Inse walked confidently through the Beast-rider camp, occasionally nodding to the filthy masses or lifting a seemingly metal hand in greeting. Meanwhile, Eli—she had yet to come up with anything else to call him—sulked unhelpfully in the back of their mind. If he’d been corporeal on his own, he would have been fidgeting.
Relax, Eli. You’re ruining my benign, beloved golden boy vibe.
He was like a loose coat she was wearing, enveloping her but not enough control to do much more. When I stressed the importance of subtlety and not ruining things for my employers, impersonating a Jedi was not what I had in mind. This is too risky–
Fooling a few Beast-riders is hardly a risk. I took on the galactic Senate. Have a little faith.
The Beast-rider Queen and her consort were in their throne room, or what passed for it. It looked more like a stable. From the looks of things, they’d been arguing about something.
“Dustil.” A golden brow lifted as Inse entered the room. A nostril twitched. “We didn’t expect you until later.”
Inside her head, Eli had calmed down a little. Convenient. But don’t get used to lucky breaks like that. In my line of work, they’re rare.
In my line of work, I make my own lucky breaks. Watch and learn, Eli.
Inse did her best to look honest, open, and essentially clueless. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Nothing major.” The Beast-rider Queen shrugged. Her consort scowled.
This time, Inse’s mouth moved involuntarily. “Does it concern me?” The half sarcastic cockiness in his voice was almost flawless—perhaps Eli had been practicing.
“It might,” Lashowe Starshine snickered.
Inse moved forward, making sure her casual steps brought her closer to the woman and farther from the man, as if unconsciously taking her side in the conflict. “I can come back later if you want.” The implied question was directed solely to Lashowe.
“No, it’s fine.” She beamed at him. “I always have time for you, Telos.”
“If you’re going to ask him, I want to be here,” her consort grumbled.
“During?” Lashowe Starshine gave a throaty chuckle. “I thought after Rahne you both weren’t into–”
“No,” the man snapped. “When you ask. We can have the work done in a lab.”
Her lower lip pouted. “I think that’s for Dustil and me to decide.”
Inse felt her mouth form the former Sith-turned-Jedi Master’s patented frown. “What’s going on here?” The question was directed at both Lashowe and Inse.
If Inse could have frowned at herself, she would have. Let me handle this.
Not to be outdone, Inse performed the classic Onasi-rubbing-the-back-of-the-neck maneuver. “Uh... want to fill me in?” she stammered, moving even closer to the blonde.
“Don’t you know?” the woman purred. “We sort of talked about it before.”
“Refresh my memory.” The dry flatness of Dustil Onasi’s voice was more reminiscent of the young Sith than the seasoned Jedi.
Seriously, Eli, Inse hissed in their mind, back off. Or things will get unpleasant between us.
Fortunately mood swings from Dustil Onasi weren’t enough to arouse anyone’s suspicions.
“Always have to twist the vibroblade, don’t you?” the queen’s consort muttered.
“It’s about the inheritance,” Lashowe shrugged, leaning forward as she did so. The gesture exposed her shallow cleavage. “We’re responsible for Onderon’s future. That’s a lot to ride on just one heir.”
“Inheritance?” The blonde was eyeing Inse with an almost predatory look, while the other man—one of the Montague twins, Inse remembered—scowled openly. The mention of labs and heirs and Rahne Kryss, not to mention the cleavage, made Starshine’s intentions quite clear. Especially the mention of Kryss. But it would take Dustil longer to catch on than it took Inse.
She hesitated just a moment longer, then let her eyes go wide. “Oh, you mean…” She shot a nervous glance at Montague. “Oh.” She cleared their throat. “Maybe I should come back later,” she muttered.
“If you’re not into it, Telos, I can always ask Jin. He’s obviously capable of siring offspring.” The Beast-rider Queen twisted one of her braids. “And he looks a little like Gryffon anyways, so the others wouldn’t question his status as my consort.” She frowned. “But I’d rather it be you.”
For a moment, Eli’s snark melted into amusement. Is this part of your grand plan? To father a Beast-rider heir? Because I’m not quite sure if Dustil’s up to the task in this form. Can’t say I’ve ever had an assignment that required me to try, though.
I’ll try not to test your commitment to this form, Inse thought wryly.
Out loud, she continued to go for flustered Onasi. “I didn’t mean I wouldn’t... I mean...” She let out a gusty sigh. “This is a big decision,” she continued in her best pompous Jedi lecture voice. “We need to be sure of what we’re doing.”
Are we sure of what we’re doing? Eli’s voice was firm. They didn’t call him the Hound for nothing. I’m sure his newfound morals haven’t erased his skills.
