Weaving through the large, dark–skinned bodies of the soldiers around her, Sal touched the paper in her pocket like a talisman. It gave her the chance to apply to the Black Blades. They were the best of the best, but the last people she thought would take her seriously. At least they’d given her a chance. Now, she just had to prove that an iliri could be as good as any human. Easier said than done.
Distracted by her thoughts, she didn’t see the blue-clad shoulder until it slammed into her, pushing her against a man on her other side. Her head snapped up, craning to see the soldier’s face, and a growl almost slipped out. The human’s dark eyes glared into her white ones. The scent of his fear was pungent.
“Out of the way, scrubber!” he snapped.
Sal quickly dropped her head, hoping her blue military issue cap would hide her pallid skin, and tried to keep her lips over her sharp teeth. “Sorry, sir.”
He grumbled something and kept going. Hiking her pack higher up her shoulder, she did the same, but in the other direction. Humans would never like her. They said iliri were inferior, too aggressive to be trusted. They said her kind were little more than animals yet used iliri for everything they didn’t want to do. At least life in the military gave her options – like becoming an elite soldier.
If she could do this, the humans would be saluting her, not shoving her. It was the only way her kind got freedom. For years, she’d been planning for this chance. Now she just had to make sure they took her seriously. She had to be perfect. She needed to prove that being iliri didn’t make her worthless.
Beside the main gate, men in black clustered against the wall. Unlike the blue and gold of the common military, their dark uniforms set them apart. That was her destination – not only where they stood, but what they were. The Black Blades were hard and determined, the kind of soldier no one pushed around. To be feared like that was as close to freedom as an iliri could get. Sal lifted her chin and touched the paper, terrified they’d turn her away.
One of them saw her. A lean, lithe man broke from the group, heading in her direction. A glance at his shoulder showed he was an officer, but before she could salute, his hand snapped out, demanding her orders. She passed him the admittance slip, shocked to see how the stark uniform made his skin look almost as pale as hers. The corner of his lip twitched back as his dark blue eyes hit her without blinking.
“Private Salryc Luxx?” His voice was a growl, accented in a way that pleased her ears.
“Ya will be number nine, please place yer belongings there -” He gestured to a row of numbers drawn on the ground. “- an’ be at ease. The Lieutenant will be here shortly ta give ya orders.”
He smelled so different from most men. There was no fear. Instead, the scent was deep and herbal, natural instead of sweet. She resisted the urge to lean closer when he handed back her papers, but when he bent his fingers to avoid contact, a flare of resentment hit. When she looked back up, his eyes were still waiting.
“Pure iliri?” he asked, his gaze too intense.
She stared back. “Yes, sir.”
They stood like that for a moment before he looked down to her collar bones. “Females are rare,” he said softly.
“Yes, sir. So I’ve been told.”
With a nod, he dismissed her, but his mouth twisted almost up. Had she done something amusing? Unwilling to become the brunt of his joke, Sal turned for her marked spot and dropped her pack in the allocated square. That bag contained all of her worldly possessions. It wasn’t much – but was more than she’d had as a slave. Step by step, she could do this. Slave to soldier, soldier to elite. She’d get there. Maybe the Corporal’s almost-smile meant she had a chance? She turned to see the Black Blades better, hoping for some hint.
The lithe man had returned to the group and leaned beside a tall, nearly black-skinned human. Their mouths were still but both men looked right at her. Instinctually, her chin jerked up, making the human’s mouth break into a grin. Under her cap, Sal’s ears flicked back, but with them hidden from view, she made no effort to stop it. Then the larger man lowered his eyes. The blue ones still watched.
Sal turned her gaze onto the smaller man, shocked when his eyes dropped to the ground immediately. Did they realize what they’d done? Of course not. Humans didn’t understand. They stared in her eyes or avoided looking at her as it pleased them. While she mentally chided herself for being foolish, another Black Blade joined them, but this one halted her mental diatribe.
