Broken Seal is a Tyme setting story. The second part of this story will be posted next week.
Artwork by Samuel Pray, created using Daz3D, Photoshop and Filter Forge
“The seal has been tampered with,” Gavin lifted his gaze from the screen, his brow furrowed. “I’ve checked the coding on this a dozen times and it’s subtle but the evidence is clear. Someone else, more than one I’d guess, has opened and read through this message before it finally downloaded here.” The man shook his head. “I’m sorry, my lord - I didn’t think this was possible, not with the system we have in place, the only thing I can think of is it was broken before it reached our system. Nothing else makes sense.”
“Can you trace the source of the hack?” Jarod Kleban turned the full force of his attention on Gavin, his gaze narrowing. The man was good, trustworthy, but the news was enough to set his teeth on edge. How much had he spent on the system? On the protections that had been implemented in order to keep them safe? Had someone let them into the system?
“In time, maybe my lord, but it’s not going to be easy. There are levels of protection on this message, a seal if you will, but that also makes it harder to trace the steps the message went through.” He paused, his frown deepening. “Whoever broke through security might be better than me.”
That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Gavin was the one of the best, he’d made certain of that before he’d taken the young man on. Hearing this made his jaw clench as he took a step toward the man and his station. “Are you saying it can’t be done?”
“No, my Lord, I’m saying it will take time, and there might be a few problems. I would suggest you read the message first, see who it’s from and what it contains before I begin to back track the hacking.” Gavin’s voice remained cool and calm, but his eyes - the look in them - offered warnings that Jarod had learned to pay attention to. “I’ve just never come across someone this talented before. Damn, I’d like to meet whoever is behind this.”
“Of course, I’ll read it first,” the message, what was so important about it that someone had felt the need to break past security and read it? Had there been more than one? Gavin had suggested that it was a possibility. The thought didn’t exactly leave him with warm fuzzies. “Transfer it to my personal reader.” For Gavin to be concerned about the message itself - meant he’d read it. But perhaps he’d had no choice once he’d seen that the seal had been broken?
“Yes, my Lord.” Gavin glanced back over his shoulder. “It’s done. I’ve coded it so it can now only be opened on your reader. Should I delete the message from our system?”
“Would you be able to follow the trace back to the source if it’s deleted?” He assumed the answer would be no, but needed to hear it for himself.
“No, my lord.”
“Then don’t.” As long as no one else hacks into the system it should be safe. Would that be possible? Could they break into my data pad? Of course they could. If hacking into the main system was doable, then hacking his data pad was equally likely. Not a pleasant thought. He nodded at Gaving, reaching for the data pad he, like so many others, carried on a near permanent basis. The pad fit in the palm of his hand as he turned away from Gavin and the man’s work station. Coded, sealed messages - those weren’t exactly rare, but one look at the identifier on the message locked a fist around his heart, one that squeezed tighter with every beat of his heart.
Marcus Crassus Ontour.
King, Emperor, Lord of the Ontourian people, a man with a dozen titles but no matter what you called him, he was one thing. The only man who could order his death. A man who didn’t send personal messages to those under his rule without a damned good reason. In all of his years this was only the second such message he had ever received from Marcus and it didn’t bode well.
Don’t panic. It might be nothing. An announcement of plans, an award, perhaps an event? Even as he tried to clear his mind of concerns he knew it couldn’t be anything of that nature. All of those would have been dealt with by a general notification, not a personal message with the private seal of their King.
That seal - he swallowed hard, trying to push back his fears. He couldn’t open it where someone else might see the look on his face when he read it. Better to act normal and take the data pad into his office. He didn’t give into the desire to look back at Gavin and see if his man was watching him. No. That would have marked him as weak, uncertain of his place within his own domain. And this was his place, the people here answered to him, but he in turn answered to Marcus. As did every lord, warrior and member of the servant class within the systems claimed and protected by the Ontourian people.
Raiders. We might call ourselves protectors but to the rest of the systems we’re raiders. We steal, raid, destroy and conquer. Protectors my not so noble ass. Yet he still forces that belief down our throats. Nothing matters to him beyond expanding our territory and keeping the lie of protectors in the forefront of his people’s minds.
He scowled, touched the screen to turn it black and walked into his office, closing the door before setting the privacy shield in place. Only then did he dare to open the message once more.
It has come to my attention that you have stepped beyond the boundaries of your office, and as such you are commanded into my presence. Acknowledge this message and report to me within three days. Should you fail to appear, then the full force of my displeasure will be unleashed upon you and your line.
You may bring with you the assigned staff that is befitting your rank, but will leave extended family behind. Your son, at this time, has not been summoned into my presence. If you wish to keep it that way, you will make haste to appear before me.