“We’ve done it before,” the woman said archly. “Often, in fact.”
Gryffon Montague’s face was verging dangerously close to apoplectic. “I think you should just ask Jin,” he muttered.
“I think it’s normal that you’re upset,” Lashowe told him. “And we’re going to work through this.”
“If you want a rematch, I’ve had some practice since.” The voice Eli used had all the stubborn edge of a true Onasi. “Sure you’ll win twice?”
“Sure enough to call your bluff,” the man growled. “Any time, any place.”
Time for Montague to go before he started rearranging the face she and Eli had worked so hard to get right. Inse sidled closer to Lashowe again, almost near enough to put an arm around her waist. “I’m not sure this is something we can discuss all together.”
“How else can we discuss it?” Her forehead wrinkled, as if she were being deliberately—or was just woefully—obtuse. “We need another heir. Born from my body. Gryffon isn’t–”
“We’ve been through this before,” the man growled. “Beast-rider law says it’ll be my child no matter where you get the donation.”
“Dustil–” Onasi’s name came out like a plea. “I really want it to be you.”
Inse heaved an inward sigh. She was loathe to get too creative with compulsion with both of them in the room; she had no idea what effect a new physical body would have on her abilities to mask. Compelling one could mean alerting the other. She would have to rely on Dustil Onasi’s charm. Not exactly a heartening concept.
“We’ve done better with Fae than I would have imagined,” Inse said slowly. Indeed, the littlest Onasi very nearly vomited sunshine. She glanced back at Montague, resisting the urge to clench her jaw. “If you’re really open to this, I’d consider... donating.”
“If that’s how you want to do it.” The Queen looked a little insulted. “You can even bring your new boyfriend if that’d help you get it up.”
Inside her head, Eli sighed. There are some things you can’t imitate. Dustil Onasi frowned, and his brow furrowed as if that wasn’t the reaction he was going for. He gently turned the Matriarch toward him, touching his lips to her forehead first and then her mouth.
Yes, I’m sure you’re quite the ladies’... whatever you are, Inse drawled.
“That’s not the issue,” Eli said in a low voice, barely pulling away. “You know I…I mean, once I was…you know…it’s complicated now.” He frowned again. “With the Patriarch.”
“A lab donation would be fine,” the Patriarch said, voice strangled.
Inse left her arms around Lashowe. “I’ll do whatever you want,” she said.
Lashowe glanced at Gryffon. “The boma say that the seed has a better chance of taking root if the planting is natural...”
Her consort got up in disgust. Finally. “It’s still my kid,” he said, voice hoarse. “Just like Faene.”
“All of ours.” Lashowe answered him, oddly gentle. She brushed Dustil’s lips back, lightly. Her breathing rasped in his ear, as if this entire disgusting tableau was exciting her.
“That’s right,” Inse murmured back, brushing a long blonde curl back and memorizing the tinkling of the bells. Focusing on the minutiae of Starshine’s appearance in preparation for her new form helped her fight the urge to gag.
“You smell different,” Lashowe Starshine murmured. Her hand traced the Onasi jawline, moving down towards the neck.
“I’ll be in the stables,” the Patriarch said. Hiss of air as the door closed behind him.
There was an odd tension in Inse’s gut, or maybe it was just Eli, coiled like a snake ready to strike. Say the word, and she’s yours.
Inse knew the creature she inhabited wasn’t, strictly speaking, male, but there was still something sexy about someone willing to do her bidding. What did you have in mind?
All I need is contact. It’s your choice how… definite you want that contact to be. There was no lasciviousness in the changeling’s voice—only anticipation.
We may need her. As a scapegoat or a hostage. Another lesson Inse had learned the hard way. Outwardly she smiled at the blonde in her arms. “I want this to work, Lash.”
”It’s not best time of the month, but the boma said it was possible.” During their exchange, Lashowe had managed to completely unfasten the Jedi outer robes. Her hand slipped through a fold in the inner, and she leaned forward now, inhaling deeply. “Is that some kind of new cologne or what–” Her brows drew together in a puzzled frown. “Did you get skin implants or something on your chest?”
Inse shrugged, forcing her expression to remain neutral. “It’s been a long time. With all the medical advances... I don’t know. I guess I started thinking maybe it was time for something that looked less... artificial.” She ran the seemingly metal hand across the other woman’s cheek. “Maybe something that would let me feel again.”
The Beast-rider Queen’s eyelashes fluttered. “That’s sweet.”
