nervous.”
Vanarra looked at the cub and smiled. “Well, my life has been pretty strange, as of late, so this wouldn’t be any different. Thanks, cub, for the extra information. Here’s a nice tip for you, and tell your boss that I’m sorry for the trouble although,” she speculated holding up the envelope, “I have no idea what the issue is with this.”
“Wow, thank you! I hope we can serve you again.”
“What’s your name, cub?”
“Lannar Tresh,” he offered, ashamed. “Recently … let go from de Fantar for—“
“Now hold it right there, my dear cub. As you can imagine, I don’t have much respect for family houses, so you don’t have to explain your supposed dishonor to me or anyone else.” Vanarra’s manner was serious and frank. “I don’t care about what you did, and the truth is very few like me will care. You have employment, and now, you have your freedom. Do your best, be honest, and don’t give in. In time, something great may happen for you.”
“Like being brought back into a family house?” he asked.
“Like finding out you could have lived without one in the first place,” Van sniped, putting her paw on his shoulder. “Run along now; I’m sure you have more work to do.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind to say that,” he replied, bowing slightly as she removed her paw and then turning away, more loft in his tail than when he’d come.
Van smiled as she closed the door, only to be met by Flint. “Fixing someone else? I can’t help but hear it when you lecture – I’m always worried it’s directed at me.”
“Well, it’s not you that needed it. Newly disavowed Nephti cub – broken hearted and feeling like he has to explain his dishonor to the world just so he can keep getting clawed across the back for it over and over again. Damned sad. Hey, I just wanted to warn you that I had a … rough time last sol, and I might be a little quiet. Don’t really feel much like talking about any big stuff, okay?”
“So, no more talk about hiring an admin,” Flint sighed. “Okay, I’ll give you a reprieve, but the books say we can, and that dang LineCom is ringing so much we can barely get anything done.” They both looked at the LineCom on Vanarra’s desk, and it sat silent as they both stared. “Well, of course, not right now … when I need it to. Mange, it will probably only do it when you’re out.”
“Well, I’m going back to my old digs for a moment to check something out, so just let the crew know to give me some space.”
“Fair enough. If it’s anything you need help with,” he offered, “you know you can ask, right?”
“True, true,” Van replied, smiling. “Just nursing some embarrassment and humiliation, I suppose, and no, I’m not willing to talk about why. Just give me a bit.”
He nodded, clearly having noticed his boss acting a little reserved the past few sols, and explained, “I’ll tell them you’re studying something and need a solid interval undisturbed, and … they might not like the result if they do.”
“Sounds about right,” she agreed and made her way to where her old home was, in the back of the former fur-dressers’ establishment. Before getting her apartment, it had been her only home – the one granted to her by Gorta when Sorla had been forced to move off continent. There had been a bed back there, but that had been replaced by a reclining chair and small tray. It had been turned into her quiet place or “back office” when she needed to do something that required concentration. Closing and locking the door, she slipped into the seat and slit open the envelope with a claw tip.
Carefully pulling out the paper, inside, she opened it – a little nervously. The message on it was short and direct. “If you want to know why you’re not rotting in jail, meet me at 18:00 on the corner of BCT 15 and BCT AFX. Come alone or stay in the dark and just wonder.”
Vanarra gently put the paper on the tray and looked at it for a few moments. This confirmed it – someone had stood up for her, recorded the attack and provided evidence that made sure that not only she was freed, but they also kept the houses off her tail. The unsigned message wasn’t in a paw-writing script she recognized, so she had no idea who might have sent it. However, it was a bold, brash stroke, and – feeling a little guilty about the impulse – she raised the paper to her nose and gently sniffed at it. There were traces of a scent there, a good, strong male scent that made her interest tingle a bit.
Putting the paper down, she leaned back. “I want to know,” she told herself. “I … I owe whoever this is a thank you – saved my freaking life! I’m only sitting here still able to run a business and take care of things because of him. Why did he do it? He … is a stranger and just saw me claw three – no, he didn’t. He recorded it before, didn’t he?” She was quiet for a few passes before she arrived at her answer, an answer she breathed aloud to the empty room, “I have to know.”