The single letter, the curvaceous M with elegant script work around it, made it official. Marcus Crassus Ontour was the only one who could have sent the message. His lord, his king, had made it clear. Report and explain. And then what? Death? Stripped of my rank? Why, because he hadn’t met and matched the ideal image of an Ontourian male? He scowled at the thought. Perhaps he had stepped over the line of what was acceptable when it came to behavior - he wasn’t going to deny such. He treated his women with a little more care and consideration than was the norm, and those of the servant class where given a little more leeway, better food and clothing than the norm. His people were loyal, dedicated to him, and seldom voiced complaint. At least none that reached his ears.
He’d followed the customs to the letter, at least for the most part. Laws - perhaps he’d bent a few, but who with his rank hadn’t done so? It was expected. As long as he didn’t commit treason then he was, in theory, safe.
Yet it was more than that - wasn’t it? If he hadn’t broken the customs, he had bent them. His wife, for instance, was a prime example. Nor had he taken multiple true wives as was the custom. Yes, he’d had consorts and some had given him children, but only one woman bore the title of wife.
He re-read the message and sighed. At least the man had given up on the pretentious use of the formal we. How long had the man done that? Ah yes, during his control of system one, but his loss of that system had put paid to the use. At least for the time being. But with that loss had come an increase in temper. More than one noble had lost his lands, and his head, in the past years for both actual offenses and perceived ones.
He closed the data pad and paced back and forth across the room. Had Marcus found out what he’d been doing? Beyond the small freedoms he’d given to those in his care?
“Damn him, curse all of his court!” He scowled as he stopped and stared at the door. The security on his office should have prevented anyone from finding out what he said, read, or did within this room, but what if that security had been breached? Who had betrayed him? There had to be someone who worked for Marcus in order for the information to make it outside of his home.
His stomach rolled, muscles tensing from the realization. Sweat coated his flesh as he struggled to come to terms with it. His life, his family, everything he had built here might now be at risk. Gods above and below, his son? What danger was his son now in? Like many of their station it was expected that the sons would serve as officers in the service of Ontour, but his oldest son, Paton, had shown an aptitude for flying. His reflexes were, frankly, off the chart - perhaps a gift of his mother’s bloodline? Regardless, that had resulted in Paton finding a place among the elite fighter squadron.
Paton. What have I done to you?
Not even his son knew of his father’s leanings. Or how carefully he protected his wives from danger. And they were wives, not just claimed women. He’d granted them what station he could, under the laws and customs of their people. The fact his wife, his beautiful, spirited Elana, wasn’t fully of their worlds, was another problem. In public she was reduced, at least in the eyes of many, to the status of a war bride, a slave in all but name, wearing the silver chains of ownership that came with such a rank. In private - he removed those chains, the locked collar and spoke to her as an equal, knowing that he could never show his love outside of the safety of his bedroom or this office.
A custom he had bent and battered but never fully broken. Who could truly find fault with that?
He could. Perhaps he has but why now? Elena has been my wife for, what, twenty-five years now?
Now Marcus summoned him.
Would he be expected to attend alone? He glanced down at the message. Yes and no, his family wouldn’t be permitted to come with him, but no lord of Ontour traveled without staff of some sort. He’d bring the people that would be expected, servants, a valet, pilot and guards. That he would be watched, every step of the way, was without doubt. His people would be judged, his family would be watched and when it came down to it, he’d answer to Marcus and face whatever the man had in mind for him.
More than his wife had to be at the bottom of this. Perhaps his dealings beyond the systems claimed by Ontour? The messages he’d allowed his wife to send to her family, through trusted third parties? Even then it had been small things, information about the children, her well-being. Nothing of importance.
He wouldn’t know until Marcus told him in person and by then it would be too late.
A soft knock rang on the other side of the door.
He tensed, turning to look at the heavy wood and metal door. He swallowed hard, taking a deep breath and settling his nerves before he reached for the door, unlocking it before he tugged it open.
“Forgive me, my lord. I thought you would need some refreshments.” Elena, locked in the chains that were required by custom, stood before him, holding a tray of iced drinks and small bites to eat. “If I have offended, I beg your pardon and will withdraw.” Her head was bowed, long silver blonde hair tumbling forward over her features in soft curls that ran unchecked from the scarf and clips that would otherwise hold it in place.
“No, no, come, set it down.” He stepped to one side, waiting long enough for his wife to enter before he closed and locked the door behind her. Once the protection was back in place he let his shoulders slump and shook his head. “Dear one, I don’t know how you do it but I am glad to see you. You always seem to know when I might need you.” One of the many reasons why he had fallen for the woman, even though they had met in battle and she’d done the near unthinkable, injuring him during the fight.
