tagRomanceKnight Squadron - Journey

Knight Squadron - Journey


30 plus years after the Battle of Syria...


Colonel Jag Panzer, impressive in his formal black uniform, rose from the high-backed chair and stepped aside to push it back into its place at the dining table. His expression was somber as he rendered a deep, ceremonious bow to the smiling brunette. She was still in her place across the table from him, and she watched him with amused brown eyes. Jag extended one hand to her as the first traces of a bare smile began to curve his lips and ruin his countenance of solemnity.

If the smile only began to ruin it, the eyes did him in. His pale green eyes twinkled as he made his invitation. "May I have the honor of shared evasive maneuvers?"

He was rewarded first by Jade Jordan's quiet laugh. Then she reached for his hand and accepted his proposal. She straightened the skirts of her gown as she stood, tugged at the laces that cinched her waist, and stepped away from her chair, closer to him. Jag slipped an arm around her waist, intending to take advantage of the fast jig the musicians were playing by making a quick escape. The dance would be cover in case they were being watched.

They merged into the crowd of whirling and bobbing noble guests. With faintly devilish smiles on their faces, both young pilots divided their attention between their partner, the dance, the people around them, and the nearly-hidden exit that would lead them into the hallway and in search of the trophy room. A sense of anticipation that even Jag could feel settled between them, and for one impossibly fun moment, brandy-brown eyes met pale green teasingly. They spun closer to the door.

The band eased out of the jig, and the couple was forced to a standstill along with the rest of the dancers. The crowd applauded politely, but Jag and Jade remained frozen. Around them, dancers milled; some switched partners, some left the dance floor, some simply roamed, and some - like the two young fighter pilots - stood stock still and waited for the next dance to begin.

Jag gave the young woman before him a significant look, then glanced just as meaningfully toward their intended target. The silk-draped alcove was less than four meters away-four meters of dance floor, uncannily clear in an all-too-beckoning path to freedom, flanked by dancers.

He made a decision. Though the glittering banquet hall was pretty and the food had been delicious and the guests in the room could help him and his mission in more ways than even he cared to count, he'd much rather find out just how much fun harmless mischief with Jade could be. As he began to turn and drop his arm from her waist to make a break-albeit a dignified break-for it, the hidden band struck up again. This time, it was a hopelessly slow and traditional waltz. He and Jade were swept up in the zephyr of bodies and the swirling of skirts. Jag wanted to laugh.

Jade did laugh, and he glanced down to meet her eyes. She rested one hand on his shoulder and flicked her gaze toward the nook. As quickly as the music would allow, they made their way across the seven meters - they'd lost three to the waltz - of polished dance floor and courtly banquet hall to duck into the shadows of the door-hiding alcove. The gently draped silk and a fragrant arrangement of large white flowers hid them from prying eyes.

Jag finally released his hold on her waist, but did not let Jade's hand go. With one final glance over his shoulder to be sure that they remained unobserved, he pulled the door open. He led Jade into the darkened, silent hallway, still gripping her hand.

They stood there for several breathless moments, both of them with impish grins on their faces and mischievous glints in their eyes. The paneled door swung shut behind them, squeaking softly on antique brass hinges, without human aid.

Jade shot Jag a long glance, her brandy-brown eyes dancing. He suspected the illusion was only partly due to the lit candles around them. Her grin softened into a faint, teasing smile that merely curved her pretty mouth.

"Colonel Panzer," she said, affecting formality neither of them felt. "You dance so well."

The grin he gave her was quick and cocky, a fighter pilot's grin, a Korscian's grin. "I'm a man of many talents."

Her lips twisted slightly. "I don't doubt it. But I'm curious... where did you learn?"

"In the cockpit. What is a dogfight, anyway, but a deadly dance?"

He was getting philosophical. Jag supposed the wine had been stronger than he had originally presumed. He always got philosophical when he'd had something too strong, or something he hadn't been quite prepared for.

Jade seemed to consider that. She was silent, her eyes searching his face. "Yes," she mused, then changed the subject idly. "Do you any of your talents concern exploration or reconnaissance?"

He flashed her another quick grin. "I found you tonight, didn't I?"

In the predicted show of exasperation with his arrogance, she groaned and rolled her eyes. "Korsican egos..." she muttered.