His hair was gold and long. He was taller than the soldier who took her papers, but not by much. The black man towered over both of them, but this new man’s coloration marked him as a crossbred. No one had hair that shade without iliran ancestry. It wasn’t blonde; the color was too yellow. When he leaned beside the lithe Corporal, Sal knew she was right. The new guy’s eyes were amber, and they never met hers.
It was hard not to smile, but she wasn’t about to show her teeth. She didn’t need to be accused of snarling at a superior officer. At least now she had hope. If they’d take such an obvious crossbred, then maybe she actually had a chance?
Wrenching her eyes away, the smile finally won. That one thought was enough to distract her from the scent of humans clustering around her. Each minute, more came, filling in the grid of numbers until there were no empty spaces left. It didn’t take long. Their arrival time had been clearly noted and none of them wanted to be late for this chance.
A bag hit the ground beside her, making her ears flick, but she refused to look. By the scent of his emotions, the recruit had noticed her. Fear and disgust were always distinct. Sal kept her eyes locked on the hard-packed dirt. She wasn’t here to make friends, not with her competition at any rate. She just had to make a good impression.
“Hey Odi,” the soldier hissed loudly.
“What?” This came from a guy in the row before her.
“You see this shit?” The man in spot 10 chuckled. “Guess they’re hard up for recruits this time.”
Around her, the gravel crunched as men turned to stare. Sal didn’t move. Humans had gawked at her for as long as she could remember. Keeping her face calm, she reminded herself that she was a soldier whether they liked it or not. All soldiers – both conscripts and volunteers – had the right to apply for special operations with the elite units after two years of service. Sal had served three. There was no reason for the Black Blades to excuse her, and the opinions of these men didn’t matter.
“You scared she’ll beat you out of the running, Bardus?” Odi asked.
“Fuck that.” The man beside her stepped closer. “Hey bitch? You bite me and I’ll send your ass to the kennels, got it?”
Sal blinked slowly, but that was the only reaction he got.
“Too fuckin’ stupid to even speak Glish,” Bardus grumbled, making a few men around them chuckle.
Before things could escalate, the Black Blades suddenly called out, “Atten-tion!” making the two syllables into distinct words.
Sal snapped into position with the other candidates, glad for the distraction as the Lieutenant cantered through the gate toward them. Dramatically, he spun his horse to a halt. It pawed, and he patted its neck then dismounted. One of the Blades – the dark skinned man – stood ready to hold the animal for his commanding officer.
The Lieutenant made an impressive sight. Custom resin armor covered him from his feet all the way up. The dark material soaked up daylight, turning him into a walking shadow. At his back, a quiver full of arrows peeked over his right shoulder, an acrylic sword over the left, and a strange set of tubes were strapped to his leg. Reaching up to his throat, he unfastened his helm and peeled it from his head.
Smoldering eyes looked over each soldier before him, both applicants and elites alike. While the Blades met his gaze with a smile or a nod, the recruits seemed to melt under his pale green stare. Sal felt the weight of it. His face didn’t have a single sign of age or any scars to mar the angular beauty. His shoulders were broad and strong, and his waist had to be trim to fit behind that tight plackart. When he got to her, he paused, lingering in his inspection.
Sal felt like a weed in the garden.
“Welcome, applicants,” he said, moving on to the next man. “I know all of you are excited to show your strengths and prove that you are made for the Black Blades, but I want to make one thing clear. I do not owe any of you a position in my outfit. I will not take anyone that is not a good fit with my Blades. I chose you all because I hope to find one of you that will be what we need, but I have refused entire groups before, and I’m not afraid to do it again. A weak link is more likely to kill us than help us. None of you is guaranteed a position.”
As he spoke, the Lieutenant walked through the ranks, addressing his comments to all of them yet none of them. “The first row will go with Razor, the second with Shift, and the last with Arctic.” He gestured at the men as he named them. “The officers will assign barracks for the duration of our trials and a time for me to speak with each of you privately. You may be at ease.”
