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Storms & Stars

Less Than Three Press LLC

Heat Rating: SENSUAL
Word Count: 69,000
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Villam has always ranked loyalty to the empire, to the Empress, and his career over everything else—even romance and his infatuation with Kardiell, who seems disinterested in making their relationship more serious. Unfortunately, Kardiell's soft spot for Villam is well-known, and in a plot to destroy Kardiell they attempt to take Villam hostage.

Ittuluke was born on a desert colony abandoned by the empire, leaving him with nothing but contempt for imperial soldiers. He has been raised to perform any mission for the right price, and he's good at what he does. Until the imperial soldier he's supposed to kidnap crashes their ship on a desolate planet, killing all but the two of them.

Stranded together on a wild planet, the two men stubbornly concede that the only way to survive is to call a truce. And as they learn to work together, two men against an entire world, their fragile peace begins to evolve into something more.

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Villam Elding gazed up at the portrait, his cap held in both hands before him. His heart beat slowly, powerfully, in his chest. He never passed this grand image of the empress without looking, but today he lingered. In the portrait, she wore an elaborate gown of deep sapphire. Her black curls were piled high on the back of her head, with long tendrils flowing down over her freckled shoulders. Today, the colour of her gown struck him as meaningful; his hair had been dyed a similar shade just that morning.

“I need no other lover, Your Imperial Majesty,” he murmured. “The sweaty moments with other servicemen on shore leave, those are purely physical. I am yours.” He put his cap on his head and brought his fist to his temple in a salute, then continued on his way.

His boots rapped against the coated metal floor as he walked briskly through the slowly brightening lights of morning. Above him, wrinkled white tubes glinted gently, sheathing piping for air, power, data, and water. Each breath brought recycled air into his lungs. The constant hums, hisses and creaks of the ship’s systems didn’t normally reach his conscious attention, but today he felt proud of them, as if they belonged to him alone.

He’d first joined the thousand-strong crew of The Future of Alom as a nineteen-year-old recruit. He’d been intimidated by her grand purpose as both defender and diplomat, but disappointed by the scratches and dents on her seamless plastic walls. Now nothing could be more familiar than these labyrinthine corridors.

Waiting for him was a well-built man of fifty with the purple hair of a high commander and the tanned skin of one who still led planetary missions. Villam didn’t suppress a broad smile. Kardiell Eitur may not have been the image of perfection that the empress was, but the sight of him brought Villam a similar kind of joy.

“And here’s the man of the hour,” Kardiell said in a soft bass tone. He laughed as he ruffled Villam’s hair, spreading the scent of fresh dye. “It suits you.”

“High Commander,” Villam said. His chest felt hot and tight as he looked up at Kardiell, at his scarred neck and rugged jaw and personal grin. “I’m honoured that you made the trip for my promotion ceremony. How are things on The Star?”

“Not so different from my time here on The Future, except that we do less diplomacy and more frontier patrol.”

“Ah. Pacus-hunting.”

“Bloody terrorists. They don’t even have the nerve of the GPA—they at least had a home colony to defend. The Pacus just hide in colonies farther and farther from Capital.” Kardiell scratched at his jaw, grimacing. “It doesn’t feel like being a soldier, trying to sniff out rats.” Then he laughed through his nose. “I expected this call one day, but not this soon. Commander at twenty-eight? You must be the youngest to make blue in the imperial forces.”

“Commander Shepat in the Eastern Fleet made blue at age twenty-eight. I’m twenty-nine.”

“In the Western Fleet, then.” Kardiell dismissed the entire Eastern Fleet with a flick of his hand. “Congratulations, Villam.” Those simple words brimmed with pride.

“I have you to thank, sir.”

“Oh, I haven’t had a thing to do with your career since you were in white.” Kardiell set out down the corridor, hands tucked behind his back.

Villam walked alongside him. “Your teachings lead me still, sir.”

Stopping, Kardiell turned; instinctively Villam mirrored him. He blinked as Kardiell reached out to gently press a broad palm against his cheek; fingertips slipped through his hair. “It really does suit you,” he said in an undertone.

Villam struggled to get something—words, breath, anything—past the lump growing in his throat. “Sir—”

Kardiell abruptly gripped his wrist, turning him bodily. Villam stiffened as powerful arms wrapped around his shoulders in a restraining hold.

“All right then,” Kardiell called. Villam watched, startled, as several white and red-haired figures burst from utility closets on either side of the corridor. He grimaced, closing his eyes as a dozen hands patted his hair, some hard enough to make his ears ring.

“Congratulations, Commander!” came the uneven chorus.

“Off with you now, before he gets a good look at you,” Kardiell said, and boots clattered away.

Jerking free, Villam took a step back and combed his fingers through his wildly mussed hair while Kardiell chortled.

“Don’t look so angry. They really wanted to do that, so I ordered them to.”

“It’s one thing when you’re a new regular,” Villam began irritably.

“It’s a sign of respect,” Kardiell interrupted. “It’s no bad thing that your subordinates want to make connections with you.”

“Well,” Villam huffed. He tugged his jacket hem to just below his ribcage and smoothed his tunic. The current dress tunic’s cut-out panels bared the stomach and sides so that a soldier not maintaining his or her exercise regime would quickly be shamed back into it. Those panels didn’t always fall properly back into place.

Three officers came out of the reception just as Villam examined himself for proper appearance. He began to lift his right hand; Kardiell clamped a hand around his upper arm, stopping him. He exchanged instead a nod with Commander Fulgur Tolvaj and the two lieutenants flanking him. Fulgur stood out only because he didn’t cultivate the normal flair of an imperial soldier. For all that they’d been on the same ship for over a year, Villam felt he didn’t know the slightest thing about the man, except that his own promotion meant Fulgur would be high commander very soon. The trio disappeared around the corner, and Kardiell slapped his shoulder hard enough to make him jump.

“You don’t salute your own rank, Commander.”

“I know that, sir,” Villam said, “but as Opiri teaches, ‘the actions we do take of a frequency are the life and breath of that efficient comfort we call habit, and we strangle them at our risk.'”

“Only you would quote philosophy at me when you’ve just made a fool of yourself.” Kardiell chuckled.

“Aren’t you always telling me to be less cautious, sir?”

“I think you need to figure out when to be cautious and when to pay attention to what your mouth’s doing,” Kardiell said. “Come to think of it, so do I.” He threw his head back and filled the corridor with laughter. “I’ve got a bottle of good Amber Star in my quarters, lad. Come on.”

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