Authors: Viola Grace
Tags: #Romance, #Science Fiction, #Shapeshifter, #Space Opera
Tauron came up behind her. “I will carry you in and then out again. Kimso is keeping the workers and wounded calm, and Homik is standing by to provide light if we need it. She can direct it through a crystal that will project from my suit.”
She blinked and nodded. “Let’s go.”
“Do you need any tools?”
Niad quirked her lips. “Only when I need to pretend they are necessary. That isn’t the case today.”
They walked out to the edge of the safe zone, and without another mention of it, he picked her up and ran with her through the fire, the wind and the thick, dark smoke.
She constructed a mask for her face while she felt her way to the pipe. The suit was taking a lot of damage, but she just went to work without focusing on discomfort. Metal bent under her grip, was smoothed and the base of the supply line was closed up in heart-pounding minutes.
She finished setting in a valve that would let a controlled opening occur when necessary and dropped to the floor.
Tauron lifted her carefully and ran with her at a fast but controlled pace to the medics outside. He didn’t hesitate. He took her straight to Demsiac, and he cursed as he took in her damage.
She smiled weakly. “I forgot this doesn’t have the protection of my Specialist suit.”
Tauron watched as Demsiac cut her suit away, healing the skin as he went.
The blue flame of his healing lit nearly all of her skin. She was on fire, but her nerves were soothed when the flames burned out.
As she gasped and tried to remain calm, she looked to Tauron. “I think I am going to need another suit.”
He looked worried, nodded and left the tent in a rush.
Demsiac looked at her body. “How did you stand that?”
She looked at him with surprise. “I told you, I have to. I have always been driven to this, and damage to my body is the price I sometimes pay. Usually when fire is involved. The Citadel made me a special suit for it—that looks just like the one Tauron is coming back with.”
The yellow and black suit wasn’t pretty, but it was sturdy as hell. It had managed to crawl through a foundry, and it had a venting system that kept her head cool, using her own motion to power it.
She lifted her left hand. “Damn, burned off my hair.”
“It will grow back. I have to say, you even made an impression on Kimso. He is afraid of you now.”
She laughed and coughed.
He sighed and leaned forward. “This is going to hurt.”
“Welcome to my day.”
He kissed her and exhaled fire into her lungs. She inhaled to scream and just took more of it in.
Tauron took one of her newly healed hands as Demsiac continued his work until she felt the fire start to fade.
Tauron smiled. “It is going to feel better.”
She could feel the tears running down her cheeks as the flames also consumed her oxygen. When they burned out, she inhaled a ragged breath.
Demsiac lit fire to her scalp, and the raw feeling faded with the flames.
She nodded when she felt whole again. “Thank you. That is better.”
She could feel twinges of damage, but on the whole, she felt better. “Is it out?”
Tauron chuckled, “It was out before I pulled you from the building.”
She grinned. “Excellent. I think I need another suit.”
“Funny you should say that.” Tauron held up her suit. “Your parents were watching the news. It was waiting at the desk when I got there.”
She chuckled and sat up, her head spinning.
Demsiac put his hand on her shoulder. “Stay put. Tauron will help you to get dressed. You need to look as close to normal as you can before you leave.”
“Well, my head will be a dead giveaway.”
Tauron smiled. “You just need to walk like you are in good shape. Guardians are thought to be invulnerable. Either we die in the line of duty or we walk away. There is nothing in between.”
Demsiac whistled sharply, and Homik came in, skidding to a halt.
“Well, Wyfirth, you certainly took some damage.”
Demsiac sighed. “Please, provide a privacy screen for her. Tauron will help her change.”
Homik snorted. “He will enjoy that.”
She rubbed her hands together and said, “Nothing much to see, just like every other person on the planet, put together with cells and energy.”
Tauron got a blade, and he sliced through her suit, cutting it in chunks the rest of the way from her skin.
It was a pity to have wasted her mother’s work, but the suit hadn’t been heavy to begin with. The Citadel suit would be far sturdier for her first days with the Guardians.