Then he turned to retrieve his horse, leading the animal away while a dusky man stepped forward. Their eyes naturally turned to him.
“I am Sergeant Dico,” he said. “Call sign: Razor. Please place your baggage in the wagon being brought up behind you, in the space corresponding to the number you‘re standing on. We‘ll have your luggage moved to your cabins. Once your items are stored, make your way to your assigned officer, post-haste.”
The applicants began to scramble. They grabbed their bags and tossed them into the wagon before the horses were even fully stopped, with little care for the marked boxes they shoved out of alignment. The others were all men, most of them large men. At half their weight, Sal would never force her way through, so she waited, amused at their impatience.
That’s when Bardus turned his attention back to her. “Just take that shit home, bitch. We don’t need your type thinking they’re worthy of elite ops.”
“I thought the females were just myths,” Odi said, his eyes roaming across her small body. “Maybe we shouldn’t run her out quite yet. Heard they have tricks.”
She was tired of being treated like she was too stupid to understand the insult. “I’ll leave when the Black Blades dismiss me,” Sal said, glancing at his shoulder, adding, “sir.”
“A fucking iliri? You’re joking, right?”
She slid her bag into the proper spot, then turned to find her assigned officer.
“I didn’t dismiss you yet, Private!”
She stopped. The first man was a Lance Corporal, the second a Specialist. Both outranked her. “Sir, I’ve been ordered to report.”
“Fuck your bleached ass. You can just stand there a bit.” Lance Corporal Bardus evidently thought she had to obey.
“I’m sorry, sir, but the Sergeant’s orders over ride yours.” Sal tried not to smile as she leaned toward him. “You both should be reporting to your assigned officer as well.” The words were barely out of her mouth and she knew she’d gone too far.
Bardus backhanded her across the mouth, making her head snap back. Sal growled, her muscles tensing as her eyes found him. She was a conscript; he had the right, she reminded herself. Then he hit her again. His fist slammed into her temple, and the ground came up fast.
“Don’t you dare bite me!” he yelled.
Her tongue flicked out, tasting the blood on her lip as her eyes found her prey. The growl rumbled, growing louder, and her lips pulled back a split second before she lunged. How dare he touch her! She’d make the bastard pay. He was too weak and slow to evade her, and his throat was begging for her teeth. She pushed hard, intending to knock him to the ground, but a pair of strong arms caught her, yanking her back. The scent of a Black Blade wrenched her out of her frenzy, reminding her why she was here. It was the same elite who’d checked her papers.
“Enough!” Another Black Blade moved to stand between them. “Explain this!” He glared at the humans.
Sal submitted to the tone of authority, her anger dissipating into shame. When her head dropped, the arms holding her loosened slightly, never touching anything but her uniform. Across from her, two other Blades held her attackers firmly.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Sal said, hoping she could salvage this. “They gave me orders that conflicted with those of Sergeant Dico. My response was out of line and the Lance Corporal felt it was worthy of discipline.”
“The damned beast tried to attack me,” the recruit jeered. “Can’t trust the iliri, I tell ya. You ever see what happens when one of those fucks bites you?”
In her ear, a rough voice whispered, “I’m gonna let ya go. Do na hurt them.”
A nod showed she understood and he released her. Sal took the time to straighten her uniform, then tugged her cap tighter over her ears.
The First Sergeant waited for her to look up. “Is that all?”
“The discipline caught me off guard, sir. I reacted instinctually. The Lance Corporal felt threatened, so decided more discipline was needed.”
“I see.” The Blade turned to the soldiers. “Anything to add?”
“Yeah. The damned scrubber disobeyed orders – “
The officer cut him off, but never showed a sign of emotion. “No, the Private was following her superior’s orders. Our trials are not the place for you to throw your rank around.” He shook his head. “Zep, Cyno, escort them to the Lieutenant. Razor, I think they were yours?”