Telling Flint she had to run an errand, she slipped out of the office a little early and took her small economy hover and puttered out to the site several courses beyond the limits of Shanandrae. Pulling over and parking to the side in a commuter hover lot, she stepped out and looked at the deserted grassland all around her. There was no one for courses and courses anywhere near her. While this junction had been important at one time many seasons ago, the high speed hover trails had rendered the route mostly obsolete. She waited there for ten passes or so, just taking in the scenery, before a very expensive and powerful sports hover appeared on the near horizon and bolted towards her.
She realized how vulnerable she was, especially after the attack, but she wasn’t in the mood to do anything to cause injury to anyone else. So, feeling afraid, she just watched as the hover tore towards her, finally passing and wheeling back, stopping only a few tracks away. The occupant was almost impossible to see. His hover was a mix of the darkest red and black, and the plastiglass was tinted as to make it extremely difficult to view inside. Then, that changed – the tint of the window actually altered, and she saw a black furred Lupar wearing sunglasses. She stood up a little straighter, but was still nervous about approaching him. She’d never seen anything like him in her life – neither he nor his hover. The door swept up, hinged near his hind paws, and he stepped out.
Her first impression of him made her swallow. He was muscular, and the gray interworking of the stripes amongst his black fur made him look positively dangerous – a hunter’s hunter. Her heart started tapping a little faster as her eyes wandered lower. To say he was fit wasn’t any apt description – his body was perfect. He stepped closer to her, slowly, his arms seemingly relaxed as he strode, but something told her that if she moved the wrong direction, death would be swiftly dealt out.
“You defended yourself impressively,” he growled out as he came within four tracks of her and stopped. He was silent, just looking at her, and Vanarra felt compelled to speak.
“I … I have you to thank for the VidStar?” He nodded. “When did you start recording?”
“Right when they started harassing you. Got every tick of it; even you being taken away. Like I said, impressive.”
“I’m … not proud of what I did. I lost control,” Vanarra confessed. “I barely remember fighting them – I was running on instinct.”
“Good instincts,” he said appreciatively, taking a step closer to her.
“I nearly killed all three!” Van countered, regret in her voice although she didn’t take her eyes off of him. “If they had died or if you hadn’t been there to record it, I would be in prison, now. I would be dead … soon after. Thank you.” He nodded. “How did you find me?”
“Easy,” he offered grimly, taking the next step forward. Then, his strong paws grabbed her arms and pulled her hard into a deep and passionate kiss. Then, seemingly disgusted, he pushed her away. “Just like you, Anati whore! Why fight them and not me?”
His scent still permeating her nose and mouth, Van was quiet for a moment, feeling as if this was some kind of a test. Finally, she looked up at him, eye to eye. “One of them, before, rapemated me. He was one of many that night who drugged me, dragged me off into a little room, and then stood in a mange-ridden line to use me. You saved my life, and you saved more than that. My employees, children at an orphanage – if I … if I had killed them or you hadn’t helped, all of them would have suffered, not just me.” She swallowed, again, hazarding a slight smile. “And, honestly, because you are a heck of a lot more keen than any of them ever dared to be, and … especially after kissing you just now, I’m … interested. Yes, embarrassed, but still interested.”
Her apologetic smile made him chuckle. “Sarlankar de Vassar. Sarlan or Sarl generally does it. Here, here’s a copy of what I took. I would have walked it out to the officers, but I had a hunch that unless I took it to their commander, it would have gotten lost. As it is, if you wanted to get purebreds disavowed, you can add three more notches to your list.”
“All three?” she asked, her eyes lowering. “They’re … they’re not even out of the hospital yet, I’d guess, and why? I’m just an Anati.”
“Rapemating is still that, regardless of who the victim is, and I might have intimated that copies of the recording would find their way into other paws if enforcement didn’t treat it seriously. They did, and it’s clear they made the point with the dames who wanted to skewer you.” He stepped to the side of her and looked down at her hover. “Why do you drive that? You can afford better.”
“How do you know what I can afford?” she asked quietly.