"Do I need to remind you that you're half-Korscian yourself, Lieutenant?" He arched one eyebrow at her.

"As if I could forget in the first place," she grumbled, but smiled again up at him. "So, care to put any of those recon skills to use? We have a trophy room to find."

"We do," he said.

Jag looked up and down the hall. It was long, stretching into shadows to his right and to his left. Then again, that could have been the trick of light; there wasn't much light to begin with. The tall walls were made of stone, marble by the look of it, and affixed to the stone were elegant candelabras at varying heights. Real candles filled the candlesticks, the white columns topped with flickering yellow flames. The only other light for the passageway came from dimly-lit glow-panels, concealed within ironwork and suspended from the high ceiling.

The floor was wooden. Long, wide planks of dark wood were fitted together, and the candlelight gleamed off of it. An ornately carved baseboard ran the length of the hallway-at least as far as he could see. A few brightly-colored rugs seemed to have been tossed down haphazardly. Jag suspected art of some kind, or at least a sort of logic, but could see neither.

He took a moment to consider which direction to take. Absently, his gaze settled on Jade. She'd spent some time in the palace-as he understood it, she and the Princess were close childhood friends. Undoubtedly, she knew exactly where the trophy room was. If he knew her at all, Jade Jordan was the type of person who was always aware of her surroundings. He could simply ask her. She could lead them. It would be more efficient that way, and Jag Panzer was an efficient person. Under normal circumstances, that's exactly what he would have done.

But circumstances weren't normal, and for the time being, efficiency meant nothing but less time spent in the company of the young woman. And less time was not what Jag Panzer wanted with Jade Jordan.

He tightened his grip on her hand and nodded once to their right. "I think we should go this way."

She rewarded him with a smile that made his heart leap. "I'm your wing."

They started off down the hallway. Progression was purposefully slow; he wanted to take his time and enjoy himself, enjoy the scenery, the atmosphere of the evening... and her.

Jag glanced surreptitiously down at Jade. He hadn't seen her in two years, two years he'd spent trying to convince his father and the ruling Jaheem houses that they had to help the Fifth Reich fend off the alien invaders. Two years he'd spent working, flying, fighting. In that time, he'd always been aware of her and had listened for any news about her. Not actively, of course-he was too busy and she was too far away for him to spend too much time focusing on her. But at night just before he fell asleep, or when he was alone in the cockpit of his ship watching the dance and swirl of hyperspace, he'd catch himself remembering something she'd said, something she'd done. He'd wonder where she was, what she was doing, if she was happy... if she was thinking about him.

When he'd seen her last, she'd been a broken girl and an injured pilot, madder than a hellcat at being forced out of ready status. She hadn't been able to see him, and some of the things she'd said could have stung. As they had this afternoon. She'd been a child, suddenly and painfully aware that the universe was a dangerous and unfair place. Suddenly aware that eventually, everyone's luck falters-even Jordan luck.

Jade had lost some of her innocence since then. Her hard voice over the comm had stiffened his spine. She'd been betrayed by a man she trusted and she'd lost two brothers. But she was still alive, and the young woman beside him no longer looked like a broken little girl.

What she did look was beautiful. His compliment before had not been mere politeness... the expected phrase in the familiar situation. It had been the truth, and he'd surprised himself by how much he'd meant it. And her blush. Jag Panzer smiled. Her blush had been a spectacular thing, leading him to think that she believed him. That was a rather pleasant surprise.

The idea of Jade Jordan in a dress had never occurred to him. She'd always seemed to belong in flight suits or Templar robes. It had been easy to forget that her mother was the last Princess of the Royal House of Tarsus and the former Chief of State of the Reich Ministry. It had been easy to forget that Jade was Ambassador Jac Jordan's only daughter, and that she belonged to the world of politics and politicians as surely as she belonged to the world of pilots and warriors.

She fit. So did the dress. Made of scarlet silk, the elegant gown clung to her in all the right places. Jag couldn't help but notice how well those flight suits and Templar robes had hidden her figure. When she moved, the skirts swayed lightly. The neck of the gown was dangerously low-cut. On some worlds, it would have been considered indecent, and Jag knew there was no way in any of the Korscian hells that his father would have let any of his sisters leave the house wearing anything so revealing. There was no necklace to draw the eye up and away, though she had left her hair down in an attempt to amend that problem. But the dark brown tresses barely brushed her half-bare shoulders. Jag caught no flash of light from her ears or her hands; she wasn't wearing any jewelry at all. The candlelight and the reflection of the red dress lent her skin a rosy glow.