Eli was calculating, watching out the back of Dustil Onasi’s brown eyes. I can’t fully become her without killing her. he warned. Unless you don’t plan on needing her memories and thoughts and opinions.
Inse barely resisted the urge to snort. Trust me, Eli. This one’s desires and thoughts are not that difficult to discern. To prove her point, she leaned in to kiss the blonde again and very nearly had the rest of her clothes ripped off for her trouble.
And she has the Force. He sounded surprised at his newfound ability to realize it. I trust you can handle that too?
“What’s taking you so long?” The blonde had finished ripping off most of Dustil’s clothing and was starting on her own. “You never used to be this slow–”
I’ve got it all under control. Inse pulled back slightly from Starshine and schooled her features into a serious expression. “Do you know someplace private? Remote? Somewhere no one will find us?”
“That’s romantic, Telos, but we might as well do it here.” Lashowe snickered. “No one will enter without my permission except Gryffon. And he’s not going to interrupt us, you know how he feels about you, and you and men and–”
“I want this to be special.” Inse laid a hand on either side of the blonde’s face and gazed directly into the blue eyes, putting the Force behind her words. “Tell me where there’s a secluded place where no one will find you.”
“Huh?” The Beast-rider Queen’s brow furrowed again, and then gradually relaxed. Her eyes glazed over. “A secluded place. Where no one can find us.” She blinked a few times. “The armory is deserted this time of day. We should go there.”
Inse shook her head. “No. Somewhere away from the camp.”
“You want to go to a hotel?” The furrowed brow was back. “I guess we could, or we could fly to that waterfall of yours if you want something really romantic.”
No. Eli’s voice was firm. Keep her nearby. Keep her here. She’ll die fast if you need her to, and stay undiscovered if you don’t.
Hiding her in the middle of a camp of her own followers? Brilliant. Still, he had a point. They might need quick access if the plan hit a snag. Inse tightened her grip on the blonde, pitching her voice to the husky tones of a desperate male. “Flying takes too long. You’ve got to know a place nearby but hidden away. Like an older part of the camp that nobody uses anymore?”
The Beast-rider Queen gave a little sigh. It could have been exasperation. Or desire. “You always were particular, Telos.” She snorted and raised a golden brow. “Want to do it in the supply closet? For old time’s sake?”
“Perfect.” Both Eli and Dustil Onasi sounded satisfied.
She rolled her eyes and grabbed his belt. “This way, father of my young.”
The closet she led him to was full of old linens, and looked like it had been deserted for some time.
Inse waited until the door slid shut behind them before addressing the blonde again. “I want you to listen to me very closely,” she said, advancing on Lashowe. “Stay in here until I come get you. Lock yourself in. Do not open the door for anyone but me. Do not communicate with anyone else. Do you understand?”
Eli and Dustil Onasi held their breath. Thin ice here–
The blonde woman tilted her head. “Dustil?”
Inse tangled her hand in Lashowe’s hair, pulling her in for another passionate kiss. Then she pulled back slightly, resting her forehead against the other woman’s. “Trust me,” she murmured, with all the strength of the Force behind it.
“I do.” Suddenly Lashowe Starshine looked very young. Her lashes fluttered. “I’ll stay here until you get back,” she murmured. “I’ll lock the door. I won’t let anyone else in. I won’t make a sound.” She breathed in huskily. “Hurry back?”
“Before you know it, beautiful.” Eli had drawn upon the wrong Onasi, but it seemed to have the desired effect. The Matriarch of the Iziz Beast-riders gave Inse a dazzling smile, sitting down on top of a pile of ammunition cases.
“I miss you already, Telos.” She drew her knees up, curling up on top of the ammunition like a sleepy malraas.
Inse gave her a grin, then slipped out. As the door slid shut behind her, she glanced around, then ducked into an empty, darkened hallway. All right, Eli. Time for the real show.
“See the crack?”
Fae was whispering, bent forward on her knees, almost speaking more to the giant egg nestled in the hay in front of her than Ilia.
"We're not supposed to allow guests into the hatching area," Fae said importantly, "But the Matriarch said it was okay to make an 'seption for you."
Ilia smiled, tentatively reaching out and grazing the very end of the crack with her fingertip. Ollie had told her the Beast-riders weren’t scary, just big and dirty, but they still scared her. After Da had left, she’d kept close to Fae and her ma, the Matriarch, who had been gone a while now. Running a kingdom was hard work, or at least that was what Fae said.
A door behind them opened, and the Beast-riders all inclined their heads simultaneously. The Matriarch stepped inside the room, her blonde hair curling around her shoulders and a wide row of white teeth showing when she smiled.