“It’s easy. Vanarra Anasto, sole owner of Celebrations by Vanarra. Your business cleared more than one hundred thousand last season in pure profits. You pay very well, save a good bit, donate generously, but overall … you’re just being stupid.”
“Stupid?” she asked. She didn’t like the judgment, but she could feel him guiding her somewhere, and curiosity about where that was gnawed at her.
“You,” he emphasized, “are the prime asset of that business. You are its leader, its reputation, its manager, its primary sales rep, and on the ground at an event, there are army Marshalls who could take classes from you. You have a set of skills that make you intensely valuable as an asset, and look at what you drive. This piece of crap wouldn’t get you out of one of your own joining cakes if it fell in the middle of it, and what are you carrying? Stunner? Knife? Nothing?”
“I … have this,” she told him and pulled out the second-paw stunner she had purchased.
“Absolute piece of crap,” he told her as he grabbed it out of her paw and easily crushed it in his own. “Now what? Back to your claws, again?”
Embarrassed and angry, Van shook her head. “No! I don’t want to hurt anyone else!”
“Well they sure as mange will want to hurt you, Vanarra. There are a lot of bad Thurians out there who do bad things. I should know. You think those three idiots you clawed down to the bone were the end of it? There are hearts out there so dark you’d never see to the bottom of them, and if you could, it would scare the crap right out of you.”
Unbidden, Van’s mind started working again. “You … you’ve investigated me! You’ve watched me at the joining last night! Why?!”
“Like I said, your raw skills are impressive, but they won’t carry you forever. They almost cost you everything the other night, and it won’t be long before they do; you’ve been fortunate to have gone as long as you have. Now, I’m willing to help you get started doing better, protecting that business you care so much about. Primarily, protecting … its prime asset.”
“Okay,” Vanarra replied softly. “Why?”
“I have the time, and … perhaps, you can offer something I might be interested in,” he told her, walking forward to within a track of her and putting his paw alongside her muzzle in a clearly suggestive way, but it wasn’t unkind. “It’s not a long term commitment – I don’t make those. Short term, what I offer in trade is … valuable.”
Vanarra had no illusions about the arrangement he was proposing. In her mind, however, she wasn’t as revolted as much as she thought might be. He was keen. He had saved her, and he was offering to help her learn how to protect herself. It wasn’t long term, and she knew that from the start. In some ways, it was the most honest relationship she’d considered in a long time. “So, what exactly are the terms of this arrangement?”
“I don’t interfere with your business, of course, but your free time is mine. Some of that, I’ll train you. Some of that, I’ll help you spend that money a little more wisely. Some of that, that lovely body of yours will be mine to use as I see fit.”
The way he said it both chilled her and excited her, but she was still thinking clearly enough to ask. “How do I know that you’ll deliver on your end?”
He almost chuckled at that, but pulled out a black and sleek looking stunner. “Its accurate range is one hundred tracks, but with a low crosswind, you can go almost twice that. Carries six charges. By the time I finish with you, you’ll know everything about it and be a complete expert on using it, maintaining it, and becoming more situationally aware so you actually shouldn’t have to. Also,” he told her, reaching behind his back. “A mark one six military grade projectile weapon. Capable of lethal hits at two hundred to three hundred tracks. When this is done, you’ll have one—“
“They’re illegal,” Van stuttered, backing up.
“They are necessary, and your opponents out there don’t always play fair – they will frequently have them, and the best stunner you can buy will never match the range or stopping power of a projectile weapon. Best to be prepared and stay alive. You’ll know everything about it, including where to buy rounds for it without getting your tail lopped off by the authorities. Also, that hover you see behind me isn’t regulation straight off the lot – it’s jazzed. It has over-thrust and the best responsiveness and autonomic maneuvering available on the market. You don’t need its equal, but I’ll show you how to get a ride like that for a price that won’t break your bank, and what’s more, I’ll show you combat and defensive driving techniques that will leave most everyone else in the dust. Truth is, Vanarra, I do this for a living, and I’m damned good at what I do. So, what say you?” he asked, putting the weapons away.
