Mission to Mahjundar by Veronica Scott - Romance>Sci-FiAn attempted assassination left Princess Shalira blind as a child and, now that she’s of marriageable age, her prospects are not good because of her disability. She’s resigned herself to an arranged marriage rather than face life under the thumb of her cold stepmother. But then she meets Mike Varone, a Sectors Special Forces officer sent to Mahjundar by the intergalactic government to retrieve a ship lost in her planet’s mountains. After Mike saves Shalira from another assassination attempt, she arranges for him to escort her across the planet to her future husband. She’s already falling hard for the deadly offworlder and knows she should deny herself the temptation he represents, but taking Mike along to protect her is the only way she’ll live long enough to escape her ruthless stepmother.
Mike, for his part, resists his growing attraction to the princess; he has a mission on this planet and rescuing the vulnerable but brave princess isn’t it. No matter how much he wishes it could be.
But what should have been an easy trek through Mahjundar’s peaceful lands swiftly turns into an ambush with danger around every turn. Shalira’s marriage begins to seem less like an arranged union and more like yet another planned assassination. The more they work together to survive, the harder it becomes to stop themselves from falling in love. Caught in a race against time, can they escape the hostile forces hunting them and make it off the planet?
Can there be a future for a simple soldier and an intergalactic princess?
Reader Rating: 5.0 (1 Ratings)
Excerpt:A little silence fell between them. Mike had the distinct impression the princess’s thoughts were elsewhere. Finally, she sighed. “At the presentation ceremony, did the minister ask if you’d be willing to ride in my caravan?”
“Ask? More of a threat.” Mike knew his frustration was showing. He sipped at the sweet drink. “Ride with you or have my own mission cancelled.”
“And you don’t sound pleased. I wish I could have made the request myself.” She nibbled on a cracker, brushing crumbs from her lap.
“Forgive me, Your Highness, but why do you want us to go with you?” He leaned forward. “I’m on an urgent mission. Your route causes me quite a delay, which I can't afford without good reason.”
“You’re searching in the mountains for a lost military ship, aren’t you? To give those who died the proper burial, set their spirits free?”
“Well, yes.” Mike was aware Command had used those terms to explain the request for access to this closed world. The Mahjundans, with their various beliefs about spirits, death, and proper conveyance to the afterlife, understood and had consented to a burial detail. Of course there’s another, more important strategic reason for me to delay my hard-earned retirement and accept this last mission. He wasn't about to explain the classified background to anyone, not even this beautiful, solemn woman whose proximity was definitely having an effect on him.
“But the dead have infinite patience, Major. Surely you can spare a few days for the living?” Leaning forward, she set her glass on the table, perilously close to the edge.
He shifted the glass to a safer location. “Your Highness—”
“You may call me Shalira, if you like.” Scooting slightly toward him, smiling, she raised her elegantly curved eyebrows. “One who has saved the life of a princess is entitled to the use of her name.”
“Thank you, I’m honored, Shalira, but—”
“Would you let the life you saved be lost so soon?” Tears shimmered in the depths of her unseeing brown eyes as she turned her face directly to him. Mike could¬n't look away, even though he knew she wasn’t actually seeing him, or his reactions. He put his glass on the table too hard, cracking the base.
“There are those who don’t want me to reach my wedding. The palace rustles with rumors of plots, schemes in motion to take advantage of this final opportunity to kill me. Once I’m safe with my bridegroom-to-be, I’ll be beyond the schemers’ reach, but I have to get to him.” Shalira rubbed her elegant fingers across the pendant as if it were an amulet giving her strength. “I hope that if you ride with me, those who plan my murder will be afraid to proceed under the attention of outworlders.”
What do I say to this? He hadn’t anticipated an appeal along these dramatic lines. “Do you think the bomb yesterday was an attempt to assassinate you?”
“No, assuredly Maralika was the target.” Shalira shook her head. “The empress is pursuing a host of unpopular actions—forbidding the older forms of worship, tearing down temples, forcing the people to pay taxes to her new gods, consolidating power for herself and her son. My father is not a well man, Major. Everyone knows he doesn’t have long to live, and she plans to rule when he’s gone.”
“But there’s opposition to her?” Mike was aware there was. Planetary politics had been a prominent part of his briefing, but he was curious how much Shalira might add.