Jade pulled it off, no matter how uncomfortable she may have been. And he knew she was uncomfortable; to him, her displeasure was blatantly obvious, displayed in the tension of the muscles in her neck and cheek, in the way she tugged restlessly at the laces at her waist, in the way her eyes darted about.

She sensed his stare, and turned to look at him. Her lips twisted. "See something you like?"

A slow smile tugged his mouth wide. "Yes."

That wasn't the response she'd been prepared for. Jade flushed - an amazing color, identical to the dress - and glanced away. He followed the path of her gaze, pleased with himself and the reaction he was getting out of her. He saw a closed door.

Without a word, he reached to turn the old-fashioned brass doorknob and pushed open the richly paneled door. He peeked into the room, leaning in past the doorjamb, then pulled back and gave her a look.

"Just a private receiving room," he said, allowing a hint of disappointment to creep into his tone. He and Jade both moved to peer into the room.

It was darkened, with the only light coming from the hallway and spilling through the doorway around them. There was a large rug with an intricate design woven into it in the middle of the floor. Two high-backed, upholstered couches that looked like antiques faced each other across a low, carved table. A lounge next to a delicate paper screen completed the room's set of furniture, while bookshelves and paintings took up wall space. There were two other doors in the room, but Jag didn't know where they led to.

"Perhaps the Queen uses it," he suggested, voice low, "for exclusive events."

Jade sent him a glance, her expression a mixture of surprise and amusement. The surprise, he was sure, came because she hadn't expected an innuendo to occur to him, much less that he would voice it.

"She is fond of entertaining," Jade conceded. "Did you see the blond number with Ta'a Chume tonight? Women that age-"

Chuckling, Jag pulled the door shut. "She is our host," he pointed out. "And your friend's grandmother."

Jade wrapped a hand around his arm and brushed closer. "Tel'Ka doesn't like her grandmother, anyway. Doesn't trust her. But I respect the old woman. She's a lot like my mother. Not in the backstabbing, keeping-a-courtesan kind of way, though."

"The former Queen-" Jag began, in an effort to keep Jade from saying something she'd regret.

"Is a formidable old lady."

"Who was kind enough to arrange for you to stay here, he pointed out."

"Kind? Have you met her yet?" Jade tilted her head and gave him a long, appraising look, as if seeing him for the first time. "She might like you," she offered.

The implications of that statement were not lost on Jag. He was dismayed to feel the heat rising on his neck, but he mustered a glower. "I don't think I'm her type."

"Hmm." Jade kept looking at him, sizing him up. "I don't know. Maybe she's gotten tired of the same devastating blonds, again and again. You might be a change of pace for her..."

"I am not a paramour," he said firmly.

Jade's grin was quick and wicked. "I never said you were. Awfully touchy tonight, aren't you Colonel?"

Touchy. Touching. Jade was touching him. Her hip brushed his, and he glanced down. "Yes."

Jade glanced away, to squint her eyes down the hallway. "Didn't we have a mission?"

"Of course. Stuffed heads." He wanted to laugh suddenly. "Come on."

He started to lead again, heading for the next door. His gaze roved about the hall, taking it all in, noting every detail. Like the number of candles in any given fixture, or the slight draft that moved the oversized tapestry on the wall to his right. There was a stiff-backed chair against the wall across from the tapestry next to a low table with an antique glass-shaded lap atop it. The hall alone was filled with treasures - priceless ones, things Jag had only seen in books or heard about from historians. And not all of the artifacts were native to Hapsburg.

The tapestry, for example, was from Korscia. He recognized the myth. The intricately-carved chair was from Bimini. The lamp - which he was willing to bet still worked - was from Tarsus, if he guessed correctly. All three treasures undoubtedly the products of successful raids made by the pirates long ago.

"Did you ever play hide and seek as a kid?"

As they passed the table, chair, and tapestry, Jag took a moment to admire them. Art was art, stolen or not, and his mother had made sure that her children had a healthy appreciation for art. When Jade spoke, it surprised him. Her voice was only quiet and thoughtful, though, not booming and accusatory.