The rest of the week went quietly. Niad fixed a few fuses, reconnected power lines destroyed by a rogue weather talent and generally made herself useful on scene.
She ran alongside the Guardians on assignment, but the news continued to ask the question,
Why isn’t she dressed like the others? Where is her uniform?
Niad had a request in for the Citadel to furnish her with another suit in suitable colours.
Demsiac came to her with a smile. “I think I have an answer to your uniform problem. Frankly, you are just harder on them than we are.”
She set aside the datasheet with the information on the variety of talents at the base.
Homik was sitting and reading near her on the couch. “What did you find?”
“A textile factory that specialises in silk and armour plate has agreed to make you a suit. The catch is that they only have an opening this afternoon. You need to get there for a measurement and basic fitting.”
Homik smiled. “I can take her.”
Niad snorted. Since the first episode with the gas line, Homik had been downright pleasant. Apparently, she took Niad’s actions into account and formed a new opinion.
Tauron cleared his throat from behind Demsiac. “I will take her. They are the same guys that make my suits.”
Tauron’s suits had the same reinforced armour that she was used to. It made sense that her getting dirty would need the same padding as his suits.
Demsiac nodded. “He already has a relationship with them. They were nervous about making a battle suit for a woman, but it is what she needs.”
Niad got to her feet. “Let’s go.”
Tauron nodded and smiled. “It’s a short flight. If they are waiting, we had better get going.” He got to his feet and beckoned to her.
She walked over, wearing one of the thin, standard suits. She hadn’t realised how flimsy it was until she was crawling on her belly under powerlines. That had been her third day, and it had swiftly proven that her Citadel suit was the better construction for her needs.
“Let me just grab my Citadel suit out of the refresher.”
Tauron nodded. “I will get the riot runner warmed up.”
She smiled. “Be right out.”
She trotted down the hall to her room and got her suit. She folded it carefully into a small bundle, put it in a pouch and slung the strap over her shoulder. She was ready for anything, including spending her savings on the new suit.
Tauron was already on the runner, and he leaned aside to let her slide into the circle of his arms.
He took to the skies and sped off to the very expensive homes and buildings at the north end of the city. The high-family dwellings spread out over acres and were testaments to engineering and wealth.
She leaned back toward Tauron and asked, “Where are we going, exactly?”
He pointed to the left. “Down there. Look, they are already waiting.”
A wide deck that hosted a huge pergola was buzzing with folks who were preparing for their arrival. It was an adjunct of one of the smaller buildings but still larger than the garage and the apartments.
They settled the runner on the lawn, and Tauron dismounted first before extending his hand to her and helping her off. The high-family men were all very genteel when they were dealing with women of equal caste. Apparently, her work now qualified her even if her bloodline didn’t.
She walked toward the deck, and the servants quickly finished, leaving the family members who would be assisting her on the deck. Her steps slowed as she approached them. She knew those faces even if they didn’t know hers. She was in the den of the Skarrows.
The elder male on the deck smiled and welcomed them. “Guardian Tauron, good to see you again. You must be Guardian Wyfirth.”
She nodded. For the first time in her life, she was glad that Wyfirth was such a common last name.
“I am Mrvon Skarrow and this is my grandson, Membon.”
She smiled politely. “Pleased to meet you. Thank you for agreeing to take me on. My work is a little different than that of most Guardians.”
“So your commander explained. We will be happy to help.” Mrvon smiled brightly.
“I have my Citadel suit if that will give you an idea of what I need. It fits most of my needs, but it is coded to my work as an Emergency Rescue Specialist, Mechanical Specialist, and of course, being one of our kind.”
Mrvon nodded eagerly. “I would love to see it.”
Niad pulled the suit out of her pack and laid it out on the worktable nearby. She explained the features, and Mrvon and Membon took actual notes as she went through the details.
Her mother’s family was surprisingly friendly, considering who she was. They didn’t know that. In a matriarchal society, the daughter of the eldest daughter should have been shown the family secrets. She felt a little wistful, but her life had taken another path.