Van fought through what all of this might mean for her, but the one thing that crystallized for her is that she never wanted to be back in that alley with everything she held dear hanging by a fur strand. “I’m in,” she replied quietly, looking him in the eye. “I’m all in.”
“Then you are a whore,” he told her, accusation still in his voice.
“No, I’m a business owner who has Thurians who depend on me – vulnerable Thurians, and this is just a transaction. The fact that … my body is the currency isn’t what I would normally do, but, if it will save those little ones I want to save, protect them, I’ll give everything up for that, Sarl. I’d give up my life for that.”
Her intense stare backed him up a step. “You mean it. If I did, Vanarra, if I could…” he started, but then he simply took her in his arms and kissed her deeply, his paws already taking possession of her, and knowing what was at stake, Vanarra yielded completely.
Van slowed the hover to a stop at a signal and hazarded a glance at Sahni, and then she sighed. “I … I guess you’re pretty disappointed in me about now.”
Sahnassa shook her head, although still mostly speechless. “No. What you gave up … for them and for us, Van. It’s so sad.”
“Oh, it wasn’t all that bad,!” Van replied, mischievously, a little bit of a feral smile on her lips as she started the hover forward, again. “I mean, if he’d been ugly as turf borrower droppings, it would have been a sacrifice for sure, but Sahni, he was so, so, so hunter keen!” Vanarra’s nearly sensual wail made Sahni’s blush furs shoot up, and she covered her mouth. Glancing at her passenger, Van couldn’t help but keep teasing the shy Nephti. “He was like the most amazing male model on VidStar keen, and by the moons, could … he … rut!” Vanarra let out a keening, shrieking moan that was the most indecent sound the purebred had ever heard anyone make.
“Van!” Sahni nearly screamed in shock, and that made the mixed blood nearly cackle with laughter. “Oh … oh, you!” the Nephti growled angrily, holding down her blush fur. “How do you ever expect me to even look at you and NOT think about you doing what you just did!? Honestly!” Vanarra’s laughter continued as she pointed a bit at Sahni’s over erect muzzle fur, and that got Sahnassa giggling alongside of her boss.
“There are some males out there who would really like to hear that, kit; I’m warning you!” she heckled the Nephti.
“I,” Sahni emphasized, “couldn’t ever make that sound! I’d be horrified!”
“Oh, kit,” Van settled, shaking her head, still chuckling but starting to let some of her deep friendship with Sahni show through. “My hope is that one sol you have a cub who is so good to you that you won’t even care. What’s more is that I learned much more about Sarl that way than I ever did by what he told me. He didn’t ever say anything more than he had to.”
“What … did you learn?”
Vanarra sighed and leaned back into her seat, her face becoming slightly sad. “That he was … truly alone. He was afraid but couldn’t afford to feel it, let alone show it. His fear turned into fierceness, a kind of grave practicality that pulled everything into stark light and dark, life and death. He wanted a life with someone like me, but he could never have it, and he was intent on living out the fantasy as much as he could for the little time we had. Worse, he saw no way out of the life he led.”
“Wow,” Sahnassa breathed. “You could tell that just from … being with him?”
Vanarra nodded and then explained, “While I’m not proud of some of the things I’ve done, I have learned from them. I’ve seen whole different sides of individuals show up in bed that never appeared anywhere else. Confident, arrogant males, that just turned into hurt children when all of the layers were stripped away. Sarl was difficult to read, but over time, when we interacted – either in the bed or out of it – the realizations started dawning on me, and I couldn’t help but notice them.”
“Do you know what he did? Why he was so trapped?”
“He never told me, explicitly, but … I think he was a hired gun, a mercenary of some kind. Soldier for hire, maybe? I mean, I thought about everything he taught me, and he certainly knew all about how to defend yourself, but sometimes, he let slip that he truly knew how to harm as well as protect. He was such a gorgeous male, a showpiece – the peak of perfection for his breed. Honestly, Sahni, if you saw him and he approached you, was interested in you, I think you’d have a difficult time turning away from him, turning him down. He was mystery; he was strength; he was prowess, and … he saved me. He saved everything I’d worked so hard for. He didn’t have to intervene, but he did. At some level, that means … he was good.”