“Two and ten. The other’s Shift’s.“
“Well, check the rest in and assign them rooms. I need to speak with the Private.”
“Yes, sir,” the Blades said in unison.
The man behind her moved to relieve Razor, the pair of them sharing a look before heading their separate ways. That left her alone with the First Sergeant, her stomach in knots. She’d already ruined her chance, reacting like an animal to a common disagreement. Why hadn’t she submitted? Why did she always feel the need to fight back? Her stupid instincts were going to keep her trapped behind a desk serving humans for the rest of her life! All that was left was the formal dismissal from the trials. She braced herself against hearing the words.
“Private Luxx, right?” he asked, ducking his head to look at her face.
“I’m Arctic, the First Sergeant of the Black Blades, second in command of the unit.” When she said nothing, he continued, “I would appreciate it if you’d answer my questions more honestly next time.”
Her head snapped up, finding eyes nearly as white as her own waiting. “Sir?”
A kind smile preceded his words. “We all saw what happened, Private. In order for something to count as discipline and not cruelty, it requires disobedience. Pride is not disobedience, do you understand?”
She cocked her head to the side, trying to decide if she believed what his words hinted at. His white eyes made her want to, but turning exposed the bruise on her temple. Arctic grabbed the side of her face, tilting it for a closer look. She sucked in a breath. At his touch as snippets of conversations and images flooded her mind.
“Private?” he asked. She may need a medic. There’s a nasty bruise on her head and her lip was split. I can’t believe those fucks thought we’d look the other way while they abused –
Sal pulled her face from his hand. “I’m fine, sir.”
His pale eyes watched her for a long moment. “Think you’re up to finishing the trials?”
No matter how she tried, she couldn’t prevent the corner of her lip from rising. “Yes, sir.” The feral smile was taking over. She wasn’t done yet. “It would take more than a bruise to stop me, sir.”
Well, she‘s determined, Sal heard, even though Arctic’s mouth didn’t move. And I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I think we have something special here. You’ve got to see this.
“Thank you, sir,” Sal said, shocked at the compliment.
She swore she’d just heard him compliment her. The words had been in his voice, but he acted like he’d said nothing. His mouth hadn’t moved. Quickly she blurted out something plausible. “For allowing me to continue, sir. I assumed that’s what you meant.”
LT, I think we have a problem. “It is. Report to Shift. He already knows that you’ve been detained.”
She snapped a salute. “Thank you, sir.”
Turning to find her assigned officer, she made it a few steps before he called her name again, the words clear. “Private Luxx?”
She turned back. “Yes, sir?”
“Shit.” He gestured for her to wait. She can hear us. A pause followed, then, I touched her. She’s pure, and we have no experience with that. There’s so few left. Another pause. I can’t be sure. I didn’t link her in to begin with. I can shut the whole thing down, but I have no idea if I can cut her line. The next pause was longer. Understood. His eyes focused on her again. “So how much of that did you get?”
Years of practice kept her face expressionless. “I heard you call my name, sir.”
“Bullshit.” He smiled slyly. “Let’s try this again, because I didn’t do more than think your name and you smell like lies.”
Ice washed down her body leaving her skin tingling in its wake. She’d heard, he knew she’d heard, and he didn’t think she was crazy. Had she hit her head that hard? Why wasn’t he surprised? “It’s only a minor bruise, sir. I’m sure I’ll be fine in a moment.”
“You think that’s because you were hit in the head?”
“I’m an iliri, sir, not a fool.” She dared him to deny it.
Arctic actually laughed. “I never thought otherwise, Luxx. Now, let me assure you that your answer will not disqualify you from the trials. How much of that did you catch?”
Defeated, but comforted by the promise that they wouldn’t be kicking her out yet, Sal answered. “I heard you say I had a bruise, that you didn’t want to get someone’s hopes up, that you can shut the thing down, and then you called my name.”