At their direction, they helped her onto the small square stand and began to use light to measure her body from all angles.
Mrvon scowled. “Is your chest being compressed by the suit?”
“It is, but that goes along with most bodysuits. I don’t mind. It keeps them out of the way when I am working.”
“Would you mind an armoured plate across your torso?” Membon looked at her curiously.
“As long as I can keep free range of movement, you can do whatever you like.”
Tauron spoke up. “Just give her suit the same kind of treatment you do for mine.”
A feminine voice came out of the house. “Don’t you be offering directions on our work, Guardian. Stick to saving lives.”
Tauron bowed as the older woman came out of the structure. “Madame Skarrow, it is good to see you again.”
The older woman was moving slowly, but she smiled. “You are lying, but it is nice to hear.”
Niad’s heart tripped in her chest, and she was very glad she had put her mask on before they travelled. Tauron had his own on, and it had been a reminder that she wasn’t just herself anymore. She was a Guardian.
“So, is this the new Guardian I have been hearing so much about? She hardly looks like she could do all of those harrowing manoeuvers.” Madame Skarrow—Niad’s grandmother—walked toward her with a curious eye that took in everything.
Mrvon made the introductions. “Dearest, this is Guardian Wyfirth. Guardian, this is my wife, Niada Skarrow, matriarch of our family.”
Niad swallowed and smiled. “I am pleased to meet you, Madame Skarrow.”
The woman stopped in her tracks. “You remind me of someone, Guardian.”
Niad quirked her lips in a wry grin. “I get that a lot, Madame Skarrow.”
“Please, Madame Skarrow makes me feel old. Call me Niada.”
Niad nodded. “Niada, then. It is an honour to meet you.”
The woman came forward and took her hands. The gloves between them didn’t faze her. “I could swear that I know you, child. If it weren’t for your eyes...”
She blinked rapidly as the woman stared at her face.
The men were staring at them.
Madame Skarrow linked arms with her. “Come inside and have some refreshments, dear. I am sure that Tauron knows what is necessary for your suit.”
Niad didn’t know what to say. She was being dragged into the building without being able to stop the force of will that had her by the arm.
“This is our design centre. We do all of our custom work here.”
Madame Skarrow took her past design tables with swatches of fabric and patterns pinned to them. “We have been a family of textile designers as far back as the ninth century.”
Niada murmured quietly, “Why are you wearing lenses, Guardian Wyfirth?”
“You noticed that?”
“Even at my age my vision is keen. I can see the details in every material, and your eyes are covered by coloured lenses.”
“I congratulate you on your keen observation.”
“You know, if you weren’t wearing the lenses and the mask, you would be the image of my daughter.”
Niada waved her hand in the air as they continued through the workshop. “That woman contracted with my son on the chance that he would inherit everything. I meant my daughter Mlina.”
The matriarch led her into an office and pushed her inside. With a desperate face, she looked at Niad. “How is my daughter?”
Niad smiled. “Happy. Loved.”
“What is your name, granddaughter?” Niada gripped both of her hands in her own.
“I can find out. It will not take me any time at all.” Niada scowled.
“Then do so. I am on duty.”
Niada screwed up her lined face. “She wouldn’t even give you her name?”
Niad had to answer that accusation. “She couldn’t. The magistrate wouldn’t seal the contract between my parents. I am counted as an arranged breeding, but Mom stayed with us.”
Niada paled. “When was this?”
There wasn’t any harm in the details. “The nineteenth of Mrohar, twenty-seven twenty-two. Tem County Court.”
“I need to... Please excuse me. Can you see yourself out?”
Niad inclined her head. “Of course, Madam Skarrow.”
She left her grandmother in the office and returned to the back deck.
Membon smiled when she returned. “I am surprised that my grandmother allowed you inside. She has an aversion to mechanical talents.”
Well, that explained why they were meeting on the deck. She wasn’t good enough to go inside.
Tauron looked embarrassed, but the Skarrows stood with their heads high.
“If we are done for the day, I won’t take up any more of your time.”
She reached to collect her Citadel suit.