“Her son is the heir since my brother was murdered, but the throne of Mahjundar has often been claimed by bloodshed rather than by rule of law. I have to get away from here, before the emperor dies.” She laughed, the sound bitter. “Playing the Princess of Shadows won’t protect me after his death.”
“Princess of Shadows?” Nothing about that in our briefing. He remembered the empress had also used the term to refer to Shalira.
“It’s an old folktale about a girl of royal blood who hid from her enemies in the shadows of the palace walls, disguised as a beggar, until her true love rescued her.” Gesturing to her eyes, Shalira said, “It’s meant as an insult to me, since I can’t see, not even shadows, and I’ve lived the past fifteen years on the fringes of the court, out of the ‘sun.’ I’m tolerated, protected only because my mother was the emperor’s Favorite till she died. If I reach the safety of my bridegroom's people, then I’ll be safe, free of the empress’s plotting and hate. My mother’s clan is among his subjects.” Shalira blinked hard, and then her face crumpled as she wept.
Used to comforting younger sisters in distress, Mike didn't hesitate. Moving closer, he gathered her against his shoulder and let her sob without interruption for several minutes. Patting her back, he realized she was overwrought and genuinely fearful. Her apparently genuine distress pulled at his sympathies. When the wrenching sobs became small hiccups and sniffs, he reached for the lacy napkin beside the juice pitcher.
As he pushed the soft cloth into her hand, he said, “I don't know the rights and wrongs of the situation with your complicated family, but if you attach so much importance to having Johnny and me ride along for a few days, I guess I can stretch my mission schedule.” And what Johnny will say when I change our orders, I’m not going to think about. Dancing attendance—playing bodyguard—for a minor Mahjundan princess is not the way Command deploys first-tier military resources.
Wiping her eyes, she sat up, long lashes starred together from the tears. “You’ll ensure I get to my wedding alive?”
I’ve never seen such a beautiful woman before, nor one less aware of her own effect on me. Probably a good thing. He took her right hand in his. “Among my people, a bargain is sealed with a handshake. My word as an officer, I'll do my best to protect you while we ride together. Fair enough?”
She wrapped her fingers around his, clinging to his hand, bringing it to her soft cheek. “More than I’d dared to hope, Major.”
“The name is Mike.” He released the trembling fingers. “Is there anything else we should discuss? Anything you think I need to know?”
She reached for her glass, and Mike surreptitiously nudged it closer to her searching hand. “It's hard for me to talk about this.” Shalira took tiny sips of the rubyfruit juice, as if playing for time.
“If you'd rather not, I can ask Saium. Don't distress your¬self.” Mike hated to see her so uncomfortable.
“Empress Maralika is sending me to my wedding with a handpicked escort of men loyal to her. The officer she put in command, Captain Vreely, is the man I’ve always believed was involved in my brother’s murder and the attack which left me blind. I’ve no actual memories of the events, only feelings and forebodings. Nightmares.” Shalira lowered her head for a minute, touching her eyelids with a delicate hand. “Any imperfection is abhorred in our society, you know. The failure of my eyes kept suitors from seeking my hand once I was of age.”
Mahjundan men are idiots—her eyes are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. She’s one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever met. Mike forced his thoughts away from the princess’s beauty, concentrating on the matter under discussion. “But this chieftain you’re going to marry knows you can't see?”
Shalira seemed troubled, wrinkling her brow and lowering her sightless eyes as she started worrying the fringe on the closest pillow, but all she said was, “A large dowry has been paid. He’ll keep me safe, and I’ll be happy living freely in the open forests, away from this hot, hateful city.”
Mike pondered the ramifications of what she’d shared, added to the quick overview Saium had given him in the hall. “So you've never actually met this guy?”
Bristling as if she heard unwarranted criticism in his tone, she said, “No. Why does it matter? Arranged marriages are the custom for the high-born on Mahjundar. It is how things are done.” She tilted her head, sculpted eyebrows drawn together in a frown.
“I see.” If it’s fine with her, it’s hardly my place to question the arrangement. Why do I care, anyway? But his mind had moved on to the topic of how well a palace-bred princess would fare in the wilderness with forest nomads. What is it with me and this woman? I just met her yesterday. She’s none of my concern.