Sahnassa watched her boss for a moment, and she saw the slight sniff. “You loved him, cared about him.” Vanarra nodded, smiling back at her. “Has he ever gotten back in touch with you?”
“Never. When he left, it was the last I saw of him, and I don’t know why, but something just tells me that … he isn’t around anymore. He’s lost to the world of the living, like Ash; I can just sense it. He said he had to take a job and that it was risky, but the payout was worth the long odds. I don’t think he ever collected.”
“I’m very sorry, Van.”
“My point, kit, is that I’m really not sorry for what I did. I learned so much from him, and yes, he used me for his pleasure. The truth is, I used him, too, and I likely don’t have as much heartburn about that as some think I should have. Just don’t judge me too poorly, okay?”
“I don’t,” Sahnassa told her. “You’re probably right. If someone so utterly gorgeous showed up and wanted to be with me, I don’t know if I would or if I wouldn’t.”
“Kit, would you mind a private question?”
“No, please. Go ahead,” Sahni bade her.
“Are you … spiked?” she asked, hesitantly.
Sahnassa shrugged. “Never really saw the need, honestly. It’s not like I’m seeing someone right now, so there’s not any risk of it.”
“And if that Pantera had been there, and I hadn’t?” Van glanced over and saw that the Nephti had a sick expression on her features. “Uh huh. One difference between you and me is right between our legs, kit. Because I’m a mix, I have a very difficult time getting pregnant, which has been a good thing, honestly. You, however, are probably not going to have that problem, or worse, your body is going to excel at making kits and cubs. You don’t always control your circumstances, kit. I’ll pay for it if you agree, but … I think it would give you peace of mind.”
“Wow,” Sahnassa breathed. “You’re … you’ve got a point. Does it hurt, being spiked?”
“Stings when it happens, aches for a few sols, sometimes, but after, it’s totally fine. Lasts for a full season before it has to be checked out. Your family would push some really difficult decisions on you if such a thing happened, wouldn’t they?” Sahni bent her head and nodded, ashamed. “Best avoid the question, kit. Protect yourself.”
“Thank you, Vanarra. You really are taking care of me, and I can’t thank you enough.”
“Well, it’s my honor, and you are my closest friend. I would hate to have anything happen to you. To that end,” Van hedged a little nervously, “when we get back to my lair, there’s two additional pieces of training we need to do with the stunners.”
“Oh really? What’s that?”
“Well, we’re going to stun each other.”
Sahni’s eyes went wide, and she nearly squealed, “Van! No! You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“When Sarl was training me, we did the same. For better or worse, you won’t be fully prepared for what happens when you stun someone or you are stunned, and you may need to keep your head about you in a fight. You can’t get all surprised by what happens if there is another attacker right behind that one. You have to know, kit! I’m not looking forward to it, either, but .. I’m not going to offer to do less than my best for you. I … I hope you’ll accept that.”
“Oh, crap!” Sahni swore, closing her eyes. “I’m so horribly freaked out right now!”
“That’s kind of the point. Once you’ve done it, you’ll know what it’s all about. Did you notice how I didn’t even flinch when I took that Pantera down? It didn’t phase me. I know how this works, kit. You need to know the same. I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt; that you don’t fall down in a way where you’ll be injured, and I’ll give you a warning before I do it. I’m not going to just spring it on you. Also, I would strongly advise, for your own safety, that you don’t try to spring it on me. It … might not end well.”
“Like the three in the alley?”
“A variation of it,” Van almost whispered grimly as they approached her lair. “Always possible.”
“Okay, I’ll do it. You’re right. Oh, I can’t keep my claws in right now. I’m shaking all over!”
“We can do this safely, or I wouldn’t be suggesting it, I promise, but you will have to trust me.” Vanarra watched, feeling a little honored, as the Nephti closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, and then nodded slowly. “That’s the brave kit. I’m very proud of you.” That opened Sahni’s eyes and drew out a small smile.