Jag smiled faintly. "Of course I did."

"Were you any good at it?"

He glanced down to find a playful smile on her face. He affected an insulted air. "Of course I was."

Jade laughed. "You were terrible, weren't you?"

In the face of the truth, his lie faltered. "Only until I was six," he admitted. He quickly added, in his defense, "Then I figured out if I didn't laugh, Wulf couldn't find me."

He felt a slight twinge of the old familiar pain at the memory of his brother. His big brother. The only person-aside from his father-that he admired with a single-mindedness that fringed on hero worship. In Jag's eyes, Wulf could do no wrong. Had never done any wrong. Had died a hero.

Wulf was gone, almost five years now. Jag still missed having someone to go to with his problems, someone closer to his own age, someone less intimidating than his father, but wise and impressive nonetheless.

Jag felt certain that if Wulf were still alive, his brother would have had plenty to say about Jade. Wulf would have known exactly what Jag needed to do about her, and would have seen to getting it done.

"You miss him."

Jade's voice broke into his thoughts with an observation that wasn't a question. When he met her eyes, there was a warm sadness in the liquid brown that made him remember that she'd just lost a brother of her own.

Jag nodded once. "Yes."

She grinned at him, not the reaction he'd anticipated. "What happened when you figured out how to stay quiet?"

"Wulf was eight," Jag answered. "So he just attached a beacon to my boot, set his smart-pad to receive the signal, and cheated."

"How'd you get him back?" There was a sparkle in her eye.

"I left the boot in his place at the table. Dad was not pleased when he found out that Wulf had been using the beacon."

"I bet not." Jade was still smiling at him. "What did your mom say?"

Jag shrugged. "What could she say? That's what the beacon was for, to keep track of me. Cherish was five, and between the two of us, we made Mom's life nearly impossible. She'd rigged a set of old hover-bike transponders for when we went outside to play. Wulf," he added darkly, "was a big boy and didn't need baby beacons."

Jade laughed again. "You were a terrible child."

"And I didn't even have the Mystica." He shot her a significant glance.

"Are you implying something, Colonel?" Jade arched one eyebrow.

A quick grin lit Jag's features as he reached for the door handle on the door they'd finally reached. "I'm not implying anything, Lieutenant. Merely offering an opening."

As he said that, he pushed open the door. Rather, he tried to push the door open, but it didn't budge. He stepped back.

"Locked," he said, slightly miffed that the door hadn't cooperated with his attempt at suiting action to words. He glanced down at the antiquated keyhole, and then his gaze fell to the floor and the light spilling out of the room beyond, escaping from under the door itself.

A man's raucous laughter boomed, and the sound came through even the thick palace walls, albeit muffled. Jag shot Jade a furtive glance.

"Can you tell who's in there?" he asked, his voice lowered conspiratorially. His eyes darted back to the door. He added, "One of the ladies took off with a duke..."

Jade gaped. "Do you want to know what they're doing, too?" There was a certain degree of disbelief in her voice that Jag wasn't quite sure how to interpret.

"No." Jag paused, considering. "Not really."

She shook her head lightly, and then closed her eyes. He watched her face, seeing the same expression of contemplative concentration he'd seen those years ago in the medical stateroom. She'd been in a healing trance then, and not even aware that he'd been in her room all night. Jag didn't think she knew at all how scared for her he'd been.

"Brandy," she murmured. Her eyes drifted open, and she blinked as if waking from a dream. "It's the lady and that duke, yes, but I smell brandy."

"So do I." Jag's nose twitched. There was a loud thump from within the room, a sound like a couch being overturned. Someone moved, and there was a woman's voice raised in anger. "Let's move on before we're discovered," he suggested, taking her hand again.

They moved away, barely in time to avoid being knocked over by a stumbling, drunken duke. Bright light streamed into the hallway, and the duke turned. For one moment, Jag thought the man would turn his attention to him and Jade. But the tall man had no attention to spare.

Lady Clarissa - a distant cousin of Tao Che's and only a minor noble-followed him into the hall, her blond hair streaming behind her. Even from this distance, Jag could see her green eyes blazing. She was screaming at the duke, something about men being stupid and her opinion that they should be kept in their place, and Jag revised his worry. He definitely didn't want Lady Clarissa looking their way.

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