How many men had she killed?
Not something to think of right now. Focus. Keep calm.
Elena offered a pale smile as she set the tray down on a small table to the left of his desk. “Beloved, only a blind and deaf man would be ignorant of the tension running through this household. And then only if they had lost all reason.” She folded her hands in front of her, the silver chains clinking as they semi pooled in a loop before the simple gray and blue dress she wore. “What ails you, love?”
“This,” he gestured to the data pad. “A summons from Marcus. It - it does not bode well.” Understatement but she was smart enough to understand that. Her intelligence, quick wit and ability to cut through bullshit were all qualities he had come to admire in the woman. Even if he’d had to teach her to remain silent when they were not alone.
Of course, she’d also had to learn the proper form of address. Those, sadly, had not been pleasant times. He’d almost weakened, given in to her pleas to return home.
No, not pleas, demands. Proud, words, defiance and anger.
He could see her now, standing there, angry, bound in strong chains, refusing to go to her knees. The training had taken years to sink in fully, but, despite advice from others to give her up, sell her in an open market, he had kept on, knowing the passion and love that burned within her.
She paled as she glanced down at the screen, taking a moment to read through the message before a low hiss sounded between clenched teeth. “This is worrying.”
“Yes, it is.” He growled and paced across the room, taking hold of Elena by the shoulders. With a low, hungry snarl he pulled her close, claiming her lips in a fierce kiss. For a moment she tensed, her muscles knotting beneath his fingers. Normally he would have given her time, allowed her the chance to adjust her thoughts, but he needed her, needed to know that she would still welcome him, despite the dangers that now threatened their family. A danger he had thrown them into.
Her lips parted beneath his. At first she hesitated, the parting of lips an automatic response, but as he deepened the kiss she relaxed a little more. Her body molded to his, the chains growing taut between her wrists as she leaned into his kiss.
This was the woman he had chosen as his first, a woman taken in battle, in a raid, one his fellow Raiders had told him to enslave, brand, sell off as a prize, but the defiance and passion in her eyes - that had been too much to ignore. He had needed her from the first time he had met her eyes and, despite years together, that need remained. She was his, a warrior, a woman, a wife and the mother of his first born.
Heat rippled through his body, tightening his member until it throbbed, aching with the need to press between her thighs and claim her body, but now was neither the time nor the place. With a low groan he broke the kiss, taking a step back, enough to give himself a moment to recover.
“Have you been betrayed?” Her words, carried on a breathy voice, tore through the lingering remains of his lust.
He blinked, clearing his mind. This wasn’t what he’d expected from his wife. “What makes you say that?” He knew, even as he spoke, that the question was a foolish one.
“Someone must have reported you. If Lord Ontour didn’t have evidence it would have been handled by one of his staff, but that’s signed by Marcus himself.” She frowned, tipping her head to one side. “But whatever has been shared with him, it’s not enough for him to order a death squad.” She moved back to the desk and tapped one long finger against the data pad. “No, he wants answers.”
Jarod frowned as he watched his wife. “What else do your instincts say?” Out of all of the people in his life, his Elana was among the smartest, the quickest to figure out the whys, the small details that other people missed, and over the years he’d learned to listen to her. This was his warrior wife…
“It’s the only thing that makes sense, if you’ve been summoned. He wants to strip you down, put you to the test and then make his decision.”
The test. Marcus Ontour and his tests. He wouldn’t be the first one to be called to go through such a thing, and not everyone survived the testing. Pain, humiliation, tests of endurance and more. His stomach rolled. He wasn’t a coward, not by any stretch of the imagination but no one looked at the testing without facing true fear. “This will be… a struggle.”
Elena sighed and sat on the edge of the desk, smoothing her hands down over her gown. Silver clinked as she settled, the chains a constant reminder of her status. “Life under his rule is a struggle for all women, and the servant class have it far worse. If they do not have the protection of a lord, they are fair game. What you face, when he summons you, is but the tip of the iceberg.”
Anger flared into life as he turned to look at his wife. Where was the support she should be offering him? Where was the comfort? “And that is supposed to be supportive?”
Elena looked down at the chains that connected her wrists, lifting them for a moment before she turned her attention to her husband. Her voice was soft, low pitched with a hint of steel. “No more than being told that I would be a war bride, a slave in all but name whenever there was a chance that someone might see you.” She sighed, shaking her head. “You love me, that I have never doubted. Yet I am a prisoner, a war bride, stolen away from my life, family and the dreams I might have had.” She stepped away from the desk, turning to look at him fully.