“And did you hear the other person?” His eyes scanned her face. “Don’t worry, I just need to know.”
Relaxing slightly, Sal said, “No, sir. Just you, sir.”
“At least there’s that.” He sighed, running his fingers through his long dark hair. “No, you’re not losing your mind. What you’re hearing is a trick of my own iliran ancestry. Usually, I have to consciously allow someone to hear our thoughts. When did it start?”
She thought back. “When you touched me, sir.”
“Ah.” He nodded to himself. “Physical contact. That makes sense. I guess you came with the switch on. Look, I can’t lock you out, not yet – since I’m not sure exactly how you got in – but I’d appreciate if you keep this to yourself for the time being.”
A chuckle escaped. “And who would I tell, sir?”
“Good point.” His shoulders relaxed and he tilted his chin behind her. “Now go find Shift. He’ll assign you rooms.” Arctic turned away before she could salute.
Confused, she tried to push the strangeness out of her mind. She wasn’t here to wonder about the mysteries of the world or believe in miracles. She just had to get a position as an elite soldier. Maybe the whole thing was some practical joke, intended to make her look crazy. That would be a good way to get her excused from the trials, but it seemed she hadn’t ruined her chances yet.
Sal jogged to the meeting area just on the other side of the fountain. The man called Shift leaned casually against the fence, three soldiers in blue uniforms standing before him. The color of his skin hinted at iliran ancestry in him, as well. He looked up before she got close, pushing away from the wood rails to offer his hand. Sal took it out of habit, then fell into place beside the other soldiers.
Don’t worry, Shift said inside her head, I’ve already been told. I’m pretty sure you can hear me.
I really can, Sal thought, amazed, her eyes widening.
Nice, and I can hear you easily. Looks like you’re a natural. His face showed no hint of their conversation, the thought ending as he switched to his voice. “Glad they finally let you go, Private,” he teased. “You almost missed getting a room. The rest of you have your cabins and meeting times. Luxx, you’ll have cabin 12. That’s with the rest of the Black Blades. Being the only woman in the group, the Lieutenant wants to discourage extra curricular activities. Now, the rest of you are dismissed. Luxx, he’d like to meet with you now, rather than in the morning.” Don’t worry, he doesn’t bite. We just need to sort out the incident earlier, he assured her.
Sal nodded. Am I going to be dismissed? she wondered.
Nah, Shift thought while he escorted her across the compound. Pretty sure you didn’t mean to send that, but you did. Look, we’re not a bunch of assholes, ok? You won’t be dismissed because some damned primates try to harass ya. And this little deal, Shift gestured between their heads, can’t exactly be ignored.
She nodded professionally but her heart was hammering. She’d already been noticed, and she wasn’t sure it was in a good way. When Shift gestured for her to follow, she fell in beside him, careful to stay just behind his shoulder. He might not be completely human, but she didn’t want to cause any more problems than she already had. Obviously, they accepted the crossbreds well enough. Maybe if she could convince them she was tame, they’d give her a chance?
He slowed his steps until she was beside him. Don’t do that. You’re not in shit, we just need to sort out a few things.
“Sorry, sir,” she muttered.
And don’t fuckin’ ‘sir’ me. Look, we’re not like that, ok? I don’t care what some human says you should do, we know what you are. If anything, I should be walking around behind you.
His thoughts shocked her. What?
Shift looked over to her quickly. You weren’t raised by an iliri, were you.
It wasn’t a question, but she decided to try answering. No. I was purchased young, as a pet and servant. I’ve never really met any other iliri.
Well, that’s going to make things harder. He gently touched her shoulder. It’s ok, though. You’re not alone anymore. Just breathe, I’m sure you can smell it.
Shift grinned. The truth. There’s so much more going on than you could ever guess. What we’re about to show you is just a hint.
Available April 2, 2016. Preorder from Amazon: getbook.at/bloodlust