“You were given a place of honor,” he protested. Didn’t the woman understand how much he had sacrificed for her? The risks he had gone to in order to keep her safe?
“I know that’s how you see it, Jarod. It’s how you were raised, the customs of this place, of your people, but for me it’s always been a struggle. Yes - I’ve come to care for you, and I love our son, but in being your property I was also dragged away from everything I had ever dreamed of.” She rubbed her temples, a crease furrowing her brow. “You’re at risk now, and it’s time to decide if your love of your home, of the rank you have gained among these people, is more important than your life. Because that is what it will cost you, when you are taken before Marcus. He will test you and then condemn you.”
What was wrong with the woman? Had he not cared for her? Loved her? Given her protection? Allowed her freedom within their home? She hadn’t been beaten or branded as was the custom with women claimed in battle, so what did she have to complain about? They had even had a child together. No, not a child, but children. One son, two daughters. Daughters he rarely saw, as was the custom, but they had been allowed to stay in the household instead of being traded off as soon as they were weaned.
Fine, so a daughter born of a marriage with a true born wife would not have been traded off so early, so shouldn’t she be happy that he’d allowed her daughters to stay with her? “What has changed with you, Elena? Where is the loving, caring wife I need in this moment?”
She lifted her chin, the silver collar glinting around her throat. “You mean the war bride you forced to her knees?” Her tone cold, slicing through the tension in the room.
“It was that or enslave you fully!” He snapped.
“You had other choices,” Elena shook her head and tugged on the slender chains. “But instead you brought me back here.”
“Where you’ve been happy. What other choices? We’ve had children, a life together, planned a future tha…”
“No, you planned a future, my husband.” She turned away from him, her shoulders slumped. “You could have returned to my home, cast aside your allegiance to this place, and walked at my side - as an equal but only if you’d given me a chance to get to know you. To see past the cruelty of this life. I might have come to welcome you in my life.”
“But you might not. I would have been without you in my life.” He stalked toward her. What was wrong with the woman? They’d been together for twenty-five years and not once had they disagreed. Or had they? “Are you the one who betrayed me? Are you responsible for this?” His hands itched with the need to take her, shake her, to find out the truth.
She scowled, anger marring her features, her brilliant violet eyes narrowing. “No, of course not. Why would I put our son at risk? Gods… I’d be branded and sold, my daughters would suffer the same fate. They might still be taken that way, depending on what Marcus decides to do with you.”
Jarod faltered, the doubts that had flared to life crumbling in the wake of her words. “No. Of course not.” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the growing tension. “Forgive me. I wasn’t thinking. I just don’t need this right now.”
Elena laughed, the sound cold and mocking. “Really, you don’t need this. Have you thought to ask me what I would do? Or do you forget what and who I was before you dragged me into this mess?”
“Woman, you dare to…”
“Right now I dare a lot. This is my life and the lives of our children, at risk with all of this. I commanded a squadron, I trained as a warrior from the day I could stand. I didn’t forget all of that when you dragged me here in chains.” She snapped the silver chain taut between her wrists. “Do you think that this stripped away all of that knowledge?”
He opened his mouth to speak, anger tightening his gut and then closed it again, shaking his head. Only then did he force himself to take a deep, calming breath before he spoke. “No, I don’t but perhaps I am guilty of pretending that you were nothing more than the mother of my children.”
“Our children.” She corrected him. “They are our children, not just yours. Just as the ones you’ve had by your other women are shared with those women.” Her tone calmed, settling into an even, steady pace. One that informed rather than slapped. “And those women, your other wives…”
“Consorts, women, you are the only one named as an actual wife.” He took the opportunity to correct her, smiling at the ability to do so.
“Under your laws they are property, in reality they have given you children and should be treated with the respect due the mothers of your children. Regardless, they are also at risk. Even without the claiming of them as wives, they will be treated as such by Marcus if you are named and numbered as a traitor.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Stupid woman. Did she really think that she knew how to deal with all of this? Perhaps he had given her too much leeway? Something he would need to correct before it got out of hand, but only if he returned in one piece from his time with Marcus.
“Not suggest. Demand.” She lifted her chin, violet eyes flashing, the faded gold dusting of her skin catching the light. For the first time in years he saw the Valkyrie warrior maid, a woman trained to fight, to stand and yes, to die in battle. “We leave. We gather our family and leave this place, this hell hole of a system and find shelter elsewhere.”
He laughed, shaking his head. She was delusional, he’d been too lax with her, now she thought herself above men once more. Regret and sorrow mingled with anger as he forced the words past a clenched jaw. “And just how do you suggest we manage that?”
Elena smiled, a cold, calculated smile. “By using the escape route, the craft I’ve had in place now for over a year.”
TBC next week.